Friday, November 6, 2009

HOMEschooling, HOMEmaking part 3

We'll call this Advanced Meal Planning 201.

At this point, you've already got your master list, and you've completed at least one menu. Your feet are wet, and you want more.

Happy to comply. :-)

My personal favorite part of meal planning is that it frees me to do only the parts of planning that I enjoy. I actually love to cook. Having a plan in place allows me to indulge in my passion for cooking knowing that the ingredients I need are on hand and there's variation already built in (chicken three nights in a row? Ugh!). Plus, I can spend the bulk of my day just doing whatever I'm doing, without pondering what I'll need to pull out of the freezer or whether I'm running out of time to whip something together to put on the table. This is a win-win: a little investment of time spent in the planning stages has paid off in literally years of hassle-free meal plans at my fingertips.

Now that you've got a meal plan in place, you're about to see what I mean.

If you have two weeks worth of meals laid out right now, you've got a leg up. But in order to really reap the benefits of meal planning, you're going to need to log a few hours in the kitchen. Why? Because you're going to want to have a solid base of meals to draw from; while your family isn't going to mind some things on repeat (most people can hand spaghetti, pizza and tacos twice in a month, for instance), you don't want to cause burn-out. So, I hereby give you license to do something crazy: go on a meal hunt. YES--keep that two week plan in place, and work like crazy to jot new things on your list as they pop into your head. Maybe you've forgotten about Aunt Linda's favorite pork chop bake until just now. Go ahead and add it to your list. But keep looking, too. Add as many things to your list as you can by trying out new recipes. Hit your favorite blogs, haunt, whatever you have to do to get that number of meals up.

It's fun stuff, actually. No doubt they'll be some absolute misfires. But who knows what kind of new favorite you're likely to stumble on? Get out there and explore!

For the next step, I'm assuming that you have at least 35 separate meals listed. Using the same random assigning process that you used back in your original plan, go ahead and sprinkle a couple of empty slots in over the course of the month. You decide how many--personally, I use one every two weeks. And what do I do with this vacant box? Fun, ladies. :-) This is my Try a New Recipe Night. Keeping that little spot open allows me to plug in something that's caught my eye, whether I've torn it from a magazine or spotted it on the Internet. It also keeps me from feeling like I'm in a rut, and gives my kids the opportunity to try new flavors and textures. Call me crazy, but this little injection of flexible creativity does so much to keep the joy in cooking for me.

You can, of course, bypass the Try a New Recipe Night altogether. Your choice. But can I give you a gentle nudge in that direction, anyway? Not only am I partial to experimenting in the kitchen, but I can't tell you how many of those once-new meals have since become standards on our menus. This is the key to how our menus have grown over the years. While I started out with those 40-odd meals a while back, I now have a rotation of nearly 70 meals at this point. That's 70 nights, automatically planned out for me. No worry, no stress. Just another menu created, stored in my computer, and pulled out when I'm in the mood for what I see.

Another advanced step in menu planning involves cuing in to the seasons. One of our favorite warm-weather dishes is broiled, sliced chicken breast over a bed of spinach and raspberry vinaigrette. One of our favorite winter warm-ups is my grandmother's chicken and dumplings. Obviously, the two shouldn't pop up on the same week. By sorting through and creating separate menu files on my computer, I've been able to rotate seasons as easily as I rotate weeks. I even have a Thanksgiving time menu; I've already scheduled in our family's favorite meals using various leftovers ... why create that from scratch every year?

Alright, one last thing on meal planning: when you get to the point when you are fairly well-established in your actual menus, make the jump to creating a grocery list to go along with them. This is by no means essential, but it's just another of those little touches that allow you to save time. A base list, outlining all of the ingredients you need for a set menu, is easy to set up as a word file, and alter as needed. Have a whole pantry full of dried black beans? Strike them off the list. It's a whole lot easier than realizing at the last moment that you needed 2 tablespoons of orange juice concentrate for a dish ... and you forgot to pick it up.

My menus and lists are labeled in a similar manner (ie, FallMenu3 goes with FallList3) and placed in their own folders, which are ultimately inside a main folder I've labeled MEALS. (Creative, aren't I?) I've been using this overall method for over a decade now--since very early in my marriage, in fact. I'm convinced that it makes my life--and homeschooling--much easier. Hopefully, it will do the same for you!


Camille said...

Thanks so much Mary Grace! You have inspired me!! I'm off to make some plans...with empty calendar pages in hand. Have a wonderful weekend! :)


Camille said...

oh...and I forgot to say that I love the idea of adding in a "try something new" slot every so often. Variety is the spice of life! I am also one of those who loves to cook and I even enjoy reading cookbooks like novels...crazy, but true! ;-)

Melissa Stover said...

this has been very interesting.

Thia said...

I just want to add some encouragement to take that step to have a pantry list. I have a complete shopping list typed up. I keep it in the kitchen. Through out the month I can highlight what I know I need to get my next shopping trip. The day before I go, I write in how many of the item I need to stock back up again and cover the next month's menu. No more standing in the isle trying to remember how many cans of tomato sauce I have at home and how many I need for the coming month.

Sandi said...

I just finished making a dinner plan for 4 weeks and brkfast and snack rotation for every 2 weeks. I usually plan a week at a time. Such a time waster. Thanks for sharing this. I knew what I was doing wasn't working but did n't have the "time" to figure out different. You did that for me!
I also have the added benefit of being away for two days on a personal retrest so I am doing this all in one fell swoop. Being more freed up to do educating and loving is what it's all about.
Also to add~ I never have liked cooking, so I am hoping having things on hand will make the process more enjoyable and fun. I plan to get my nine year old involved too as something we can do together.

Camille said...

Hi Mary Grace ~ You have inspired me to the point of linking to you on my blog...with a whole post dedicated to this system and your great articles! Thanks again! :)