August 30, 2013

Menus and Meals

Let's talk food!

There are all kinds of books and websites that encourage the use of a meal plan.
I once thought meal plans were a waste of time. I was sure they would never work for my family. After learning a little more, I found ways to make it work for us. Now I'm one of those people encouraging the use of a meal plan.

Why do I think a meal plan is a good idea?
It saves me money.
And sometimes it saves my sanity.

With a meal plan I have fewer what should I make for supper days. This results in less take out and healthier meals. I am more likely to have supper ready at a decent time and less likely to forget about pulling something out of the freezer for the next day. It equals one trip to the store instead of multiple trips for forgotten ingredients. It's easier for my family to help out if they know what the plan is.

Now while meal planning is a great idea, for our family it really needs to be flexible.  Our supper time can be any time after 5:00 and sometimes as late as 9:00. I don't want to feel forced to make a meal if we just aren't in the mood for it, no matter what the menu shows. My meal plan also needs to reflect the days when 4:00 pm rolls around and I realize I forgot to pull the chops out of the freezer. Or I arrive home late and there's no way I'll be able to make the planned supper within a reasonable time. It still happens occasionally even with a menu.

In order for a meal plan to work, it needs to suit your family.

To combat the chaos and fickle appetites, I start with a mental list of backup meals and I keep those ingredients always on hand, stocking up when items go on sale. You might have another name for them but you know what backup meals are - the fall back food you use when the planned meal wont work out, when you are sick, or you are having one of those days and you simply cannot cook.

It's the food you use on a busy hurried day. Usually they are the meals your family will eat without complaining and you don't mind making - low fuss, low effort, etc. These are the first things that come to mind when I make my shopping list and I usually have the ingredients on hand at home. These meals are key to prevent the takeout phone call when the day falls apart near suppertime.

My backup list consists of the following foods. No judging allowed. Your list will be different to reflect your family's tastes. Sometimes a backup meal will be part of a meal plan but we rarely have meals off this list two days in a row.

- Hot dogs - easy as can be. Mostly horrible for you and yet so tasty on the right day. We may not always have the buns but they work fine on bread as well. We will add carrots stick, sliced apples, orange slices or other fruits or vegetables. Occasionally I'll buy an organic brand on sale.
- Baked Macaroni and Cheese - using real cheese and baked in the oven.
- Grilled Cheese Sandwiches and Soup - tomato soup is the favorite with this.
- Chicken strips - I buy a brand from Costco but you could make your own and freeze them to have ready. I will add a (Caesar) salad, sliced veggies or a fruit cup with them, cheese slices, maybe a bun. Sometimes a bowl of ice cream.
- Tacos - super fast and really easy when the hamburger is already cooked.
- Snack-type meals - think picnic at home. One version is cold cuts with buns and salad. You can add breads, pickles, fruit of any kind, veggie sticks, dips, hummus, bruschetta, assorted crackers, melba toast, a side dish of cottage cheese, yogurt, ice cream, applesauce, cheese sticks, slices, chunks. This one works well to clean up leftovers too. Mix and match whatever you have on hand.
- Spaghetti and meat sauce - add grated cheese, Parmesan cheese, garlic bread or buns; made with or without meatballs
- Hamburger Hash - fried seasoned hamburger, fried sliced potatoes and onion and mix it all up together with kernel corn.
- Hamburger Gravy - fried seasoned hamburger made up with a gravy, served over mashed potatoes or egg noodles. This one makes a little go a long way.
- Pancakes - with or without eggs, bacon, sausage, hash browns, fruit.
- Pizza - with cheese and sauce and other assorted toppings.
- Nachos - with melted cheese, salsa and other toppings (fried hamburger, chopped green onion, peppers, etc)
- Toast, fruit and ice cream - or replace the toast with cereal. I'm not kidding. And I totally give you permission to use this one freely and without guilt. Sometimes it's all about getting it done. And no one will complain. Honest.

My shopping list begins with a default list that includes the ingredients for the above meals. That does not mean I buy everything every time I go shopping.

Items like pancake syrup, seasonings, pasta and other ingredients that can keep in the fridge or pantry for a long time are bought on sale only and in quantity so I will have enough to last until the next sale or longer.

Not all of the perishable items on this list are purchased either. These are meals that I don't schedule in so I don't want to buy specific ingredients with a short life. An example would be green peppers. We aren't super crazy about them. Unless I have them already chopped in the freezer and ready to use, or I need peppers in another meal (like chili), we won't have them on hand to top our nachos and cheese. We go without and that's okay.

Some of these ingredients cross over into (perishable) staples. Staples are things we always use. Milk, cheese, bread, butter and so on. For the most part, I know that we can never have too much cheese. I know how much bread we will eat in a week, how much milk we need, and buy accordingly. If I know we will be using more than usual, we'll buy extra and use the freezer.

Do you want to try a menu plan?
Start with your backup meals.
List the meals along with the ingredients.

And come back tomorrow!
I'll be sharing a sure way to save money (and more about meal plans too).

See the whole series:
Menus and Meals
The Pantry
Locally Grown and Special Deals
Let's Plan Supper!
Breakfast and Lunch
Snackin and Munchin
Meal Plans: Putting It All Together (free printables)
Shopping and Prepping


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