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Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Menu Planning: Stop the Excuses

Welcome to the January 2012 Carnival of Natural Parenting: Experiments in Natural Family Living

This post was written for inclusion in the monthly Carnival of Natural Parenting hosted by Hobo Mama and Code Name: Mama. This month our participants have reported on weeklong trials to make their lives a little greener. Please read to the end to find a list of links to the other carnival participants.


I’ll admit it: I’m always making excuses. I don’t have time to exercise. I don’t have time to eat well. I don’t have time to menu plan. I must be the busiest person in the world. I act like I always have 10 trillion things to do. And I do. But so does everyone else. How many times do I catch myself vegging on the couch, watching TV, telling myself I can do those things tomorrow? I mean, it’s not like it doesn’t happen. I justify it by telling myself I need to relax, which is true. I need some me time. But me time also should include bettering myself.

I had gotten into a rut where I was constantly working on my business. I wasn’t cooking, I wasn’t cleaning, and I certainly wasn’t exercising. We were eating pasta and grilled cheese often—lots of gluten, not a lot of veggies. When I went to visit my family for Thanksgiving, I felt awful the entire trip. My stomach just wasn’t right. I was loading up on bread and sugar, and it wasn’t agreeing with me.

In order to make a change, I decided to start menu planning. Nothing major, just writing down my dinners for the week. Ok—of course I had to make it a little major at first. I always need to start off strong. So I dedicated one Sunday to cooking, spent a ton of money at Costco, cooked my brains out, and totally overwhelmed myself. I convinced myself that there was no way I was going to do that again.

And then I ended up having to cook less during the week, but I ate great. I eliminated most of the gluten I was eating, and I ate a lot of whole foods. And the next week came and I not only spent less time cooking, I didn’t really have to spend much money at the grocery store, either. After a month of menu planning, I spent way less than my monthly grocery budget, ate well-rounded meals chock full of veggies every night, and ended up with a ton of food still in my freezer.

There are plans for Once-a-Month Cooking out there that involve a detailed list of what to buy, how to prep, and how to prepare and freeze foods for the entire month. I’m dying to try it, but I don’t want to burn out. This month, I’m working on cleaning out the pantry and freezer. Once I’m done with that, I really want to try this power-cooking business. I’ll let you know if I survive.

For now, I’ll leave you with some tips for menu planning.
  1. Organize yourself and write it down – Decide where you’re going to keep your menu and how you’re going to keep track of the recipes. If it’s all in a million places, it will be hard to keep track of everything, and you’re more likely to get overwhelmed. If I find a recipe I like online, I pin it on Pinterest. That way, I know all the recipes I want to try are in one place.

    As for my menu planning calendar, since I most often find recipes on the computer, I have a Word doc with a monthly calendar where I write my weekly menus. Below the calendar, I cut and paste the entire recipe for anything that uses one. That way it’s all in one place. If I am using a recipe from a cookbook, I write the name of the book and the page number on my calendar. Below is a link to my entire document for December, just so you can get an idea of what it looked like. It’s not fancy. It's long. But it’s all in one place, and it worked great for me. (Microsoft Office 2010 allows you to add clickable headings into Word, so even though it's long, I can easily find my recipe titles.)

    click here for the December menu planning calendar
  2. Write it down – Just the fact that I was writing things down helped me plan. How many times do you decide what you’ll have for dinner the next day, and then the next day comes around and you’ve completely forgotten? That’s how I used to live my life, and it’s stressful. Even if I lost momentum on a given week, it only took me 5 minutes to sit in front of the calendar and decide what we would eat that week. Forcing myself to do it made me much less stressed the rest of the week. Also, keep an inventory of your freezer foods (and even the food in your pantry—I’m not that motivated, but I hope to get there.) I write what’s in my freezer directly on the freezer door using a dry-erase marker. That way I can’t lose my list.
    My freezer door: ugly but functional

  3. Don’t try too many new things – If you try to do once-a-month meal planning at the same time that you’re trying 10 new recipes, you’re more likely to burn out. Start off slow.
  4. Don’t bore yourself – At the same time, if you plan meals that you’ve made over and over again, you might get bored. I know I would. Maybe try two new recipes each week. Finding new foods to make will keep you motivated and give you more to include in future menus.
  5. Cook one meal a week for the freezer – Don’t overdo it and try to make every meal in huge batches. Freezer meals still take longer to cook – you have to prep more food, use more pans, etc. But if you choose one meal a week (or a month) to double, you’ll have an easy freezer meal to pop out when you’re really not motivated to cook.

No matter what you think, you do have time to menu plan. The few minutes that it takes to write down what you’ll be eating for the week takes time off of your daily to-do list. It makes trips to the grocery store go quicker. And cooking in bulk—even a little bit—decreases the time spent in your kitchen, giving you more time in the long run.

Check out my new printable recipe cards for Salmon Burgers and Easy Homemade Pizza from yesterday's menu planning post. I'll be updating the recipe section of my website soon, and all of my recipes will be easily printable. Keep it bookmarked for more deliciousness!

Carnival of Natural Parenting -- Hobo Mama and Code Name: MamaVisit Hobo Mama and Code Name: Mama to find out how you can participate in the next Carnival of Natural Parenting!
Please take time to read the submissions by the other carnival participants:
  • Make your own moisturizer! — Megan at boho mama whips up a winter skin-friendly moisturizer.
  • Cold Water Only — Brittany at The Pistachio Project talks about how you do not need hot water to wash laundry.
  • Family Cloth... Really?? — After lots of forethought and consideration, Momma Jorje finally decides to take the plunge with family cloth.
  • Reduce, Reuse, Recycle : 5-5-5 Things A Day — Luschka from Diary of a First Child writes about decluttering her home in an attempt to create a gentler living space. She takes on a new project where she sets a goal of reducing, reusing and recycling every day.
  • Pros and cons of family cloth — Lauren at Hobo Mama would love to continue replacing paper products with family cloth … if she could only get over how damp she feels.
  • Craftily Parenting — Kellie at Our Mindful Life finds that crafting makes her a better parent.
  • Changes — Laura at Pug in the Kitchen couldn't choose just one area to experiment with, so she wrote a long post about all the fun changes initiated in her life!
  • Life without Internet: Not all it's Cracked up to Be — Adrienne at Mommying My Way tries to go a week without the Internet, only to realize a healthy dose of Internet usage really helps keep this stay-at-home mom connected.
  • My Progression to Raw Milk — Kerry at City Kids Homeschooling shares her natural parenting progression all the way to trying raw milk.
  • mama's new little friend. — Sarah at Bitty Bird tries a menstrual cup to "green her period," and is pleasantly surprised when she falls in love with the product!
  • Before you throw it out, try homemade laundry soap! — Jennifer at Practical OH Mommy shows visual proof that homemade laundry soap is cheaper, easier, and works better than the store-bought chemicals!
  • Oil, Oil, No Toil, No Trouble — K from Very Simple Secret talks about her foray into the oil-cleansing method.
  • I Need a Hobby — Amanda at Let's Take the Metro couldn't decide which experiment to run, so she did them all.
  • 7 days of macrobiotics for a balanced family — The Stones make a [successful] attempt to release the "holiday junking" with 7 days of macrobiotic meals to balance their bodies and souls. Elisabeth at Manic Mrs. Stone includes an explanation of macrobiotics.
  • Chemical Free Beauty Challenge — Jenn at Monkey Butt Junction turned to natural alternatives for her daily beauty and cleaning routine, with great results.
  • Greening my Armpits!? My Green Resolution — Shannon at The Artful Mama talks about how she decided to give up her traditional antiperspirant and make the switch over to crystal deodorants and definitely isn't looking back!
  • Going Raw (for a while) — Jenny at Chronicles of a Nursing Mom shares her family's experience with raw food.
  • Do we get to eat gluten today? — Sheila at A Gift Universe has been trying to figure out if her son does better with or without gluten in his diet … but it's really hard to tell for sure.
  • Hippies Can Smell and Look Fabulous Too! — Arpita of Up, Down And Natural details her experience of going shampoo-free and overhauling her cosmetics to find the balance between feeling beautifully fabulous and honoring her inner hippie.
  • Our cupboards are full...but there's nothing to eat — Lucy at Dreaming Aloud takes on the challenge of chomping through the contents of her storecupboard rather than going shopping — but there's something that she just can't bring herself to do …
  • Elimination Experiment 3.0MudpieMama recounts the messy adventures of her baby daughter trying to be diaper free.
  • Family Cloth Trial — Amyables at Toddler in Tow talks about making and using family cloth wipes in the bathroom for the first time.
  • Taking a Hiatus — Amy at Peace 4 Parents shares how her experience of much less internet interaction affected her family and how it will change her approach in the future.
  • Trying Out the Menstrual Cup — Lindsey at an unschooling adventure ditches the tampons and gives menstrual cups a try.
  • Managing Food Waste in Our Home — Tired of the holiday waste, Robbie at Going Green Mama takes a weeklong focus on reducing food waste in her home, and learns some lessons that can take her through the new year.
  • Going Offline, Cloth Tissues, and Simplicity — Jennifer at Hybrid Rasta Mama muses over her time away from blogging and social networking. In addition, she shares her newfound love of cloth tissues and simplicity.


IThoughtIKnewMama said... Best Blogger Tips

I'm so glad to hear this is working for you! For me, a casual approach to this would definitely be best. I usually have a goal of making a couple of really good dinners, and let the others kind of come together on their own ;-)

Dionna @ Code Name: Mama said... Best Blogger Tips

I hope you can stick with it! I get in menu planning ruts too, but I love it when I do it. btw, one thing that contributes to my ruts is when I spend too much time surfing for new recipes. Most people eat the same things over and over, so it saves time/energy when the bulk of your meal plan can just be recycled.

asecurebase said... Best Blogger Tips

I can't believe I've never thought to use the fridge as a dry erase board! I've always just stuck my meal plans jotted on a piece of paper with a magnetic. I love your idea, and now I've found another way to save paper!

xtine said... Best Blogger Tips

I already meal plan, but not very successfully. I seem to make a huge production of the planning side and then get all demotivated and end up making boring old bean curry *again*.
I love you tips on trying only two new recipes a week, I think thats my problem, Im being a bit ambitious. Also a great idea to cook once meal a week for the freezer.
Looking forward to hearing more :)

hobomama said... Best Blogger Tips

I'm intrigued by menu planning. I hear so many bloggers talk about it and have yet to try it! Maybe you'll inspire me yet. :) I do like the thought that I'd eat more consciously and use ingredients I'd otherwise ignore or let go bad. I think your tips sound very helpful and will have to revisit them!

Kristen @ My Semi-Crunchy Life said... Best Blogger Tips

Menu planning has saved us a lot of money and (in the end) time too. I really need to get back in to it. I like the idea of having a calendar on the computer, I usually write our dinner menu plan on the grocery list, but sometimes forget to transfer it to our white board.

I'll be back to check out some menu ideas. We do kind of get into a rut with having the same things over and over. We started having one vegetarian meal a week as a way to try new meals.

Kim of Mo'Betta said... Best Blogger Tips

This is great. I am so with you on trying to meal plan, eat better (exercise more) and cook well balanced dinners for the family. I have gotten slack and trying to do better. But you're is SO busy!

Megan (Best of Fates) said... Best Blogger Tips

SUCH good advice - even though it's just me, I seriously need to get better at meal planning!

Gaby said... Best Blogger Tips

It's seriously cutting my food budget! I only spent $27 this week on food for a family of 4!

Tmuffin said... Best Blogger Tips

It is so busy! But I have to remember to keep my priorities straight. And health has to be a priority!

Tmuffin said... Best Blogger Tips

I like the idea of a vegetarian meal... I feel like we end up doing that sometimes anyway, but it's nice to break up a meal plan with some fun new recipes.

Gaby said... Best Blogger Tips

You should try it. It's not really much more time than what you do in your head anyway when you plan the meals out. And the nice thing is that you can get it out of your head and on paper so you'll actually remember your ideas!

Gaby said... Best Blogger Tips

Bean Curry, eh? That sounds good! YOU may be sick of it, but I want to try it!

Gaby said... Best Blogger Tips

It's not all that pretty, but it works really well!

Gaby said... Best Blogger Tips

Dionna--that's so true! Sometimes there are so many recipes out there that you can't even decide on one. I get stuck in that cycle, too and it's so annoying! It's nice to have the meal plans on the computer instead of paper, because that way I can go back to them and see what our "regular" meals are that we can make again. Otherwise I forget what my tried and true recipes are.

Gaby said... Best Blogger Tips

You are so calm! I want a little of your chill energy. For us, throwing a dinner together makes me frantic. I either make a huge production of it or get really annoyed and make sandwiches.

Mandy O'Brien said... Best Blogger Tips

I always do much better when we have a (flexible) plan in place. I'm planning on making a bunch of soup to freeze next week.

Thomasin said... Best Blogger Tips

Ah, it's #3 that gets me every time. Too much. My house's struggle is that I'm not the main cook--my husband makes nearly all our meals. But I WANT to make more (or vary the meals a bit, at least) but balancing work and then home time (plus, let's face it, fun!) leaves me feeling like I don't have time. I really need to look into a weekend a month to do some cooking (but perhaps not of new recipes) to then freeze. Thanks for the tips!

Becca said... Best Blogger Tips

Menu planning and a freezer inventory list really help my family! We have an odd situation in that my partner makes all the weekday dinners, but I plan the meals for him to cook. I was skeptical at first, but this system really works with our individual strengths.

Tmuffin said... Best Blogger Tips

Wow! If my husband was the main cook, I might not be meal planning at all, as a matter of fact... I like the IDEA of cooking, but I would sometimes rather be doing something else.

Tmuffin said... Best Blogger Tips

Soup! Yes! I just made french onion tonight! Probably not a great freezer one though. And now my entire house (and I) smell like onions. But it sure was delicious!

Tmuffin said... Best Blogger Tips

That's a pretty sweet deal! We have an odd situation in that I plan and cook all the meals, but my husband likes to surprise me and tell me he's in the mood for a particular meal just when I have everything planned out for that night.

Carmen said... Best Blogger Tips

My husband does most of the cooking in our family so my biggest struggle has been to get him on board with a menu plan. (I think he likes to keep it spontaneous)

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