January 3, 2017

How to Organize a Once a Month Cooking Plan

I know this is long, but bear with me!

This is the process I follow in setting up a large freezer cooking plan.

Decide how you want to do it.

• You could do "x" number of meals in a weekend version with lots of different entrees.
• You could double what you make each night (or triple), resulting in one to eat and 1-2 meals for the freezer. In two weeks with tripling, you would have a month's worth of meals stored in the freezer while having provided dinner for your family at the same time.
• You could just do sale based plans. If chicken breasts are on sale this week, you get them and make 5 or 10 different meals, all chicken based. Next week, hamburger? Do the same. That way your menus reach a point where you are always eating sale bought items instead of shopping each week deciding what to make.

Ultimately freezer cooking in this way will increase the variety of choices in your freezer.

Select the recipes you want to try. I would suggest you start with a small number of about 3-5 your first time doing this so you can figure out the process without overwhelming yourself.

Identify how many of each recipe you want to make. You will find that it is practically as easy to make three separate batches of the same recipe as it is to make one batch.

Once you have identified the recipes and number of batches, put together your ingredients list by copy and pasting as many times as needed into one shopping list and then consolidating all the ingredients into a simple shopping list. I organize my list to match the aisles in my supermarket to make it easier for shopping. It may seem like a large list and a lot of money, but remember, you are preparing several dozen meals potentially.

Go through the shopping list and check your home inventory to identify what you have on hand and what you need to buy. Be sure to include any containers or supplies you might need – ziplock boxes, freezer bags (gallon and quarts, most commonly), sharpie marker, freezer wrapping paper, paper towels, trash bags, etc. Check *EVERYTHING* including spices, condiments, etc. Don’t assume that you have enough on hand. Sometimes when doing these larger cooking plans you use more of an ingredient than you expect and you don’t want to find out on cooking day that you have 1/4 cup of soy sauce when your recipes require 3 cups. Ideally, do your shopping a day or two ahead so that you don’t have to do anything but prepare recipes on your big cooking day.

Next, go through each recipe and look for steps that can be done in advance. Write those steps out separately and then consolidate them across recipes. So for instance as one of the advanced preparation steps, I would write:

Slice mushrooms for chicken marsala (3 cups for 2x batch); teriyaki chicken veggie stir fry (16 oz for 2x batch), chicken a la king (8 oz for 2x batch), chicken broccoli bake (16 oz for 1x batch).

Each ingredient is broken out separately following that format. Look for any ingredient that calls for any kind of prepping (slicing or shredding cheese, browning ground beef, precooking and dicing chicken, chopping vegetables, etc.).

Do your advanced prep work the night before your big cooking day, if possible. It makes it easier on you to spread the steps out a bit. Wrap everything up tightly and put it in the fridge overnight. Be careful about cutting up things that may discolor, though you may be able to do it if you put the ingredient in a little fruit fresh (citric acid) or lemon juice water.

By grouping the advance steps together and consolidating them across all the recipes, you reduce the amount of cleanup and work with each individual recipe. You may also find that kitchen appliances like food processors and blenders are very handy with completing these tasks.

After the advanced steps are all written out, then look at the recipes from a processing perspective. Which dishes use the crockpot (for preparing, not for serving)? Which will require the stovetop? How many burners for each recipe? Are there any dishes that require long simmering times? Do any recipes require any cooling steps? I also take note of any recipes that don’t require any cooking (i.e. marinades that are stirred together and poured into ziplock bags with meats). These are ideal quick recipes to put together while longer cooking things are simmering.

Once you have identified these steps you can plan out the order of making the recipes. You may want to start long simmering things early and then be doing something else while they cook. Same with anything that gets prepared and chilled prior to completing the recipe steps.

Here’s an example of a few of my steps. I literally write them out together for every recipe individually (being sure to include the name of every recipe in every line – so not just cook chicken; it’s cook chicken for teriyaki chicken and veggie stir fry) and then rearrange them as needed for best time management and workflow. I find it helpful to have a master list of all the recipes with each recipe including a paragraph afterwards of items needed for it (i.e. number of gallon/quart bags, etc.) and the individual steps (so I can copy and paste them each time I set up a new master cooking day if I am not always using all the same recipes). When I do this with baking, I also include oven temperatures, time to cook and pans needed – cookie sheets, muffin pans, 9 x 13 pans, etc.). This way I’m not trying to make all cookies that require cookie sheets and not having enough available.

Prepare chicken noodle-less soup – Start simmering for 30 minutes on back left burner
Lemon Glazed Chicken – assemble and freeze (no cooking needed)
Orange Teriyaki Chicken – assemble and freeze (no cooking needed)
Process chicken noodle—less soup in pressure canner on back left burner. (75 minutes for pints, 90 minutes for quarts)
Cook veggies for teriyaki chicken veggie stir fry on front right burner.
Cook chicken for teriyaki chicken veggie stir fry on front left burner.
Cool chicken and veggies for teriyaki chicken veggie stir fry.
Cook chicken a la king. Assemble and freeze.
Assemble teriyaki chicken veggie stir fry and freeze
Assemble and freeze chicken cacciatore (no cooking needed)

I use lots of ziplock bags and freeze them flat with many of my recipes. This way, you can stack them like books vertically or horizontally to fit better in your freezer. Plus they thaw faster when you want to cook them. I also use tupperware containers. I use small rectangular ones that lunch meats often come in, which are two cup size. That equals one pound of ground beef or chicken, cooked.

Do your cleanup along the way. I tend to use the same large bowl over and over again when assembling marinades and just give it a quick wash between recipes. This way I don’t end up with a huge sink full of dishes at the end of the day. Same with measuring cups. I rinse and wipe as needed when using wet ingredients.

On the other hand, I have multiples where it is handy. So when I assemble meatloaves, I have 3-5 plastic salad bowls that I line up assembly line fashion. I go down and dump the ingredients per batch into each bowl (versus doing 5 consecutive batches in the same bowl). So much faster to create multiple batches that way.

Make notes as you go along as to how much each recipe is making, any changes you would make next time, any things that would make it go faster, any changes you made this time to the recipe, etc. Take COPIOUS notes AS YOU GO ALONG!!! Do NOT assume you will remember at the end of the day what you meant to remember. I promise you it will all be a blur. I write my notes on my printouts, then input those changes into the computer after I am done, along with any notes I want to remember for next time.

You’ll find that when all your ingredients are prepped ahead of time and your steps are written out logically, the time to assemble recipes is greatly reduced. With a list spelling out all the steps, your day will be well organized and go smoothly.

Here’s a summary of the overall process:

Three days to two weeks before:
Set your cooking day.
Choose your recipes.
Assemble your shopping list.
Determine your advance prep options.
Identify the order of preparing and assembling recipes.
Start clearing out room in your refrigerator.

Two days before:
Print out all your recipes and instructions and shopping list.
Print all labels that you plan to use. These would include instructions for preparing the recipe on serving day.
Go shopping for all ingredients.
Organize your freezer to give yourself maximum room for spreading things out that will need to freeze quickly (ideally flat).

One day before:
Do as much advanced prep as you can – chop veggies, brown meat, precook chicken and dice, slice or shred cheese, etc.
Make a stock in your crockpot if you plan to use homemade stock for your recipes. This will also help clear out your fridge/freezer potentially.
Assemble all recipe ingredients that don’t require refrigeration or freezing.
Doublecheck that you have every ingredient you need for all your recipes.
Pull any items that need to thaw in advance out of the freezer.
Clean your kitchen and clear as much stuff off your counters as you can if it isn’t related to your big cooking day.
Make sure all your pans, dishes, etc. are clean and ready to go.
Run the dishwasher last thing and empty it before you go to bed.

Day of:
Start early!
Make yourself a dinner in the crockpot or plan ahead for take out. You’ll be too tired to cook your own dinner that night.
Take regular breaks.
Drink lots of water.
Wear comfortable shoes and clothes that can get dirty.
Prepare lots of recipes!
Clean as you go.
Pat yourself on the back!

January 1, 2017

My January 2017 Menu Plan

I thought I would share my menu plan for January 2017. Sometimes I get inspiration from looking at other people's menu plans.

1   Sun   Grilled salmon, roasted zucchini/squash
2   Mon   Beef with Mushrooms and Asparagus, caesar salad
3   Tue   Chicken a la king over biscuits
4   Wed   Beef stew in crockpot, bread in bread machine
5   Thu   Stuffed shells, salad
6   Fri   Hamburgers/Brats on grill, chips, pickle
7   Sat   Smoker: Pulled pork, roasted vegetables
8   Sun   Roast chicken, salad, cranberry sauce or apricot chutney, roasted vegetables
9   Mon   Hamburger and Barley Soup in crockpot
10   Tue   Chicken paella
11   Wed   Caesar salad with grilled chicken breasts
12   Thu   Salmon noodle bake with broccoli
13   Fri   Black beans and rice and andouille sausage
14   Sat   Bacon wrapped pork tenderloins, macaroni and cheese, broccoli
15   Sun   Meatloaf, steamed carrots, corn
16   Mon   Ham and noodle bake casserole
17   Tue   Pork carnitas in crockpot
18   Wed   Marinated chicken thighs (bourbon chicken?), steamed carrots, corn
19   Thu   BBQ Ribs in crockpot, macaroni and cheese, salad
20   Fri   Shrimp scampi
21   Sat   Fried catfish
22   Sun   Lasagna
23   Mon   Pot roast in crockpot with vegetables, mashed potatoes
24   Tue   Taco Salad
25   Wed   Spaghetti, salad, garlic bread
26   Thu   Chicken paprika, asparagus, noodles
27   Fri   Green and white lasagna bundles, salad
28   Sat   Garlic steaks, lobster tails, baked potatoes, caesar salad, garlic bread
29   Sun   Pork Roast, sweet potatoes, green beans
30   Mon   Asian Lettuce Cups with Spicy Ground Turkey Filling
31   Tue   Chili in crockpot, cornbread

December 31, 2016

Struggles (and Solutions!) With Menu Planning

I have been given a lot of thought as to why sometimes the menu planning I have done doesn't work and what I can do about it. I have mostly gotten past the initial challenges of what stops me from making menus in the first place. I can pretty well get the menus made easily enough. It's just sticking to them that can get to be a bit difficult. I can't help noticing how the challenges end up sounding whiney (I'm too tired, I don't feel like it, I don't want... ) - suck it up and put on your big girl panties, baby!!!

Here are some of my challenges and the actions I am taking. What are yours?

PROBLEM #1 Top reason for me - Delays in getting home - If I end up working late, stopping at the grocery store, running an errand, or whatever, I might not get home until after 7:00/7:30 or later, so I tend to just pick something up on the way home, rather than making hubby wait until 8:00 or later to eat (which makes for a cranky hubby).

SOLUTION: Make more things ahead of time. For instance, this morning I assembled a casserole and stuck it in the fridge. Hubby can stick it in the oven when he gets home, so dinner is already made when I walk in the door. Alternatively, I rely more on crockpots for the same reason. I have also worked harder at better scheduling my errands - doing things on my lunch hour instead of after work, stacking things so I finish 3-4 errands on one night instead of multiple nights during the week, etc.

PROBLEM #2 - Procrastination - This is my other biggie - when I am too lazy to do the advanced prep after a "hard day at the office", and then in the morning I am too rushed (or again, too lazy). Bad Girl!

SOLUTION: Sadly, I don't have a good one other than a kick in the tail and forcing myself to be more disciplined. However, I am really really trying to make the effort on this one. It also helps to remind myself of the ripple effect of my efforts (see #6), and the financial, health, weight loss and other benefits of getting off my tush and doing what I need to do.

PROBLEM #3 - I forgot to do the prep - I didn't pull something out of the freezer to thaw for instance.

SOLUTION: I have created a short list of about 5 different dinners that I can make without advanced prep - a frozen pork roast in the crock pot, spaghetti, vegetable soup in crockpot (made with canned and frozen stuff - goes together in about 5 minutes), etc. I also try to keep on hand some frozen prepped items like cooked ground beef. Also putting together a short list of things that can be cooked from frozen - like burgers or chicken fillets on the grill. I have added a column to my monthly menu planning spreadsheet for advanced prep - like pull ground beef out of freezer today in preparation for tomorrow night's meal. Other days it might say to pre-cook ground beef or cut up vegetables or chicken or assemble a marinade.

PROBLEM #4 - Not planning ahead for events/appointments. Sometimes I forget that I will be attending a meeting and not coming home for dinner (and then poor hubby gets stuck with a tv dinner), for instance.

SOLUTION: When setting up my monthly menu, I added a column called What's going on, where I list meetings and appointments that are occurring that day. I try to factor those into my planning - by using crock pot meals, and preassembled casseroles for instance, where I can just leave hubby heating instructions.

PROBLEM #5 - Food wastage - OVERCOOKING and ending up with so much food that we can't eat it all before it goes bad. Also, if I already have 25 different leftovers in the fridge, I don't want to cook yet another meal for more leftovers!

SOLUTION: Planned leftovers - like the turkey breast I made in the crockpot, I included in my meal planning with a turkey Caesar salad one night and a turkey casserole another night to use up the leftover meat (and I may STILL have enough for at least 1-2 more casseroles). I also factor in how much I will need of leftovers for lunches. I am trying to get better about freezing things instead of optimistically sticking things in the fridge (still need to work on that a little more). Also, incorporating a leftover/pick what you want out of the fridge night into the menu planning following a few days of large meals. I also try to make sure I include some no-leftover meals during the week (usually towards the end of the workweek like Thursday) like grilled chicken breasts with no extras made.

PROBLEM #6 - The ripple effect - when I miss a night of cooking and bring home takeout, that usually means I don't have anything to pack for lunches the next day, so this expense actually becomes MORE expensive! It also may effect future meals, if I were planning on using tonight's meal as a basis for a future meal (like leftover chicken or beef).

SOLUTION: A stern talking to myself to discourage myself from saying "it's easier to buy takeout". I am really working on my discipline in this area (with varying degrees of success). I also have a mental list of a few things I can make for lunches (like tuna salad sandwiches) when I have no leftovers. We don't usually have lunchmeat in the house, so that's not often an option.

PROBLEM #7 - Not "in the mood" for what I planned 

SOLUTION: Fortunately this one doesn't happen too often to me as I rarely have a "taste for" anything specific and I don't make the leftovers the next night, so I don't get sick of eating a certain food (except sometimes as leftover lunches). I know others struggle with it though and I have seen the suggestion of just writing up a list of 5 or so meals that you are prepared to make and then picking one off the list each night. This seems like a good solution to me. Also swapping nights - I planned chicken tonight and pork tomorrow, but I'm in the mood for pork tonight, so I just swap the two nights' meals.

PROBLEM #8 - But I *LIKE* eating out! Especially for lunches, this is really tough for me. I used to meet friends for lunch to eat out several times a week. I really enjoy this social time and I LIKE restaurant food!

SOLUTION: I pack my lunch every day after reviewing just how much those lunches were costing me. I limit myself to lunch once a week (hubby wants it to be once every other week, but HE doesn't have anyone he "does lunch with"). During the warmer weather, I arrange to meet friends at parks where we eat outside and they can pick up lunch, but I just pack my own. This works well. During the winter, it is a little more of a challenge. I also remind myself of how much healthier I am eating and how this is supporting my financial AND weight loss efforts.

How about you? What are the challenges you face in following a menu plan and what solutions do you have for those challenges?

December 30, 2016

Menu Planning 101

Yesterday, I discussed why everyone should consider menu planning, but I know that many people struggle with even getting started with the process.

Here's how I do menu planning. 

First column - Date
Second column - Day of Week I just use Su,M,Tu,W,T,F,S
Third column - Description of food (i.e. salmon fillets, corn, biscuits). If it is a new recipe I color the cell light blue
Fourth column - Advanced prep - this is where I write on Tuesday to pull out ground beef to thaw for Thursday or assemble casserole for tomorrow night.
Fifth column - What's going on - this is where I write what meeting is that night, if someone is visiting, etc.
Extra columns - Summary - I use this one sometimes just to get a quick summary of what I am making. For instance, I may list the main dish - beef, poultry, pork, seafood - so I can see what percentage of each I am making. I may list the prep method, like crockpot, make ahead casserole, freezer dinner, etc. I don't do this every month, and sometimes I just do and erase it, just to make sure I am fairly balanced or because I am curious about something.

In the past I have done something similar using the calendar templates, but the calendar squares just weren't big enough for my purposes and to make them bigger was making the calendar month more than one page long, so I didn't like that (though I can certainly see why people would like it).

During the month, if I make the food as planned, I color the cell bright yellow. If I make something different than planned I color the cell light yellow. If I blow off the menu and we order in pizza or takeout, I color the cell red.

That shows me at a glance how we are doing through the color coordination.

I added a sheet to that workbook for tracking my freezer inventory, so it's right there when I am planning my menus. 

I also have a separate sheet for a Master Recipe Listing, which is just a master list of all the recipes I have in my monthly menu plans (with columns designating them by category (i.e. Beef), type of cooking (crockpot), portion of meal (dessert, entree), where I got it (which cookbook, internet url, etc.). I'm finding this very useful for making sure I mix up my recipes every month. 

I also have a sheet for new recipes. As I am seeing recipes in my cookbooks that I want to try later, I add them to this worksheet (in a format that will match my master recipe list) so that i don't forget about them. This way I will just have one place to look instead of dragging out a gazillion cookbooks when I am doing my monthly menu planning.

I hope you can see that a small investment of time upfront will make menu planning an easy and painless process for you!

December 29, 2016

Why Menu Planning Makes A Huge Difference In Life If You Are Busy

I started menu planning a while ago. Before that, here's what would usually happen (and occasionally still does happen... sighs)

1) If I didn't have something pre-planned, I would decide on the way home that dinner was too much trouble, since I was tired or had a long day at work, and I would pick up fast food, usually an unhealthy choice. I would thereby blow the budget for the month with poor food choices. We were eating take out food 2 or 3 times a week (sigh.. occasionally more).

2) As a result of buying fast food, I would also have no proper leftovers for lunch the next day, leading to another take out meal and more money spent (or hubby getting sick of tuna fish sandwiches).

3) I would decide what I was going to make for dinner that night during the drive home and discover when I got home that I was missing an ingredient. Either I would order in (pizza, anyone?) or I would have to make a trip to the grocery store for the missing ingredient and end up spending more money than I meant to (never can just buy one thing at the grocery store) and more time than I meant to (dinner at 8:30 tonight, dear).

4) We ate certain meals A LOT because they were quick and easy (spaghetti and barbecued leftovers come to mind). I probably used a rotation of about 8-10 meals over and over again and half of them were not very healthy choices.

Since I have been menu planning, I have:

1) Saved money by: stocking up on sale items; using leftovers effectively in future meals (planned-overs); not buying take out as often; cutting down trips to the grocery store.

2) Saved time by: not having to think every day "oh what am I going to make for dinner tonight???" - I only take about an hour once a month to sit down and write out the dinner ideas (frequently incorporating past monthly menus, since all the work has been done). I prepare things in advance where possible (like browning ground turkey for tomorrow's crockpot meal as I am preparing tonight's dinner, cutting up the onions for tonight's dinner AND tomorrow's dinner all at the same time); cutting down trips to the grocery store.

3) Spent more time with hubby by: knowing the second I walk in the door what needs to be done rather than spending 20-30 minutes looking through the fridge or freezer and cookbooks hoping desperately for inspiration; planning ahead with crockpot meals so I don't have to do ANYTHING when I walk in the door except maybe throw some vegetables on to steam or put together a quick salad.

4) Made wiser food choices: by cooking myself rather than eating out I am making healthier food choices and giving hubby and I a greater variety of nutritious choices.

5) Adding variety to our menus: by planning ahead, I am making sure to include new recipes every week to keep our menus interesting and varied. This really helps me to continue a healthy eating lifestyle. I also make sure to mix things up during the week (oh, I'm already having chicken twice that week, I'll make this night beef or pork or fish instead). I also am more likely to try new ingredients, because I usually research 2 or 3 recipes using the ingredient before I decide to buy it.

I really struggle with some of these challenges when I don't pre-plan. It doesn't have to be a rigid straight jacket (just the opposite I think, since it encourages me to always be trying new recipes). I just find that it makes my life go more smoothly when I do it, so I wanted to encourage others to try it. I frequently flip nights around (switching what I had planned for Wed. and Thur. for example); it's no big deal.

How about you??? Will you take a crack at menu planning? How about just looking ahead to the next couple of days or week?

March 9, 2011

Monthly Canning Session

I am trying to do some canning every month this year. My project for March involved getting together with a friend and canning a double batch of Lemon Prune Honey Butter (recipe in Ball Complete Book of Home Preserving) and Citrus Marmalade (recipe in So Easy To Preserve). We split the jars, but it's a nice addition to my canning stockpile. :)

February 21, 2011

Next Decluttering / Organizing Project: Hubby's Home Office!

I'm gearing up to dive into Hubby's home office this week. It's next on my list for decluttering and organizing. Of course, he's going to be required to help. :)

I'm taking "before" pictures today. Will post the results when we are done.