More on Menu Planning (and Some of My Favorite New Recipes!)

I got asked some questions last week about how I menu plan, specifically how I plan the meals and make my shopping list and I was hoping to answer the lingering questions, as well share some of my favorite meals we've eaten so far. But first I really want to emphasize to those of you thinking about meal planning that I learned a lot of lessons over time and I still think I can get even better. I'd like to get to the point where my shopping becomes efficient and I use coupons and spend less than $100 a week. I anticipate it will still take me a few months to get really good at this, but I'm totally willing to share some of what I've learned along the way if it's helpful. I honestly love, love, love that we meal plan now. I love that it's saved us money, that we're not wasting food, that we're not eating out nearly as much, and that we're not running to the store to last minute shop. It's definitely a bit of work, but sooo worth it. I really can't emphasize that enough. Listen, if my mother could work a full time job, raise five children, and cook a homemade meal every damn night of her life (we rarely ate out growing up), I figure I can do the same with zero kids. Dammit. : )

When I first started meal planning, I just picked some recipes and made a list. After a couple of weeks, though, this got to be a bit of a pain in the ass. It was a lot of back and forth and a mishmash of a list that wasn't organized in any way. It made shopping annoying and inefficient, which, when you're going weekly, can be frustrating.

Finally, one week, I started to think about organizing my weekly meal plans with my grocery list. I looked around on the web and combined some things I saw and liked into my own Word document. Here's a screenshot of that document, as well as last week's menu/shopping list (you can click on the image to enlarge):

As you can see, I plan out what we'll eat for every meal of the day, including a Misc. category, which would be snacks and desserts, if any. Typically, though, I just plan out dinners, since that's what requires the most work. When he even eats lunch, A.P. eats out and I eat the same lunch almost daily: a Lean Cuisine, a piece of fruit, and a yogurt. So, that and breakfast (we just drink coffee/tea) are super easy to plan. For dinners, though, I research recipes or choose dinners I know how to make that we like. I typically only make 3 big meals a week, subbing in lighter fare on the weekends. Cooking on Fridays used to feel draining and terrible until I started planning light meals, like a grilled cheese sandwich and soup. Or last week, we had quesadillas and a grapefruit, mixed lettuces, goat cheese, and pepper salad (see recipe below!).

I then look at the recipe's ingredients and plug them into my shopping list. If I'm unsure if I have something on hand, I put it on the list, but put a question mark by it (like the Apple Cider Vinegar on this week's list). Then, before I head out, I check the pantry/fridge to see if I actually need to purchase those items. The benefit of planning this way is that my list is much more organized around things that would actually be near each other in the grocery store. I don't have to look through the whole list each time to make sure I catch all the fruits and vegetables that need to be purchased. This list makes it so that I can get in and out of a store in less than an hour. I still like to look for other items of interest, but for the most part I stick to the list.

The final step I take is to align my grocery list with what's on sale at my local grocery store. I go online and look through the weekly ad to see if any of the items I need are on sale. This takes a while, but it is so worthwhile. I also look for 2 for 1 deals so that I'll have things on hand in the pantry for future meals.

The thing I'd like to get good at is using coupons and balancing what to buy where (e.g. what to stock up on at Costco, what to buy weekly at the grocery store). That coupled with store sales and a shorter grocery list each week would really save us money. But that will come with time. This whole thing, as I said before, is really a learning process. The more I do it, the better I get at it. Listen, if crazy ass food hoarders can get groceries for pennies, this sane lady might as well partake, too.

I can't talk enough about the benefits of planning this way! It's been a huge game changer for us in terms of healthy eating, saving money, and, A.P.'s favorite, consistency. He says he's been loving this because he "consistently knows that there is food in the house." The secret is that there was always food in the house, he just had to cook it. But now, there's a list! And a menu! And to his relief, no surprises. : )

If you decide to start meal planning, check out some of these recipes! They have been favorites of A.P. and mine.

Slow Cooker White Bean and Kielbasa Stew (I subbed in chicken sausages for the kielbasa.)

Classic Pot Roast (So, so good!! The meat is incredibly tender!)

Crispy Rosemary Sriracha Chicken (This is spicy and delicious. I marinated the chicken overnight (which saves you time the next day!). Plus, you're eating thighs, not breasts, so you spend a little less on meat.)

Mixed Lettuces with Grapefruit, Goat Cheese, and Black Pepper (Such a quick, easy dish to pair with a sandwich for a laid back, but satisfying Friday night meal.)

Morrocan Chicken with Roasted Acorn Squash and Kale (I forgot to make the squash, but made the chicken and kale. DELICIOUS!! Plus, I used the leftover chicken to make a chicken salad with Greek yogurt, grapes, celery, and onion, plus the same spices as the chicken. Sooo yummy and you save money by reusing last night's dinner for tomorrow's lunch!)

Plus a quick and delicious dessert:

Raspberry Fool (Load up on the actual berries and use pure preserves that only have sugar and berries and you won't feel so guilty about downing this decadent dessert. I made this around Valentine's Day!)

Plus my favorite places to find recipes:

Pinterest (check out my Pinterest food board, My Bell Is Jolly)

(Photo via Apartment Therapy via NSW Government; Recipe Photo Credits linked above)

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