How I meal plan

27 May 2020

I wrote about how we meal plan back in 2013, and though many things in our life have changed since then (two new babies, new house, now COVID), the bones of our meal planning process remain the same. There are a few tweaks and changes that have fine-tuned this weekly rhythm over the years, though, so I thought it was time for an update!

If you’re new to the idea of meal planning, it might feel really intimidating or complicated. Maybe you’re worried it will take your whole Saturday. I get it! Even though I’ve been meal planning for years, there’s still a part of me that resists sitting down and doing it each week. But, this simple process saves me SO much time, energy, and money that it is completely worth it!! In contrast, on the weeks where we fly by the seat of our pants (maybe if we’ve been traveling the weekend before), I’m basically pulling my hair out by Tuesday. If that’s you every week, I think you’ll love this post!

Let’s go!

When I meal plan:

Though I’m not perfect at it, I try to sit down and plan our meals for the week on Friday evening, after the kids are in bed. With COVID, I aim to go to the grocery store pretty much first thing Saturday morning, so making our grocery list the night before ensures I’m not scrambling in the morning.

For me, planning our meals on the weekend, and as early in the weekend as possible, is crucial. As mentioned above, once the week starts churning it’s hard for me to find time to do it AND go shopping, which really throws off our whole rhythm. And if for some reason I wait until Sunday to do it, it adds to the “Sunday scaries” and I’m more likely to feel grumpy about the task. Getting it accomplished early in the weekend works best for us!

The basics of meal planning:

I plan one week at a time – usually Saturday-Friday – using my simple meal planning tracker (download a copy here!). In our current conditions, we’re typically cooking six nights a week and getting takeout on Friday or Saturday.

My first step in meal planning is always to check my calendar, to see if there are any days we’ll be dining out (dinner at a friend’s house, an event, a late bike ride, or a day where we’re running around and don’t have time to cook), or whether we’re expecting any guests. These days, there’s not much to check :)

With those accounted for, I start filling in meals for the other nights:
— I’ll ask John, and sometimes June, whether they have any requests.
— I’ll check the weather, to see if we’re expecting cold and rain or warmth and sun – it affects the kind of food I want to eat!
— I’ll consider the leftover situation, as we balance meals that leave enough for the next day’s lunches and not having too much food.
— I’ll check the fridge to see if there are any leftover ingredients we could use up (maybe plain Greek yogurt or extra rice).
— Finally, I’ll try to balance cheaper versus more expensive recipes and vegetable versus meat-centric.

Something that helps me in all of this? Consulting our record of past meals. I have multiple years of those meal planning tracker sheets in the back of my recipe binder, which is not only a neat historical record, but handy for coming up with fresh ideas when I’m stumped!

Mostly, though, I flip through my recipe binder to see what looks good. On a normal week, we’ll make 4-5 familiar recipes and 1-2 new ones, which for us is a good balance of keeping things fresh and not making things unnecessarily complicated. I collect recipes to try on this Pinterest board, while every family favorite recipe in our binder that’s available on the internet can be found in this board! More on my recipe binder here.

How we decide what to eat when:

Once we have our meals planned, they go on the meal planning doc. On Sunday, I loosely assign our meals to days of the week on our kitchen whiteboard, though we’re very open to flexing it based on whether we’re in need of leftovers and what we’re in the mood for that morning. Our easily-visible whiteboard is an easy way to keep John and I on the same page, too.

How I grocery shop:

With our meals set, I make a grocery list. As you all know, I recently upgraded to a custom model, which has been well worth the hour-and-a-half it took me to design! Organizing my shopping by aisle helps me zip through the store and get back to my favorite people. Though we used to do more hopping around from store to store before kids, I now consider any slight increase I pay in price by doing all my shopping at Publix well worth the time I gain back by going to a store 5 minutes from my house where I am very familiar with the layout and can get everything I need in one fell swoop. Plus, it truly is a pleasure to shop there – the people are so nice, the store, bright and clean, and I can clip coupons digitally!

The one exception? We have a Costco membership, and make a trip there about once a quarter to stock up on paper towels, toilet paper, unsweetened applesauce, applesauce pouches, butter, bar soap, the Costco version of LaCroix, chicken breasts, marinara sauce, etc. If we had a second freezer, I’m sure we’d be able to take more advantage of the bulk meat, but as it is, one pack of chicken basically fills the available space in our freezer.

Some of you have asked why I don’t go the grocery delivery route. There are a number of reasons:

— I generally don’t mind grocery shopping, so it’s not really something I’m looking to avoid in the first place.
— I’m not in the regular rhythm of it, so picking and choosing from the online dashboard seems to take me more time than just going to the store.
— I like to pick out my own produce.
— The one time I did try it, I felt like I was fielding questions from the shopper by text the whole half hour she was there, so it wasn’t like I had uninterrupted time with my family anyway.
— I am kind of weird, and generally prefer the slow and analog route
— And I am cheap, and don’t like to pay extra or have the need to tip :)

From door to door, it takes me about 40-45 minutes to shop on a Saturday morning!

Of course, as I’m making my grocery list, I check the pantry and fridge to see if we already have any of the ingredients needed. I check our freezer whiteboard to see if there’s anything in there that’s on the list. And I check our Alexa shopping list, where we add items we need to restock throughout the week. (I’m just waiting for the day June says, “Alexa, add marshmallows to my shopping list,” ha!)

I thought I’d end with a sample weekly menu, from earlier in May:

Saturday: chicken tikka masala with frozen peas added, jasmati rice, and naan
Sunday: taco soup, mini cornbread muffins (from a box mix), and green salads for the grown-ups
Monday: Marcella’s bolognese, tagliatelle, green salads/roasted broccoli for kiddos, and frozen cheesy garlic bread (this was the new recipe for the week, and it was added to the binder!)
Tuesday: three-pepper pizza (Publix dough with marinara sauce, mozzarella, and chopped poblano, red bell pepper, and pepperoncinis) and green salads
Wednesday: hot dogs, baked beans, cucumber and tomato salad, and chips
Thursday: kale chickpea pasta
Friday: takeout :)

In meal planning, as with so many other things, what works for one person may not work for another. While I salute those of you who throw dishes together from what’s in your pantry, or plan a month of meals at a time, or stop at the store every day on your way home from work, this is the rhythm that has worked well for our family over the last many years. I hope you you’ll find an idea or two in this post that might work for yours!

Thanks for sticking with me through this massive post, friends!! In addition to any meal planning thoughts you might like to share, I’m curious whether you’d be interested in me sharing some of our weekly meal plans on a weekly basis? Janssen shares hers every week, which I don’t think I could commit to, but I do enjoy reading hers and getting ideas! Maybe one week out of every month? Let me know what you think!

How to make a recipe binder

22 May 2020

Happy Friday, friends! I’m thrilled to share a tour of my recipe binder with you today! Getting it organized a few weeks ago was a huge step forward in my 2020 goal of streamlining meal planning. It’s made meal planning and cooking simpler, easier, and more joyful – what more could a gal want?! If you’ve been considering making a recipe binder of your own, I think you’ll love today’s tour!

As promised, I filmed a video of myself flipping through every page, explaining what I included and giving you a little commentary on each recipe. It’s about 20 minutes long, and it might be incredibly boring or just what you’re looking for – ha!

A time-stamped guide:
:28 | Meal planning archive
1:05 | Grocery shopping list
1:34 | Non-recipe cheat sheet
2:18 | Main dish
16:44 | Sides
18:28 | Desserts
19:55 | Breakfasts

Supplies needed for your recipe binder:
— A 3-ring binder! Mine is 1″, nothing fancy, but I’m considering upgrading to 1.5″ or 2″ because it’s currently bursting at the seams.
Tabs to divide your binder into sections. I kept mine simple and have sections for main dish, sides, dessert, breakfast, and my meal planning archive. I might divide them into more specific categories in the future, but for now, this is working well!
Page protecters. These make it easy to slip in magazine clippings or recipe cards. Of course, you can also just three-hole-punch most things, but it’s nice to be able to wipe off splatters :) I actually got my page protectors for free from my neighborhood Facebook group, so it’s worth asking around!

What I put in my recipe binder:
— At the front, I keep extra copies of my custom Publix grocery list, organized by aisle at my local store. This has been SO helpful for staying organized and moving through the store quickly! Download a copy here, though be warned it is unique to my family’s favorites and some of my vernacular and abbreviations! :)
— In the first tab’s pocket, I keep a cheat sheet of non-recipe meals – things like spaghetti and meatballs, chicken caesar wraps, or buffalo chicken pizza. It’s helpful to have this list handy when I’m meal planning so I remember to consider them as options, even though they’re not otherwise in the binder!
— The bulk of the binder is obviously the recipes! You can see all of the ones that are available on the internet in this Pinterest board, though of course my binder also includes recipes from friends and family and magazine clippings gathered over the years.
— The last tabbed section is my meal planning archive. Each sheet (download yours here, if you’d like) holds 12 weeks of meals, and having this record is great for jogging ideas when I sit down to plan our meals each week. More to come on this subject soon!

How I use my recipe binder:
I meal plan once a week. As I consider our meals for the next few days, I flip through my binder for ideas. I also look through this Pinterest board, where I collect recipes I haven’t made but want to try. If I make a new recipe that we love, I’ll print it out and add it to the binder (and then move it on Pinterest, too).

Why I really love my recipe binder:
My absolute favorite thing about this meal planning development is that cooking is now an analog experience. There’s no more navigating my laptop with sticky fingers, impatiently waking up a sleeping screen, or dodging pop-up ads. It’s just nice to be looking at a page after staring at a screen all day, most days!

Also, I’m really grateful to have all of my favorite recipes in one place that’s under my control. I had the alarming experience recently of pulling up one of our favorite recipes and seeing that the blogger had gone back and altered it – yikes!! Thankfully I had the old version memorized, but it was a good reminder that any blog could go offline at any time, taking a prized family meal with it. Plus, I just love having all of my favorites in one place that feels more permanent than the internet cloud! :)

I think that’s it, friends! I’m planning a comprehensive post walking through how I meal plan in detail next week, but I wanted to get this tour to you first. If you have any questions you’d like me to answer in next week’s post, or about my recipe binder, please ask away in the comments!

I’d love to hear: how do you organize your recipes? Any tips to pass along to the group? :)

Affiliate links are used in this post!

Our new front porch gate

14 May 2020

Another mini goal update for you! This time for our 2020 goal of living a wild life outdoors. Though living into this goal most often looks like venturing out into the woods or playing in a creek, sometimes progress is closer to home — as in the case of our new front porch gate! This is a small update that has just delighted us, so I thought I’d share it with you today.

Those who have been around awhile may remember that when we finally made an offer on our current house, after a long search and several failed contracts, the biggest thing we ended up compromising on was actually one of our top criteria: a large yard. After 7 years, I am (mostly) at peace about this, but it is still sometimes hard for me to reconcile what living a “wild life” with small children looks like when we don’t have the same acres of woods, expansive lawns, big trees, rocks, and streams that surrounded both John’s and my childhood homes.

However, just because we don’t have the yard of my dreams doesn’t mean we have nothing; we certainly have much to be grateful for in our home and in our front and back yards! Aside from those green spaces, there was another space I was determined to maximize this year: our front porch. It’s decently sized and nicely shaded by a plum tree most of the day, so it had great potential as a play space for the kids. However, there was a major issue: our front steps are many and steep, so there was no way Shep could be out there without an adult in arm’s reach, let alone by himself.

Especially after a day at school, I love being able to have them outside, but at their ages, I can’t just turn them loose. So, how to balance independent play while also completing dinner prep? Our kitchen is at the front of our house, meaning it was totally possible to have them out there, playing happily while I watched them through the window — as long as we solved the issue of the steps.

Enter: our favorite handyman! Inspired by many of our neighbors who have similar gates for their own steep steps, we asked Don to build and install a gate for our porch. He did a magnificent job — considering the utility it’s already given us, it was well worth the few hundred dollars he charged us. I’ve always loved the idea of a white picket fence, and swinging our new gate open and closed gives me all those vibes even without the fence :)

The kids love being out there at all hours of the day now: it’s the perfect spot for eating snacks, digging in the sand/rock table, any kind of water play, muffin tray “cooking,” rock painting, and much more.

Later this summer, I hope to add a few big potted plants as a bit of a privacy screen, to add some softness and another play element. Our kids are currently very eager to spot our neighbors’ Frenchie through the railing, though, so they’re not concerned :)

I have another post idea brewing with pros and cons for two more major updates we’re considering for our downstairs, but in the meantime, I’d love to hear: what’s a small (or big) update you’ve made to your home that’s made you so happy?

What I’ve been reading lately

5 May 2020

Though Articles Club has faithfully continued meeting over the last two months, we’ve switched to focusing on “life lately” updates instead of our usual fare. I miss our deep dives into important (and not-so-important) topics, but have also been enjoying the simple, and shorter, time together – after a long day, Zoom fatigue is real!

In honor of Articles Club, I thought I’d collect a few of my favorite recent coronavirus thought-pieces to share – all reads and listens that would be just perfect for discussing around the table. They’re less about current events and more about what life right now means for life beyond the pandemic. I hope they light a little spark in you today!

P.S. Perhaps you’re tapped out on coronavirus reading right now. Been there! Just for you, I’m including a few photos from this weekend’s backyard campout :) Enjoy!

Our favorite floral melamine plates in action!

Present in the Pandemic | This sermon from Jon Tyson was a gentle but firm reminder to abide in the midst of difficulty and sameness. He speaks persuasively about distraction, and what it means for our core relationships and our intimacy with God. If you loved The Ruthless Elimination of Hurry, you’ll be nodding along the whole time. In the words of Jon, let’s not say at the end of this, “It was kind of a blur, and then it was over.” The teaching starts at about 44:30.

It’s Okay to Be a Different Kind of Parent During the Pandemic | This is perhaps not the essay you’re thinking it’s going to be. Mary Katherine weaves insight from her husband passing away, leaving her and her two young daughters behind, into advice for parents dealing with our current upheaval. A poignant and lovely piece.

When the Small Things are Everything | Another simply beautiful essay, this time about being a “second responder.” If you’ve been moved by the kindness sprouting everywhere, if you’ve been a part of this kindness in any small way, you’ll love this piece.

Parenting in the Age of Anxiety | Though this is not, strictly speaking, an article focused on coronavirus, it is The Atlantic’s most-recent cover story and couldn’t have debuted at a more relevant time. This is an eye-opening, sobering, and yet hopeful read about the current epidemic of anxiety, focusing on the impact parental anxiety has on children. I think this is a must-read for basically everyone right now.

Have you read anything notable about our current times – something that moved you to action or made you see things in a different light? I’d love to hear. You know I’m always down for a good read!

P.S. Backyard camping was a success! June fell asleep about 10 and woke up with the birds at 6 :) John came inside and promptly crawled into bed next to me, ha!