Monday, October 9, 2017

Whew! The Winter's Menu Plans Are Done!

At the cottage this summer, as I was thinking through the coming school year, I was reminded how (often overwhelmingly) busy last winter was. I knew that I needed to do some things differently this year in order to feel like I was preserving my sanity.

I came up with a few good ideas:
* We said 'no' to some of the activities that the kids wanted to do. Although we could technically fit more activities into our days/weeks than we currently are, the kids are needing more time on academics now than they have needed in the past...and it's hard to fit it all in when we're constantly out and about. So we said no to a few things...and, to my surprise, none of the kids seemed to mind.

* Geoff will be doing all Math homework with the kids this year. The kids each have 60-90 private minutes with a math tutor each week, and Geoff offered to complete homework with them during the week between tutoring sessions. That felt like a significant load off of my shoulders. :)

* On Thursdays, Seth and Lizzie will be spending the days as they did last year - at a small Christian school for children new to Canada. The school offers a day for homeschoolers on Thursdays and my younger two love those days! Unlike last year, Geoff will be the one picking the two kids up at the end of their Thursdays, and taking them both to Lizzie's evening dance class; he'll wait there for an hour, then bring the kids home. Because Matthew does not attend this day program, he and I will have most of a day, and part of an evening at home together! We are making it a combination kind of day: We do school work for part of the day; watch something on Netflix together; cook something together; read out loud; and kinda hang out together. So far these have been restful and relaxed days that we've both loved.

Then I got to thinking about something else that makes life more complex/full every week: Meal Planning!

I hate meal planning and grocery list preparation! Really hate it. But it's a necessary evil for a lot of moms with young children at home. And what I hate even more than meal planning is the 4:00pm panic about what to make for supper that night and wondering what I have in the pantry that's fast and easy and relatively healthy. I imagine many of you can relate! 😏 For years, I've been in the habit of weekly meal planning, but it's still quite a chore to do every week - I easily spend an hour or two every week just sorting through my pantry and freezer, and coming up with a plan for the week and the accompanying grocery list.

I decided to do something about it, and what I landed on was making a six-week rotating meal plan for the course of the winter. And this is what I did over the course of several evenings at the cottage in August. I also ended up preparing grocery lists for each of the six weeks, to remove another obstacle from life's craziness...I even included a list (on the grocery lists) of the spices I need for the coming week, so that I can quickly go through my spice drawers and see what I've got and what I need.

It was a surprising amount of work to complete the menu plans and grocery lists:
* I tried to include lots of variety in my plans.
* I planned right down to the snacks.
* I included recipes for each item in the file folder I developed for each week.
* I tried to ensure that if I needed 3 cups of spinach for a recipe, I would then incorporate another recipe later that week to use up the remaining 3 cups of spinach in the container - so as to minimize waste.
* I also tried to plan based on the amount of time I would have on a given day to prepare meals.

In the end, Sunday evenings generally became beef nights; Mondays are usually fish night; Tuesdays are mostly slow cooker days; and Wednesdays are usually some sort of chicken. The remaining dinners are mostly leftovers, with a back-up plan or two in place in case we don't have enough leftovers.

It was well worth the effort. I am now five weeks into my menu plans and, although some adjustments still need to be made to a couple of them, they've generally worked extremely well. And my favourite part has been the already-complete grocery list that comes with each week's menu plan. I included on my grocery list every item that my week's plan calls for (for example, all recipe ingredients, even if I generally carry them in my pantry/freezer). Thus, the only food-planning task of my week is to take that complete grocery list and cross off the items I already have in my pantry/freezer!! It's awesome!!

It's been helpful in another way:  We are part of an organic food co-op, and we order food through our co-op every second Thursday. With grocery lists in hand for the coming weeks, I can easily order food through my co-op online, and then supplement as needed with Costco and supermarket lists...and, of course, the Costco and supermarket lists are already ready to go so if I order something through the co-op, I just cross it off the other grocery lists!

I've already been asked by several friends for copies of my files/plans. I'm happy to do that, but it's harder than it looks. Each person will likely change one, two, or many things on the menu plan to cater towards their family's likes/dislikes, budgets, and so on. The challenge is that any change to the menu plan means that the accompanying grocery list also needs changing - removing any items (and recipe ingredients) that need to be removed; and then adding any items that need to be added to reflect the changed menu plan. Really, it's likely better/easier just to customize one's own.

Thus, unfortunately, the menu plans and grocery lists are naturally proprietary/custom things:
* For example, on Monday afternoons, I usually put together a nicer/bigger/funner snack for the kids and me, because they've just come home from swimming lessons (which means they're extra hungry) and because that is one of the time frames of the week when I do a fair bit of out loud we nibble at things while I read and we generally have a great time with this on Monday afternoons.  Also, our dinner is usually a little later on Monday evenings, so I'm using a bigger/funner snack to stretch out the time a little before the kids eat dinner.

* Another example is Tuesday afternoons, when the kids and I are with our homeschool Learning Centre; we share a potluck snack with the other seven families on those afternoons...for about 25 people. I often prepare a larger snack for this purpose.

* Yet another example is Friday mornings. We usually have a little more time in our schedule on Friday mornings, which allows us time to make a nicer breakfast. Often those are the mornings I'll make waffles or pancakes or french toast. I always make extras of these meals, because everyone prepares their own breakfasts on weekends, and I like to have options available to any of us who would like to use Friday morning leftovers.

Just these three examples might demonstrate why my menu plans will not work for most other families. What may work, however, is to use my menu plans as the basis for ideas for your own. And to this end, I've let a number of people take a look through my files, for ideas or recipes that they like. After all, we moms need to band together as much as possible to help each other out!

I find that if I can carve out two hours' time on Saturdays, I can get a lot of food prep done for the week, and it makes my week so much easier. This past Saturday, for example, I:  Made a pot of salmon chowder; made a pot of beef goulash; chopped veggies for the week's other meals; made a pan of granola bars for the freezer; cooked up some bacon for the week (homemade meat lovers' pizza on Tuesday, to go along with a movie night; and BLT sandwiches for a lunch); etc. I will not be spending a lot of time on food prep this week, despite having a delicious menu plan ready to go!

Anyway, I felt rather proud of myself for getting this job done, and I've had a month already to enjoy the fruits of that labour. Meals never looked so easy to me!

Here are a few pictures that might help understand what I've done:

Each week has its own file folder.

Each file folder has its own week's complete menu plan...below are three random examples. Now that the plans are pretty solid, I plan to laminate each menu plan; that way I can use a dry erase marker at the beginning of the week to make any changes to the plan that I need to. For example, it being thanksgiving this weekend, I needed to modify the plan a bit to incorporate the two turkey dinners we partook of. :)

In each file folder, behind the menu plan, is the grocery list of the week. I order first what I can from our organic food co-op, and cross off whatever I can from the lists below - which are the Costco and Supermarket lists. Then I quickly go through my pantry/freezer to see which items I already have at home; and I cross them off of these lists. Usually these lists are pared down by at least a third, given what I already have at home. This process usually takes me 10-12 minutes and I'm ready to walk out the door with my complete grocery list!!

In each week's file folder, I have all of the recipes that I need for that week. This was an awesome inclusion to my plan, because I never (like, never) have to scrounge around any more for the recipe I'm looking for...they're all right there in the file, in order...and I know that I have every ingredient I need!

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