I am a big believer in the habit of menu planning. Without menu planning, my family would go hungry. We don't buy a lot of convenience foods. Okay. I don't buy any, but never trust a husband in a grocery store. My kids get happy just knowing Dad is going to the store instead of me. It's kind of like Christmas. You never know what you might get. He always gets what's on the list, but he usually throws some splurge stuff in there, too. The kids rush to the grocery bags to see what cool-snack-food-that-mom-won't-buy might be lurking there. But I digress... Even if we didn't have a food budget (which we do), we live too far out of town for eating out to be an option. So with few convenience foods and no restaurant option, it's cook or starve.
So I cook. And cook. And cook. I have a very hungry family. And just when I think I've cooked enough to hold them awhile, shazam! All the food has vanished again.
Meal Planning is the only way for me to keep up with the Tummy Demands around here and still manage to do anything else, like say, the laundry. (I know. I lead an exciting life.) Every Sunday night, I look through my cupboards and my recipes. I come up with Breakfasts, Lunches, Snacks and Dinners for the next 7 days. I also plan out when I will be making the yogurt and the breads for the week so that the food preparation fits neatly into the rest of my life. (Or at least, it fits neatly on paper).
All that planning takes time, especially when you factor in my recipe hoard. I have shelves full of cookbooks. I have binders full of recipes printed from the web. I have recipe boxes and recipe folders. It's ugly. I think I may have a problem.
In all that crazy hoarded stash of recipes, there are some real family favorites. These are recipes that we come back to time and time again. The problem is, it is ridiculous to pull out 6 different cookbooks just to make one meal. But that's kind of what I've been doing. Cookbook A might have the entree I want to make, Recipe Box B has the bread, Computer Printout C has the side dish.... Ugly. Really Ugly. And all those cookbooks and recipes would be spread out everywhere while I decided our weekly menu. I would have to flip through each cookbook looking for our favorites. Something had to give.
Three-ring Binders are my friends. They have neatly contained many a mess for me over the years. This time was no exception. I decided it was time to simplify the Meal Planning Madness, and three-ring binders were going to help me do it.
I purchased 6 binders with clear cover page pockets and printed up some cover pages and binder labels. Mine are just white binders with black lettering -- purely functional. I told you I lead an exciting life. Feel free to make these pretty -- and exciting.
Then I filled my binders with sheet protectors. These are great for holding recipes because you can wipe them off if you spill something. What? You don't ever spill anything when you're cooking!?! Apparently I am not only a recipe hoarder, but I'm a messy cook. Great. My day is getting better already.
Next, I started going through my recipe hoard and making copies of our family favorites. Nothing but tried and true favorites go into these binders. This is not the place for new recipes I want to try. I have binders full of recipes I want to try and they aren't making my meal planning any easier. I wanted easy, neat access to the recipes I reach for over and over again. If I want to try a new recipe, great. I will plan it into my menu, but it doesn't make the book until it receives the family seal of approval. These books are only for the family favorites.
For handwritten recipes, I just taped them onto a sheet of paper and slipped them in the page protector. Maybe one day I will type these up and make it all pretty. Right now, I'm just trying to get dinner on the table.
In a perfect world, I would have completely gone through my recipe hoard at one sitting, pulled out all our family favorites and set up my new books immediately. But I don't live in a perfect world. I live in a world full of interruptions and preschooler meltdowns. I went for option number two. Each time I sit down to do my meal planning, I add some more favorite recipes to my new books. Eventually all our family favorites will be in one place.
I have moved all the other cookbooks out of my kitchen and onto the bookshelves. The new Family Favorites binders have a special place on the kitchen counter. They are easy access when I'm cooking, which speeds meal preparation. I no longer have to rummage through the enormous cookbook stash to find my recipe. If I'm making dinner, I just grab the "Dinners" binder. All our favorite dinner recipes are right there. If I want to make a treat, I just grab the "Snacks & Desserts" binder. Easy.
When I sit down to plan meals for the week, I just grab my binders and look through what will work for the week. It's amazing how much more variety we have when I don't have to rely on my memory to come up with our family favorites list. I'm usually too tired to remember much past what I made last week. That gets a little boring.
There you have it. Family Meal Planning -- Simplified. My meal planning time is shorter, my meal preparation is easier and we end up eating more variety. Life is good.
What do you do to simplify meal planning?
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