When I was having writer’s block and asked my Facebook friends for help, someone suggested a post on meal planning. I don’t meal plan. I’ve tried it – more than once – and it just doesn’t work for me. I prefer to have my freezer stocked with meals so that I can just pull out whatever I’m in the mood for or works best with my schedule. But more about that later.
I know that a lot of moms swear by meal planning and that a lot more would like to try it but don’t know how to get started. Thanks to the internet, it’s easy to become an expert in – oh, about 30 minutes – so I can give you some pointers.
If you have recipes you love, this is probably the easiest way. Just get a calendar – paper, online, or one of the many apps available – and start adding meals. If there are meals your family would eat every day, space those out once a week or so. Same for your frugal meals – schedule them frequently. Then fill in the rest with meals that most of the family likes or that are a little pricier or harder to cook. Don’t forget to plan for leftovers if you know you’ll have some! This blog has some great tips on how to get started.
If you like the idea of using an app, this is one I liked when I tried it (It’s a good app, I just can’t stick to meal planning). It’s not just a meal planner; you can manage your recipes and even import new ones from websites (Pinterest, anyone?). You can also generate a shopping list from your meal plan and even keep track of what’s in your pantry. It’s a little labor-intensive to start with, but if you’re committed to meal planning, this could be a great choice. I just wasn’t motivated enough to put in the effort.
If you’d rather have somebody else do the planning, there are a lot of subscription services that do just that. Personally, I think kids that will eat all of the things on any purchased meal plan are about as rare as unicorns. But if you happen to have some of those mythical creatures (kids, not unicorns…I have no idea what they eat), it doesn’t get any easier than this. One popular subscription service is Food on the Table. You select your food preferences (beef vs. chicken, for example), the type of meals you like (casserole, crockpot, etc.), and any dietary restrictions. Then they send you a 5-day meal plan, including recipes and a grocery list that even lets you know which items are on sale at your local store. The service even comes with an app so that you’ll always have the information with you.
My choice: freezer cooking
Did I mention that I hate meal planning? One of the best benefits of freezer cooking, in my opinion, is not having to think about it (except for the days I do my batch cooking). I can go “shop” in my freezer each morning and choose something based on what I’m in the mood for or my schedule for the day. If we have late-afternoon doctor appointments, for instance, I’ll grab a crockpot meal. If it’s an easy day, I’ll pick something that requires some prep. If the kids have practice, I’ll choose something quick and easy, like tacos.
Other benefits of freezer cooking:
- Saving money: You can take advantage of sales without having to eat the same thing all week. Go ahead and buy 10 lbs. of chicken breasts if they’re on sale. For my family, that would translate into about 3 meals. And there are so many things you can do with chicken breasts that require no more than dumping them in a freezer bag with a few other ingredients.
- Eating better: There’s less temptation to pick up McDonald’s or throw some chicken nuggets in the microwave if you know you have easy, delicious meals ready to go.
- Control ingredients: Whether somebody in your family has special dietary needs or you’re just trying to stay away from preservatives and processed food, you control the ingredients. You know exactly what’s in the food you feed your family.
If you want to try it (and you really should), take a minute to learn from my mistakes:
- Don’t make multiple batches of a new recipe you haven’t tried.
- Label, label, label. At a minimum, you need the name of the recipe or a short description (since I don’t usually use recipes) and the date you made it. Unless it’s something you’ve made so often you could do it in your sleep, add the cooking instructions. And this may sound silly, but include the name of the store where you bought the meat. This has saved me from throwing out meals unnecessarily when there’s a recall.
- Rotate your meals so that you don’t one day find a 2-year-old pan of lasagna on the bottom of the freezer.
- Those foil pans are super convenient, but remember that you can’t thaw them in the microwave. If it’s not something like lasagna (with layers and a specific shape), I recommend freezer bags. Some people suggest lining your cooking dish with foil, flash-freezing the meal, then taking it out of the pan and wrapping it. I’ve tried it and didn’t like it. Too much work, and I never could remember which pan I froze it in, so I had a lot of trial and error trying to fit a square peg in a round hole!
My ground beef freezer plan
I had to go to Costco yesterday to pick up something for my husband, and I grabbed a 6-lb. package of ground beef while I was there (88/12 @ $3.19 lb.), and I needed to do something with it. So about 2 lbs. went into a pan to brown, along with some onion. This will become taco meat.
While that was browning, I put the rest of the beef in my mixer bowl to make my universal meat mixture. I use this for meatloaf, meatballs, and salisbury steak. Today it’s salsibury steaks.
I don’t really use recipes (which means I can’t give you exact measurements), but this is the general idea of what I do for my universal meat mixture:
- About 4 lbs. ground beef
- Bread crumbs that have been toasted, then soaked in milk (I usually use about 3 slices of whatever bread is getting stale and run it through the food processor, but that appliance didn’t cooperate this morning. So I smushed up a roll of crackers instead. Once they were toasted, I added 1/2 cup milk and let it sit until most of the milk was absorbed.)
- Seasoned salt
- 2 eggs
While the mixer was doing its thing, I tasted the taco meat. It was a little spicy for my kids, so I toned it down with some half-and-half. It ended up being a little soupy, but that’s no biggie — I’ll just use a slotted spoon when I assemble the tacos. (If there’s one bit of advice I wish everyone would take from me, it would be “don’t be a slave to recipes”. Unless it’s baking. Then you have to mind your manners and follow instructions. But I’m not about to toss out taco meat because it’s too spicy or run to the grocery store for a missing ingredient unless it’s the chicken for chicken parmesan. I improvise. Show that recipe who’s boss!)
Now for the salisbury steaks. I make a mixture of small and large steaks to accommodate both kids and adults. I also make them a little thick because I sear the outside, and I don’t want to cook them all the way through when I do it. Once they were shaped, I put half in the frig for tonight’s dinner; the other half is flash-freezing, which means spreading them out on a baking sheet until they’re frozen enough to hold their shape and not stick together. At that point, I’ll put them in a freezer bag with a can of mushroom soup and a can of onion soup (in a separate bag inside the first one).When the taco meat cooled, I put it in a freezer bag and tossed it into the freezer.
When I’m ready to make dinner for tonight, I’ll start by searing the steaks. I used to break them trying to turn them over, but then I figured out I just wasn’t doing it right. I was trying to flip them as soon as they were a little brown. The trick is to let them sit until they release by themselves; that’s when they’re ready.
I’m sure this isn’t quite what my friend had in mind when she suggested an article on meal planning. And I’m not knocking it; an awful lot of people love it. It’s just not for me. I’m a freezer cooking girl. It’s the same goal – less stress and hassle at meal time – just a different way of getting there.