Thursday, January 24, 2013

Menu Planning for a Year

Hey everyone,

I posted a picture on my Instagram/Facebook feed a couple of weeks ago about this year's worth of meals I was planning, and there was some interest in my process. I'll try to explain everything as best I can in this post - what my actual process was for my situation, and tips for adapting it others' situations. Warning...this is an extremely long post, but I hope an informative one. 

First up, a little background about our food situation. Every year, my husband and I join our family and some friends to butcher our own beef and pork in January. This fills our freezer through the rest of the year and we really don't have to worry about purchasing meat with the exception of seafood and poultry. We also normally have a garden {although we didn't in 2012}, and we can and freeze a lot of the fresh food we grow and purchase during the summer. 

What I was finding is that we were waiting until the drive home from work to decide what we would be cooking for dinner in the evening. That meant when we got home we'd have to thaw whatever cut of meat we were using and make do with what we had in our pantry or freezer for sides. Or we would stop in Omaha on the way home and pick up take-out because I didn't feel like eating right before bed {as would happen if we didn't plan anything in advance.}

I decided this year we would try something different - I would plan meals for the year. Because we're limited by the number of cuts we have of each specific meat, I knew I couldn't plan for just a week or month at a time. I didn't want to overuse cuts in some months and be left with one type of meat for the last few months. 

In The Beginning

The first thing I did was count and weigh all of the meat we had after we were done butchering. For things like steak or pork chops, I listed how many of each cut were packaged together. I tend to have a standard packaging system, so this is really just for reference or if I happen to question the size of the package. For ground meat like sausage and hamburger, I weighed packages to know exactly how many servings I needed to get out of them. 

Once a I had a number of how much meat we had available, I started brainstorming with my husband about our go-to recipes for each cut of meat. We made a list with all the things we normally eat {I'll talk about new recipes later} so I'd know how often we needed to rotate recipes within a cut. For example, our steak dishes looked like this:
Marinated/grilled steak

I also took into consideration how often we eat poultry, seafood and meatless dishes within a typical month, and factored them in to my rotation.

Let's Do Some Math
For each cut of meat, I had to figure out how many times per year we could use the cut. For example, we could use 1 beef roast per month, kabob meat every 3 months, etc. I made a notation next to each cut of meat how often I had to use it, and then referenced my recipe list. I checked how many recipes we had for a particular cut, and rotated them evenly throughout the year. 

Back to my steak example. We use our sirloin, rib & t-bones interchangeably more often than not. That means I had 26 packages of steak to use in the year. We could eat steak every other week. Because we have 3 go-to steak recipes, I planned to rotate them as I used steak on my calendar. 

A Year's Worth of Meals

Here's where the time-consuming work started. Because there isn't an even rotation for every cut of meat, I had to actually fill in each cut separately, rather than just figuring out one month and repeating it 12 times. 

I filled in cut by cut, using the same method I described above for the steak. I planned how often I could use a cut, and rotated my recipes within the cut. I kept it simple at first. I worked Monday through Friday and Sunday, picking a day to stick with unless it conflicted with something that was already on the menu. For steak, I used every other Tuesday. I planned for roast on the last Sunday of the month. I saved more time-consuming recipes for Sundays when I had all day to focus on them. And so it went, for all the cuts of meat except for ground beef. 

I went through and used up my allotment of poultry, seafood, and meatless dishes next. Then I started filling in with my rotation of recipes for ground beef, because we had far more ground beef available than any other cut of meat. It was during this time that I started to make some changes to how the menu looked. For example, I would see that I had three Mexican dishes in the same week, or two Italian dishes. So, I started trading in the rotation, making sure we weren't eating the same thing over and over again. I highly recommend doing this menu in pencil.


I thought about the easiest way for me to use this method in my life and decided a meal planning & recipe binder was the best option. 

For me, the style didn't really matter as long as it held all the information I needed to include. The only thing I really cared about having was some sort of pocket in the front cover for a notebook. I used page protectors for the months because I knew I'd have this around food, and after about 4 hours of menu planning, I wasn't about to have food residue ruin my work. 

Each month has it's own page at the front of the binder. I'll probably leave months in the binder as they pass for reference purposes, but I will move them to the back of the menu section. If all goes well, I'll hopefully have a much easier time of this next year. 

The middle section of the binder is a place for me to keep notes, like the page with all the cuts of meat.

The back section is for my go-to recipes. Most of the dishes I cook don't have recipes - I just throw things in a pan. But, there are some that I reference recipes for and I wanted to have them nearby. Rather than turning on my iPad to go to Pinterest or finding the correct cook book, I printed off recipes that were online and made copies from my cookbooks to go in this binder. I used tab stickers to make my recipe labels, and kept each of them in page protectors. 

Grocery Shopping
I've found that grocery shopping has changed quite a bit for me since I started this process. Because I have the little notebook in the front of my binder, I can easily make a shopping list as I'm looking through my menu at the beginning of the week. 

I, like a lot of other people, make my grocery list according to how I shop the grocery store {in my case, the perimeter of the store first, then canned & boxed goods, then frozen & bread, and then produce}. I leave extra space in each section to add items as I think of them throughout the week. I also will normally attach a second sheet to this list for price match items, items to stock up on due to sales, and items that have coupons. That's an entirely different subject, but if you're interested, I can write another post about how I grocery shop/price match/stock pile/coupon since this post is already entirely too long! 

I'm noticing more and more that my grocery list is mostly made up of fresh produce and dairy products. I'm turning to my stockpile for my main dishes and sides. Having a menu in place also helps me know how much food to purchase when there's a really good deal. {Again, I can do more on that subject if people are interested in another post.}

Since I keep my recipes so close, if I'm ever not sure what is needed for a specific dish, I can reference the recipe while I'm making my grocery list or even in the grocery store. It just makes sense to keep them close by!

Breakfast, Lunch, Saturday Meals & New Recipes
I treated weekend breakfast as an entirely different set of meals. We tend to make large breakfasts that will last us through an entire weekend, so I planned meals for both Saturday & Sunday, rather than trying to figure out something different for each day. I used the same method as above and just rotated my breakfast meets and the meals we cook with them. Our weekday breakfasts are either leftovers from weekend breakfasts {if they save well}, or breakfasts we can eat on the go, like bagels, homemade breakfast bars, etc. As I need these items, I just add them to my grocery list.

We're a 2-person household, so I've found that the majority of our recipes allow us to have leftovers for the next day's lunch. This is so much easier than trying to plan out an entirely different lunch menu. Some recipes we go to often yield more leftovers than just two lunches, so we freeze those to be used for lunches when there weren't leftovers from the night before {almost all of our Sunday dinners are good for this as well as soups and pasta recipes}. We do keep a few frozen meals on hand, and I will normally keep some lunch meat and cheese frozen if I find a good deal on them for sandwiches. I include some fillers for lunch in our weekly shopping {if they're needed}, like fruits & veggies. 

If you look closely at the February menu I posted, you'll see that I didn't plan anything for Saturday meals. I did this purposefully for a few reasons. 1.) If we have a lot of leftovers during the week that don't freeze well, we can eat them that evening. 2.) If we happen to go out to dinner that week, chances are it will be on a Saturday. If not, the meal from the night we went out can be shifted to Saturday night's meal with no major alteration to the menu. 3.) Our Saturdays are extremely busy between working at Gather, heading to auctions or sales, spending time with family and friends...we're not on a normal meal schedule. More often than not, we don't eat 3 meals on Saturday and things can be rotated around within the menu to accommodate that change. 

I love to cook and try new recipes often. Pinterest has helped with that addiction, as has being surrounded by a lot of great cooks in my family and group of friends. The most important part of this meal planning is that we're using the planned cuts of meat during the specified week, and that we grocery shop accordingly. When I want to try a new recipe, I'll substitute it in on an evening when we were already planning to use that cut of meat.

There is a tab in my recipe organization called "Try." Under that tab, I have all the recipes I'd like to try as an option to include in our go-to recipes. I like keeping them close by in case I'm getting bored with some of our regular recipes. It will also help me with grocery shopping and making lists so I don't suddenly decide to try something new and have to make an extra trip to the grocery store or {more likely} realize I'm missing a key ingredient during the cooking process. 

As an aside, I have another recipe binder that is for recipes I know will never be go-to recipes. These include things that are for rarer cuts of meat or seafood, things I make only for holidays or gatherings, or things that take entirely too long to prepare for a dinner after work. As I try new recipes, if I like them, I like to print them off and put them in that binder {assuming they won't become one of our regular recipes}. So far, I haven't made copies from my recipe books of favorite recipes to include in this binder, but that's an idea for a rainy day. I'm lucky that my memory is good enough I can usually recall where I find recipes in cookbooks. 

Adapting My Plan
Finally, I'm getting to the end of this post! Thanks for sticking with me. I know that my situation is fairly unique since we butcher our own meat, but I do know more and more people who are buying quarter, half and whole cows or hogs from local butchers, or who like to buy their meat in bulk from places like Sam's Club or Costco. There are so many ways that people acquire their food that I can't tell you how to adapt my plan to each one, but here are a few things you can do to make this plan work for you, no matter what situation.
  • Hang on to some of your grocery lists and see what items you are buying over and over again or in bulk. If you can, figure out how often you buy cuts of meat or how long a bulk meat purchase will last you. Using my method above, figure out a plan for the amount of time that meal will last you. 
  • If you don't purchase grocery items in bulk, make a monthly plan rather than one for a year. Once you have that in place, repeat it every month, allowing for seasonal changes to your eating. 
  • The best tip I can give is to be flexible with your menu - take my advice about only being concerned with using the cut of meat on the day it was planned for. You can easily substitute ingredients for a different recipe on your grocery list with a little advanced thinking.
  • Allow for changes to the plan and leftovers. Things will come up that you can't plan for. You will go out to dinner, have a meal at a friend's house, get sick, or feel like ordering a pizza. That's fine. Just don't let groceries you've purchased go to waste because you made a change in the plan {use them in next week's meal, or leave an open day for these situations like I did.}
  • Know your limits. If you love to cook and regularly cook at home, then it might make sense to expect yourself to cook every evening. If cooking is a chore and you eat out every night now, start slowly. Plan to cook at home a few nights a week to start until you learn a rhythm that works for you. 
  • Prep in advance if you can. My husband & I aren't big dessert eaters, but we might want something one night a week or for one lunch during the week. I typically make a dessert over the weekend to be used for the upcoming week {and to be offered if someone drops by unexpectedly or if I need a birthday or potluck treat at work}. If I know I have veggies that need to be chopped or meat that needs to be marinated, I'll do that on a Sunday or while I'm waiting for dinner to cook on a different weeknight. 
  • Cook in batches if that works for your lifestyle. For example, hamburgers, Mexican dishes, and meatballs have a regular rotation in my menu. I saved back quite a bit of my ground beef when we were packaging it to be cooked for specific dishes. I made enough meatballs to get me through the year, pattied and seasoned hamburgers so they could go directly on the grill, and added peppers, onions and seasonings to ground beef to be used in Mexican dishes. This will save me a lot of time when I go to cook these dishes throughout the year. If you happen to find a great deal on a specific cut of meat, you can take advantage, buy more than you need for this particular week, and do some advanced cooking for use throughout the year.
  • Keep notes of what works and what doesn't. You may be interested in repeating this plan sometime in the future {whether it's next year or next month} and you'll want to adjust things based on your notes.
Leave me a comment if you have any questions about my process or how to adapt meal planning to your specific situation. I'd also love to know if you're interested in hearing more about how I grocery shop & stockpile, plan for fresh produce preserving in the summer, etc. 

Have a great day! 

1 comment:

  1. This is awesome! With doing the South Beach diet, I've been sticking to weekly meal plans, but monthly is a goal for me. I am curious to know more about buying your own meat, particularly the cost, if you have any tips