Saturday, January 11, 2014

Meal Planning 3 Months at a Time

A week or so ago I posted this photo over on the Facebook page.

I shared that it was meal planning day here at the farmhouse and that I had come up with a system for planning 3 months at a time.  I asked if there would be any interest in me sharing my system, expecting a few likes and a comment or two maybe, but the response was a surprising and overwhelming cry of YES, PLEASE!!  I could not believe how quickly the comments came flying in of people dying for me to share it immediately. goes, I'm going to attempt this.  This is a system I came up with about two years ago, and I love it, it has worked so awesome for me.  BUT...I've never tried to explain it to anyone else.  Since I love my readers, though, I'll do my best.  : )

First a little background info.  Whenever you read any article or blog about saving money on groceries they always tell you to plan your meals around the sales for that week.  So for instance, chicken thighs are buy one get one free so you plan BBQ chicken for that week, etc.  That's all well and good, and it works, I tried to do it that way for a good long while.  But I found myself getting frustrated because I'd come down to the night before grocery day and I'd be trying to make my list at the same time I was planning meals and I couldn't remember from week to week what I had made the previous week.  I found myself getting into a rut of making the same stuff over and over again simply because I was in a hurry to get my shopping list finished.  I finally got fed up enough that I sat down and thought it through and decided that I needed more than just a week at a time planned out.  That's when the Lord prompted me to really think about my family's needs and analyze our schedule and come up with a month's worth of meals based on what we had going on that month.  Well, if you're going to sit down and spend the time to come up with a month's worth, it doesn't take much longer to go ahead and make it three month's.  It takes me an hour, tops, and boom....I don't have to think about it again for 3 months!  That's a huge sigh of relief.

First thing you're going to want to do is to start yourself a list.  This list is going to be of every meal you can think of that you make on a regular basis, any and every meal your family likes, and all the meals your family sort of likes.  Keep it handy somewhere and as you think of things throughout the day and the week add them to the list.  You'd be surprised at how many you don't remember when you're sitting there trying to think about it.  Here's my list I came up with a couple of years ago.

You can see it's been well used.  You can also see that over time I've added things and crossed things off.  I haven't been very good at getting any new dishes added to it here lately, but this gives you a general idea of what I'm talking about.  Get yourself a list so you have some ideas to work with when it comes time to plan.

Once you've got your list ready, use a search engine and type in, "free printable calendar 2014."  Find a very basic, simple layout, where the numbers are in the corner and the rest of the squares are left open.  (I used the ones found {here}.  You'll see links in the upper right corner for all the months of the year.  After you click on a month select the one at the top left that says "sometimes simple is best" underneath it.)  Then go ahead and print them off for the entire year.  It's frustrating to come down to the end of your three months and then not be able to find that original link again to print more months.  It's easier to just print them all at the same time.  Once you have your calendar's printed find a nice sharp pencil and a good eraser.  Please don't attempt this in pen.  You'll just get spittin' mad when you realize you need to make several changes as you go along.

Ok, at this point you'll have to do a whole lot of thinkin' and analyzing about your family's schedule and what your needs are.  This comes into play a lot.  For example, in our family my husband absolutely hates taking sandwiches and chips and that sort of thing for his lunches.  He much prefers leftovers.  So I plan that into my meals.  I always make sure to prepare an extra portion for him.  But, he doesn't need any leftovers on Saturday, so on Friday nights I can plan meals that I know don't make enough for leftovers, or meals that aren't as tasty the next day.  

Sundays are always a big after church dinner day.  My husband likes to have basically the same sides every Sunday (mashed potatoes, noodles, green beans, and dinner rolls) so I just vary the meat from Sunday to Sunday.  One week it's roast chicken with those sides, the next week a pork loin with those sides, then it'll be chuck roast with carrots and potatoes cooked with it, then the next week a pork picnic roast with the above sides.  It probably sounds pretty boring to you, but it has to do with the way he grew up and that's what works for our family.  

Wednesday nights are a church night so I try to plan meals that are fairly simple and quick to prepare and easy to clean up so that we can get out the door on time.  So in other words, no fried chicken on Wednesdays!  : )  When my daughter was playing soccer this past fall I made sure to plan easy slow cooker meals on the days of her games or practices.

We don't go out to eat very often so I usually end up cooking 7 days a week.  By the time Saturday rolls around I'm ready for something super simple or something that Hubby can easily help me with.  So it's generally something like hamburgers, spaghetti, homemade corn dogs, or Hubby throws something on the grill.

I say all of that to help you see how I've analyzed my family's routine and what our needs are so that I can work it into the meal schedule.  You'll have to figure out what works for you and your family.  Do you have a tradition of pizza every Friday night?  Do you do go out to eat every other Saturday?  Do you need a simple "throw-together-in-the-morning" Crockpot meal on Tuesdays and Thursdays because the kids have sports practice after school?  Whatever your schedule and lifestyle may be, think it over and make notes about any factors that you know for certain.

Ok, so at this point I spread my 3 months worth of calendars in front of me and I start by filling in any days that I know for sure I don't need to cook (i.e. we'll be out of town, inlaws are coming and taking us out to eat, etc.)  If you have pizza every Friday night then start by filling out every single Friday with "pizza."  There, you've already got one day a week down pat.  : )  After filling those days out I start with Sundays because those are the most definite meals for us.  I go ahead and fill in every single Sunday rotating the meals I normally make on a 5 week schedule.  So my Sundays will look like this: Roast Chicken, then the next Sunday will be Pork Loin, then Chuck Roast, Chicken and Rice, Pork Picnic Roast.  Then I start over again, Roast Chicken, Pork Loin, Chuck Roast, etc. until all the Sundays are filled in.

  Then I look at each Sunday's meal and I fill in another day that week that I can use up the leftovers from Sunday.  So for example, if we had roast chicken on Sunday, then I know that later in the week I can boil the carcass and use the broth and pickin's to make chicken noodle soup, or chicken and dumplings.  If I make a chuck roast then I use the leftovers to make a beef barley veggie soup or a Shepherd's pie on another day.  So I go ahead and get all of those "leftover" type meals planned in according to what we had that Sunday.  

Then I move on to Wednesdays and start filling those in with the easy and quick meals.  Again, I'm basically just rotating the meals so that we end up having the same meal once every 4-6 weeks.  For example, let's say on the 5th I planned to make pork chops.  Then I would go down my calendars and 5 weeks later I'd write in pork chops again on the 12th (also a Wednesday) of the next month.  Meatloaf planned for the 6th would then get written in again on a Wednesday 5-6 weeks later.

(I apologize that these pictures aren't that great.  It was a rainy, overcast day so the lighting was not ideal.  Plus, it's hard to get lightly colored pencil to show up.)

Then I move on to Fridays.  I go down through and fill in every single Friday with meals that fit the bill of not needing leftovers - homemade pizza, veggie soup, BBQ pork made with leftover roast from earlier in the week, etc. etc.  Some things, like the homemade pizza and BBQ pork, I repeat every 4 weeks instead of every 5 or 6 weeks because those are meals we really enjoy.  Other meals get spaced out farther in the rotation. 

Then I fill in Saturdays with my easy peasy meals, again, doing the 4-6 week rotation.  That leaves me with Mondays, Tuesdays, and Thursdays to plan the more time consuming meals (like fried chicken), and meals that are easy to make plenty of leftovers from.  I also make sure to pencil in "New" every two weeks or so.

Then after all my meals are planned for all the other days, I go searching through my "Recipes to Try" board on Pinterest or through my stash of recipes that I've torn from magazines and I plan some new meals that we've never tried before.  (I go back and erase "new" and write in what the new meal will be.)  This keeps things interesting for all of us.  For me as the cook so I'm not fixing the same ol' same ol' week after week, month after month, as well as for my family.  It helps them to branch out and be brave and try new things. 

 If I got the recipe from Pinterest then I make a small note on that day to remind myself of that.  If it's an actual paper recipe I go ahead and paper clip it right to that month's calendar so that I don't have to spend time frantically searching for it 3 months down the road.  (If the new meal is a hit, I start to work it into the rotation for the following 3 months of meals.  If it was a fail, we pretend it never happened and don't mention it again.)
I usually end up making the same sides with certain meals, like mashed potatoes and corn with fried chicken, and seasoned rice and green beans with fish, but if I found a new side dish recipe that I want to try I pencil it in for that meal so that I don't forget and make the same things out of habit.  So instead of just simply writing "Grill steaks" and knowing that I always make oven fried potatoes with it, I'll pencil in "baked herb and parmesan potato slices (Pinterest)" under the main course of "grill steaks."  Because let's face it, 2 months into this and I'm probably not going to remember that I wanted to try a new side dish.

And there ya go, that's how you do 3 months of meal planning.  It may seem daunting at first, but once you really take the time to analyze your life and your schedule I'm sure you'll find you have certain needs on certain days and it will begin to make sense and fall into place.  Now when that 3 months is over and you're ready to plan the next 3 months, you take the previous months' calendars and lay them out next to your empty set of calendars and you can basically just repeat the last 3 months.  Trust me, your family will not even realize you just "hit repeat" so to speak.  Keeping the meals in a 4-6 week rotation makes sure there is a long enough time period in between so that you're family isn't saying, "We're having hot dogs and mac-n-cheese again?!?  But we just had that last week!"  By the time 5 weeks rolls around they might actually be hungry for hot dogs again.  Scheduling in days to try new recipes also helps to keep things from getting too repetitious.

If I get to the end of my 3 months of planning and I still have some meals that I somehow didn't incorporate into the schedule, I make a note of them in the bottom corner of the 3rd month's calendar.

So in this case I made this little list on March's calendar.  That way when I'm ready to do the next 3 months of planning I can see which meals we haven't had in the previous months, and also so I don't forget about them and they end up lost out of the rotation.

* Now, some things to keep in mind. *

I highly recommend doing your meal planning when you have a good block of quiet time to sit uninterrupted and are able to think and focus.  It's incredibly hard to do this when your kids are constantly needing your attention.  So give those wild hoodlums a dose of Benadryl and wait 30 minutes, then get to work.  Haha!  I kid.  But seriously, wait until they're asleep at night, or totally engrossed in a movie, or even better, have Hubs take them out for a morning at the park.  You just need to be able to concentrate without being pulled away every 2 minutes.  It will most likely take you more than an hour the first time or two that you do it, but once you get the hang of it I promise you'll only spend an hour every three months planning meals!

Another thing to keep in mind with this is that just because you have a meal penciled in for a certain day doesn't mean it's written in stone.  If Monday rolls around and you just aren't feeling that Beef Stroganoff then look ahead in the week and see what else sounds good and make the fried chicken you had planned for Thursday.  Then you'll do the Stroganoff on Thursday instead of Monday.  Or whatever the case may be.  It's very flexible.  Hubby says he's hungry for Chinese takeout tonight?  Fine, just save tonight's meal for another night.  

You can still take advantage of the weekly sales so that you're saving money for your family.  Chicken breast on sale this week?  Go ahead and buy it and put it in the freezer for that chicken tenders meal you have planned for next week.  Chuck roast on sale?  Go ahead and stock up, after all, you've got French Dip Sandwiches planned in three weeks.  Just pop it in the freezer for now.

Another advantages to this system, is that not only do you not have to do any more meal planning for 3 months, but it also allows you to extend the time in between shopping trips if you so choose.  I got sick and tired of going grocery shopping every.single.week.  It's a long and tedious process to make the several stops I need to make to get all the best deals when I'm toting my youngin's along.  So I started going every 2 weeks instead.  You could even go only once a month if you were so inclined.  

I'm a stay at home mom and we homeschool so I don't have to plan breakfasts and lunches for my kids  (we usually just wing it) so my calendars only include supper planning, but this system could easily be adapted to include breakfast and lunch planning as well.

Whew!  I've done my best to explain my system and give as many examples as I could, but if you have questions feel free to ask away and I'll answer them the best I can.

 I hope you'll take the time to try it out, it works, it really really does.


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  1. Thank you for the pointers! I have wanted to start meal planning, but I had no idea where to start.
    This is a big help!

  2. Wow! what a great system you have there!! I have been trying to do things on a weekly schedule, but really need to do it on a larger scale. Thanks for all your wonderful tips. I'm off to print the calendars.

    I used to get me one of those really small calendars, like at Michael's for .50 cents and write in what we had for supper each night, then when my sons say we've had let's say 'spaghetti' or whatever too often, I can whip out the calendar and show them the last time we had it, ha! It really helps you not to repeat your meals too often.


  3. Thank you for taking valuable time to write up this post. You made it easy to understand and follow. I go through phases of not knowing what to make for supper and I can think about it all day long, even the night before and still come up with nothing. That cycle makes me crazy! If I make a 3 month plan and know ahead of time what I am making, perhaps I can preserve my remaining sanity.
    For Realz!

  4. Hi Steph...I'm old and I KNOW that your system works well!!!! You newest best friend would be a vacuum seal machine...We bought one years ago in a garage sale, and trust me....the day it quit (many years later), we already had a replacement in the garage waiting! We seal EVERYTHING and it is so much better than done up in freezer bags. Yes, the bag material is a tad expensive, but Wally world sells the rolls and you can make your own bags what ever size you need.
    If you need me to watch for one for you, just say the word...we see them pretty regularly in perfect condition! They DO take a measure of patience, but the outcome is wonderful!
    Thank you so much for your time to map this all out!

  5. Great ideas here - thanks so much for sharing. There's only 2 of us at home - but I live a half hour away from a major grocery store and need to plan my shopping trips - this will come in handy for that.

  6. Thank you for the great post. I worked on this most of the day yesterday while my kids were nursing colds and napping. It was like seeing old friends as I listed all of my recipes from my card box and those I've printed. This will really help add variety in our meals. After I made the list, composing a 3 month menu was a snap. I couldn't believe how fast it was. Thanks!!!! God Bless you and your family.

    1. I'm so glad you found it helpful! It takes a little time right at first, but after that it's a breeze and it saves so much time and headache. Thanks for stopping by and commenting!


Thanks for stopping by and taking the time to comment. I love hearing from you!

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