Meal Planning, Geeked Out

I used to sit down every weekend and plan the meals for the week and get my grocery shopping list together. I would spend way too much time browsing recipe books and trying to be creative with the menu. The fact was though that we weren't all that creative and ended up using the same handful of recipes over and over again. Most of us probably have a go-to set of meals we use and re-use over and over. Every once in a while, we like to spice things up of course. When we like a meal, we want to remember that! How do we manage this without going crazy, without stacks of recipe books, and with efficency?

Let me show you how to use a calendar system and notes system to make this process EASY and DOABLE. What I describe below is centered around family dinner. It can easily be adapted to any meal plan or time of day. Since we only use our plan for dinners, I make them "all day" events. However, if you are trying to plan out multiple meals each day, you can easily assign the events specific times, or create multiple calendars.

CREATE A CALENDAR

Using Apple's Calendar app or Google Calendar, or whatever calendar program floats your boat, create a new calendar titled MEALS. If you have a partner/spouse/friend/parent/child/roommate that you plan meals with, share this calendar so you both have access to it. If someone helping you with meals isn't tech-savvy, no worries. You can print this calendar and post it on a fridge each week or month as needed.

FILL IN BASIC MEALS

First fill in the basic meals. These are meals that are easy, consistent, and likely don't require a recipe to make, or are take-out meals. Maybe your family eats pizza every Friday. Easy. Create an all-day event, title it pizza, and in the location or notes, put the name and number of the pizza place (or note that you order through the app). If you do pickup, note which location (you know you've ordered from one location and tried to pick up at a different one before... no? just me?). You can even put your typical order in the notes. Remember, we want to make this as easy for ourselves and our family in the future.

Each meal (event/entry) you create should repeat accordingly. If you get pizza every Friday, repeat that event "weekly". If you get it every other Friday, repeat it "every 2 weeks". If you get pizza monthly, repeat it "every month". You get the idea. Do NOT include an end date or anything like that. Turn off alarms, too.

Do this for all of your basics. If you do Taco Tuesday, enter that for Tuesdays, including a list of all the ingredients you need to purchase in the Notes field, and repeating it as desired. 

Putting the ingredients in the notes field, as well as the amount needed, will help with making your grocery list each week. You'll be able to open your calendar, click each event, and transfer the ingredients into your shopping list (we use and love Grocery Gadget). Here is a sample of what my finished "event" for a meal looks like in Calendar (below). Note that because I store all of my recipes in Evernote, I leave my location blank. Keep reading for more on using the location field and on storing recipes in Evernote (or another note-based application).

FIND OTHER MEALS, TRANSFER TO A NOTES SYSTEM

The hardest part of meal planning for me is not getting bored. Because this system creates a repeating cycle of meals, I try to space out my basic meals to every 4 weeks. Except spaghetti night - that's weekly. Taco Tuesday is every other week; homemade pizza every other week. After that though, I still have a considerable amount of meals to fill in. No fear. This is where we need to create a system that is easy to maintain and access. My household has a lot of iOS devices, so I need to use an app that is accessible across the board. There are tons of recipe apps out there, absolutely. However, if I want my husband to find a recipe, I cannot send him on a wild goosechase! I used to put the name of the recipe book in the "location" field, but decided it was easier to simply transfer our most-used recipes, or any recipe I wanted to save, to Evernote. If you're not an Evernote user, I'm sorry. There are other notes programs out there, but to me, this one takes the cake for reasons that I will not get into here. You can use any note system you want of course - OneNote is popular among Office users. 

Find recipes - in books, on websites, on recipe cards. Transfer EVERY RECIPE to your notes system. I get it - this sounds overwhelming. But it can be done little bits at a time - each time you make that meal. Getting all recipes into the same place though, makes this meal planning, grocery shopping, etc, all the eaiser. Then, after the initial build-up, you can add recipes wherever you come across them. I snag pictures on my phone of recipes in magazines and load them into Evernote. I snip webpages over to Evernote when I come across recipes on Pinterest. I email shared recipes into Evernote when I receive them. I have a notebook called.... you guessed it - Recipes. 

To go a step further, you can further tag/categorize notes by various keywords such as: holiday, kid friendly, crockpot, appetizer, vegan, etc... Of course, a good notes program will search your recipe for keywords or ingredients as well. Not as much if you take a picture unless your notes program has OCR, but certainly if you copy and paste text! So don't over-tag or go crazy with keywords.

An added bonus to Evernote is I can share a single notebook with my extended family and we have curated a shared Evernote notebook of our favorite recipes! We have over 350 recipes in there right now. This is what a quick glimpse of some recent recipes looks like....

FILL IN REST OF MEALS

Now that you have your recipes in one place (or if you're still working on this, that's okay too!), you can pull them up and schedule them into your meal calendar. Make sure to add ingredients and quantities, repeat the event as desired, and if you don't have all recipes in one place, note where you can locate that recipe.

I find that, for my family, leaving one to two days empty each week is best. Typically that's Saturday. I shop on weekends or Monday, so if for some reason, something comes up mid-week, I can shift Tuesday's meal to Saturday without over-purchasing groceries. Also, if I see we have some leftover-producing meals scheduled (not common with a family of six!), I can shift something to another day, or use it up on a day we have nothing planned. If for some reason we actually make and eat the five or six meals, it forces me to be slightly creative in the pantry, or we get pizza that night - which is not a regular meal in our household. Once you start to use the system, you'll find what works for you.

Here is what a recent span of weeks looks like for us right now...

USE IT.

Now you have a calendar. Use it! It won't be edit-proof by any means. Each week I review the upcoming week. I delete meal events (not all, just ONE occurrence!!! Be careful!) we do not need because maybe we're gone that night, or we have leftovers still. I look at the ingredients in each meal event and transfer them to my grocery list (Grocery Gadget). 

POWER USER TIPS

If you want to plan carefully around a budget, consider calculating the price of each meal and adding that to the notes field. This can help you determine how to space out expensive meals, or buy better in bulk around certain recipe combinations.

If you are careful to repeat your weekly rotation on regular intervals, and you use a grocery pickup service, such as Kroger Click-List, you could load your list in the first week, then do the same for each different week. If you're on a 4-week rotation of meals, or 6-week, you would simply pull that week's order the next time around and edit as needed. It will expedite the process for you!

CAVEATS

I am not a coupon-crazed shopper. If I happen to have a coupon for something on my list, I use it. I do not shop based on available coupons though. Not my style. I haven't mastered that yet. I do find that simply making a list and sticking to it helps keep my budget in line though.

Um. Yeah, that's the only caveat I have right now!


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