Meal Planning – April 2016

Thirty days have November, April, June and September…. So I only have 4 weeks of meal planning to prepare for April. Good!

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March is complete, with another five whole weeks of meal planning under my belt. Two working parents somehow made twenty-five home-cooked work-night meals. No fish-fingers. No KD. All homemade.

I’m also happy to report that – finally – I’ve succeeded in staying under my weekly budget – by $2 for a whole month – but still, I was under budget. This was thanks in no small part by Gord’s gracious sacrifice of eggs. That’s right, we ran out, and I was too close to my goal to let him have a yummy breakfast.

I’m mean like that.

But it worked.

In terms of time, I have to say, top-loading the meal plan has really lifted some stress from the weekend chores. It does take me an hour or two to complete at the beginning of the month, but once that one-time chore is finished, I only have to follow through. Shopping list, prep tasks, what to cook… they’re all ready, just waiting the month to progress.

With that insight, I think I’m ready for another month. This one’s only 4 weeks long, so *phewf* there’s that much less to prepare.

Learning from last month’s experience, I’m also going to split my shopping into two deliberate trips this month. The “must-have” staples for the beginning of the month, and a booster in the middle.

I have a feeling that by breaking it up this way, I may realize I didn’t really need that bottle of vanilla or that bag of chocolate chips after all. Rather than having to guess if a quarter-bottle of vanilla will do me for a month, I can simply wait until the mid-month shopping top-up to decide.

Plus if we run out of eggs again, Gord’s going to go on strike. I don’t think I could handle getting up early enough to make breakfast…

So yeah… onto this month’s meal planning.

First, I’m using my meal planning worksheet, which should help a lot! On we go!

#1: Identify your goals

I’m shifting focus this month. After two successful months of low-carb and meaty meals, I’m going back to weekday vegetarian, meaning my meal plan is all veggie, all the time! Otherwise, I’ve got similar goals to the last couple of months.

Let’s break it down. In April, I want to plan meals that…

  1. are healthy, except for a treat on “Fun” Friday. Gotta have the fun!

  2. are vegetarian during the week.

  3. include slow cooker meals Tuesday/Thursday to support out-of-the-house activities.

  4. are quick to prepare Mondays, because Mondays are already hard enough.

  5. stay on budget of $130 per week for a family of 3 in Newfoundland. This one’s tough, but I’ve done it two months in a row. Now for the trifecta!

  6. yield leftovers to make work lunches easier.

#2: List out recipes that help you achieve your goals

Vegetarian-focused meals are going to take a bit of creativity to keep from getting repetitive, so I see a lot of potential for more OhSheGlows . Let’s see what I can come up with:

  • Peanut butter soup – This one tops the list because of how much my toddler loves it. It can be found in the OhSheGlows cookbook.

  • Tacos / Taco Salad / Taco Soup – Spread ’em out and they’ll be tasty taco oasises oasees oases throughout the month.

  • Santa Fe Rice and Beans – This is one of my favourite meals, which disappeared during my “low carb” meal plans. It’s back for a visit. Yum!

  • Curry / Veggie Butter Chicken – Curry still hasn’t lost its appeal. I’m going for the family fave Butter “Chicken” as well as a potato-based Pakistani curry.

  • Pizza – This has “Fun Friday” written all over it!

  • Cauliflower “Wings with Mac & Cheese – More “Fun Friday” potential.

  • Veggie Shepherd’s Pie – OhSheGlows strikes again. A hearty vegetarian meal that’s as satisfying as the real thing.

  • Broccoli Quinoa Cashew-cheese burrito bowls – While the recipe calls for “wraps”, I enjoy them as a casserole. This recipe is the best combination of nutty, cheesy, chewy-yet-crunchy and hearty. This has OhSheGlows written all over it…

  • Veggie Burgers with Tahini Mayo – Yes, another OhSheGlows recipe, both the burgers and the mayo. What can I say, I’m a glutton for, well, good food…

  • Celebration Squash Soup – Depending on the price of squash, this may show up in the rotation.

  • Spaghetti Squash and tomato sauce – Another “depends on the price” meal. Spaghetti squash is delicious, healthy and easy to make, but if it’s not in stores for a reasonable price, I’m going to skip it.

  • Spaghetti – This classic is always in style.

  • Potato Corn Chowder – A different flavour from some of the other recipes, this should help add variety.

  • Pass the Peas Stir Fry – Easy-peasy! (I’m so horrible with the puns)

  • Pasta Alfredo with Broccoli – Easy, quick, yum!

  • Tuna Salad – I was going to list this one, but it’s Tuna. Tuna’s not a vegetable (depending on who you ask). Off the list!

That’s a good variety, so we shouldn’t get bored of the leftovers. Because there will be leftovers.

#3: List each day and assign a recipe to each day

I’ll start with the taco meals, because I don’t want them to be on the same week. While I’m at it, I’ll fill in the slow-cooker-compatible meals.

April 2016
Sunday Monday Tuesday Wednesday Thursday Friday Saturday
4Taco Salad 7Celebration Squash Soup (slow cooker)
28One Pot Pasta (slow cooker)

Good, now for Fun Fridays…

April 2016
Sunday Monday Tuesday Wednesday Thursday Friday Saturday
4Taco Salad 7Celebration Squash Soup (slow cooker)
28One Pot Pasta (slow cooker) 29Pasta Alfredo with Broccoli

…and fill in the gaps…

April 2016
Sunday Monday Tuesday Wednesday Thursday Friday Saturday
4Taco Salad 6Curry – Veggie Butter “Chicken” 7Celebration Squash Soup (slow cooker)
18Veggie Burgers with Tahnini Mayo (with side veggies)
25Pass the Peas stir-fry 28One Pot Pasta (slow cooker) 29Pasta Alfredo with Broccoli

#4: Plan to Plan

Using my handy worksheet I can quickly work out my prep tasks for each week:

Prep tasks and tally
Week 1
Task or food itemTally for the weekComplete on…
Sweet Potato – diced2Sunday
Black beans – soaked and cooked1Saturday
Chickpeas – soaked and cooked1Saturday
Bread – bake it!1Sunday
Onion – diced4Sunday
Sweet Pepper – diced4Sunday
Butternut Squash – chunks1Sunday
Carrots – chunks3Sunday
Carrots – sticks3Sunday
Carrots – shredded2Sunday
Mushrooms – sliced portions2Wednesday
Week 2
Task or food itemTally for the weekComplete on…
Potatoes – diced7Sunday
Onion – diced5Sunday
Mushroom – sliced portions5Sunday
Sweet Pepper – diced5Sunday
Sweet Potato – diced1Sunday
Black beans – soaked and cooked2Saturday
Week 3
Task or food itemTally for the weekComplete on…
Black beans – soaked and cooked3Saturday
Onion – diced4Sunday
Sweet Pepper – diced4Sunday
Sweet Potato – diced2Sunday
Potato – diced3Sunday
Carrot sticks5Sunday
Carrot – grated3Sunday
Week 4
Task or food itemTally for the weekComplete on…
Onion – diced5Sunday
Peppers – diced4Sunday
Cauliflower – diced1Sunday
Mushrooms – sliced portions3Sunday
Sweet Potato – diced1Sunday
Cashews – soak a portion1Tuesday night

#5: Prepare a shopping list

Based on my worksheet pantry checklist, I have a full list of items, plus the fresh produce from my prep list above. Now that I have my list, I can go shopping. My rough estimate puts me well under budget and on track for a second shopping trip in a couple of weeks.

I’ll update once I get back from the store on the weekend…

So, to recap:

Meal Planning for the month of April, 2016

  • Identify your goals. In April, I need meals that:

    1. are healthy, except for a treat on “Fun” Friday.

    2. are vegetarian during the week.

    3. include slow cooker meals Tuesday/Thursday.

    4. are quick to prepare Mondays.

    5. stay on budget of $130 per week for a family of 3 in Newfoundland.

    6. produce leftovers to make work lunches easier.

  • Find recipes that work with your goals (shown in the calendar below).

  • Assign recipes to a day (summarized in the calendar below).

  • Plan to plan. and identify anything that can be done in advance to make work nights easier.

  • Prepare a shopping list that you’ll stick to when you go shopping

April 2016
Sunday Monday Tuesday Wednesday Thursday Friday Saturday
4Taco Salad 6Curry – Veggie Butter “Chicken” 7Celebration Squash Soup (slow cooker)
18Veggie Burgers with Tahnini Mayo (with side veggies)
25Pass the Peas stir-fry 28One Pot Pasta (slow cooker) 29Pasta Alfredo with Broccoli
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Meal Plan Check-in – March 2016

We’ve past the ides of March…

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March madness has been in full swing: Two parents working full time while we rush past St. Paddy’s day and jettison toward the third-most chocolate-filled holiday of the year.

So how close have we come to meeting our goals for this month?

For March, I need to plan meals that:

  1. …are Healthy for a growing toddler.

  2. …stay on budget of $130 a week.

  3. …rely on slow cookers on Tuesdays/Thursdays to accommodate out-of-house activities.

  4. …are quick to prepare (30 minutes) on Monday and Friday.

  5. …have carbs on the side for a moderate carb intake.

  6. …leave leftovers for lunches during the work week.

Meal Planning for March 2016

March halfway results…

Most of the meals, have indeed been healthy for my little girl. They balance her needs of a broad range of colourful veggies, some protein and some carbs, all (during the weekdays, anyway) made from scratch at home. Some of our weekends have been a bit more loosey-goosey (chicken fingers have made the roster at least once this month) but during the week, she’s fuelled by homemade goodness.

As for the budget, it’s half way through, and I’ve spent $648 for five weeks worth of meals, for an average of $129.60 per week. My goal is $130 per week, so it’s borderline under budget, but only if I don’t spend a penny more in March.

We’ll see, March meal plan, we’ll see…

Slow cooker Tuesday/Thursday meals is working out spectacularly. The only qualm I have is that I made too frequent use of that ever-tasty chicken soup. I think we may scale back chicken soup next month. Maybe only once or twice instead of many, many times.

In terms of cooking time, meals have all been quick to make, so I’m on track for that goal.

Carbs are on the side. I’m eating them, but they’re on the side. We’ll call this one a pass, if only because low-carb meals are for stronger constitutions than mine.

As for leftovers, I’ve got leftovers coming out my ears. Neither Gord nor I have had to eat a lunch to-go, so another victory! Yay!

In summary:

  1. Success! Healthy for a growing toddler.

  2. Borderline on track… Within budget of $130 per week – At $129.60, this target is borderline, I’m going to have to carefully execute my plan for the rest of the month.

  3. Success! Use slow cookers on Tuesdays/Thursdays.

  4. Success! Quick to prepare (30 minutes) on Monday and Friday.

  5. Success! Have carbs on the side for a moderate carb intake.

  6. Success! Leave leftovers for lunches during the work week.

Overall, a bit better than February.

Challenges

One of my biggest challenges this month has been making sure to prep ahead of time. I’ve had a couple of slow cooker soups made the morning-of, rather than the night before.

It just goes to show that even the best planning doesn’t mean diddly squat if you don’t, you know, follow through.

Thankfully, I’ve chosen meals that don’t take a lot of prep, so I’m somewhat saved by being prepared to make something specific on each of the days, even if it is from scratch on the day-of.

Another challenge I’m having is staying on budget. This one is due in part to a poor plan on how to handle essentials that are missing.

I’m going to update my monthly meal plan worksheet to include an essentials checklist so I don’t have to run out to the store when I run out of salt.

And soap.

And toddler socks.

At the same time.

Not to mention, it’ll be time to feed the Easter bunny soon. Gotta make sure the bunny is full up on carrots so he’ll have enough energy to hide some eggs filled with goodies. So there’s that…

Two challenges: Actually doing the prep, and accommodating those unexpected trips to the store. The first one is helped by having a plan in the first place, and the second will be helped by not leaving it to my memory: Checklist, checklist, checklist!

I’ll make it easy for you. At the end of this month I’ll post my updated meal plan worksheet including an essentials checklist. It’ll take the guesswork out of shopping, and leave chance out of the equation.

No dice-roll for me, I’m sticking to the plan!

Unexpected successes

One final note, I’ve had some surprise successes this month, by way of extra help from Gord and our daughter. Even though she’s too young to “cook”, she’s been eager to help. Seeing her so involved has helped keep me on track more than I would without that level of interest.

Second, Gord’s been a gem, picking up a few of the meals I would have neglected, making ours a fast-food-free house for another couple of weeks.

To use a sports metaphor I don’t quite understand: It’s easy to score a home run when you’ve got a pinch hitter in the bag. Or something like that…

I think I’ll stick with the anime metaphors (GO! Heart of the Cards!).

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Free Printable: Monthly Meal Planning Step-by-Step Worksheet

Start meal planning today with this free printable step-by-step worksheet!

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Need some help getting organized? Try meal planning! Use this easy step-by-step worksheet to guide you through meal planning for a whole month of family meals.

Stuck on what recipes to use? See my family-approved Recipes for ideas.

Not sure how to meal plan? Follow along with my Meal Plans to see how I’ve done it.

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Meal Planning for March 2016

March madness ensues… another meal plan, this one for 5 full weeks!

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February’s meal plan results are in, and it’s officially a success! Everyone has been fed, nutrients have been provided, and no one has complained about what was for dinner.

In terms of groceries, I’ve run out of tomatoes, eggs and peanut butter. There’s a shelf with just three cans: mushrooms, black beans, and chickpeas, and that last can of chickpeas is almost ready to be sacrificed in the name of hummus… Flour is low but not gone, and the skim milk powder is the only thing still going strong.

But…

All the meals were cooked as planned and we didn’t run out of variety.

And…

I was close to my (adjusted) budget of $125 per week, coming in at an average of $129 per week.

I can move forward now, using the same process as before, just refined a bit with what I’ve learned in tow.

Onto March Meal Planning!

#1: Identify your goals

Thinking back to Meal Planning 101, this is my opportunity to figure out just what it is I’m trying to do, so that I can stay focused on what’s important.

For March, my goals are similar to February. I need to plan meals that:

  1. …are Healthy for a growing toddler.

  2. …stay on budget (after last month, I’m aiming for $130 a week, for 5 weeks worth of planning).

  3. …rely on slow cookers on Tuesdays/Thursdays to accommodate my and my husbands out-of-house activities.

  4. …are quick to prepare (30 minutes) on Monday and Friday, to allow for the fastest food possible.

  5. …have carbs on the side to allow me to follow a moderate carb intake.

  6. …leave leftovers for lunches to allow me and Gord to eat well at work.

Side note: you may notice I’m not including vegetarian meals as a goal. Even though I enjoy going weekday vegetarian, my current need for low-carb options has shut this down temporarily. Vegetarian meals are, unfortunately for me, usually carb-loaded. So I’m going to forego another month of veggie meals for the sake of keeping the carbs at bay. I figure come June I can switch back.

#2: List out recipes that help you achieve your goals

What recipes can I make that allow me to achieve these goals?

My first goal is nonnegotiable: Healthy foods for my toddler.

Goal 2 (within budget) means I’ll aim to re-use ingredients across multiple meals. This means rejecting recipes that use rare or expensive ingredients that might spoil.

Goal 3 (slow cooker twice a week) will take some attention – 10 unique meals in a slow cooker? I’m up for that challenge!

Goal 4 (quick to prepare) will take some attention as well. Nothing’s worse than spoiling my toddler’s dinner because a girl’s gotta eat and mommy’s too slow…

My final goal (carbs on the side) is flexible, so long as I don’t make… um… mac and cheese in rice porridge sauce? I think I’ll pull through…

So what am I looking at?

  • Spaghetti – Low-cost, tasty and healthy. This one’s a no-brainer!

  • Burgers & steamed veggies – Buns for the family and lettuce wraps for me makes this one easy to pull off.

  • Peanut butter soup – This is one thing that I always know my daughter will eat. I swear by this Oh She Glows cookbook recipe.

  • Salad – Taco salad and Tuna salad, both of these keep the flavour high enough to entice my daughter, but healthy enough that I feel good feeding it to her.

  • Curry – I think we’ll make curry a few times this month. Gord loves the stuff!

  • Chicken cacciatore – This one will make a great slow-cooker meal. Sub in chicken breasts for ease-of-preparation and I’ll have me a lower-fat version I can feel good about.

  • Chicken veggie soup – Another “recipe” that has a few variations. I think I’ll go for “Jiggs dinner”, “Mushroom pepper”, and “corn” varieties this month!

  • Fish fillets with rice and veggies with Tahini mayo – Oh She Glows strikes again! Another thing that my daughter loves made with ingredients I didn’t even know existed until a few years ago.

  • Pizza – I’ll have to adapt this one for myself, but the rest of the family deserves something a little extra tasty every now and then.

  • Nachos – Another thing I’ll have to adjust for moderate-carb intake. Peppers instead of chips, maybe?

  • Sweet Chili Cashew Chicken, steamed veg and rice – This creamy dish is one of the first things I ever ad-libbed. It was delicious. So I did it again!

  • Pass the Peas Asian-inspired stir fry, with baked chicken breast and rice – This one was an unexpected delicious success. I’m adding this one to the meal plan rotation for good!

  • Baked beans with peppers and celery – I’m going to try to make “baked beans” in the slow cooker. It seems like something that should be possible. Like any good Canadian, I’ve got my Maple Syrup ready and waiting.

  • Veggie butter chicken – I’m pretty sure I’d lose my meal planning “privileges” if I neglected to add this one to the list.

  • Taco soup – Slow-cooker-ready, this meal will keep everyone full and happy, including my pocket-book!

  • Savoury Crêpes – I asked my husband to come up with something he’d like for supper at some point in March. This is what he asked for. I think he’s trying to stump me… I have no idea how, but it shall be done!

#3: List each day and assign a recipe to each day

I’m going to take the same approach this month that I did last month: Five nights a week of planned meals that include leftovers for lunches. Weekends are unplanned.

March, 2016
Sunday Monday Tuesday Wednesday Thursday Friday Saturday

My meal plan is for the whole month. I’m going to aim for one shopping trip again, so all the fresh/spoilable ingredients will be front-loaded in the first week. Slow cooker meals are also easy to pencil in, so they’ll go in first:

March, 2016
Sunday Monday Tuesday Wednesday Thursday Friday Saturday
29(February)
Veggie Taco Salad

Next up: Fill in the blanks! My tactic for this is to avoid too much of the same flavour in the same week (avoiding two curry nights in the same week, for example), and to have something fun on Fridays.

March, 2016
Sunday Monday Tuesday Wednesday Thursday Friday Saturday
29(February)
Veggie Taco Salad
14Sweet Chili Cashew Chicken 16Pass the Peas with chicken & rice
28Sweet Chili Cashew Chicken 30Veggie Butter Chicken

#4: Plan to Plan

What I’m cooking is all settled, so now I need to figure out what I can do ahead of time to make cooking that much quicker. If I can soak and cook beans a few days before or chop onions and peel carrots the night before, that will make cooking quicker on busy after-work evenings.

I’m aiming to prep everything for the week on Sundays so I’m going to write down what I need to do for each meal, then do it all on Sunday.

Example, Week 1 (Feb 29 – Mar 5)

Veggie Taco Salad – I can chop the peppers and onions ahead of time, and soak/cook the black beans. Everything else (mixed greens, mushrooms, spices, salsa, etc) can be prepped the day of fairly quickly.

Chicken Cacciatore – I can chop the peppers and onions ahead of time. Everything else is canned or frozen.

Tuna Salad – This one will all be chopped up just before supper, so no prep for this one.

Chicken Veggie soup – I can chop up the carrots, onion and turnip before-hand.

Nachos – Onion and peppers for this one.

So, all totalled, that’s 3 peppers chopped, 4 onions diced, 1 cup of dried beans soaked and cooked, 3 carrots sliced, and 1 small turnip.

#5: Prepare a shopping list

Now that I know what I’m cooking and what I’ll need for each recipe, I can prepare a shopping list. Half the work is already done from identifying the prep items, now to finish the items I’ll need for each recipe and tally them up for the month. When all is said and done, I have a fairly long list, but I know nothing will be wasted.

Finally, now that I have my grocery list, it’s time to add in some of the essentials I might not have listed in my recipes. Add in some hand soap and a few other toiletries, and I’m done!

Shopping!

Five weeks of meal planning and groceries and I’m $502 poorer, but I’m all set for the rest of the month! At an average of $100.40 a week, that leaves me a bit of wiggle room if I need to top up something in a few weeks.

So, to recap:

Meal Plan for the month of March, 2016

  • Identify your goals. For March, I need to plan meals that:

    1. …are Healthy for a growing toddler.

    2. …stay on budget of $130 a week.

    3. …rely on slow cookers on Tuesdays/Thursdays to accommodate out-of-house activities.

    4. …are quick to prepare (30 minutes) on Monday and Friday.

    5. …have carbs on the side for a moderate carb intake.

    6. …leave leftovers for lunches during the work week.

  • Find recipes that work with your goals (shown in the calendar below).

  • Assign recipes to a day (shown in the calendar below).

  • Plan to plan, and identify preparation tasks that can be done ahead of time.

  • Prepare a shopping list and go shopping.

  • March, 2016
    Sunday Monday Tuesday Wednesday Thursday Friday Saturday
    29(February)
    Veggie Taco Salad
    14Sweet Chili Cashew Chicken 16Pass the Peas with chicken & rice
    28Sweet Chili Cashew Chicken 30Veggie Butter Chicken
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Meal Plan Check-in – February 2016

Half-way through February. How has this month’s meal planning fared?

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It’s half way through the month of February and my one-month meal plan has been put to the test. Let’s take a look at my goals for the month and see how I’m faring…

From the meal plan, my goals were to make meals that:

  • …are healthy for a growing toddler.

  • …let me follow a restricted food plan high in protein and low in carbs.

  • …let my husband watch his calories but feel full.

  • …stay within a budget of $100 per week total for a family of three in Newfoundland.

  • …includes two slow-cooker meals per week.

  • takes less than 30 minutes to prepare.

Meal Planning for February 2016

On top of those goals specific to this month, I also need to assess:

  • Was the meal plan followed?

  • Was it effective? How well were those goals (listed above) actually met?

  • What worked best? What should be continued for the rest of the month? What should we note for March’s meal planning?

  • What didn’t work? Should anything be changed for the rest of the month? What should be changed for March’s meal planning?

February’s Goals

The first three goals are well-met, as they relate strictly to which recipes were used. So long as the meal plan was followed, all these meals are a-okay!

The fourth goal (“within a budget of $100 per week”) was… not met. Last week I needed to contribute to a daycare valentine snack. Then I ran out of chicken and eggs (both related to my restricted food plan). I ended up purchasing an additional $76 worth of groceries.

The fifth goal to include two slow-cooker meals per week, that’s spot-on too.

The sixth and final goal to take less than 30 minutes per meal was mostly met. Even though a few of the meals were “longer than 30 minutes”, I consider this one a success. This is because I chose ahead of time which meals I was willing to take longer to prepare.

So, to recap:

  1. Success! Healthy for a growing toddler.

  2. Success! Follow a restricted food plan high in protein and low in carbs. Adaptations based .

  3. Success! Let my husband watch his calories but feel full.

  4. Failed… Stay within a budget of $100 per week total for a family of three in Newfoundland. So far the total is $119 per week.

  5. Success! Includes two slow-cooker meals per week.

  6. Partial Success Takes less than 30 minutes to prepare.

Meal Plan Goals

So for the first half of February, was the meal plan followed? Largely, yes, except for one day last week, where a healthy alternative was made instead.

So, why wasn’t the meal plan followed that one particular day? Well, it turns out that in order to make a slow-cooker meal, you have to prepare it before you need it. Last week was an overwhelming week at work, so, alas, one of the slow-cooker meals was not prepared ahead of time.

Thankfully, Gord stepped in and made an extraordinary soup from our favourite cookbook, and the overall spirit of the meal plan remained intact.

The lesson here? Prepare ahead of time to avoid last-minute disruptions.

Was the meal plan effective in the first half of the month? Largely, yes. The exception to this is that I’m finding that for my particular restricted food plan, I should have better planned ahead for the weekend as well. If I had done that, I might have had better success with the budget as well.

The lesson learned here: When restricting what can be eaten (i.e. when following a diet), include more careful meal plans for the weekends as well as the weekdays.

What worked best? Having the plan in a central place has worked out well. Printing off the meal plan and sticking it to the fridge has allowed Gord to step in when I was unexpectedly unable to cook.

Also, having the meals prepped (all the chopping done ahead of time) has worked out great! I’ll definitely keep doing that!

What hasn’t worked? I’m sad to admit, that I don’t think shopping once in the month was enough this time around. I believe this has something to do with my over-ambitious cost-cutting goal combined with not planning for the weekend. In order to reduce the number of shopping trips, I really needed to account for those weekend meals. Without weekends, my meal plan was only 70% complete.

For the rest of the month, I may need to make one more trip to the store (focusing on a very targeted shopping list of a few specific items), so for March, I need to either: Plan meals including the weekends, or bite the bullet and go to the store more often. I’m leaning toward the first option. Costco on Saturdays is a madhouse! The fewer times I need to go, the better for my sanity and the pocketbook.

From February to March

My adjusted budget for February is to not spend more than an average of $125 per week. For March, I may be able to get this down to $100 per week, but only by better planning for the weekend meals as well.

In terms of all the other goals, I’ll continue as planned and re-assess at the end of the month.

While not spot-on, the first half of February has largely been a Success! I’ll keep sticking to the plan, and we’ll see what happens…

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Meal Planning for February 2016

Future Crystal is happy that present Crystal wasn’t lazy!

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This one’s a long post. If you want to skip to the good stuff (my finished February meal plan), I won’t complain. I’ve even made a nice little link button for you!

So, I’m doing up my meal plan today but my “normal” routine (is there ever such a thing, really?) has been broken this month. In an effort to lose weight, I’ll need to stick to a very specific meal plan. Plus I’m trying to keep my growing toddler exposed to foods that are outside of my plan. Plus I’m balancing the needs of my husband’s ongoing “battle of the bulge”.

Oh, and did I mention? We’re trying to seriously reduce the cost of our grocery bill this month.

Let’s get started!

#1: Identify your goals

So this is step one for any meal plan (whether monthly, weekly, or even just the night before): figuring out what it is I’m trying to accomplish. Remembering back to Meal Planning 101, this helps to keep me focused on just what I’m looking for.

Maybe you would want to simplify dinners (in that case, go with casseroles, roasts, soups or easy-assemble stir fry), maybe you would want to be healthier (in that case lower-fat meals high in veggies and whole grains are your target). Or maybe you simply want to minimize the hit to your pocket book (planning with your weekly flyer handy is the way to go).

This month I have a lot to balance, my goals don’t exactly mesh well. So, with these conflicting goals, my challenge for February is to make a meal plan that (in order of importance):

  1. Is healthy for a growing toddler.

  2. Lets me follow a restricted food plan high in protein and low in carbs.

  3. Lets my husband feel satiated while still watching his calories.

  4. Costs about $100 per week total for a family of three in Newfoundland.

  5. Includes two slow-cooker meals per week to accommodate our out-of-house activities.

  6. Takes less than 30 minutes to prepare once I start cooking.

#2: List out recipes that help you achieve your goals

Those are my goals for February. I’ve figured out what I’m trying to accomplish (again, thinking back to Meal Planning 101), so now what can I do to achieve these goals?

Well, my next step is the hard part – finding meals that fit as many of my needs as possible. My first goal is a must; my daughter’s health. No fancy diet-supplement-laced liquid something-or-other. Goals 2 and 3 are flexible enough that if I find something “close”, I can tweak it later. Goal 4 means no caviar tastes. So let’s see:

  • Spaghetti – My daughter and Gord are covered, and with a small tweak (green beans instead of pasta), I am as well. Cost is low on this one, plus it’s a breeze to make. Probably why it popped into my head so quickly.

  • Burgers and Steamed Veg with Tahini Mayo. My daughter loves the tahini mayo so much that she’ll even eat her veggies, so that’s blown out of the park. My husband loves burgers, so that’s covered. For me… I’ll make a small substitute here – Chicken breast instead of burgers.

  • Chinese-egg stir fry with rice – This covers all the bases (minus the rice for me).

  • Veggie chickpea curry with rice – Also covers everything, so long as I cook with skim milk and low-fat greek yougurt.

  • Salad – There are a number of adaptations on this one: Tuna salad (no mayo here, just a green salad with Tuna); Taco salad (no taco chips, but all the bold tex-mex flavour); Garden salad.

  • Hummus – not technically a “meal” but definitely something healthy for the family to snack on.

  • Mock-tuna casserole – This big-batch meal meets all the goals, plus adds a bunch of homemade freezable lunches.

  • Lasagna casserole – Another big-batch meal that makes for easy grab-and-go lunches during the work week. On my half, I’ll replace the pasta with shredded carrot, and use cottage cheese instead of the real stuff. Everyone else will have all that deliciousness.

Okay, those were the easy ones. It’s not enough to cover all 4 weeks, but it’s a great start. Now to look into my recipe book (I use Paprika Recipe Manager) or on the web.

  • Spinach tomato chicken with rice

  • Broccoli stir fry with cashew-cheese and quinoa – this adaptation of one of my favourite Oh She Glows recipes needs the Quinoa on the side, but otherwise is good to go.

  • Potato Broccoli Soup

  • Chicken veggie soup – there are a bunch of variations I can try to re-use this one a few times: Broccoli mushroom and spinach chicken soup; Mushroom and pepper chicken soup; Jiggs dinner (a Newfoundland favourite) chicken soup – break out the Mt. Scio savoury;

  • Peanut butter soup – technically “African peanut soup”, this is another family fav from Oh She Glows cookbook (I swear, I don’t have stock in that cookbook!)

  • Veggie Burgers and sweet potato fries – Adding in some steamed carrot sticks will bulk this meal up with great colourful veggies. I seem to be on an Oh She Glows kick – this one’s from her website too.

  • Sesame Fish – Add some steamed veg and rice to make this a complete meal.

  • Pizza – While not technically “healthy”, a little treat at the end of the week will keep my family happy. This is one I’ll have to sit out, but I can do something fun with a fried egg, pizza veggies, cottage cheese and pizza sauce, so I won’t be sitting in the corner

#3: List each day and assign a recipe to each day

Now that I’ve got my recipes all picked, it’s time to place them throughout the month (this is the “when” I was talking about).

You may notice that I’m only planning five meals a week. Weekends in my house are a bit “off the cuff” but you could easily take this approach to weekends as well. For lunches, my goal is to use leftovers for me and Gord. Our daughter is fed at her daycare, so we don’t need to pack anything for her.

Let’s see what we’re working with…

February 2016
Sunday Monday Tuesday Wednesday Thursday Friday Saturday

My meal plan is for the month, which also includes shopping only once, so let’s put the salads in the first week so the lettuce isn’t all icky. While we’re at it, let’s write in the slow cooker meals on Tuesdays and Thursdays.

February 2016
Sunday Monday Tuesday Wednesday Thursday Friday Saturday
4One Pot Pasta (with steamed green beans)
18One Pot Pasta (with steamed green beans)

Finally, let’s write in all the rest of the recipes. My strategy here is to try to avoid the same thing twice in one week, or in back-to-back weeks.

February 2016
Sunday Monday Tuesday Wednesday Thursday Friday Saturday
4One Pot Pasta (with steamed green beans)
10Veggie curry with rice – mashed chickpeas on the side
18One Pot Pasta (with steamed green beans)
26Veggie burgers and sweet potato fries with steamed carrots

#4: Plan to plan

Now that I know what I’m cooking, I need to figure out what can be done ahead of time to make the meal plan run smoothly. Anything from soaking and cooking beans ahead of time, to chopping onions and storing them in the fridge until they’re needed. When the planning is done, I’ll keep my notes handy; they’ll help with the shopping list.

I want to get all my prep out of the way on Sunday, so my plan is to identify everything that can be done ahead of time.

For each week, I’ll take a look at the recipes and figuring out what types of items are needed, then jot them down in a list so there’s space to tally amounts.

For example, for the first week, I’ll need to chop some salad veggies for three salads, prep soup veggies for Chicken veggie soup, and dice the veggies needed for One-Pot Pasta.

For the first week, all totalled that’s:

  • Two onions diced for the slow cooker meals, plus half an onion finely sliced for the salads.
  • Two peppers diced for use in the salads and slow cooker meals.
  • One cucumber, sliced, for use in the salads (these would be quick enough to do day-of).
  • One carrot chopped for Tuesday’s soup.
  • One two-cup portion of black beans, soaked and cooked for Wednesday’s salad.
  • Four eggs hard-boiled for Friday’s salad.

#5: Prepare a shopping list

Finally, I need to prepare a shopping list. Using the lists I prepared above, I’ll add anything that wasn’t included in my prep list (chicken breasts, whole veggies, etc).

Again, scanning from the top of the list, I tally them up.

Before I go shopping, I need to take a look in the pantry and figure out what’s already there. This helps avoid wastage so the pantry’s not overloaded on ingredients that won’t be used. I’ll subtract what I have from the tally.

Now that the plan is done, and I’ve noted which items are on sale, I’ve written my list. Now I’m ready to go shopping!

A short time later…

I stuck with my carefully curated list, and the verdict? $405 for four weeks. Almost spot on to my goal of $100 per week!

So, let’s re-cap…

Meal Plan – February 2016

  1. Identify your goals. For me, my goals for February are to plan meals that:

    • …are healthy for a growing toddler.

    • …let me follow a restricted food plan high in protein and low in carbs.

    • …let my husband watch his calories but feel full.

    • …stay within a budget of $100 per week total for a family of three in Newfoundland.

    • …includes two slow-cooker meals per week.

    • takes less than 30 minutes to prepare.

  2. Find recipes that work with your goals (shown in the calendar below).

  3. Assign recipes to a day (shown in the calendar below).

  4. Plan to plan, and figure out what preparation tasks you can do ahead of time.

  5. Prepare a shopping list and go shopping.

February 2016
Sunday Monday Tuesday Wednesday Thursday Friday Saturday
4One Pot Pasta (with steamed green beans)
10Veggie curry with rice – mashed chickpeas on the side
18One Pot Pasta (with steamed green beans)
26Veggie burgers and sweet potato fries with steamed carrots
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Eating Healthy…ish

It seems there’s a trend afoot. One that says “I’ve worked hard; I deserve a treat after a long day at the office… but I don’t want to lose momentum for all that hard work!” That trend is Eating “Healthy…ish”.

What, you might ask, is healthy-ish eating, exactly?

Well… let me start by filling you in on my vision of “healthy”.

Swaths of green, purple, orange and red veggies, as far as the eye can see… Tender beans, lentils, peas, corn and fish replace those fatty fillets of beef and pork… starches and processed grains are banished, replaced by whole grains and hearty pasta… Hydrogenated and animal fats are avoided, replaced by their kinder, gentler cousins Canola and Olive.

That’s “Healthy”.

Throw a little cheese on top…

That’s “ish”.

Welcome to the world of healthy-ish eating!

In general, I like to feed my family wholesome foods that nourish the body in the long run rather than something just “quick and dirty” to fill the void. I feel confident that these foods will provide a great foundation for future growth.

One small hitch: wholesome foods only work if they’re eaten.

Enter “Ish”

Cooking “Healthy-ish” lets me add a moderate amount of cheese on that veggie whole-wheat-pasta casserole. It lets me add a smidgen extra olive oil to those colourful sautéed veggies in my scrambled eggs.

Thanks to “Ish”, I can rest assured that while, yes, my toddler will eat a bit more cheese that I would like, more importantly, she’ll also get her veggies.

Now, I’m not advocating Doritos for breakfast, but a little flavour (and let’s be honest, “flavour” usually means “bad”) carefully added to an otherwise a-okay meal can help keep me and my family eating the greens along with that tasty, tasty cheese.

But how?

There are two approaches that work for my family, the goal being “Make good food that’s edible”. One: find a healthy recipe and tweak it until it tastes good. Two: take an indulgent recipe and strip out some of the badness. Let’s take a look at these two approaches.

Good food… but who’ll eat it?

First, find a recipe that your family is willing to try (say my One Pot Pasta Recipe). Sometimes, (like the pasta) it just works. Great! Other times (steamed veggies and rice, for example) there’s just something missing.

Well, when something’s too plain, I find a few of these “secret weapons” work:

  • Add salt. One draw-back of “all fresh” meals, is that it can lack that something to bring out the flavours. A little salt goes a long way (just a pinch can be enough), so add a dash, taste, and repeat until it’s yummy!

  • Add oil – but only the “good” kind (olive oil and canola oil have good reputations). Usually a Tablespoon in a large family meal will be enough to enhance any natural flavours. This is good for anything sautéed (lightly fried), as well as most sauces.

  • Add complementary seasonings. This one’s a bit tricky. A lot of recipes online are click-bait, meant to draw you into some site that has a bunch of recipes and lets you muddle through what’s good or not. Other sites (like one of my favourites: Oh She Glows) have carefully crafted their recipes and only present their best and most flavourful.

    When a recipe is missing that tender love and care, Cumin or garlic may be what you need.

  • Add cheese – just a little, though. To make sure you’re not obliterating the healthiness of your choice, carefully measure the cheese, say a shredded tablespoon per portion. You’re going for a hint of indulgence, not “ooey-gooey”.

  • Add something bad, but in a carefully controlled portion. Examples of this include adding a single slice of garlic bread with that wholesome pasta dish, or adding a little batter to that baked fish. Use caution, though. It’s a small step from “single slice of garlic bread” to “cheesy-bread-splosion!”.

For the above (as in life) moderation is key. Try a bit, taste, and adjust until you find the right fit.

Oh, and don’t forget to write down what you did so you can do it again! I have a handy organizer, but I’ve been known to keep a notepad on my microwave for cooking notes.

When it’s a matter of texture or appearance instead of flavour (i.e. my toddler won’t eat certain vegetables), try blending, mashing or straining part of the meal (the side vegetable or sauce, for instance). For my One Pot Pasta Recipe example above, I blend the healthy veggies together into a uniform sauce before I cook it. I get all the healthy advantage of the meal, plus my picky eater will, you know, eat it!

Tasty food… but not so healthy

This one’s easy to find, hard to fix. You have to know what the “problem” is in order to fix it, so let’s break down some of the common sources of badness:

  • Too much fat. The best way to reduce fat is to simply not include it in the first place. Remove chicken skin before cooking (this takes away that top layer of fat). Trim excess fat from fatty cuts of meat or even choose lower-fat cuts. If you’re adding butter, peanut oil or vegetable oil, use canola oil or olive oil instead (hey, if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em).

  • Too much starch. If you’re using potatoes (common here in Newfoundland), try replacing a portion with that wonder-veggie cauliflower. Mix it into mashed potatoes and you hardly notice. If you’re using another source of starch, reduce the portion size and add a side of something green in its place, like steamed green beans.

  • Highly-processed grains (e.g. white flour, white rice, or minute-anything). Replace white pasta with whole wheat, and white bread with whole grain bread. If you’ve got picky eaters who refuse to try something new, there are some brands of bread out there that offer “disguised” versions – whole wheat bread that looks like white bread, or bread with cauliflower dough baked right in.

  • Not enough veggies/too much meat or grains. Reduce the portion size of the meat, pasta or rice and up the amount of veggies. For example, instead of a meal of fried chicken and fries, try a few pieces of chicken on a bit of rice plus a side of steamed veggies. When cooking different kinds of meat, certain veggies go better than others. Some tried and true veggie/meat pairings include: carrots and chicken; green beans and pork; or broccoli and beef.

  • Too “from-a-box”. Let’s be honest, we all love the ease of just throwing something into the oven and walking away for 20 minutes. Ta-da! It’s like magic! Except for all those preservatives, fats, extra carbs and salt.

    But what can we do?

    Never fear! There are plenty of alternatives to work with: Chicken strips can be made from home made ingredients and custom-made seasonings; Home-fries can be baked with a carefully controlled amount of oil or using a low-oil frier; Home-made versions can be whipped up quickly (think home-made quesadillas instead of pre-fried easy-bake mini-tacos, or “do it yourself” side dishes using whole wheat pasta).

    Plus, there are some reputable brands out there. This takes a bit of leg work, but finding a brand you trust for those “easy-peasy” meals can take a bit of strain off the day-to-day meal planning.

One of the keys to successfully reducing the unhealthiness of a dish is in smaller portions. Sometimes, that’s a smaller amount of the indulgent food on your plate. Other times, it’s a smaller amount of “the bad thing” in the dish itself.

Welcome to dinner…

In my ongoing quest for a healthy family, “ish” has made its home here. “Ish” is here to stay.

Thanks for keeping my family well, “Healthy”. And thanks for helping them enjoy it, “Ish”.

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Meal Planning 101: Your key to chaos-reduction

Work, work, work, that’s all I do… until now!

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So, I’ve mentioned “meal planning” a few times before, but I haven’t taken the time to talk about it in more detail… until now.

As part of a family where both parents work, it can be hard to come home at the end of the day and spend an hour cooking something that isn’t from-a-box easy (but bad). I used to find it so wearying at the end of my work day. More chores to be done before I could even think about spending time with my family.

So I took a step back. I said to myself “self,” (okay not really, but we’ll go with that). “Self, what can you do to make my end-of-day better?“.

Well, “self” ignored me and surfed Pinterest instead.

Believe it or not that was a good thing! I swiped through dozens of pins on using my slow cooker, and dozens more of “10 minute meals” (of the set-it-and-forget-it variety).

I was inspired!

I filled my slow cooker for the next morning and used my momentum to cut up ingredients for the day after that.

Two meals in one week that weren’t baked-something and rice? Gord was over the moon! My daughter was even on board… if only because she still hadn’t learned the word “no” yet.

I had a good start making a couple of meals a week home-made from scratch. However I was finding it difficult to keep coming up with meals every work night. Picking something that either myself or Gord could cook, plus trying to remember what ingredients were on hand was a bit unwieldy. What could I do so that we could eat home-cooked meals with flavour more regularly?

It was a challenge, but I was up for it!

Instead of figuring out food to eat “on the fly”, it was much easier when I knew in advance what to make. And knowing what to make, well, that just meant I could do some of the more time-consuming preparation steps the day before. And if I could do that for a couple of days, well, I could do it for the rest of the week too!

Here’s how I did it…

The “What”

1: What to eat

The first thing I needed to know was just what my family was willing to eat. We had a few staple recipes that we all enjoyed, so I started with those. My recipe book has grown since then, but sticking to those staples has helped everyone stay on board.

2: What are your limitations

The second thing I needed to look at was my schedule and skill level. It wouldn’t help anyone if I needed two hours of waiting before I could cook the darn thing! Nor would it work if I overreached my skills.

So, I researched a few recipes that were “30-minutes or less” using flavours and techniques I was comfortable with. Weekday meals aren’t for stretching my culinary wings. They’re for quickly filling bellies with nutrition (and, okay, maybe a little play-time in the kitchen, but only on my terms!)

You’d be right in thinking my first few recipes are meal-plan ready (funny how that worked out, huh?)

Give ’em a try, I’ll wait!

The “When” and the “How”

Figuring out “what” you can eat is only half the battle. The “who” (your family) and the “where” (home-sweet-home) are easy too, so, now for the “when” and “how”:

1: Pick when to shop

Starting off, I picked one day a week to do the grocery shopping: the day after weekly fliers came out.

2: How to shop the sales

It was no accident that I picked the day after fliers were delivered to do my shopping. Fliers were my gateway into picking which store had the best deals for that week.

Shopper points aside, I found shopping sales the best way to save money. If you’re determined to collect all those golden point-miles, keep the long view on sales and stock up on the things your family uses often when they go on sale. It may be hard, but stick to your guns and only buy what’s on your meal plan outside of those family staples.

A couple extra cans of tomatoes seem to always make their way into my pantry when two-for-one week is on.

3: Plan when to prep

More than just planning the meals, planning to prepare those meals is essential. I started out doing the work for the next day after baby-bed-time, but soon found that doing two hours on Sunday was a better fit for my schedule. Sure, it takes two hours up front, but it allows me to just throw things together for the rest of the work week.

Put it into practice!

Put together, what does my weekly meal planning look like? Something like this…

Wednesday night, I find the fliers on my front step after work. Once the little one makes her way to bed, I sit down and take a look. Does the green store have a big two-for-one sale on beans and pasta? Does the red store have a special on my favourite brand of chicken? Whichever one has the best sales gets my business!

Next, I jot down some of the things on sale that my family likes. Chicken… tomatoes… lettuce… that goes well with those taco shells I bought a few weeks ago (on sale, of course) and rice. Let’s make taco salad one night and chicken burrito bowls on another!

Finally, I make a note of how many meals need onion, how many need peppers, and so on. I need…. five onions, three peppers, and some mushrooms. Let’s plan to do some chopping on Sunday night and put it in the fridge until the day-of!

Wait… what?

I know, I’ve been a bit vague. What you end up doing can really depend on how much time you have, and what your family enjoys.

To help you along I’ll be posting a few of my secret weapons: printable planner pages, and a walkthrough of my month-long February meal planning (yes, I said month-long, you’ll understand when I post about it later).

Give meal planning a try and share what works for your family!

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