Saturday, January 12, 2013

What's for dinner?

Meal planning is never easy. Meal planning for a family of six is near madness. But I've spent the last few months tweaking a system that works for us, and I'm ready to share (because a few of you asked).

For a calendar of approximately what we're eating for the rest of the year, click here: What's For Dinner?

You'll notice there are a lot of repeat meals on there. There's a reason for that, and a good one. I've spent the last few months figuring out what my family will and won't eat, which meals are so good for us that we'll eat them anyway, which meals are delicious or easy enough to eat more often, and which meals always leave us with leftovers. I narrowed it down to about 30 or so dishes, and we rotate through them. I plug them into my handy little Google calendar, tell it how often to repeat them (every 3 or 4 weeks, usually) and from there, the meal calendar basically builds itself.

On Saturdays, I check the calendar to see what we're eating the next week and head to the grocery store. Almost half of our meals are ones that can be frozen and stored for later, so if I have a little extra time, I triple or quadruple the recipe and freeze three or four meals for later.  Often we get to the last week of the month and find that I don't have to do any cooking at all, since all the meals on the calendar were prepared in advance and are waiting to be thawed. (I'm not going to lie...freezer weeks are my favorite.)

A lot of the meals are seasonal (Minestrone tastes better when it's cold) and in the summer our fruit and veggie co-op will drive our meal planning, so the calendar is subject to change. Meals will get rotated out or in as seasons change or as a new issue of Southern Living offers new material to work with. But it feels pretty good to have a general framework for the year outlined.

I rarely deviate from the calendar, and if we ever have to skip or push back a meal that I've purchased ingredients for, I try to make sure we skip a meal that I can go ahead and prepare and put in the freezer, or one that uses more non-perishable ingredients that I can save for later. On a slow weekend, I've been known to prepare dinners for the entire week in advance. This knocks out all the mess and all the stress in one day. (And as a bonus, I have the hubby to help with preparation and clean up.)

For freezing soups and stews, I prefer the ziploc bag method. These can be stored flat in my freezer and thaw quickly. For casseroles, I usually line my trusty old Pyrex with foil, spray it liberally with cooking spray, and dump the casserole ingredients in as if I were about to cook it. I cover it tightly and flash freeze it for a few hours, then dump it out of the casserole dish, remove the foil and wrap it tightly in freezer safe plastic wrap. When I'm ready to eat it, I simply unwrap it, place the frozen block of casserole back in the dish, and thaw it in the refrigerator until it's ready to bake.

I'm loving this cookbook that my friend (and fellow mom-to-many) recommended. It has all sorts of great freezer meals that don't taste like freezer meals, and lots of great tips on freezing side dishes and other items. (Did you know you can freeze cooked rice and it tastes just as good as fresh cooked rice? You can, and it does, and this book will tell you how. This changed my life.)

Feeling inspired? Go do some meal planning of your own! Or just steal my meal plan...that's what it's there for.

3 comments:

  1. This is truly impressive. I feel like I've done good if I get a week's worth of meals plans...but a whole year. Nice

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  2. thanks for the recipes! i've made "railroad dinner" twice already and it's a huge hit with the hubby! Great share!

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    1. So glad! That has been one of my favorites for a long time. No idea where my mom got the recipe...it was in a story about a chef on a train somewhere, so we just called it railroad dinner, and the name stuck.

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