Monday, 17 October 2016

Menu-Plan Series: Writing the Plan

I have a reader request to do a few menu-plan ideas for busy weeknight schedules. The reality for many people is they are arriving home from work at meal time with kids in evening activities and no time to cook. So while in an ideal world there would be an adult home to prepare at least a few of these meal ideas fresh, I am planning a week's menu under the assumption that there is only one day to prepare most of what will be consumed.

Step One: Consult Your Grocery Flyer
Why not save as much as you can? I quickly browsed through my Superstore flyer online as though I would be shopping today for the week's groceries. (We are in a total ice storm at the moment so mama ain't going anywhere. But we can pretend!) The goal is to plan this week's meals around what is on special. I found:

  • pork loins $1.87/lb (limit 4). This is a good price so I would buy 4.
  • imperfect apples $5 for 8 lb bag. Compare at $5 for a 3 lb bag regular apples. Bring on the worm holes, people!
  • beef roast $4/lb. This might seem costly. But compare to salmon at $12/lb or tilapia at $8/lb, or steak at $10/lb.
  • bagels 2 bags of 6 for $3.
  • PC frozen vegetables $2.50/bag.
Other things I would normally buy or have on hand is basmati rice, generic pasta, potatoes, fridge stocked with celery, carrots, cauliflower and broccoli along with fruit. If any of these are on special I buy extra. Likewise, if anything is suddenly too expensive we get more of something else and do without what has spiked in price. I can't stress it enough how you save by knowing the usual price of things!

As meat eaters I would also purchase lean ground beef and chicken legs or boneless thighs. These are generally the least costly cut of chicken but I do splurge on a box of frozen chicken breasts from time to time as well as bulk packaged wings. You will note that I buy most things in large quantities. I have a freezer and keep it stocked with frozen things I buy on special. We save a lot by purchasing ahead.

I am a fan of chickpeas instead of meat. I also use quinoa quite a bit but I'm thinking at the moment it is more expensive than steak. Feel free to substitute into the plan whatever you have on hand or is on special in your neighborhood. I apologize for the meat laden plan. If you can help me out with some vegetarian ideas please do! I will note in red what I will be doing each morning or evening to prepare food for the following day. Because I am a morning person I prefer to get up before the kids and do some prep work for the day. That way I know it is done in case I am too tired that night. For you night owls, it might be just as good to plan to do some precooking in the evenings while you do your nightly routines.

lasagna and chili, pre-made and ready for the freezer. Because they start out with the same basic
ingredients, these meals are ideal for preparation in a "batch" 
Step Two: Write the Plan

I will provide you with my schedule for the week and the pretend meals that I have come up with. You will need to tweak this according to your own needs but it is mainly to illustrate how to keep on top of meal prep during a hectic schedule.

  • Sunday: PREP DAY
On Sundays or Mondays I usually do all my baking for the week and freeze it. You might rather put that time towards preparing meals. It may not be on Sunday, but you get the drift! 

If I was expecting a rushed Monday and Tuesday evening, I would divide my beef roast in 1/3 for stirfry (which I would slice and dice and put in a marinade in a bowl for Monday's quick supper. It is also an option to cook Monday's rice and eat some of it on Sunday with beans or curry. Leave the remaining 2/3 roast thawed to go in slow cooker or oven on Tuesday.

On a prep day I would divide my ground beef into portions for whatever I have planned that week: in this case I plan to make meatballs so would do that and possibly bake them before allowing to cool and freeze. Because my meatball and meatloaf recipe are the same, I could easily double the batch and freeze a meatloaf for another quick meal next week. If you start accumulating a lot of premade meals, make sure you mark them with the date and use the oldest first. It might also help to keep a little inventory list where you can see it for planning your menus. 

I would also scramble fry and season my meat for the coming Sunday's taco night--freeze this and remember to take it out of the freezer Saturday night. 

Freeze things like pork loin that you won't be using til later. Remember to leave yourself a note what day you need to thaw these for use (this week it will be Friday).

  • Monday: NO SCHOOL, NO SKATING (depending on roads I'm not sure what day I will actually get to town for groceries)
BKFST: bagels, apple slices, yogurt
SNACK: fruit smoothy using frozen fruit, banana and skim milk
LUNCH: grilled cheese sandwiches, veggies and dip, salad for myself
SUPPER: Stir-fry beef and vegetables with rice. Fruit for dessert

Evening prep: douse your roast with whatever your prefered spices are, some Worcestershire sauce and brown each side in a frying pan. Transfer meat to slow cooker or roasting pan. Add a smidge of butter and a chopped onion to your drippings in the frying pan and brown. Add a cup of beef bouillon or onion soup mix and get all the goodies out of the pan. Add this to your roast and refrigerate until the next day when you either roast in oven or turn on your slow cooker before leaving for work. Also, chop up 2 days worth of salad fixins while your roast is browning.
  • Tuesday: SCC Meeting at noon at school (It is looking like I'll go for groceries after the meeting)
BKFST: pancakes (make a double batch and freeze) fruit
SNACK: fruit smoothy as above
LUNCH: salads (make 2 days worth) and leftover stir-fry for O and myself (he is such a good eater!) Bagel and fruit in J's lunchbox
SUPPER: beef roast with mashed potatoes and gravy, salad and vegetables

  • Wednesday: Playschool 9-11, Skating 4:30-5:30
This is the equivalent of hell day for me. Veteran moms will scoff at my weak knees. But I digress.

BKFST: toast and fruit, yogurt
SCHOOL LUNCHES: O only gets time for a wee snack of fruit and a treat then we come home for our dinner. I'm expecting we would have salad and a bun with a piece of meat each. J doesn't do meat, if he can help it. I will send him a cheese or jam bun.
SUPPER: leftovers that can be microwaved when we get home.

This is basically a night off from prep so be sure to do your dishes and leave your kitchen how you want to find it in the morning. That is the reward of menu-planning. While doing your dishes (or eating), simmer pot barley in 1-2 cups of water. Once your barley is tender add leftover gravy, meat and veg from your meal. Frozen veg like corn, carrots and peas also help "beef up" a soup. Add beef stock or seasoning to taste. Your soup should be finished by the time you are done in the kitchen for the day. Allow to cool and transfer to containers to take to work or leave it in the pot for tomorrow's lunch/supper. 

Remove meatballs from freezer for tomorrow.
  • Thursday: O and I usually go to the farm for part of the day
BKFST: pancakes and apple slices
LUNCH: Leftovers made into soup, buns, salad
SUPPER: Pre-frozen meatballs with pasta and sauce (freeze leftovers in casserole for next Wednesday)

  • Friday: hosting a playdate, will make pizza for kids, cauliflower pizza crust for myself
BKFST: Variation of things mentioned above
LUNCH: pizza
SUPPER: meatballs with rice (make enough for tomorrow too!), steamed or roasted vegetables

Take pork loin out of freezer to thaw.
  • Saturday: NO SCHOOL
Unless you have a big pork loin, it is going to over cook all to heck in a slowcooker if left all day. I would cut into medallions and fry. This would take you literally only a few minutes, particularly if you have the rice and veg already cooked from the night before. 

BKFST: cereal or pancakes, if I'm running low make double batch and freeze
LUNCH: Grilled cheese sandwiches with assorted fruit, veggies and dip
SUPPER: pork loin with stir-fried rice and veggies leftover from Friday

Take taco meat out for tomorrow.
  • Sunday: NO SCHOOL, PREP DAY 
BKFST: variation of above
LUNCH: clean out fridge, make soup etc
SUPPER: Taco night or some variation

Because this is prep day I would prepare my taco fixins (veg and salad) and make double for taco salads the next night.

If I feel there are too many beans for what I am making I freeze
what's left to be quickly added to a different meal.

Step Three: Prep Day

Depending on your schedule you may be getting your groceries on the same day you will prepare some meals. I am aware of how lucky I am not to have the double whammy of work outside the home to complicate my routine inside the home. Everyone's situation is different and take from this whatever will work for you and your family.

Whatever I am planning to make, I do ALL the chopping needed for ALL the dishes at once and divide into bowls or piles to save redoing the same job multiple times. If you are using baked chicken in several recipes, bake all of it at once. Divide after. This will get easier with practice. 

Do your dishes as you go. You will not have a major prep day more than once if you feel it leaves you with a mountain of unwashed dishes. The day before your prep day, do yourself a favour and run the dish washer and tidy up your kitchen before bed. You will not dread cooking as much if you can start out with a clean work area. Likewise, try to leave it that way for yourself afterwards, too. Enlist the help of all family members. I can't stress it enough that reducing the kitchen budget cannot fall on one person alone. The family needs to pitch in to make it work--get help unloading the groceries, clearing the mess, doing the dishes, send hubby to do the shopping, whatever is possible. If you are at this alone, make it more enjoyable for yourself with some favorite music, a favorite drink or the reward of a hot bath after. Try to make it enjoyable!

I feel fairly certain I've forgotten a bunch of ideas I had for this post, but I do plan to do a few more with simple, on-the-go recipes so I will elaborate then if need be. Let me know if any of these ideas help you with a busy week. Also, let me know your favorite meals and tricks to get meals on the table when you have a lot going on!

If serving chili a few days in a row I switch it up by serving it over fries with cheese, with rice,
alone with buttered buns, and transformed with some cabbage, carrot and beef stock to make
 a hearty soup. 


  1. Excellent post! These are always good to read. I'm going to also recommend that very, very easy meals be included in the menu planning (either regularly or when one is too exhausted to do anything). My suggestions: breakfast for dinner, omelets (great way to clean out the fridge and use up bits and bobs), and simple sandwich night (even just PB&J + carrots). Nothing fancy but also nothing that isn't unhealthy either.

    Also, leftovers from a big pot of chili taste great on jacket potatoes.

    Btw - I have to say that you inspired me all day today. I kept saying, no chips, no choc - Jill is doing this and i can too!


    1. That's great Pru! I'm doing well with my eating plan and exercise. At the very least I do the elliptical daily so as not to backslide. It's very difficult for me to restart if I take even one day off. I do need to crack down and do my video everyday though. As for the very simple meals you just predicted the next post :) you're very right--give yourself some easy options so you can stick with it. Thanks for the great suggestions!