Although summer technically ends in mid September, the start of a new school year always seems like the official end of summer. For me, the end of summer means shutting down the grill with all of its spontaneity and going back into the kitchen to prepare and cook my family’s meals. Being the dedicated to wholefoods eating, yet super busy mom that I am, this requires planning. Lots of planning, since McDonalds is NEVER an option around here. Meal Planning is a skill in and of itself. Its more than a notion and it does take some time but once it is done the rewards are great. The Key to successful meal planning is having the right tools and then, of course, executing the plan.
The first step in planning your meals is carving out the time to sit down and do it. Schedule it in and prioritize it. First decide how far out you want to plan. A month out, a couple of weeks? If you are new to meal planning you may want to plan week to week or as often as you go grocery shopping. My plan is to plan a month of meals. I sit down with my planning calendar and look at what days we will actually need to sit down and eat together. No sense in planning a meal for a day that you wont be around to eat it. Once I have the meal days I sit down with my family to find out what dish everyone wants me to cook that month. I will hear, “We haven’t had salmon casserole in a while” or “I want chicken pot pie”. Once I have the votes in I factor in the season and the foods that will be available at my local farmers market this time of year. I prefer to eat seasonally, because I think it makes the food taste that much better. I haven’t had sweet potatoes or apples all summer long, so September will have those foods sprinked all over it. Another invaluable technique I use for my meal planning is to have themes for each day of the week. Sundays have traditionally been our big family meal days where I cook just short of a thanksgiving dinner. In the past it has worked because there is always plenty of food leftover. Enough to carry us through the next couple of days at least, give or take a pot of rice and beans. Because of the leftovers from Sunday dinner, I don’t do meatless Mondays. Instead, I plan for a meatless Wednesday, a taco/tortilla Thursday (almost always stuffed with the leftover beans and rice from meatless Wednesday) and a take out Friday because Friday is our busiest evening and who feels like cooking anything after a long week of work. By Saturday we are putting together whatever we have leftover from the days before and then we do it all again starting early Sunday morning. Well, at least that’s the “plan”. Know that the value of a plan is in the planning, the plan can at anytime be changed because, well… because you have a plan.
The next step of making any good plan Is in the execution. For a meal plan, this means gathering recipes, checking your pantry to see if you have all of the necessary ingredients and creating a shopping list for the items you do not have on hand. There is no better tool for this stage than Plan To Eat. Plan To Eat is a meal planning website that stores your recipes (with pictures and any detail you wish to add), allows you to drag and drop those recipes onto the calendar days you wish to cook them, and generates a shopping list for the recipes you wish to cook in any given time period. When it is time to cook, you can open a recipe stored on the website from your laptop, tablet or smart phone and view it in cooking mode to see the recipe’s step by step instructions. I strongly suggest you change the settings on your tablet or your device so that the screen never turns off. That way you don’t get tomato sauce all over your screen or mouse pad. Plan To Eat allows you to add recipes manually or import them from around the internet and add them to your database. It is also a recipe sharing website, so you can befriend others whose use the site (whether you know them personally or not) and view their recipes and even add their recipes to your database as well. Don’t worry, if you don’t want to share your Grandmother’s blueberry dumplings recipe with the world you can just hide it and no one will be able to see it except for you. If you find a recipe that you like but you want to tweak the ingredients a little, you can edit it and save it as your own. With Plan To Eat you can categorize recipes by course, main ingredient, mealtime, etc or you can tag them however you like, vegetarian, non-dairy, gluten-free, etc. You can search by recipe ingredients, name, or tags or you can query by several categories.
When its time to plan your meals, simply search for and add the recipes you wish to cook to your “queue”. Queueing your recipes makes it easier to drag and drop them to the meal planning calendar. You can view your calendar one week, two weeks or a month out and just drag and drop recipes from your queue list on the left side of the screen. Need to make changes? Drag and drop. Need to add a simple side dish that you don’t have a recipe for, like string beans, just type it in and it will be added to your shopping list. Need to delete an item, drag and drop it back into your queue. Once you’ve finished planning you can print your meal plan for the week or month and post it onto the refrigerator so your kids won’t have to ask, “Mom, what’s for dinner tonight?” or you can watch them get all excited in anticipation of having “chicken chilaquiles” on tortilla Thursday (want this recipe?, friend me on Plan To Eat). The meal planning calendar allows you to see the big picture of your meal plan, live and in color. It also eliminates the endless erasing that comes with meal planning on paper because unlike paper, all you have to do is drag and drop. Can you tell that I like to drag and drop? Sometimes I wish I could drag and drop my life. I would drop it in St Lucia and return it to Philly next
Ok, so now that the planning is done, its time to go grocery shopping. Head on over to the Shopping List section of Plan To Eat and first, choose the time frame you want to shop for, one week out, two weeks, a month? Next, take a look at the list and decide what you already have in your pantry. Check those items off and click “add to pantry” when you are done. Plan To Eat will remember which items you already have in your pantry next time and those items will be highlighted on the shopping list in case you don’t need them, so you can drag and drop. You can also take inventory of your pantry and type in your pantry items ahead of time if you choose. The shopping list itself is completely customizable, allowing you to sort, group and combine items your shopping list however you would like. Group items by course, cuisine, or any other category that you want to create and/or separate your list out by grocery store. There is even a section for staple items where you can add items you need to get that are not necessarily on your meal plan like peanut butter and jelly, yogurt, or dish soap. Once you have finished editing your shopping list you can print it out or take it on the go with your smart phone or tablet. Although the folks at Plan to Eat do not have an app (and have consciously elected not to create one), they do have a mobile friendly website which allows you to view and check off shopping list items as you go, with updates in real time.
There are many other features of PlanToEat.com that are too rich to list here but this is the gist of it. I have been using this menu planning website for almost four years now, with heavy usage in the fall and winter, when I cook the most. I don’t want to imaging what I would do without it. Now that my database is firmly established It is seamless to plan my meals and shop accordingly. Plan To Eat is a major time saver. It helps me to save money too as I do not overspend at the grocery store by helping me to take inventory of my pantry and buy only the ingredients I need to cook the meals I planned for. Membership in Plan To Eat costs less than $40 a year when you purchase annually. You can set your account up for automatic renewal so you don’t miss a beat. Even in my down season when I am not using Plan to Eat to plan my meals, I am always referencing it for recipes. I am a proud affiliate of Plan To Eat, so you can sign up through my website by clicking the ad to the right or by clicking on the links or ads in this article. The first 30 days are free so you can try it without making a commitment.
Sign up for Plan to Eat today then come back and leave a message below or email me to leave your email address so that I can friend you and we can begin to share recipes.
For those of you who already have a Plan To Eat subscription leave a message below or send me an email so that we can share recipes.
Look for “MsFrassy” at Plantoeat.com