Cooking Series: Weekly Meal Plan & Prep

In a land far, far away and long ago, I wrote a short lived cooking blog. My ambitious project was to complete 365 recipes in 365 days (without knowledge of the Julia Child movie with a similar theme).

Well, it wasn't finished, but it did help me to learn a lot about how food is prepared and how to choose complimentary flavors & textures. I was also learning that buying different kinds of food each week got expensive. Which really bothered me, because if something wasn't tasty or salvageable it was thrown away. I really don't like throwing away food.

So, the cooking experiments dissipated and our meals gradually became more cost efficient. A few years ago, I was spending $200-250 per week on food for a family of 4. It felt like it was way too much money for the amount of food we were eating. With my current system of buying groceries and meal planning I spend around $100 each week. I do all my shopping at one store and do not use any coupons. I like to buy organic, but honestly don't do it often.

I supplement my shopping with a monthly order from Amazon. Items purchased there are discounted because of the "subscribe and save" option, which are regularly scheduled deliveries. I order dry and paper goods, like granola bars, paper towels, toilet paper, and cereal. A bonus of this method is that I typically do not have to go down the center isles at the store, which saves time and money. The online order runs somewhere between $50-100 a month. That brings the weekly total to $125, including grocery store purchases and Amazon shipments.

A difficult part of meal planning on a reduced budget is providing a variety. I make breakfast, school lunches for 2 boys & myself, and 5-6 dinners each week. Total spending could be reduced further if I made the same things each week, consisting of rice, beans, yogurt, and eggs. I could probably do it, but I know my family would not appreciate the minimalism. This series will address the variety provided each week.

To help ensure that the food purchased is used, I do a meal prep session on Sunday afternoons. It takes 2-3 hours depending on what is being prepared. I try to make as much from scratch as possible, but make reasonable choices for prepared food (like pasta, sausage, breads). Foods that need to be sauteed or boiled are done on Sunday, that way all I have to do is warm up meals after work on weekdays. I was also making my own bread for awhile, but it takes much more time and I wasn't pleased with the inconsistent texture. Friday is frozen pizza & movie night. We typically go out on Saturday. Sunday tends to be a "catch all" of all of the food that wasn't used in a recipe or is leftover.

I try to buy things that can be used in multiple dishes. Spices and condiments are bought as needed or when they run out. It tends to even out evenly each week to 2-3 of those kinds of items. I also recommend listening to music while doing this. This week's selections were Best of Radiohead and The Doors Greatest Hits - both available on YouTube.

Sooo... Here we go. This week's meals, how they were prepped, and I - I will probably forget something. Please forgive any mistakes. :-)

Boiled Egg
Wheat Toast or English Muffin w/ Peanut Butter
Ali's Breakfast: Greek yogurt with honey & walnuts, boiled egg, all of the coffee

School Lunches:
Chicken Fingers -or- Tuna Salad Sandwich
Homemade Trail Mix
Kids Z-Bar (ordered on Amazon)
Carrot Sticks & Bell Pepper Strips
Strawberries & Orange Slices
Ali's Lunches: store bought bell pepper & tomato soup, cottage cheese w/ pineapple, FiberOne granola bar (ordered on Amazon)

Vegetarian Sloppy Joe with Sweet Potato
Pulled Pork on Wheat Buns with Baked Beans
Cauliflower & Summer Squash Mac & Cheese
Garlic & Butter Rice w/ veggies, Spinach & Strawberry Salad

Sorting Items, From top to bottom: macaroni, rice & veggies, pork & sweet potatoes, sloppy joe, school lunches
Boiled Eggs
Add room temperature eggs to warm water. Fill a bowl with water, ice, and a teaspoon of vinegar. Bring water & eggs to a boil, then boil uncovered for 10 minutes. Pour out hot water and immediately put eggs into ice vinegar mixture. Peel as soon as they are cool enough to handle and place in a ziplock bag -OR- don't peel and re-use the carton for easy storage. *note* If you reuse the carton, the fridge might smell like eggs. So don't do that if you are offended by egg smell.

Wheat Toast or English Muffin w/ Peanut Butter
C'mon. Really? I'm not sharing my recipe for this dish. It is sacred.

Chicken Fingers
I buy these frozen *gasp* because it is easy and I have the liberty to take the easy road once in awhile. Prepare as directed on package. Put into single serving containers.

Tuna Salad
Drain 1 can of tuna in water. In a small bowl, add tuna, mayonnaise (I use fake-mayo from trader joes), powdered mustard, onion powder, garlic powder, salt, and pepper. Mix together well.
**I actually ended up not making this, because there was enough chicken. Luckily it is a canned product so easily saved for another time.

Homemade Trail Mix (This week's version)
In a medium bowl, mix together pretzels, shelled pumpkin seeds, Annie's Bunny crackers (shaped like bunnies for Easter!), and diced dried dates. Put into single serving containers.

Carrot Sticks & Bell Pepper Strips, Strawberries & Orange Slices
These are sliced to bite size and put into individual containers. Sometimes I will add hummus or ranch dressing.

Vegetarian Sloppy Joe with Sweet Potato
Chop onion, green bell pepper, fresh spinach and add to frying pan with olive oil and chopped garlic. Saute until onions begin to clear. Add "ground beef" prepared tofu, 1 can tomato puree, brown sugar powdered mustard, cumin, salt, and pepper. Add a small bit of water if the mixture is too thick. Heat thoroughly, then remove from heat. When cooled, put into an air tight container until ready to re-heat (saute) and serve on a wheat bun.
Add water to a medium sized pan over medium heat. Remove peel from sweet potatoes and rinse. Chop to bite size pieces. Add potato to boiling water for 8-10 minutes, until soft. Drain and put potatoes in a medium sized bowl. Add olive oil, shelled pumpkin seeds, dried cranberries, honey, and a dash of salt. Toss until potatoes are coated. Put into an air tight container until ready to heat. To heat, set oven to 400 and bake potatoes in a casserole dish, covered for 20-30 minutes. You can uncover and add a bit of brown sugar on top for the last 5 minutes if you want crispy goodness.

Pulled Pork on Wheat Buns with Baked Beans
Remove fat from room temperature pork loin. Put into an air tight container. Add diced onion and bbq sauce of your choice.Store in fridge until ready to heat. Several hours before you want to eat, put pork & sauce into crock pot. Heat through as directed for the amount of meat you are cooking. Pull pork apart with forks and serve on a wheat bun.
I buy baked beans in a can 1) to simplify my life 2) they are what my older son likes.

Cauliflower & Summer Squash Mac & Cheese
Add water to a medium sized pan and bring to a boil. Prepare cauliflower by cutting to bite sized pieces. Add to boiling water for 10 minutes, then drain. In a separate pan, add water and bring to a boil. Add pasta and boil 6-7 minutes, then drain. Dice cauliflower (it will basically become mashed) and fresh yellow summer squash. Add pasta, cauliflower, and squash to a casserole dish. Add 1-2 tablespoons of butter and 8-10 ounces of cheese (this week I got a block of white cheddar with bacon) cut into chunks. Mix together and store covered until ready to cook.
To heat, add 1/4-1/2 cup milk, then bake covered at 350 for 20-30 minutes until all cheese is melted. Sometimes I add bread crumbs and paprika to the top for the last 5 minutes of cooking.

Multi-tasking: Time items to be cooked while prepping the next dish. That way you can condense the amount of time cooking.

Garlic & Butter Rice w/ veggies, Spinach & Strawberry Salad
Add 2 cups water to a medium sized pan and bring to a boil. Add 1 cup of brown rice and a bullion cube to boiling water. Cover and boil for about 20 minutes, or until water is soaked into rice and rice is soft. Stir frequently and keep an eye on it as it tends to over-boil.
While rice is cooking, prepare vegetables for saute. This week will be broccoli, red bell pepper, and onion. Add vegetables, chopped garlic, and a pad of butter to frying pan. Saute until veggies begin to soften, then add to rice. Remove from heat and stir. When cooled, store in an air tight container until ready to serve. Add salt & pepper when re-heated. Also good with cayenne, if you do spicy.
For the salad, I will do fresh baby spinach and chop strawberries on the day of. I usually use a honey mustard sauce and shelled sunflower seeds to garnish.

 The finished product! The gallon bags are items prepped for dinner. The lower shelf is all lunch prep for the kiddos. 

Sunday Night

I think I will do breakfast for dinner. Use up the older eggs & veggies in the fridge and fill the kids with pancakes so they fall to sleep immediately at an appropriate time for Monday morning. :-D

I know there were a few other random purchases for the week, but I don't remember what they were. Oh - I'm going to try coconut milk for my coffee to help reduce the amount of whole milk I'm drinking.

How do you meal plan for your family?