What’s for Dinner?

I’ve been asked by several people how I plan my dinners and how I shop for groceries. While these seem like somewhat mundane topics, there’s quite a method to my madness. And since you asked, I’ll tell you what I do. (Be warned — this is a long post!)

I started getting into meal-planning several years ago and I’ve always liked to cook. However, two things happened in recent years that made me develop my own system. First, Sophie arrived and I had very little time at the end of the day to make a full meal. Second, we REALLY cut our budget and watched our spending a few years ago. So I had to be much better about planning dinners, not eating out, and not making frequent trips to buy groceries.

My current system has been in practice for about a year. Here’s what I do: I try to make one batch of Once-a-Month dinners each month. Depending on whether I do a 2-week or 1-month cycle, I’ll get from 10 – 24 dinners. Then I dig into my recipe books and print out new recipes from blogs and magazines to supplement the pre-fixed meals. I try to save the cooking of new and fun dishes for the weekend when I have more time.

And from that, I have about 20 – 30 dinner ideas for the month. This doesn’t mean I’ll stray from my list. But I try to buy the items for all these meals. And since I really don’t like to waste food, I do try to make all the dinners.

So at the beginning of the month, I pick my Once-a-Month meal cycle and use their grocery list to start my grocery lists. I have three lists: Trader Joe’s, Costco and grocery store. (I wish I didn’t have to shop at the grocery store at all; but inevitably there are items that are not available at either of the other stores.) Then I find my supplement meals and new recipes and I add those groceries to the list. I’ll then finish the grocery list with the monthly staples that we always get.

I created shopping spreadsheets for Trader Joe’s and Costco, which make it super easy to check off what we need each month and add items. The lists are organized by the order of the store. It’s like I’m following a map. It took some time to create the original lists. But once that’s done, it’s very simple.

We do spend the bulk of our grocery budget on these early-month trips. But knowing what I’m going to make most of the month helps in not running out to buy groceries all the time, which usually ends up costing more money in the long-run. We probably do make at least one more Trader Joe’s trip each month – for items such as milk, yogurt, Sophie snacks, and veggies. And I try to make it to the Farmer’s Market at least once a month for my produce.

And we now only go to Costco once a month – a HUGE money saver! It’s fun because it’s a family trip. Bryan, Sophie and I all go. Sophie and I eat all the samples as our lunch. Bryan spends most of the time in the book section and then lugs the heavy items to the car. It’s a fun weekend family outing! (Yes, we’re nerds. We love Costco.)

Then I commit one weekend day to making and freezing my dinners. It’s such a feeling of satisfaction when you finish! Then I have a notepad on my fridge with all the dinners for the month. I’ll share with you January’s list. Highlighted in red are the Once-a-Month meals. By the way, for this cycle of Once-a-Month meals, I only made nine of the 14 recipes. I usually eliminate a few based on household tastes.

Chicken sausages and potatoes (Costco and some sort of potato)

Pasta Bolognese (Barefoot Contessa)

Pizza (my recipe based on Barefoot Contessa)

Turkey Ragu w/ pasta (Food Network magazine)

Parmesan chicken and polenta (Barefoot Contessa)

Corn dogs and sweet potato fries (Rachael Ray)

Chicken dumpling noodle soup (Rachael Ray)

Turkey burgers w/ cheddar and horseradish (Rachael Ray)

Chicken croquettes (family recipe)

Panini sandwiches w/ tater tots (Bryan’s idea)

Chicken carbonara (Everyday Italian adaptation)

Teriyaki meatballs and fried rice (meatballs are from Costco, rice is my recipe)

Kilbasa soup (my creation – its cook kilbasa and anything else leftover)

Risotto w/ pancetta and spinach (my creation)

Baked Jambalaya

Beef Goulash w/ egg noodles

Pot Roast w/ potatoes

Spaghetti w/ sausage sauce

Taco soup

Marinated flank steak

Cranberry chicken w/ wild rice

Sweet soy marinated chicken

Baked fish in spaghetti sauce

This is 23 meals for 31 days of January. I did not cook the first two days of the month (sickness struck) and I allow for about five free days a month for leftovers or new ideas, and I allow for maybe two meals out. I always have extra ground turkey, hamburger and chicken in the freezer, and pasta in the pantry, for dinners in a pinch. Oh, and I also make large portions of food so Bryan and I take them for our lunches too.

So there you have it – my monthly meal and shopping planning. This may seem daunting. But it has so many advantages. It helps me stay focused and organized. We save money. It assures me that Sophie will eat what Bryan and I eat, rather than just giving her “kid friendly” food (not that I don’t do that too). And most importantly, it’s helped us eat together as a family.

Here is one of the Once-a-Month cook books I use.

Leave me a comment if you’re interested in any of the above recipes. I’m happy to share the recipe, photos and tips.

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