I love it when a good plan comes together

I love it when a good plan comes together January 30, 2014

On Tuesday afternoon my kind mother in law was at my house, planning to stay through the evening while my husband and I went out to eat with an anniversary gift certificate.  I was out picking up one and dropping off another, as I often am from 3-5 pm these days, when I got a gentle text:  Alice, is there a plan for dinner?

Sheepishly I called her back.  Um, no, there is no plan for dinner.  I’m pretty sure there is enough pasta left in the pantry and a jar of sauce, and half a head of lettuce, will that do?  Graciously she poked around and gathered enough food to make something out of very little.  I stopped at a nice bakery and bought a loaf of good bread to round out the meal.  Back home, I admitted that we were also out of paper towels.  Lotion for the baby’s chapped face?  I used to have some, maybe in the car?  It was pathetic.

The next morning I spoke on the phone with my mother in law, out of sorts about how, well, out of sorts our home life seems to be.  The flip side is that we are extremely happy in the winter, skiing every weekend, cozy at home during the week, getting lots of school done and playing board games together.  But things are slipping through the cracks.  It doesn’t help that my slow cooker is at the ski place.  My mother in law seriously has her act together, so I was looking for some advice on how to get my behind in gear.  What I got instead was totally unexpected and a huge gift: encouragement to cut myself some slack.  Yes, she said, she too had seasons like this in her life as a mother, and frozen pizza or scrambled eggs make a perfectly fine dinner.  Pancakes served at the kitchen counter are like a party to your kids, even if it feels like failure to you.  Your son just told me yesterday that his favorite dinner is grilled cheese sandwiches!  Try for a “real” dinner two or three nights a week, she told me, and be gentle with yourself.  What you are doing on the weekends is important, she told me, for the family time, for the people you are serving, and for the joy and fulfillment that it is bringing to you personally.  What a relief it was to be confirmed at that moment.

So, in the cutting myself some slack but still desperate mode, I spent an hour while my kids were in art class at the local, really expensive grocery store.  You’ve got to do what you’ve got to do, I thought, and expensive groceries are still cheaper than takeout, right?  So this might be a workable patch for a little while?  Wrong.  I spent close to $300 on food for three days plus the many staples that we were out of (baby wipes, paper towels, salt…it goes on).  When feeding so many people, it turns out that small differences in prices really matter, and this is especially true when indulging in already more expensive convenience foods.  For example, the organic pizza I buy is usually $5.99, and there it was $9.99.  We eat three of them in a dinner, so we are talking about a $12 difference.  Multiply that out by three meals a day, five days a week, and it is impossible.

Then, just to make it even more obvious, this morning we ran out of diapers.  After some silent prayers I found a stash in a diaper bag that will get us through the next 24 hours, but here I was again hitting up against reality — errands must be done.  Sure, many things can be ordered, but that still needs to be done, and it needed to be done before we hit the bottom of the box!

Elizabeth posted something beautiful about Candlemas and when I read her post all I could think was sure, all that cozy candlelit time is great, but how am I going to get groceries into this house?  Gracious as always, Elizabeth responded in the comments with some details about the different ways that she has grocery shopped in different seasons of life.  One emphasis stuck out for me:  she always had a list and a plan.

I think that I have always been put off by menu planning because I thought I had to menu plan good meals — how can I write “scrambled eggs and english muffins” on a date on the calendar, if I am going to actually plan something, shouldn’t it be better than that?  Well, it turns out, not necessarily.

I thought and prayed about this all morning while I homeschooled.  Right now, I can’t get up in the early mornings, and if I shop during the day I miss out on a day of school work, which really throws us off.  My students are in between being young enough to miss a day and old enough to work on their own while I’m at the market, they need me there with them in the school room every single morning.  My big kids need me home in the later afternoon and evening to help with algebra and to talk through the day.

By quiet time today I had an idea — I thought about the meat in my freezer, delivered twice a year.  I wished that I could have my pantry stocked the same way.  The more I thought about it, I realized that I probably couldn’t stock my pantry for six months, but I could stock it for one month — once a month grocery shopping.

We buy many of our staples at SAMs, and my husband usually takes care of that.  Actually, diapers are on that list, so I don’t know why I am feeling so guilt about that one. Funny how the men never feel crummy when the wheels are coming off at home.  But, I digress…we have tried a few times to make SAMs our actual grocery store, but they don’t have enough of the food that we really eat.

We get our milk and bread from a local dairy market each week, so that would leave just vegetables to buy.  I could probably afford to pay a little more for those at the market near our activities if I had everything else already planned, or I could place a Fresh Direct order for produce only.

So — as an experiment, I printed out our calendar for February.  I planned every single dinner for the entire month.  Many of the meals are simple things like grilled cheese and tomato soup, but they are planned.  I wrote all the non-perishables on my list, and then made a week by week list of perishable items I would need to add.  Then I got really smart, because it occurred to me that we eat a lot more than dinner in this house.  I designated three fruits, a veggie snack, a fun snack (like pretzels) and a dessert item for each week.  I chose a breakfast cereal for each week and added that to the list.

Now, I have a shopping list for each week that includes fewer than 15 items.  I am going to check expiration dates, because some things like yogurt might have to be bought every other week rather than once a month, I’m not sure yet.  That week by week list is posted on the fridge. If we run out of non perishable things, like mustard, I am going to add them both to the list for the week and to the monthly planning list, so that we are better stocked in the future.

I also made the milk market list more specific, ie on the week that I am serving pulled pork, we will need rolls for that in addition to our regular bread.

I have a HUGE shopping list for the month, 8 cans of soup (two dinners), 4 boxes of lasagna, 5 boxes each of three different kinds of cereal. I will need help from my middle kids, and probably several carts, and I will need to figure out how to organize it in the pantry at home, but tomorrow morning we are going to go out and seriously stock up.

We can lose one morning a month, rather than one a week, to grocery shopping, and I can do the rest while they are at art or choir.  If this works, in late February I can plan the March menus.  I hope to save my scribbled calendar so that I can pull those same meals to plug in here and there, so doing this should get easier as I go along.  I also hope to take notes — I have no idea how many yogurts to buy for a month, for example, I just buy a random number and then if we run out I put them on the list and buy a random number again the next week.  Isn’t that stupid?  I can’t believe I have been doing it that way for so long.

I can’t tell you how good it feels to have the whole month planned, and it took ONE QUIET TIME — NOT QUIET TIME ONCE A WEEK.

After writing this post, I am going to Amazon and ordering a second slow cooker.  I just use it too much, we eat out of it every Saturday night up there, but I need it here as well.  This is worth it.

The shopping tomorrow is going to be exhausting and the putting away overwhelming, I am bracing myself, but I really think that this is going to work!


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  • Kat0427

    MaryAlice, let me start by saying that I always enjoying reading your posts that are like this – you’re a good storyteller. I feel like I’m getting an insider’s view of your thought-process 🙂
    Good for you for coming up with a plan for food shopping and giving it a try! We can all relate to what you wrote here – I call it the “5 o’clock scramble” for finding something to put on the table for dinner. I think that giving yourself permission to have scrambled eggs or grilled cheese for dinner is a big step towards a manageable meal plan.
    My major goal right now for myself when it comes to food shopping is to buy only the items that my family actually needs and enjoys eating! I hate staring into a full pantry and feeling like we still have “nothing” to serve for dinner, snack-time, etc.! I sometimes buy what I think we should eat rather than what we actually eat, and sometimes I cook the same way. For example, I love collard greens and cooked up a big batch of them last week, but guess what? I’m the only one in this house who eats collard greens, and I had to eat that whole thing by myself! What I should have bought was regular lettuce, which my family does enjoy, and saved myself some money and frustration.
    Maybe we should all share three of our “go-to” meals here – easy, low-prep, meals that everyone enjoys and that can come together in a flash. Mine are chicken sausages, spaghetti with frozen turkey meatballs, and chicken fajitas (made with leftover grilled chicken). Of course, we do also have the typical scrambled eggs and quesadilla nights, too!

  • This is a great post. Warning, slow cookers are expensive. This is very similar to the system that I have for meals, except that I do not order meat like you do, although I want to at some point. I go to BJ’s once a month and stock up on everything from toilet paper to olive oil to cereals. I get almost all of my pantry items there, and also through Amazon prime (they have a monthly delivery option). I then go to the grocery store about 2 times per month, and order food from Fresh Direct 2 times per month. If I had a meat delivery option, I could probably only go to the food store once per month. Fresh direct is expensive for pantry items, but the prices and quality are good from meat and produce. This system requires a fair amount of planning in the beginning, but with time you get a system and a rotation and you can improvise on certain nights. For example, we pretty much always have stuff to make eggs and pancakes, so if things are really crazy I can always do that until I get my act together for an order. Since you have an extra freezer, you can always have frozen pizza for an emergency down there. The key to meal planning is really in the planning though, and your post shows just how little time that actually needs to take!

  • Can I also add that our best food “routine” re shopping and cooking and meal planning is in the fall and spring. It is at these times that we are very busy on the weekends with sports. I have virtually no time to cook or clean or shop on the weekends, as we are outside and enjoying time at the ballfields. I have to snack plan, meal plan for time on the go, etc. It makes the season much more fun to not have stress about my pantry! But it is also nice to have a season off to recuperate. You will not regret taking the time to establish this new routine — especially in these winter months when your weekends are so full of fun.

  • Mama A

    1) Your MIL is a smart lady 😉 Many of the older women in my family would not be as sympathetic – me dropping the ball like that usually gives them an excuse to point out that I’m overwhelmed and the number of children I have is the reason why. UGH.

    2) For some reason, I find it so much easier to – as you say “Be gentle with myself” in the meal department during summer! I have no problem with simple meals then. Maybe it’s the abundance of cheap, fresh produce? I can pretty much throw together a big salad (use canned beans or grilled chicken on top), or marinade a piece of meat in the morning to grill for dinner later (and serve fresh fruit for dessert!), or even do hot dogs, potato chips, and baby carrots and all of those are served on paper plates and eaten outside. And I have no guilt whatsoever because those dinners usually mean that my children spent tons of time at the pool or the field or outside at a park.

    During the winter, I seem to put more pressure on myself to use real plates and have more “formal” dinners (mashed potatoes made from scratch, homemade soups, roasts, complicated pasta dishes, etc). But as you’ve pointed out – you’re not necessarily less busy in the winter!

    3) Go-to “easy” meals: nachos (spread tortilla chips on a big cookie sheet (or several sheets if you have a big family – I line mine with tin foil) and top with cheese, beans, fresh veggies, and sour cream or greek yogurt (or whatever else I have in the house); grilled cheese and tomato soup; french bread pizzas and salad or green beans on the side.

  • Jennifer

    have you tried amazon monthly shipping (“subscribe and save”) for things like diapers, wipes, baby soap, toothpaste, laundry detergeant, etc? If you have 5 or more things come in a month, you get 20% off everything. The prices are very good, and you don’t have to think about buying those things or hauling them from the store.

  • Jen Minson
  • Katrina

    How is the meal plan going so far?

  • Mary Alice

    I am just back from the month’s worth of grocery shopping — 5 carts, each child pushed one, but it was actually fun and they were super helpful. Now, to put it all away! It was easy to do the shopping because of a really good list.

  • Mary Alice

    I’ve had bad luck with that in the past but I am trying it again for now. We buy most of those items at SAMs every two months or so, but we have just run out and there wasn’t a free day in sight to get there, so I did order diapers and wipes, but I didn’t put them on auto ship.

  • Mary Alice

    Slow cookers were more expensive then I thought, so I didn’t buy one yet, there were also too many fancy options. My plain one does the job really well, just a rival with a ceramic insert.

  • Maggie

    You don’t need to buy a slow cooker. Putting everything in a covered pot in the oven at 200 degrees (low) or 300 degrees (high) will give you identical results.

  • Jennifer

    I haven’t been able to get involved with a sams/costco yet, even though I know it’s a good option. I get completely overwhelmed even by the THOUGHT of a store that big, so we rely on amazon for as much as possible.

  • Mary Alice

    Maggie, would you leave your oven on when you are out of the house? This makes me nervous. I also don’t like to leave the oven on when I have teenage babysitters at home with small children. I am going to look in to one of those toasty quilted things that you just put on a pot, though.

  • Katrina

    Mary Alice, I am comfortable leaving my oven on when I leave the house because I have a “bake time” feature. Basically, the oven shuts off when the timer goes off. I haven’t had any trouble in the past.
    Maggie, I appreciated the tip on using my oven as a slow cooker! I have an actual slow cooker, but sometimes I have needed two.