Meal tip Monday – how to plan for busy nights

Are you enjoying this focussed series? I didn’t want to announce it as such in case it brought up my inner rebel (!) but really, that’s what it is.

If you’ve missed the previous posts, here you go:

cook a double batch

know your style

Let’s talk about planning for busy nights. This might seem obvious but sometimes, and I know this is true for me, I’m planning the menu for the week without looking at my calendar. In South Africa, we have plenty of loadshedding at the moment. These tips work well for those nights too.

Here are a few things to consider:

  1. Check your calendar!
  2. Write in the nature of the busyness on your actual menu plan. For example, “late meeting/ 7pm Zumba/ school meeting, etc.”
  3. Think through if you have any freezer meals that will work and defrost them early.
  4. Alternatively, buy a rotisserie chicken on the weekend, heat it quickly and serve with rolls or crusty bread, and a salad. Chicken has the advantage of being good whether eaten hot or cold.
  • My Zumba nights are our standard “busy nights” on the menu as I arrive home at about 7:30.
  • For these nights I plan a “make your own ________ ” night. Burrito bowls work well because everyone helps themselves and the toppings can be prepared and set out beforehand.
  • Alternatively, I pop a complete meal in the oven and my family retrieves it via a timer and serves themselves. Any baked pasta or enchiladas is a good idea.

Which are your favourite tips for busy nights?

Meal tip Monday – Know yourself

One of the secrets to menu planning and meal success is to know yourself. But not only to know yourself, to accept yourself.

Let me give you a few examples:

  1. you might be a cook who likes leisurely weekend cooking sessions but hate the haste of weeknight cooking, or the opposite
  2. you might like the fact that you have to get a meal prepped and put on the table within 30 minutes because the torture is then done
  3. you might be a batch cook once a month and a heater-upper of food
  4. you might be an excellent assembler of random food (do you remember Cher in Mermaids?!)
  5. you might be an excellent orderer of food, or picker-up of convenience meals at the grocery store on the way home

Why is this important?

You know what works, you accept that this is who you are, and you remove decision fatigue thinking through options all the time.

I’ve shared before on the blog that my mother-in-law lives alone and hates cooking (although she’s good at it!) so she cooks four-portion meals for 5 nights every month, eats one and freezes the other three.

These meals change according to the seasons (soups and casseroles feature more in winter) but this system works really well for her.

She doesn’t concern herself with what other people are doing, or that others (like me) would be bored eating the same meal every Tuesday for a month. It works and that’s it.

I am a combination of a Saturday afternoon/ Monday evening leisure batch cook but I also like the competitiveness of getting a meal on the table in 30 minutes or less. I love variety (more on this later) so I like a combination of mixing up some freezer meals with one or two freshly cooked meals too.

The great thing is I know I’m never ever going to like cooking complicated meals so if I glance over a recipe, see that it’s complicated, I can swipe through with wild abandon. No, not for me.

What is your meal planning style? Have you accepted it yet?

I’m actually going through slight boredom with my meals at the moment. Any quick and easy winter meals that you recommend? I would love to hear because I’m tired of chilli con carne, curries and bolognaise. And if you have some tried and tested, easy chicken recipes, I would love those too.

Meal tip Monday – cook a double batch

While I enjoy cooking, I don’t like panicked cooking when my family is hungry and waiting and I have to produce a meal – and quickly.

I therefore strongly believe in cooking a double batch whenever I can.

It takes just a little bit longer than cooking a single batch of your meal – you already have the chopping board out for your vegetables so you might as well chop just a bit more onion or carrots. Instead of adding one can of tomatoes, add two, and so on. Double up on the meat portion.

The magic happens after the meal is cooked though. You have enough for tonight (or tomorrow, as I do it) and another meal for next week!

Which meals translate well to cooking a double batch?

  1. Baked pastas (surprisingly!) but the trick is to not leave it to thaw out on your counter the whole day unless you like soggy pasta. Defrost fast in the microwave and bake it in the oven.
  2. Curries
  3. Chilli con carne
  4. Bolognaise sauce
  5. Enchiladas

Do you cook double batches of meals? If you haven’t tried yet, this is your nudge to do so this month.

PS My mother-in-law has taken this up a notch. She lives alone and cooks 4-portion meals during one week a month. The next three weeks of the month she just pulls out what she feels like eating to defrost it. So clever!

Weekly planning – should you or shouldn’t you?

I started off with the question in the title because we are all different.

I can definitely say that weekly planning helps me in my life, but I recognise that we all prefer to do things in different ways.

If you’re very happy with your current non-weekly planning process, I’m delighted! However, if you feel like things could work a bit better here and there, then, as I always tell my coaching clients, test it and see. At the most, you’ve had two weeks that were more structured and a learning that the exact way you did it wasn’t optimal for you. But who knows? The opposite is also true – you might love something and never stop doing it (menu planning for me the last 15 years).

If you do decide you want to play with weekly planning, here are some ideas you can try planning:

  • meals (supper, or all meals) for 5 or 7 days – put down some ideas and pick from your list every day
  • exercise days – my gym requires that we book our classes to avoid capacity issues
  • connection time with family and friends
  • personal goals – like reading a book or working on your photos
  • house goals – organising your clothes
  • work/ side hustle projects

Please note all of these are just ideas – the thought of doing all of that might overwhelm you. Don’t let it. Pick what you want and leave the rest.

I know that Laura Vanderkam recommends one goal in three areas every week: work, personal, and relationships.

If you don’t like those three categories, choose your own 😉

Who’s ready to try weekly planning? Which categories are important to you?

Other posts on weekly planning:

{Covid-19} How we do meals during lockdown

Let’s talk about lockdown and meals. I have been responsible for all but 4 – 5 meals during the last 83 days. The 4 – 5 meals were when we ordered in.

Part of that is a control issue (I do like to plan and cook the meals, and make sure than we don’t eat the same thing too much), part of that was a logistics issue (I am better at getting things done in the short time after work and when we want to eat) and part of that is a planning issue (at the start especially, there was so much that wasn’t available and food needed to be used up to make sure nothing went to waste).

Very soon though, I realised that after more than 8 hours of sitting at a desk, I enjoyed the chopping and slicing, combining, and flavouring. Doing things with my hands enabled me to use other parts of my mind and body. Is it the same for you?

Breakfast

Everyone is on a different schedule so does their own thing. I have noticed that during winter, my husband’s been preparing enough oats for him and the kids (I don’t eat any mushy food – I like my oats toasted and hard, like in granola). Friends, if people take over tasks in the house, say nothing!

We have variations on cereals like all-bran flakes, muesli, yoghurt, toast, etc. Nothing fancy or cooked.

Lunch

I usually loosely plan lunches – sandwiches with tuna, eggs, cheese, ham (when it was warmer), sometimes leftovers, etc.

I usually make the kids’ lunches – they are quite capable but I am not a fan of cleaning up after them as they don’t see all the crumbs, etc.

Suppers

I definitely make a menu plan. The menu plan is loose so I often swop meals around within the week, or abandon something altogether if I’m not in the mood to cook that meal.

Of course, as always, I run a very tight freezer inventory because I hate forgotten food and I love using up things. I’m a finisher.

On the weekends, I prepare that evening’s meal plus at least one extra. E.g. while I’m cooking pasta, I’m assembling enchiladas for the freezer. Sometimes the extras even run to two extra meals, which really helps during the week when I don’t have much time. Long-time readers will know that I always advocate cooking a double batch. When I did those enchiladas, there was enough filling for two meals – yay!

Working during this pandemic has been relentless and I’m afraid I’m not very good at switching off (yet) without a hard deadline like a Zumba class, so it helps when there are healthy meals in the freezer.

I always love cooking during winter so it’s been fun to experiment with the occasional new meal and to try desserts.

One thing I will say – I have not once baked banana bread or even been tempted to make a sourdough bread 😉

What’s been your lockdown meals situation? Have you been eating out of your freezer and using up food? Would you say you’ve eaten better (healthier) or not so much?

No-fail menu planning

Last year I wrote two posts on menu planning that were two of the most popular posts on my blog the entire year.

If you didn’t see them, here’s post 1 and here’s post 2.

The reason I go on and on about this is because it is such a game-changer when you make it part of your weekly routine.

Today I want to give you two methods of menu planning that are truly very easy.

Base your meals on the protein. E.g.

Monday – legumes like lentils or kidney beans (chilli con carne using just kidney beans served over rice or baked potatoes)

Tuesday – chicken (chicken breasts, chicken a la King, chicken curry)

Wednesday – fish (grilled fist in the oven with chips or mashed potato)

Thursday – chicken again (add a second night of the protein your family likes the most, and if it’s chicken, choose from the list above)

Friday – cheese (pizza)

Saturday – eggs (breakfast for dinner, or quiche)

Sunday – beef (stir fry, steak, etc.)

(of course, I only plan for 5 nights and there’s usually enough in the fridge for the other two nights)

OR

you could do the same as above around the carbohydrate

Monday – rice

Tuesday – potatoes or chips

Wednesday – pasta

Thursday – wraps

Friday – pizza or bread-based

(this is mostly how I menu plan because I get bored eating the same carbs two nights in a row)

OR

you could plan meals around the type of dish

  • Oven bake
  • Casserole
  • Slow-cooker
  • Stir-fry

I hope I’ve given you some new ideas.

But even if you have a good system going, try planning using one of these 3 plans occasionally to jazz things up in the kitchen.

Will you let me know in the comments if you give it a bash? I’d love to hear.

But also, as we’re in summer in South Africa, please let me know your favourite meals to make in summer.

This is how I make my house run smoothly

Life is such a whirlwind, isn’t it? If you’re anything like me, it often seems like the weeks go by in a blur of activity…and then it’s weekend again. Or the weekends go by so quickly and when Monday comes around, you feel like you’ve just started to relax and the week is upon you once again.

The problem with this is that we never have a sense of peace, calm and control. A feeling that we are directing the course of our own lives.

I’ve been going through a really hectic couple of months so I thought I’d share some of the systems I’ve set up to make our lives easier:

Household calendar
We have one household calendar in our kitchen where we mark off any commitments like church, school meetings, book club, socials, and so on. I also mark off the recycling pick-up days, when we buy electricity, and when the gardener needs to be paid.

I couple this with weekly planning. I look at my diary on a Sunday and put in my appointments for the week. I also add any tasks that I need or want to work on, like writing blogs, the newsletter and so on.

When you write down everything, and you see your calendar full of events, it’s easy to see where you need to cut back.

Menu planning
I love menu planning because it saves me time. When I say this to people, they think I’m crazy because “how can all that planning save you time?” It’s quite simple – it takes me about 10 to 15 minutes every Friday (if I’m on the ball) or Saturday and that planning saves me time from Monday to Friday, when I need it most. No more standing in front of the open fridge wondering what to make for supper.

The great thing is you can still be spontaneous within the plan. I plan meals for the working week but if I don’t feel like a particular meal that day, I change it around and cook another day’s meal. Like if it’s very hot and I planned to have baked potatoes with a topping, I may postpone that to another day and make a pasta salad instead.

Here’s a detailed look at why you should consider menu planning and  how I do menu planning

Regular decluttering and organising
I tackle 1 -2 areas in our home every weekend. Let’s face it – if we are constantly buying things and bringing them into our homes and lives, clutter is constantly building up unless we get rid of some of it. I agree with Konmari (here’s my take on the Konmari method) that you do a once-off thorough tidy, but if you’re buying things regularly, you need to declutter regularly. I’ve even taught the kids this principle with a glass of water and how it overflows if we keep pouring water in.

It doesn’t have to be a huge exercise. While you’re busy cooking or baking, you can sort out a cupboard or two. I have a tendency of burning rice and carrots so I stay in the kitchen whenever I cook these and use the time constructively to sort out a cupboard or drawer, plan my menus, write out my shopping list, etc.

When you factor in just 15 minutes’ decluttering and organising per space every weekend, you can easily maintain your home if it is already organised. Of course, if your house is nowhere near where you’d like it, I would suggest 15 minutes every day. Download 31 days of easy organising solutions for plenty of ideas.

See the little nook next to the door?

Launch pad
Do you know the place in your house where you dump your bags as you enter? Flylady calls this a launch pad. I like that term because it reminds me of action. We have a little nook just inside our front door that I use for our launch pad.

Mornings are one of the worst times in most families – you can’t find your keys, wallet, bag, etc. Frantic running around and screaming happens and that is just not fun.

The point is that we use our launch pads to ready ourselves for mornings. Every evening I pack my handbag and laptop, and they are left here. In the mornings all I do is grab and go. Literally once I leave the bedroom, I walk to the fridge to get my lunch bag, grab my keys on the way to the launch pad, get my bags and I’m out of there. Two minutes tops!

Over to you. Which systems can you implement to make your life easier this month?

 

How I do menu planning, and what I cook for my freezer

Have you read my post on why you should consider menu planning?

 

I do my menu planning weekly but if you’re more of an all or nothing person, you might want to just plan a month’s worth of meals and get it all over and done with at one time.

Weekly or monthly menu planning for you?

I feel like I’m doing that thing with my kids where I say “cucumber or tomatoes?”

IMG_0929

A couple of ideas on ways to approach menu planning:

  • have a theme for each day: mince on Mondays/ chicken on Tuesdays/ vegetarian on Wednesdays/ fish on Thursday/ easy Friday (pizza/ eggs/ soup)
  • cook a certain number of nights and use freezer dishes for the rest
  • delegate certain nights to your spouse

How I do it

1. Generally, D does supper on Tuesdays and Sundays. The trick when you delegate is you are not allowed to say a single thing except “thank you for the lovely supper”. They will stop if you nag about anything. Tell yourself the kids will be fine without vegetables for 1 – 2 nights. I don’t write anything on my menu plan except “D”.

Sundays is usually toast with peanut butter, cheese, etc. and this is (sadly) the kids’ favourite meal of the week.

2. According to my daughter, we always have rice on a Monday (I checked my menu plans and turns out, she’s right 🙂 I haven’t intentionally planned it like that, but I do like rice/ pasta/ rice/ potatoes/ bread-based within my 5 meals.

3. We very rarely go out for supper because 1) I can whip up a pasta quicker than us getting ourselves sorted and to the nearest place and waiting for our meal 2) we prefer lunches out

4. I cook a lot on the weekends. Not every weekend, but about one or two weekends in a 5-week period. That feels about right to me. I may make 3 meals but I cook double so that’s 6 nights’ suppers sorted.

5. Leftovers. Don’t discount the leftovers. Those meals I cook on the weekends last longer than I anticipate because often we don’t have to have the 5th meal of the week because there is enough leftovers. Sometimes I’ve had supper out, sometimes D only wants half of his supper because he’s home later, and so on.

Meals that freeze well

Some people think potato or pasta doesn’t freeze well. I have done both and the meals are still perfectly fine. I think the trick is to not let it thaw forever out on the counter because your food will get watery (yuck!). I put it in the microwave to defrost it a bit for about 6 minutes (that’s two presses of the quick defrost button on my microwave) and then straight into the oven to crisp up.

  1. Cottage pie
  2. Baked pasta dishes. When you cook one dish to have “fresh” on the night, do another dish for the freezer. Put it in the casserole dish, put some cling wrap (Saran wrap) on the top, and into the freezer.
  3. Rice
  4. Curries
  5. Bolognaise
  6. Chicken a la King
  7. Taco mince
  8. Chilli con carne
  9. Chicken and broccoli casserole
  10. Soup and the rolls 🙂

and so on (share your ideas in the comments please)

IMG_0930

Do you menu plan? Weekly or monthly?

Do you cook freezer meals? Which ones are your favourites?

Why you should menu plan

I was chatting to a friend a few weeks ago and I told her that when things feel like they’re going off track, there’s one thing that I need to do: make a menu plan.

Today, let’s talk about why I do menu planning (I’ve been menu planning for 11 years now), and why you should consider doing so too.

Do you menu plan?

Good reasons to menu plan

  • it saves you daily decision time
  • saves you money when you use up all the food in the freezer and pantry, and stops you buying foods you don’t need
  • no stress about what to cook every night as even if you don’t feel like eating what you put on your menu, you know there’s at least 4 other options to choose from

I play a little game with myself and aim for sticking to the menu plan 4 out of 5 nights. Remember I’m not a perfectionist. Good enough is better than perfect.

How do you start menu planning

Note – please do this before you go to the shops to do your grocery shopping 😉

1. Go to your freezer and cupboards to see what food you have that you need to use up, and make a list.
2. Write out a menu plan for a week (if you do weekly shopping) or longer, using recipes to use up that food. Get creative.
3. Add any items that you need to your weekly shopping list and do your shopping. You may have some pasta and cans of tuna so in order to use them up, you might need a few cans of tomato.
4. Stick the menu plan to your fridge.

Now you don’t have to rack your brain every night wondering what to cook because you have a plan.

Another tip that will save you lots of time is to cook something on a Sunday afternoon. This meal is not for eating that day, but for freezing. I heard a podcast recently (I don’t know how she does it – an Aussie podcast) where the lady said she makes all the lunches for the week on a Sunday afternoon and while she’s doing that, she bakes muffins or bread. Brilliant!

When you have a busy day it’s easy to just defrost the meal and have a healthy supper on the table in minutes.

We went through a stage where we didn’t buy any meat for two months while we finished everything in the freezer and started on the cupboards. You see, we all get into a habit of buying the same groceries every week without checking if we really need it.

If you’re not already menu planning, I’d like to encourage you to at least start. Do so for at least a month, give it a good go and see if it doesn’t save you time and money.

And if you already do menu planning, then your challenge for this week is to only buy perishables and eat from your freezer and cupboards.

Are you menu planning?

Is there anything you’d like to change about your process? Do you have any special tips?

PS Look out on Thursday for how I do my menu planning and some freezer meal ideas

What kind of food planning do you need?

I figured something out ages ago.

When life feels too busy, the one way I can restore some order quickly is to menu plan.

I’ve been menu planning about 9 years now and it’s the best! It saves time because you’re not thinking about what to cook every night, and money because you buy exactly what you need.

Grocery prices in South Africa (and I’m sure over the world too) have skyrocketed, so if you can save money, that’s always a bonus.

IMG_0929

I usually only plan menus a week at a time, but I really want to get all the “old food” cooked and eaten, so this weekend past, I menu planned for two weeks.

My menu planner hangs on the side of our microwave, and is one I get from CNA. I buy whichever ones are in stock at the time, but I really love the current one I’m using because it has notes down the right, so I can note down which meals are in the freezer, or which I have to cook from scratch. I also use that section to plan my lunches for the week.

I’ve said this before but it’s worth repeating – as long as you have your 5 meals “ready” on the list, you can mix them up. If you don’t feel like pasta but it’s on the plan for Monday, do the meal for Wednesday instead.

Menu planning helps you use up food too and I can tell you my kids are so glad the broccoli is all used up now because we had that twice this week 😉

IMG_0930 Do you menu plan?

If yes, do you plan weekly, two weeks at a time or a month at a time?

If no, what’s stopping you? Why don’t you give it a bash, just for a week?

PS Friday evening/ Saturday morning is when I menu plan for the following week because Dion goes shopping on Saturdays. I have strict rules for myself – we never just “pop” out to the shops; we make do if we don’t have what we wanted. As I always say, no-one’s going hungry; it’s just that your first preference might not be available 😉



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