Wednesday, May 22, 2019

Intentional Meal Planning: Recipes

This series on meal planning has been so much fun that I'm sad to see it come to a close! I hope you all have found help for your own meals and some great ideas. Please share them with me! I'd love to know what you've learned and tried.

Before we end, we have one last topic to cover: recipes. Many of you asked me how I find recipes, how I create variety in our meals, and how to plan dinner from the pantry. I'll break down all of that and share a few of my favorite recipe books and recipes with you.

Finding Recipes

It can be so hard to find new recipes when you're in a rut. Many people recommend Pinterest, but I've had more than a few Pinterest fails in my time, so I shy away from trying recipes there regularly. Here's a few of my favorite options:

Check out recipe books from the library.

Most libraries have a large selection of cookbooks and it can be fun to browse through them if you have time. I'll often grab 2 or 3 that look interesting and take them home to browse more. I typically only try one or two recipes in a cookbook, but usually they turn out quite well!

Ask friends for recommendations.

Most of your friends likely have a few go-to recipes that are different than yours. Ask around and see what they are eating. Ask them if they have a favorite cookbook or a favorite food blog. If a good friend is enjoying the book or blog chances are you might too. Also, ask for their favorite Pinterest recipes (the ones they've successfully cooked!) and you'll find those hidden gems!

Ask family members.

There are generations of women who have been cooking far longer than you who would love to share their ideas. I regularly use my mother-in-law's chicken soup recipe that she passed on to me a few years ago. When I got married, I was given a cookbook full of recipes from friends and family that I still use! Even if you aren't getting married, ask for recipes as gifts for a birthday or holiday.

Try celebrity recipe books.

It seems like everyone has a recipe book these days! Find a celebrity chef you like and try their cookbook. I personally really like Joanna Gaines and Paula Deen.

Try copycat recipes. 

Have you ever eaten an amazing meal at a restaurant and wished you could eat it every day? Google "copycat recipe" plus the meal you love and you'd be surprised what you find! Not every recipe is exactly the same, but you can find something pretty darn close to what you love. There's even an entire recipe book devoted to this.

Recipe Books

Now for a few of my own favorites! I don't own very many recipe books, but the ones I do have I use over and over again.

The I Heart Naptime Cookbook by Jamielyn Nye

This is hands-down my favorite cookbook. It's written by moms for moms and the recipes are delicious. I reguarly use her crockpot chicken tacos recipe, taquitos, baked ziti, and many more.

Magnolia Table by Joanna Gaines

This is my newest addition. I absolutely love her creamy chicken and rice soup.

DIY Recipe Album

This is my golden ticket. Right here. I began copying down recipes I regularly use back in high school, and I've kept up with it. My binder is from Hallmark, but you can use any old binder or try one from Amazon.

I mentioned that I was given recipes when I got married- I tried out a number of them and my favorites went into my recipe binder. My favorite blog or Pinterest recipes make their way in here. Bottom line- if I use it regularly it goes in. I find I prefer a handwritten recipe to a digital file, and I look forward to passing this along to my kids someday!

Pantry Recipes

Pantry recipes are my catch-all term for anything you throw together for dinner from your fridge, freezer, pantry without having to run to the store. Here's my quick list:
  • - Pasta with a jar of tomato sauce
  • - Crockpot chicken: place frozen chicken breasts in the crockpot with a bottle of oil-based salad dressing all day, then combine chicken and sauce with cooked pasta
  • - Salad kit from the grocery store with any leftover meat I have on hand
  • - Stir-fried veggies and meat in a bottle of Asian sauce plus rice
  • - Honey Mustard Chicken

What is one of your favorite recipes? Tell me in the comments!

Wednesday, April 17, 2019

Intentional Meal Planning: Grocery List and Shopping

Hello again, friends! We spent last week in Florida for part of Eli's spring break, and we had a wonderful time. It's also nice to be back home again, resuming our routines. And I'm back with more meal planning! Today I'm talking about my actual shopping and planning. From my past posts, you've seen my vision, budget, and pantry staples. Now let's explore what actually happens on grocery day.

Step One: Plan You Week

On Saturday or Sunday morning, I sit down with my planner, grocery list, phone, and a cup of coffee. I run through my phone calendar and check in with Ben, writing down everything happening for the week on my planner's weekly spread. I make a point to write down everything from doctor's visits to sports to school happenings to play dates. The more I write down, the more I can see what dinner will look like each day. This provides clarity on how much time I'll have to cook, who's eating dinner each night, and any special occasions or changes to our normal schedule.

Step Two: Schedule Your Meals

I write down a planned dinner for each day of the week, including weekends (I don't plan breakfast or lunch). If we are going out to eat, I write that down. If Ben is grilling, it goes in. Even take-out pizza goes in a slot if it's happening. The one other thing I do write down is if I need to bring food to an event. Planning ahead for your shopping trip is the name of the game!

Taking in to account our habits (like Taco Tuesday), our weekly schedule, and our out-to-eat days, I finish by filling in with recipes. I have a stack of recipe books (Look for my final post on meal planning recipes next!) that I typically browse, plus I use Pinterest. As I write down our meals, I'll sometimes note the recipe's source so I don't forget. I also write in any sides that I'm planning to serve so that I have a full meal planned.

How do I know what to cook each week? I take into account what my family likes, the season, what we ate last week, and what's on sale. I have a stock of recipes I like (you probably do too!) and I try to add in one or two new-to-us recipe each week. This week's new recipe is Honey Garlic Chicken from Pinterest.

Here is an example of my meal plans for this week:
Monday: Honey Mustard Chicken, Rice, Salad
Tuesday: Chicken Tacos, Chips + Guac
Wednesday: Crock Pot Honey Garlic Chicken, Rice, Asparagus
Thursday: Black Bean Quesadillas
Friday: Hamburgers, Veggie, Fruit
Saturday: Homemade Pizza
Sunday: Pulled Pork Sandwiches, Sweet Potato Fries, Coleslaw

As a note, be sure of two things as you plan your meals: 1) there are no hard and fast rules! If you schedule chicken for Monday but need to move it to Wednesday, do it. Nobody is judging you. 2) Choose meals with your schedule in mind. I love crock pot meals for days where we have a busy afternoon, and I'll try a new recipe when I know I have time to complete it or Ben will be home early so he can keep the kids busy.

Step Three: Write Your Grocery List

I grocery shop once per week, usually on Sunday or Monday. This is quite truthfully one of the ways we save money best-- only shopping once a week. Little purchases add up quickly and can make you unintentionally blow through your budget. The very best way to keep to once a week is to write your list!

I write my list here as step three because you want to create your list only after your schedule is in place. This allows you to simply copy down ingredients you'll need, and keeps you from forgetting an item. I keep my list somewhere I can find it during the week, and add any items we need as I think of it. If I have any coupons, I'll write a small C next to the coupon item. I also make a separate list on the back or to the side with household items, personal care, and anything else I might need to pick up while I'm shopping.

After I run through my week's recipes and write down any ingredients I need, I check my pantry, fridge, and freezer, and list any staples I need to restock. I also ask Ben if he needs anything, and ask Eli if he has any requests for packed school lunches.

Finally, while we don't plan our breakfasts and lunches, we have a regular rotation of options. I make sure to add these items (think bread, peanut butter, eggs, etc) to my list as well.

Step Four: Go Shopping!

I like to do this all in one go. I hit Aldi, a regular grocery store, and sometimes Walmart too. For those of us with small kids or busy schedules, I know this can be a lot. Try making this your alone time- grab a coffee and enjoy shopping while someone watches your kids. Or if you bring your kids, give them a snack or a reward for helping. A friend also introduced me to Instacart this week. That's a game changer! Whatever you do, the idea is to do one giant trip once per week and then do everything you can to wait a full week to go shopping again.

Money-Saving Tips:

- Buy what's on sale! Grab your local store's grocery add online or in your paper, and lay it own while you plan meals to help you see what's on sale and how you can incorporate that into your week.
- Use one meat multiple times. I find meat adds up quickly, and when I buy several types, it runs up my grocery bill. This week, for example, I'm using chicken 3 times. We are cooking a pork butt for Easter, so next we'll we will have pork taquitos and pork sandiwches. Re-purpose as often as you can, buying large packages of one type of meat to see you through the week.
- Buy only what you can afford. Find a fantastic recipe that includes 5 expensive ingredients? Save it for a special occasion. Try to use recipes that generally have ingredients already in your pantry.

Now that we've made it through the meal planning process all the way to your shopping trip, what else would you like to know? Have I answered your questions? Comment below and I'll include answers next time!

Thursday, April 4, 2019

Intentional Meal Planning: Prep Work

I'm having so much fun going through this series with you all! I hope you're enjoying it as much as I am. Now that your budget is in place, so let's move on to preparation. Prep work is everything you do to get ready to meal plan. For me, that's pantry staples, a planner, and a list. You might add in something else like a menu board or coupons, so be sure to find what works best for you.

Pantry Staples

A well stocked pantry is a gift. It means you have food within reach and can start your cooking from a baseline. Once you have a pantry in place, it makes grocery shopping and cooking so much easier! But getting to that point can be expensive and tricky. When we moved last summer, I had to leave behind the majority of my pantry, and it took several months to restock.

Only you can choose your specific staples list, but here is mine:


Over the years we have used a kitchen cabinet, a shelf in the basement, or an actual pantry closet to store these supplies. Use whatever space you have a choose your supplies accordingly!
Baking Supplies: flour, sugar, brown sugar, powdered sugar, vanilla, cocoa powder, baking powder, baking soda, cornstarch (I bake a lot!)
Herbs & Spices: salt, kosher salt, black & red pepper, garlic powder, thyme, oregano, rosemary, seasoning blends, taco seasoning packets, ranch seasoning packets
Prepackaged Foods: boxed rice mixes, mac & cheese, pasta (long noodles, shaped noodles, orzo), parmesan cheese
Canned Goods: diced tomatoes, black beans, garbanzo beans, chicken broth (mine actually comes in a box)
Sauces: tomato sauce, salsa, BBQ sauce, marinades, dijon mustard, simmer sauces, oil-based salad dressing, peanut butter
Packaged foods: tortilla chips, pretzels, baby food pouches, protein bars, popcorn
We also buy rice in a 30lb bag and store it in a giant bucket.

This is my pantry shelf where I store my non-perishables. Most of these items are from Aldi and the syrup is from Brandless.


Sauces: ketchup, BBQ sauce, mustard, soy sauce, salad dressing (one creamy, one vinegar based), syrup
Dairy: milk, almond milk, eggs, sour cream, heavy cream, shredded cheese, butter
Other: jelly, lemon juice


Veggies: chopped onions, 3 pepper & onion blend, stir fry blend, corn
Meat: chicken breast, chicken thighs, ground beef
Other: cookie dough balls, bananas, frozen fruit for smoothies, more butter

A few tips to keep your pantry up-to-date:

  • * Make a list of everything you need, but don't currently have. Add a few items to your weekly grocery list until your pantry is complete. When an item goes on sale, buy multiple packages if you have extra storage space.
  • * Use a site like Brandless to buy pantry basics at reasonable prices. We love their pure maple syrup, tahini, and baby food pouches.
  • * Herbs and spices can be expensive, but quality makes a huge difference. I use Penzeys Spices for about 80% of my pantry. I keep a running list on my phone of spices I want or run out of, and then about once a quarter I run to our Penzey's store. I've also considered using companies like Brandless to order bulk spices, but haven't tried it yet.
  • * Decant your baking supplies into jars. I use mason jars for smaller items and plastic storage containers for the larger ones. Make sure to use clear plastic or glass so it's easy to see what supplies are running low. This also makes it significantly easier to store!
  • * As soon as you use the last of a pantry staple, grab your list and write it down for the coming week. It can be hard to remember at first, but you'll find this easier than trying to remember on grocery day or run to the store at the last minute.

Now that you have your pantry, let's move to planning meals each week. 

I typically sit down at our kitchen table on Saturday mornings with a cup of coffee and grab my planner, list, recipe books, and phone. It takes me about 30 minutes a week, and when I'm done I have a plan for the next seven days plus my completed grocery list.

Meal Planner

Meal planners come in all shapes and sizes. Some friends of mine use a menu board (this one is magnetic!) or a simple sticky note, while others have a specific planner just for meals. This year, I've been using Emily Ley's Simplified Planner that includes a box on each day to write in your dinner option. I'm planning to switch to a May Designs planner when my Simplified one ends in July and will write in our dinner selection on each day's log. May Designs also offers a specific menu planner. I'd suggest checking Target or Amazon to see what they have to offer, or ask your friends what they use.

The point here is not so much what you use as writing it down. I typically grab my calendar (on my phone or in my planner) and think through our week and what might be good to eat when. I also take into account things like the weather or visitors. I'll serve a crock pot dish if we'll be at the doctor all afternoon or a soup if it's a cold, rainy day.

As a note, I do not plan breakfasts, lunches, or snacks. I know some people do find that helpful, so find out what's best for you. I offer a small array of options for breakfast and lunch that my kids choose between. I don't eat breakfast, and Ben grabs something at work. For lunch, I eat leftovers, PBJ, or a salad with chicken. Ben takes leftovers to work on days he doesn't have a lunch meeting.

Find my planner and list pad at Simplified!

Grocery List

Here again, the idea isn't so much to have a cute list as it is to just make a list. For many years, I grabbed a $1 magnetic list pad from the Target Dollar Spot. When I ordered my planner last year, I ordered a list pad from Simplified as well. I like the idea of categories, but don't like the way it's broken up. (I usually fill a couple sections and have one or two mostly empty.) So all that to say, grab any sheet of paper pr pad you like and make a list!

Up next? Recipes! I'll share my favorite recipe books plus a few of our tried and true staple recipes that use items from my pantry.

Tuesday, April 2, 2019

Intentional Meal Planning: Budget

Now that we have our why, it’s time to prepare! Today we are going to talk budget.

My goal today is to get you ready to plan. I used to run to the grocery store, wandering the aisles and wonder how on earth we are going to get a meal plan together. I’d come home with a giant grocery bill and a whole lot of food we never ate. So this post and the next one will help you set yourself up for success.

Up today, budget and spending! I regularly hear from families that their grocery budget is too high, or that they have no idea how much they spend. Although budgets can be a pain (I hate them!) they make a world of difference. When you know how much you spend and how much you plan to spend, you can get your finances in order.

Only you and your family can set your budget, but I’m going to use mine as an example here. I recommend setting your numbers in place for the month or the year, giving you a bird’s eye view, and then dividing it into weeks. I have a goal of grocery shopping once per week, so I divide my spending accordingly.

Before I lay out our family’s plan, I also want to tell you the secret to sticking to our budget: CASH. A couple times a month I withdraw cash from the bank, divide it up, and use it for groceries and a few other categories. When my cash is gone, my spending is done. Honestly, this is super difficult for me, but it proves effective. It also forces me to get creative in how I shop if I know I only have so much cash in my wallet!


Our family spends $400/ month on groceries (around $90 per week). I plan meals weekly for our family of five (three children, ages 7, 4, and 1 plus two adults). We divide up our spending quite a bit, so this $400/month only accounts for actual food. We have a separate out-to-eat budget that allows us to go out a couple of times a month. I also have $60/month for household goods—this includes paper products, cleaning supplies, personal care items, makeup, etc, and $100/month for kids—diapers, clothes, kid activities, etc. The last category I’ll mention is what we call our “hosting budget.” We hold $40/month in an account that we use if we have families over for a big dinner or a house guest. We don’t use this every month, but we let it accumulate so we have what we need for hospitality.

So how does all this work together? I usually bring $80-100 in cash to the grocery store, plus I keep the $60 household cash in my wallet, spending as needed until it’s gone. Your budget might look different than mine, but the point is the same—make a plan and stick to it. Give yourself the goal of not overspending for a month and see how you do.


Several of the responses on Instagram were how I only spend $90 a week on groceries. Truth be told, it’s actually the most I’ve every spent! I’ve used this budget in both Colorado and North Carolina, so I have found it works in multiple areas of the country. Here are a few of the strategies I use:

Buy what’s in season.

When it comes to fresh fruits and vegetables, I could easily spend my whole budget! I have learned to buy what’s in season. I do a quick scan through the fruits and veggies, then grab whatever is on the best sale. Rather than aiming for variety each week, I aim for variety throughout the year. So we may eat a lot of asparagus for awhile, but we’ll switch to broccoli or green beans later.

This also works on some non-perishables. Baking supplies are usually cheapest between October and December. During those months, I use a portion of my weekly grocery budget on flour, sugar, and chocolate chips so I’m stocked up for the year.

Buy in “bulk.”

We don’t have a Costco membership, so bulk is a loose term. What I do is purchase products I know we’ll use in larger quantities when they go on sale. I have a general tally in my head of what good prices are on different items. If I see something at a great price, I stock up. For example, my kids love Annie’s brand organic mac & cheese. It’s usually $1.50-$2 per box. $1 per box is a great price, so when I see it at that price, I buy 10 boxes. Or if chicken happens to drop below $1.99/lb I’ll get 10 lbs. and freeze it. When Ben and I first got married, we had pasta night at least once a week—we used to wait for our favorite pasta sauce and noodles to go on sale and then buy 20 jars and 20 boxes of noodles. We eat a little less pasta now, but the idea is the same!

Use your freezer!

Like I mentioned with chicken above, when I find a good price on meat, I buy it and freeze it. I like using quart size freezer bags so it’s pre-portioned and easier to defrost.
I like to buy frozen veggies in the freezer aisle. Did you know that for around $1 you can get a back of frozen, chopped onion that’s about the same as 3 onions? I love these because they don’t go bad and they’re so much easier to cook with! I also buy veggie stir fry blends, peppers & onions, and frozen corn.
I also like to freeze cookie dough balls. When I bake, I’ll double the batch and freeze half in balls. Next time I need cookies, I don’t have to do a last minute store run for chocolate chips or flour.

Shop around.

After years of shopping, I know what costs less where. Particularly since we’ve moved to North Carolina, I buy certain things at certain stores. I typically do my weekly grocery shopping by stopping at Aldi first, then finishing at Harris Teeter. I also have a short list of items that are cheapest at Wal-Mart. Sometimes I’ll set aside a little money and grab those items the next time I’m shopping there. In Colorado, I used to buy most things at King Soopers (a Kroger store) and follow up at Sprouts Farmers Market.

Buy less organic.

I know, I know, organic is all the rage right now. Personally? I’m not always convinced that organic is the best way to go. Sometimes it feels more like a brand tax than an actual difference. I tend to look for more “natural” products or a small ingredients lists than organic. And while I do look for “no growth hormones” in my milk, eggs, and meat, I don’t buy free range or organic unless the price is right. For produce, I try to buy organic if it’s on the dirty dozen list, but otherwise I stick to regular.

Skip the name brands.

Unless you have a very favorite product (for us it’s Blue Bell Ice Cream), skip the name brand and go generic. You can usually find a product that’s basically the same thing for much less money.

Choose a “meat of the week” and use it multiple times

This week I bought 3 ½ lbs of chicken. Yesterday we had grilled chicken, tonight we’re eating chicken tacos, and later this week I’ll make chicken curry. Last week I used ground beef for tacos and hamburgers. Another week Ben smoked a pork butt that we used as pulled pork, taquitos, and pork sandwiches. I aim for around 3 days with the “meat of the week” and then fill in with vegetarian options or out-to-eat days in between.

Have a few weekly meal staples.

We always eat some form of tacos on Tuesday and make homemade pizza on Friday or Saturday night. I know this, so I am always planning ahead for the ingredients. When cheese goes on sale I buy a lot and freeze it. I do the same with tomato sauce.

Keep your options simple.

With three kids, the name of the game is easy. We give our kids a few good options for breakfast (oatmeal, toast, or cereal) and lunch (PBJ, grilled cheese, turkey sandwich, mac & cheese), and our family all eats the same dinner. I also buy a few snacks (off brand!) in large boxes for the kids to enjoy.  I don't buy juice, soda, pre-made lunch kits, or individually pre-packaged snacks. Honestly, they're bad for kids anyways and they are expensive. I have a couple reuseable snack bags I send to school with Eli or take to the park instead.

Take the next week and set your budget with your partner. Find a number you can both agree on, then give it a go for at least a month before you make changes. And let me know how it goes! I can't wait to hear!