Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Two Week Meal Plan and Freezer Cooking

Who else plans meals ahead of time before going grocery shopping? I don't mean planning tomorrow night's dinner when you're shopping for groceries for tonight's dinner, I'm talking about planning a week, two weeks or even an entire month ahead of time. The idea of meal planning has mostly gone by the wayside in our fast paced society that offers delivery pizza, Chinese take out, and dozens upon dozens of fast food restaurants. However, there are a handful of people that still plan meals ahead of time, and plan their grocery list around those meals. And with a growing number of people working to become more self-sufficient despite our hurried society, this is one way to grow your pantry based on what you eat, to put better foods in your body, and to make the food budget stretch further each month.

Planning meals ahead of time has quite a few other great benefits. First off, and my favorite reason, you don't have to stress when you get home from work in the evening and everyone's bombarding you with THE question: "What's for dinner?". How nice is it when you have an answer right away?!? How about those of you with special dietary restrictions? You can't exactly NOT plan if there are certain foods you can't eat.

My second favorite reason to plan meals in advance is money: If you plan meals around what you have on hand and what is on sale (especially if you price match and use coupons), you can save a LOT!! In fact, between using what I already have on hand and combining sales with coupons and only buying what I absolutely need, I spent $150 on groceries this past weekend. Over the next couple weeks, I'll only need to stop by the store for milk and lettuce for the nights we have salads on the side. Keep in mind, that amount includes buying an extra can of whatever here and there, extra bacon, extra chicken breasts, extra hamburger, a few staple items and bleach for laundry day. Oh, did I forget to mention- I feed 7 to 8 people dinner daily???

While I try to bake some bread myself, I occasionally 'splurge' on store-bought bread!

Only two coupons this trip- usually there's more!
My third favorite reason to plan meals in advance? Time! This is where the Freezer Cooking comes in. Between the budget and other tasks vying for my waking hours on the weekends, I haven't built myself up to cooking for a month at a time yet, but I am cooking for a two week period at a time, and there is usually enough left over from some meals that we eat leftovers for lunch and sometimes eat leftovers for dinner. It does mean giving up a day or two on a weekend for a massive amount of chopping, prepping, cooking, mixing, bagging and freezing, but it also means that for the two to three weeks following, my dinner prep time is cut drastically. Most days I pull something out of the freezer in the morning to thaw for the following day, dump a bag from the fridge that had thawed into the Crock Pot, and enjoy dinner when I get home from work!

So now that I've built up the suspense, are you ready to see what my family is eating for the next couple weeks? I promise, the following meals are sure to please just about everyone. My youngest son is one of the pickiest eaters I know, and the only meal I anticipate him having a cow about is the Tex-Mex Slow Cooker Chicken- only because there is meat and veggies touching. If your kids don't mind foods touching, and especially if they like foods that have flavor, you should have no problem with these meals!

In no particular order, here you go!

Crock Pot Baked Potato Soup
I've fixed potato soup before, but not in the crock pot, so I'm really looking forward to this! It's always a winner served with crumbled bacon, cheese and green onions. It's also great during this cold weather!

Slow Cooker Ham & White Beans by Plainchicken.com
This is one of those meals that tastes better after a long day in the slow cooker, or after it's been frozen and reheated. All of the flavors have a chance to meld together, especially if you let the ham bone cook in the Crock Pot all day and simply remove it before serving (plus, you get all the meat off the bone that you otherwise can't pluck off by hand!). Don't forget to make a batch of cornbread from scratch to go with it!

Honey Baked Ham
Honey Baked Ham is normally a meal reserved for holidays and special occasions, but when the ham is on sale for super cheap, how can you pass it up?!? I bought two of these hams a while back and stuck them in the deep freezer waiting for the right time to use them... and this meal plan period just happened to be the right time for one of them. I'm fixing green bean casserole and au gratin potatoes to go with it... we'll probably have the other ham for our Easter dinner!

Ranch Parmesan Crusted Chicken
Chicken is always on sale, so I try to use it often in my meal plans, but I find it's easier to eat the same meat if I find multiple ways to fix it. This recipe uses things I have on hand already- all I had to buy was the shredded parmesan cheese!

Chicken Tater Tot Casserole
I've cooked other variations of the Tater Tot Casseroles before, but they usually include mixed veggies in the casserole. While this isn't a problem for most of the family, Mr. Picky always balked. This recipe doesn't include the veggies, and it gave me a chance to try another variation. We actually had this one tonight, and it got rave reviews! Well, except for Mr. Picky. He was in bed before dinner, not feeling well. :-(

Country Fried Hamburger Steak with Gravy
This is an easy way to make hamburger less plain. Make it a patty and cook it up like a cubed steak! I actually have some pre-formed hamburger steaks in the freezer, so I'll be using them this time. And the gravy is super easy to make from scratch, and even if you typically shy away from making it from scratch, the directions are included with the recipe. Along with this, we'll be having corn, rolls or biscuits from scratch (since other meals prepped in the freezer frees up time to bake on other evenings), and salad.

Super Slow Sloppy Joes
Sloppy Joes are quick and easy, and even quicker and easier in a Crock Pot!

Oven Baked Meatball Sandwiches
For these meatball sandwiches, you can make your own meatballs from scratch to season them the way you want, or you can buy frozen meatballs to make the meal even easier. Serve with some chips for a super easy meal!

Tex Mex Slow Cooker Chicken
We've had this recipe a couple of times, and while my youngest doesn't like it, everyone else LOVED it. The corn and beans mixed in help make it stretch, and make it a filling meal, without the need to cook any other side dishes. Serve it on tortillas with salsa, sour cream and guacamole, make burritos with it, or toss it on tortilla chips to make some nachos that are unbelievable!

Classic Meatloaf

Meatloaf is one of those things you either love or hate. Luckily for me, everyone in the family loves it! Some like it drier than others, but that's part of the reason I like it- you can add more glaze on to each individual serving if you like it more moist, and if you like it dry, leave it alone! I know some of you might have a family recipe memorized, or you just throw stuff together based on what looks right- I can't do that most of the time. I have to have a recipe to follow. If you don't, do your own thing!

Hot Pockets
Okay, okay, I know what you're thinking. Hot Pockets are for lunch. Even Rebecca over at A Beautiful Ruckus makes them for lunch. You know what happens when someone eats a dinner that consists of a 'lunch' food? Nothing bad, that's for sure! And sometimes a change of pace is nice. Not only that, but we don't need heavy filling meals all the time, right? Right!

The next three meals don't have links to the recipes, but if you need a recipe to follow they are abundant online!  The other three easy peasy meals include chili dogs, breakfast (biscuits and sausage gravy, eggs and bacon), and Chili Verde. The Chili Verde recipe I use is in a cookbook I have, Once A Month Cooking, that I was lucky enough to get from a friend for free, but is available for as little as a few dollars on Amazon.com. You could probably find it in the library as well!

I realize that not all of these meals are going to work great as freezer meals, but the few that can't be made ahead and frozen turn out to be pretty easy to throw together quickly and toss in the oven in a matter of minutes. In order to keep myself a little more organized and know quickly what I have ready and what I need, when I plan my meals, I write the recipes down on index cards. This makes it easy to form my grocery list, and when I need to know what meals I have to choose from, I simply flip through cards instead of digging around in the freezer or refrigerator. Once a meal has been cooked, I put the card in a different location with other used cards. Unless it was a new meal I hadn't made before and everyone hated it. In that case I toss the card in the trash, never to be seen again. Yeah, I've had to do that a time or two.

Let me know what your favorite freezer meals are, or if you have tips or tricks to your freezer cooking or any cooking for that matter- I'm sure I'm not the only one who's always looking for ways to make meals easier!