Meal Planning

Meal Planning

Confession – meal planning was one of the few organizational tips and tricks that I had never adopted. I have helped clients with theirs, and I definitely saw the value in it. But it just hadn’t really worked with the kind of life my family led. We had dinner together whenever practices, rehearsals, part-time jobs, travel schedules, etc. allowed. I just didn’t usually have a plan, and that worked okay for us. Honestly, it was one of the few things that I enjoyed not planning.

Or so I thought.

Enter the Pandemic

Suddenly, my usual two or three trips a week to the grocery store were not going to be an option. I did an inventory of what I had in the freezer (not much) and the pantry (even less). I quickly made a list of things I could cook with what I had. Then, I looked at a dozen or so of our favorite recipes and added what I needed for those to the list. Finally, I went to Costco and to my local grocery store and got enough food to make three meals a day, for four people, for the next two weeks.

A Journey of Discovery

  1. Food is expensive. I had somewhat insulated myself from that reality by making multiple trips and only buying a few days’ worth of food at a time. Yes, when I looked at the ‘Groceries’ category in Quicken, it added up to a lot of money. But we also ate at restaurants more frequently than I appreciated.
  2. They call it ‘perishable’ food for a reason. The berries and avocadoes that my family liked to eat? You can’t buy those two weeks at a time. Making a grocery list required some algebraic calculations. How many people would eat this item? Realistically, how many would each person eat? How many days would they keep? My family can tell you about ‘Enforced Orange Day’, where everybody ate only Clementine oranges as snacks to finish the bag before it went bad. Or ‘Leftovers Dinner’, which is a motley assortment of storage container contents the night before the trash goes out.
  3. I needed to expand our menu. After a few years of less eating dinner together at home, my family had a small list of favorite meals that we cooked. Eating at home for every meal, every day, those would get old really quickly. Also, shortages at the grocery store meant having to make adjustments and substitutions. Some of our new favorite recipes so far are Spaghetti al Limone, Brioche French Toast, this Fajita Marinade (discovered when our go-to pre-marinated fajitas were no longer available), and homemade pizzas with this Pizza Dough.

Meal Planning – Getting Started

You don’t need anything complicated to begin planning your meals. The online magazine The Kitchn has a free downloadable template that you can use to get started. Or, you can Google ‘meal plan template’ and find hundreds of options. Then, you can customize and adapt one of those to your liking.

I’ve found it helpful to have these on my template:

  • A place to write (next to the meal for that day) what ingredients I will need to buy;
  • Enough room to write the name of the recipe and where to find it;
  • A section to list what perishable foods I need to use up that week; and
  • Some way to highlight meals that need to or can be made in advance.

Get Organized

It is REALLY important to organize before you start. Luckily, this was one I didn’t have to worry about. My pantry was in good order (although, I did have to reconfigure some things to accommodate so much more food). But you will need to know what you have before you begin and that is hard to do if your pantry, refrigerator, or freezer are a mess.

  • First, take everything out. If you’re working in your pantry, I always recommend taking ALL of it out at once. That way, you can see what you have and how much you have, and group things together in a way that makes sense. In the refrigerator, you can work by area (shelves, door, etc.).
  • Second, throw away anything that is past its prime. If it’s expired, stale, moldy, or discolored, it goes in the trash. If it’s something you use regularly, remember to replace it.
  • Third, set aside anything that has been in there for a long time, but nobody has eaten. If it’s been forgotten, put it front and center and remind everyone that it’s there. If nobody is going to eat it, get rid of it.
  • Fourth, sort the food into categories – canned goods, dried goods, snacks, breakfast items, etc. That way, you can see what you already have. Hopefully, that will spark some ideas for meals to cook.
  • Finally, take an inventory of what you have, and what you’re out of or running low on. Use this to make a grocery shopping list.

The ‘Planning’ Part of Meal Planning

Now it’s time to figure out what you’re going to eat for the next week or two. This was the part that I always found intimidating. Even though I’m a planner generally, I never minded winging it when it came to my meals. I thought that I wouldn’t like being locked into eating a certain thing on a certain night. What if I changed my mind?

So, my meal planning is pretty flexible. I buy groceries every two weeks, and I plan for that number of meals, but not necessarily on specific days. That way, I can adjust based on what we’re in the mood for. Do what works for you.

The essential part of the planning is to make sure that you have everything that you will need to cook that meal. Look at your inventory and see what you can make that will use up ingredients that are close to expiring, or that you have a lot of.

Final Thoughts

There are plenty of people who have been doing this longer, and better, than I have. Dozens of websites have meal planning suggestions, recipe ideas, etc. I started meal planning more out of necessity due to the circumstances. But I have found that I really like going grocery shopping with a plan instead of wandering the aisles waiting for inspiration to strike. And, I like not deciding on a meal only to find that I don’t have one or two of the ingredients that I need. So, I will probably keep up meal planning even after life returns to normal (whenever that is).

Lessons in Keeping It Simple

Lessons in Keeping It Simple

Like most people who enter the professional organizing industry, I have always been an organized person. I was the kid who color coded her class handouts and alphabetized the books on my bookshelf. I always knew where to find that board game, Barbie, or baseball glove. Over the years, I have learned (and continue to learn) valuable lessons that continue to inform how I organize. This is one of them.

Welcome to the Chaos

When my oldest daughter was a toddler, she had what seemed like four million Disney Princess dolls (in reality, more like a dozen or so). Naturally, each one came complete with outfits, shoes, hair accessories, etc. Every play session ended with her playroom looking like a disaster scene. Dolls were flung around the room in various stages of undress, and princess paraphernalia was strewn from one end of the room to the other.

A Stroke of Genius

I decided to use my favorite Container Store shoeboxes with a self-adhesive pocket attached to the front (like these). First, I took pictures of each doll with all of her accompanying accessories. Next, I used photo editing software to create a color-coded bar at the top of each photo with the name of the doll. Finally, I printed the photos and placed them in the pockets. After playing with the dolls, my daughter and I made a game of cleaning up and returning all of the pieces to the appropriate boxes. My daughter would match the items with the pictures to find the correct box. She even began recognizing the corresponding letters in the dolls’ names which helped her reading skills. Great organizational idea, right?

Or Not…

As my friend Molly says, ‘Don’t break your arm patting yourself on the back’. It turns out, as long as my daughter and I were the ones playing with the dolls, the shoeboxes were great. But when she had friends over, many of them were not nearly as enamored of our system. They didn’t mind helping to get the mess off of the floor. But they didn’t necessarily want to take the extra time to match items with containers. I wound up dismissing the children’s and/or parents’ offers to clean up, and my daughter and I would do it after they left.

The Problem Becomes Clear

After just a few playdates, the drawbacks to our system became very obvious. 

  • First, I was making more work for myself and my daughter – We were spending precious time after each playdate cleaning up and organizing.
  • Second, I was creating a double standard – It did not escape my daughter’s keen eye that the rules were inconsistent. I expected her to help clean up when she visited other kids’ houses, but I didn’t ask them to reciprocate at ours. If you have ever known any small children, then you know that “NOT FAIR” is a BIG deal.
  • Third, I was discouraging responsibility on the part of our visitors – Most of the kids (and parents) were more than willing to do their part to help clean up. I was the one waving off the offers.
  • And finally, I was sending an unwanted message to my daughter – It was more important that it be done our (OK, let’s be honest, my) way than that her friends share the chore of cleaning up the mess they’d made together. NOT what I wanted her to learn.

Lessons Learned

I decided that it was more important to maximize play time vs. clean-up time, and to let the kids chip in to clean up too. After all, if Cinderella’s shoes spent a few weeks hanging out in Belle’s box with Jasmine’s crown, the earth was not exactly going to spin off of its’ axis.

Once a month or so, my daughter and I would go thru and gather up all of the dolls, clothes, accessories, etc. First, we grouped everything together, referencing the picture on the front of the box. Second, we hunted down any missing pieces. Finally, we returned everything to its’ proper box.

In between those times, I decided to be satisfied as long as it was all off of the floor. I focused more on the benefits of encouraging fun and cooperation between my daughter and her friends. And I enjoyed spending the extra time on something that had a greater impact on our quality of life.

The Moral(s) of The Story

That experience still informs my approach to organizing, both in my own home and in my clients’.

  1. Always keep your ultimate objective in mind. What is the real reason you’re creating this system? What problem are you trying to solve? The answer may be different in various areas of your life. The goals for your workplace filing system and your home refrigerator front won’t be the same. Be crystal clear on what you want this system to do for you.
  2. Think ‘What is the simplest way to accomplish that?’ Generally speaking, the easier it is to do something, the more likely it is that you will do it. Most of the time, complexity is not necessary to accomplish your goal.
  3. Make sure that everyone who needs to use the system, can and will. It doesn’t matter how attractive, or even logical, it is if nobody follows it. Know your audience. When I work in common areas in homes or offices, I always start by talking with all parties who will be using the system to get an idea of their style of organization. You can save yourself a lot of frustration by being realistic upfront about who and what you have to work with.
  4. Be flexible. Honestly assess what is working, and what isn’t. Take the feedback that you get from others and evaluate it. Be willing to change things up to get the results you want. Remember that the goal is to be organized, not right.

Are there areas of your life that are overly complicated and out of order? Ask yourself, ‘Where could I simplify?’ Or you can ask me.