Recently, I started this whole journey of meal planning, and devoting some time to prepare and shop for a “menu” for the week for my family. We were all sick of the old “open up the fridge and stare blankly only to discover that there were no fresh proteins, and eventually ending up resorting to pasta and sauce… AGAIN routine.”
Over the last few months I have been trying some new recipes and modifying them to find my family’s favorites, so that I can have a “go-to” list when doing my meal plans. One day I had the bright idea to do the month rather than the week, and I set out to the grocery store list in hand. I am going to warn you, that most of my recipes are going to be chicken based. Reason #1 is that is typically what pleases everyone in my family, Reason#2 is because it is one of the only proteins I personally like to freeze, Reason #3 is that I wanted to keep things simple, and Reason #4 is because I can grab a 10 pound bag (or two) from the local butcher at an awesome price, so I will give you my favorite go to’s (with a few other odds and end mixed in) and you can use this as a base model, and either incorporate your own favorite recipes into your plan, or use alternate proteins on days you decide not to thaw one of your freezer meals.
When I know I am going to be meal prepping, I will usually take a trip to our local butcher on an off day (NOT a weekend) when I know I will not have to stand in a long line, and there are typically great bulk buy sales in the meat section. I can get GREAT quality, farm raised chicken breasts for $2.72/lb (as opposed to the non-organic bulk price of $1.99/lb at our local Wegmans, which is still a great deal, but you really can taste the difference with good meat.) This is my starting point. If I am really ambitions, I will start to prep the meat now, otherwise, I will take my local grocery trip early on a weekend morning, so that I can be home and have my day in the kitchen, with all of my food out and not have to worry about putting everything away and getting it out again when I am ready to go to town.
Do yourself a favor, and START with a clean kitchen, clean counters, a clean freezer/fridge (you are going to be storing a TON of food for meals), an empty trash can, and an empty recycling can. Spread out your foods, grab your freezer storage bags, a permanent marker, kitchen utensils, all of your pantry items*, and get to work!
I am going to include the recipes I use, any modifications that I personally make to them, what I break down for the week vs. freeze-for-later, and MY pantry list. When you are making your shopping list, check your pantry, and mark off YOUR pantry list, as it may be different for you than me.
Here are the recipes you will have for the month when you are finished:
- Cashew Chicken (2)
- Thai Peanut Chicken (2)
- Sausage and Peppers (2)
- Tortellini Soup (2)
- Salsa Chicken (2)
- Cream Cheese Chicken Chili (2)
- Chicken Pot Pie
- Baked Ziti (2)
- Orange Chicken
- Scampi (Shrimp, Salmon, Chicken)
- Extra scampi sauce to freeze for future recipes
- Buffalo Mac and Cheese (2)
- Buffalo Chicken Pizza
- Blueberry Lemon Oatmeal Bake (2)
My Pantry List:
- GOOD quality freezer bags, LOTS of them
- Aluminum bake pans (I typically buy a large quantity at BJ’s and always have on hand.)
- Glad Press and Seal wrap
- Aluminum Foil
- Canned Diced Tomatoes
- Canned Corn Kernels
- Canned Black Beans
- Brown Rice
- Canned broth (chicken and vegetable)
- Soy Sauce
- Rice Wine Vinegar
- Brown Sugar
- Granulated Sugar
- Minced Garlic (jar)
- Ginger (tube)
- Peanut Butter
- Rolled Oats
- Panko bread crumbs (whole wheat)
- Thyme (dried)
- Onion Powder
- Chili Powder
- Garlic Powder
- Ranch Seasoning (large container not packets)
- Red Pepper Flakes
- Taco seasoning
***Always grab all of your pantry items before you go to the store to see if you are running low before sitting down to attack a large number of recipes, there is nothing like going through the whole process to find out you are 3T short on soy or rice vinegar and having to make another trip to the store in the midst of your crazy cooking/prepping day!
- Chicken, base how many chicken breasts you need on how many you need to feed. For instance, if a recipe calls for 4-5 breasts, I typically use 3 for our household. If you have older children who eat more, or tend to need more for a meal for your family, simply modify your amount per bag/recipe. Also, consider how large the breasts are, sometimes I end up getting very large breasts when I buy a bulk bag, I can cut them in half. (I used 22 for the above to feed two adults for all meals, and one toddler who eats a little chicken himself.)
- Sausage, either hot, mild, pork, turkey, whatever your pleasure. I prefer turkey sausage, mild. 18 links for the above, but again, more or less depending on how many you are feeding)
- Shrimp or Salmon for Scampi
- FROZEN SECTION:
- Frozen tortellini-2 16-20 oz bags, depending on what your store sells. Cheese, beef, whatever your pleasure 🙂
- Frozen veggies for pot pie, I use carrots and peas, but you can add whatever you like
- Onion/pepper mix if you do not want to chop fresh for the sausage and peppers recipe
- 1 orange
- 3-4 lemons
- 2 limes
- 1 bag of Meyers Lemons
- 4c blueberries (fresh and/or frozen)
- fresh tomatoes if you want to brighten up scampi)
- small piece of ginger root (unless you keep fresh in a tube like I do)
- one head of garlic (unless you keep a jar of minced)
- 1 bunch green onion
- 1 bag of white onions
- 4 shallots
- 2-6 red bell peppers (depending on if you use fresh or frozen for sausage and peppers recipe)
- 1 bag fresh spinach
- 4 packages cream cheese
- 1c shredded Asiago cheese
- 1/4c parmesan
- 1/2c grated romano
- 6c shredded cheddar
- 6c shredded mozzarella
- large tub of ricotta
- 2c heavy cream
- 4 sticks unsalted butter
- 1 tube refrigerated buttermilk biscuits
- 1 tube artisan whole grain pizza dough
- CANNED GOODS (if not in pantry):
- 4 cans black beans
- 4 cans corn
- 8 cans diced tomato (you can do plain, Italian style, or sometimes I do the Roasted Garlic and Onion as well)
- Broth, you can often substitute chicken/vegetable. I typically use one large can of reduced sodium chicken and one or two small cans.
- Salsa (2 cups)
- Taco seasoning
- 2 boxes whole grain (or Super Pasta-Wegman’s brand) elbow macaroni
- 2 boxes ziti or penne
- 2 boxes linguini (or pasta of choice for scampi)
- Cheap Chardonnay (we have great $6 bottles at Wegmans)
- Buffalo chicken sauce, I LOOOOOOVE Sweet Baby Rays!
- ***ANYTHING ELSE on my pantry list that you do not have on hand***
Helpful Kitchen Tools to have out:
- Two cutting boards (one for meat, and one for veggies)
- Two sets of measuring cups/spoons
- Glass nesting bowls
Now that you’ve done the hard part, that is deciding which recipes to do, checking your list for what you already have, and then getting the shopping done, you are ready to get started!!
Like I said earlier, and I can’t stress this enough… Start with a clean kitchen, an empty trash can, and an empty recycling can. If it so moves you, put on your favorite music and get yourself in the mood! Make sure you are in comfy clothes that you don’t mind some splatter on, or wear an apron, and have on some comfy sturdy shoes too, you are going to be on your feet for a while. (I always have a glass of wine on hand too, because #1, you won’t use it all in the cooking, and #2, you are doing all of the hard work, you deserve it!)
Start by having all of your recipes printed out or written out, and lay them on the counter next to your freezer bags. Label all of your freezer bags with your meals, today’s date, and add any instructions on the bag for when you thaw and are ready to cook. This way you don’t have to look in your freezer to see when something was originally frozen or search for your recipe to see how long it needs to cook.
Measure out the nuts you will need for the recipes. Place these in smaller sandwich bags and label so they don’t get eaten by others in the house. If you are lucky enough to have a bulk nut section in your grocery store, you can get exactly what you need for the recipes, however in our house, we snack often on cashews and peanuts, so it is not always a bad thing to buy extra.
Now comes Hunter’s favorite part…. smashing the peanuts for the Thai Chicken!
Next, I prefer to chop all of my veggies, and portion out all of my spices and sauces into nesting bowls. This is the step that if you keep until the end, could stop you and cause you to want to take a break, so if you get the tedious stuff out of the way now, it will set you up for success and easy sauce making later 🙂 Even if you don’t portion out the T of juice, etc, zest all the citrus, squeeze them all into separate bowls and peel and dic those onions now and you will thank yourself later! THIS is where I love having a mandolin… and if you have not heard me say it before, do yourself a favor and invest in one. You can thank me later!
Preheat your oven now because you are going to need it soon to bake off 4-5 chicken breasts for your Chicken Pot Pie and Buffalo Mac and Cheese and Buffalo Chicken Pizza recipes.
While the oven is preheating, start my LEAST favorite task of cleaning up the chicken. I always trim each breast and get the fat off. I like to get this all out of the way now, and after I have trimmed the vegetables, and on a separate cutting board that is dishwasher safe. After you have trimmed all of the chicken, take 2-3 breasts and cut into 1/2 inch cubes for the Orange Chicken recipe, throw in its ziplock bag and stick in the fridge.
When your oven is preheated, take 4-5 of the chicken breasts that are trimmed, and place them in a pyrex to bake for 25-30 minutes, or until juices run clear.
Since your bags are all labeled, you can also put the proper amount of chicken breasts into each bag now, or you can keep the chicken in a container in the fridge until you are ready. I suggest the latter if it is your first time or you think you will have lots of interruptions, so the chicken is not sitting out on the counter long.
Set two large pots of water on the stove to boil, one for your macaroni for the Buffalo Mac and Cheese, and one for ziti for your baked ziti.
Also, set a pan to medium-high heat with 1-2T of canola oil or olive oil to sear your chicken for the Cashew Chicken. When the oil is heated, coat 4-5 chicken breasts (or however many you are using for 2 recipes of the Cashew Chicken) in a flour mixture with a dash of salt and pepper, shake off excess, and place in pan for 2 minutes each side. Then set these pieces on a plate to cool before placing in the bag for that recipe.
Your water should be at a boil now, salt the water before adding your macaroni for two recipes of the Buffalo Mac and Cheese, and ziti for two Baked Ziti casseroles. Because you are boiling a large quantity of pasta, make sure you stir the pasta well as it comes back to a boil, or you will end up with a lump of half done pasta at the end. Boil both pastas to al dente. (If you water is not yet at a boil, simply start the other steps until it is.)
While your pasta is boiling away, use the pan that you seared the chicken in a few minutes ago, if you need to add a little more oil, and again on medium-high heat, add your sausage or turkey sausage. For this batch, I used links, so I added the whole link to the pan (I prefer to cook the links and then slice), but if you are using ground sausage for the tortellini, you can also add this to the pan. If you are using a combination for the recipes, do the links first, then the ground at the end, or use a separate pan. When cooked through, set on a plate to cool, or slice and then cool.
The hard part is done!! All of the meat is organized and what needs to be cooked/seared is finished.
If your pasta is done now, drain the pasta in a colander and run under cold water so that it stops cooking. If you skip this step, your pasta will be overcooked and it still needs to bake.
Now you can start the fun part, adding the ingredients to each bag for each recipe! Measure out your already chopped veggies, spices, etc, and add to each bag. For those recipes that call for sauces to be mixed, grab a couple of your nesting bowls and start measuring ingredients into the bowls and then add the sauce to the bag. (Part of the reason I suggest two sets of measuring cups/spoons is that you will be using lots of different ingredients, wet and dry, so in order to keep you from having to constantly wash and dry your utensils, I find this to be easiest.) **I prefer to start with the Orange Chicken sauce, so that I can add the appropriate amount to the bag of cubed chicken to marinate while I finish all of the other stuff. The longer this chicken sits in the amazing sauce, the better it turns out in the end!
It’s amazing how good you feel as you start to complete the bags and push the air out to seal them shut, making your pile for the freezer. Your counters start to clear, and you realize how far a days worth of work is going and how much sanity it will save you on the nights you use a meal and don’t have to do this all every day.
Once all of your freezer bags are done, you can then assemble the bake pans with your macaroni and ziti.
Remember the chicken you baked that has now cooled off on the plate? Shred 2 breasts (or 3 if you used 5 total) and cube 2. Place the cubed chicken in a sandwich ziplock or small tupperware and place in fridge. This will be used for the Chicken Pot Pie, which is one of this week’s recipes, not a freezer recipe. Add the shredded chicken to a bowl, toss with your favorite wing sauce (I LOOOOOVE Sweet Baby Ray’s) and add the appropriate amount to each Buffalo Mac and Cheese pan, spreading out over the elbow macaroni. Even though the recipe calls for a specific amount, you can add more or less depending on how hot you want it. Take the extra and place in a sandwich ziplock or small tupperware as this will be for the Buffalo Chicken Pizza, which is also one of this week’s meals.
Now mix your ziti cheese mixture in a large bowl, and layer your ziti, sauce, cheese mixture in layers in the two bake pans for your ziti.
In a saucepan, finish the Buffalo Mac and Cheese recipe by cooking the cheese sauce, and add that to both Buffalo Mac and Cheese trays, top both with Panko bread crumbs, and cover all four bake trays with press and seal first, then aluminum foil if you are freezing. If you are not freezing, just the press and seal should be sufficient. OR, you can bake and then freeze… but I prefer the first method..
At this point you should only have two things left! Scampi sauce and the Blueberry Lemon Oatmeal bake!
I usually tackle the scampi first (because it is usually the meal for that night). Take the sauce all the way through to where you add the butter. BEFORE adding the butter, and separate the sauce in half. Take one half and pour into an ice cube tray, making sure to get the shallots and garlic that tend to sit at the bottom and make sure there are some of those goodies in each cube. You will be freezing this for easy scampi later, and all you will need to do when you reheat these cubes is add butter to the pan as it heats and your sauce will be complete! Finish off the other half now if you are eating the meal tonight, if not, take the other half and put in a container in the fridge for tomorrow night’s dinner, and do the same thing where you add the butter to the pan as it heats.
Now last but not least (and if you are exhausted at this point, this CAN be assembled the next morning, but you have to then wait for it to bake to eat it!) assemble the Blueberry Oatmeal bake.
Whew!! It was a long day, but it was worth it!!
Your meals for the week:
- Blueberry Lemon Oatmeal bake for breakfast
- Scampi (salmon, shrimp, just pasta, whatever your pleasure!)
- Chicken Pot Pie
- Buffalo Chicken Pizza
- Pick two others, we usually do a Buffalo Mac and a Tortellini
Your freezer meals…. Everything Else!!
I am always adding new favorite recipes, and plan on doing a WHOLE 30 soon, so I will be experimenting with new recipes that will fit the strict rules of that plan, and I will have the others on hand to please my family 😉 All in, I spent about 2 hours between making my list for shopping, and my trip to the grocery store. My list broken down into sections helps cut down shop time drastically, and our local Wegman’s has a shopping list app that tells you exactly what aisle everything is in so if you can’t find something you don’t need to wander aimlessly. I spent about 8 hours in the kitchen, but part of that is also because I forgot that my husband was going to be gone all day the day that I had set aside for my prep, and in addition there were contractors working on our house, so between the kids, the dogs, and the workers, I had more interruptions that I normally would have.
Happy New Year and happy meal planning!!
- 1/4 c cornstarch
- 1 lb bag of frozen shrimp, peeled and deveined
- 2 T canola oil
- 4 T shallots, chopped fine
- 2 cloves garlic, minced
- 2 T lemon juice
- 1/2 c Chardonnay
- 1 c chicken broth, divided
- 1 c heavy cream
- 1/2 c butter
- 1/2 c grated Romano cheese, divided
- grape or cherry tomatoes for color
- Rinse and pat dry shrimp, making sure they are dry
- Place shrimp and cornstarch in a ziplock bag and shake to coat, or you can individually roll shrimp in cornstarch on a plate, shaking off excess
- Heat oil in skillet over medium heat, when oil is hot, place shrimp in oil and cook approx 2 min per side, until pink, turning only once.
- Place shrimp on a plate lined with paper towel
- Add the garlic and shallots to the pan and stir constantly, so not to burn them, until soft and fragrant. Add the wine, 1/2 of chicken broth, and lemon juice, and deglaze the pan.
- Cook until wine is reduced, about 10 minutes.
- Add remaining broth, and heavy cream, and cook another 5-10 minutes.
- Add butter, stir until butter is melted.
- Add shrimp back to pan and cook 1-2 minutes.
- Sprinkle 1/4 c Romano cheese into sauce, and stir.
- Serve over linguini or other pasta, sprinkle with remaining cheese, garnish with tomatoes and enjoy!
- **You can modify with salmon or chicken as well
- Refrigerated Artisan whole grain pizza crust
- Ranch dressing
- 1c mozzarella cheese, shredded
- 1/4c asiago cheese, shredded
- 3/4c cheddar cheese, shredded
- 2 cooked chicken breasts, shredded
- Sweet Baby Rays Buffalo Wing sauce
- Preheat oven to 400
- Prebake pizza dough for 8 minutes, before adding ingredients
- Spread ranch dressing as “sauce”
- Spread shredded chicken tossed with wing sauce over pizza
- Top with mixture of mozzarella and cheddar cheese
- Sprinkle with Asiago
- Drizzle some extra wing sauce over pizza
- Return to oven and bake for another 6 minutes, or until cheese is bubble and edges golden brown