A Simple Meal Plan

Almost exactly a month ago, I wrote about my intro into monthly meal planning. I fully intended on writing this post a week later, but anyone who knows me or has followed me for any period of time understands my terrible habit of writing inconsistently…so I’m back and am following up with a full breakdown of my first month’s menu. As a friendly reminder, most of my measurements are rough estimates since I cook to taste, so be patient with me!

Lasagna

I found a recipe on pinterest here that I based this recipe off of, but I made a meat sauce that I’ve been using for years. The original plan was to make extra meat sauce to freeze up separately to put with pasta for other easy meals, but I got a little carried away and used up all of the sauce on the seven lasagnas I made. I also added a whole lot more mozzarella cheese than the recipe suggested, but I’m just a huge fan of cheesy foods.

Back to the meat sauce. It’s super easy and (in my opinion) quite tasty. You’ll need:

  • 3 lbs ground beef – ground turkey or Italian sausage will work just as well. I cook this with the onion and garlic until the meat is fully cooked, then add the rest of the ingredients.
  • 1 onion, diced – I love red onion for everything
  • 3-4 cloves of garlic – honestly, I just rely on my taste buds here, and I’m completely guessing the measurement as I type this
  • salt and pepper
  • 2.5 large jars of marinara sauce – I know I could go the super inexpensive route and make my own tomato sauce, but this was way easier. I just threw in a little extra chopped fresh basil for some added flavor.
  • pesto – again, do this to taste. I’m a huge pesto fan, so I probably used more than the average person (read: an entire small jar)
  • cayenne pepper – this is optional, but I like a little bit of heat in most of my foods (and especially in sauces!). I sprinkle it in, taste, and repeat until I’m happy.

See? SO easy and super inexpensive. Check out the link I referenced above to see how to use this sauce in the lasagna.

Burgers

This is a recipe I made semi-regularly for the family I lived with/worked for in Germany, and it was always a big hit. I’m a huge fan of burgers, and now that I’m thinking about it, the burger base and meat sauce base starts out almost the same way. At least this helps me buy ingredients in bulk (and save money)! I try to make each burger patty about a quarter pound, so I got eight burgers from this recipe.

  • 2lb ground beef – turkey would be a great substitute!
  • half an onion, diced
  • 1-2 cloves of garlic
  • a few splashes of Worcestershire sauce – this is probably even more important when making burger patties to freeze and use later since it really helps the burgers stay juicy
  • Red Robin seasoning – I love this stuff. If I could, I’d put it on all of my proteins and over half of my veggies. If you’ve never heard of Red Robin, you can use any kind of seasoned salt.

This is one of those recipes where you just throw everything in a large bowl and mix it together with your hands. Before mixing everything up and getting your hands covered in that mess, set up a cookie sheet with two large pieces of parchment or wax paper. I then split the mixture up into equal parts, then start forming the patties. I read somewhere that when forming burger patties, putting a thumbprint size dent in the center helps retain the shape of the burger when cooking it. After the patties are formed, I place each one on the cookie sheet (normally in two layers separated by paper), then stick the whole thing in the freezer for a couple of hours. This flash freezes the burgers and makes it easier for storing in the freezer. I fill up quart sized plastic bags with two patties apiece, and those meals are ready to go!

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Patties are flash frozen and ready to be put into plastic bags

Some ideas for different flavor combos with your burgers if you’re stuck in a rut and want to try something new: mozzarella and pesto, a fried egg and cheddar cheese, bacon/turkey bacon with cheddar or colby jack, goat cheese and arugula, and I could go on and on….let me know in the comments what your favorite burger flavor combination is!

Fajitas

I put a little more chicken in each pan than for two meals, then use the leftovers to make quesadillas the next night!

Greek Chicken

  • 2lbs chicken, cut into bite sized pieces
  • 1/2 cup olive oil
  • 3 lemons, juiced
  • 5 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1/2 tsp paprika
  • salt and pepper
  • dashes of rosemary, thyme, and oregano – to taste

Chicken crock pot meals are SO simple. Seriously, all you do is thaw the gallon plastic bag in the fridge overnight, then throw the contents of the bag into a crock pot for a few hours on low. It typically takes about 3 hours for everything to cook all the way through, but different crock pots have different temps, so find what works for you.

I really like this served as a salad. Fill a plate up with spinach and a little arugula (arugula is my favorite leafy green), put some chicken on there, and throw some thinly sliced red onion and crumbled feta cheese on top. You can finish it with a greek style vinaigrette if you want that extra flavor, but when we don’t have dressing at home, it’s not too bad without anything. You can also put all of those ingredients in a wrap or pita if you’re like me and love all the carbs you can get.

*I tend to cut up (have my husband-assistant cut up) all of our chicken for the entire meal prep into bite sized chunks, and then we portion it out into all of the gallon-sized freezer plastic bags. This means I try to estimate 1.5-2 pounds of chicken per meal, but it’s never completely accurate. Bite sized pieces cook up a little faster in the crock pot, and I can’t count how many times I’ve lost track of time but still had dinner cooked on time thanks to the quicker cook time.

Lemon Ginger Chicken

This is a recipe I ate all the time while in Germany. The mom of the family I worked for loved it, and it’s hard for me to ever say no when lemon and ginger are combined.

  • 2lbs chicken
  • 1/2 cup olive oil
  • 1/2 cup lemon juice
  • 2tbsp grated fresh ginger
  • 2 garlic cloves, minced
  • 1-2 small red chilis, finely chopped
  • 1-2 tbsp cilantro, chopped
  • 2tbsp soy sauce
  • 1-2 bell peppers, cut into large slices
  • handful of snow peas – optional, but snow peas are one of my favorite veggies to put in an Asian inspired meal

Put it in a gallon plastic bag and toss in the freezer. Thaw overnight, cook in a crock pot on low for 3-4 hours, and serve it with rice and noodles.

Red Pepper Chicken

I can’t find the original source for this recipe to save my life, but I’ve added to it a bit to increase the flavor and make it a little spicier

  • 1.5 lbs chicken breasts, cut into bite sized pieces
  • 2 red bell peppers
  • half of a white onion
  • 4 garlic cloves, minced
  • 1/4 cup olive oil
  • salt and pepper to taste
  • 1 tsp red pepper flakes
  • half a bottle of Szechuan sauce – I try to make an even amount of these meals for each meal prep so I don’t end up with half-used bottles

All of this goes into one gallon plastic bag. I let it thaw overnight in the fridge, then drop it in the crock pot to cook for 2-3 hours on low. It’s perfect served over rice.

Vegan Chili

This is one of those recipes I came up with when I had less than $10 in my bank account and some cans in my cabinet. I think I alter it a little each time I make it, but it’s SUPER cheap and really filling. The seasonings have no measurements because I just sprinkle stuff in the pot until it smells like chili should smell. Really descriptive, I know.

  • 2 cans of black beans
  • 2 small cans of tomato paste
  • 1 can of crushed tomatoes
  • 1 can of corn
  • half an onion, diced
  • 1-2 bell peppers, diced
  • 2 cans of veggie broth – or 2 cans worth of water, or a combo of the two. Just do what feels right!
  • 2 cups of quinoa, uncooked – this is a really rough guess as I just pour some out of the box until it looks like an amount I’m okay with eating. This is my substitute for the ground meat used in traditional chili. It will cook in the crock pot and soak up lots of flavor.
  • salt
  • pepper
  • chili powder
  • cayenne pepper
  • garlic powder

This is one of the meals I cook all day on low in the crock pot, then freeze up cooked portions later. If you love cheese like I’ve mentioned I do, you can top it with cheese when you serve it (at least it stays vegetarian!). I often make up a side of cornbread with this meal.

Beef Stew

This is one of the few recipes I’ve gotten from my mom. I’m not sure what recipe book she got it from, but she’s been making it for decades. It’s simple and filling- everything I want in a stew.

  • 2 lbs beef chuck, cubed into bite-sized pieces – I cut this up and brown it in my cast iron to keep the meat juicy before putting it in the crock pot
  • 1 tsp Worcestershire sauce
  • 1-2 cloves garlic
  • 1-2 bay leaves
  • 1 tbsp salt
  • 1 tsp sugar
  • 1/2 tsp paprika
  • 1/4 tsp pepper
  • dash of cloves or allspice
  • 1 white onion, sliced into large bite-sized pieces
  • handful or two of carrots, cut into bite-sized pieces
  • 4-6 red potatoes, quartered

Put it in a crockpot, pour broth/water into the pot to just cover all the ingredients, give it a few good stirs, and cook on low all day. Freeze up leftovers, and you’ve got yourself at least 6 meals.

Chicken Gnocchi Soup

The first time I made this was with turkey leftovers after Thanksgiving last year. I think I actually prefer it over using chicken, but use whatever you have on hand!


So that’s the roundup of the first meal prep I ever put together. It took two days, but wasn’t too overwhelming. The second month went well too, and hopefully it won’t take me another 3 weeks to get those recipes posted!

As always, hit me up with questions or ideas of what else you want to read about meal planning and prepping. I’ve yet to dive into all of the pre-made baking mixes I’ve found and used, so expect to see some of those in the near future.

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Going Down the Rabbit Hole of Freezer Meal Prepping

If you’re friends with me on Facebook or happen to follow me on Instagram, you’ve probably noticed that I’ve taken a face-first dive into meal planning.

Living on one income is difficult for any family, and I’ve made it a priority to find ways to save money in any way possible. This includes making my own dryer sheets (these will be tested out in a few weeks when I finally get them made), buying groceries in bulk, making my own baking mixes, and writing out meal plans for weeks at a time. A few people have asked for more details, especially with the mixes and bulk grocery meal plans, so I figured I’d dedicate a few blog posts to the topic.

Before I get into my own experience, I just need to add in a disclaimer: I have found all of my ideas and many of my recipes by searching through Pinterest and will be linking to them as I reference them.

A few of the practical tips everyone should know going into this type of meal planning:

  • Prepare items that have similar ingredients. Buying in bulk saves a ton of money
  • Compare prices and watch for sales.
  • Make lists. Shopping lists, prep lists, to-do lists. The only way I’ve been able to keep my mind organized is to write all of it down.
  • When you freeze your meals, lay the plastic bags flat in the freezer. This is the easiest way to organize your freezer and have the most space available after all the food is put together.

I try to set aside a week to do this whole process.

Monday and Tuesday: The first two days are all about researching recipes. I try to pick two different proteins and look for recipes containing similar ingredients. For example, burgers are an easy staple at my house. I use ground beef, and it’s typically cheapest when you buy the 5lb packages, so I try to find other recipes that contain ground beef. Burritos, an Italian inspired meat sauce, and chili are all super easy options. The same goes with produce- if I can use onions in several recipes, I can spend less on groceries. Buying in bulk is the best option whenever possible. I also try to include at least two different soups, stews, or chilis. I make these while I prep the rest of the food, and it provides even quicker dinners for days when time completely escapes me.

My recipe list for mid June through the end of July

Wednesday: After I’ve picked out my meals, I start planning out my shopping trip. As I stated above, if I plan on doing something with ground beef, I like to get at least five pounds. My burgers weigh about a quarter of a pound, so I make eight burgers on meal prep day. That leaves three pounds to work with. Last month, I chose to make a hearty meat sauce to use in lasagna..it ended up making seven small lasagnas. I like to have at least a pound and a half of chicken for each dinner because they’re typically paired with veggies and some sort of grain (and I don’t eat large meals all at once). This allows for dinner for two plus a small lunch of leftovers. For produce, I really just estimate how many fruits and veggies I’ll need: half an onion per dinner, 1-2 bell peppers, etc. I try to write out my shopping list according to how the grocery store is set up- produce, meat, dairy, and then dry goods. It avoids going down multiple aisles, and I like to get in and out of the store as quickly as possible.

*before doing any shopping, I also like to make sure my fridge and freezer are as cleaned out as possible to make room for the rest of the week*

Thursday: This is my expensive day- shopping! If it’s your first time doing freezer meals, it’s important to invest in a few of the non-food basic supplies. A permanent marker, freezer plastic bags in both gallon and quart sizes, foil containers for items like lasagna or fajitas (if they’re on your recipe list), and parchment paper if you do burgers. I also have some glass pyrex containers for any soups I make, but those aren’t necessary. After I’ve gathered all of those supplies together, I head to the grocery store. I try to keep an eye out for sales and compare prices, and I’ve consistently gotten good deals at Aldi.

Friday: I start the morning with getting the first soup recipe in the crock pot. Many of those recipes take 6-8 hours to cook, so I cook one during the day and the next one overnight. After I’ve prepped those ingredients, I take a short break from standing and start getting my freezer plastic bags ready. I like to write what the meal is, the date it was made, the basic instructions (cooking time and temps), and sides to make when the meal is cooked all on the outside of each bag. It saves me a lot of stress trying to remember/find the recipes later. I then get back in the kitchen, prep all the veggies, and portion them out in different baggies (they go back into the fridge until I finish the recipes the next day). I also make any of the other beef-related recipes on Friday because raw beef doesn’t bother me like chicken does.

Saturday: This is the one day that I can enlist my husband’s help with the meal prep, so I save all the chicken work for him. Raw chicken has always bothered me, but pregnant me has a special aversion toward it, so my husband’s main task is cutting chicken and portioning it out into the different bags. While he does that, I combine the rest of the ingredients with the pre-portioned veggies- every meal I’ve made in bags has some sort of sauce. After the chicken is all cut, we split it up evenly into the bags, remove all the air possible in the bags while sealing them up, and set everything in the freezer.

First round of freezer meals

My first time making frozen meals was about a month and a half ago. I spent around $100 for four weeks worth of groceries. The menu for that month included lasagna*, fajitas, burgers*, Greek chicken*, lemon ginger chicken*, red pepper chicken (I can’t find the original source for this recipe to save my life), vegan chili*, chicken gnocchi soup, and beef stew*. Recipes for starred items are either recipes I came up with or were handed down to me from friends and family. There weren’t any meals that were complete failures, but I’ve found little ways to tweak them to make them even better. The next post, I’ll include recipes for the starred meals, but they won’t be exact. Much of my cooking is by taste, so many of my own measurements are just rough estimates.

Please comment with any and all questions you might have about this process, or ideas of more details you’d like me to write about in the future. This is such a change from my typical writing voice that I’m somewhat floating in uncharted waters!

Not Crazy

*breathe in*

“You are worthy”

*breathe out*

“Crazy is a word used by ignorant people”

*breathe in*

“You are loved”

*breathe out*

“You are not a burden”

When you live with a mental illness, there’s a tendency to overthink every word, every action, and even every thought that crosses your mind. There’s a continuous battle going on in your head between the one voice who is constantly breaking you down and the other voice who tries to be realistic and uplifting. It’s exhausting and unrelenting, and when someone states that you’re just crazy, it’s incredibly damaging to your health.

While I could make the point that every single mental illness is misunderstood in the public eye, I feel that bipolar is even more misunderstood and stigmatized than most. There’s this comic perception that being bipolar means experiencing extremely high manic episodes where everything is wonderful and perfect followed by extreme lows. In truth, bipolar can present itself in a variety of ways, which is one of the reasons why it’s so tricky to actually diagnose. My hypomania is often presented as if my life is put in fast forward. I have more energy, which makes me feel like I can take on more tasks, but then my mind starts to go too fast. Even though I’m aware of my racing thoughts, when I’m in the moment, it’s an adrenaline rush and I don’t want it to end. However, this leads to a severe lack of sleep, and in the worst scenario, hallucinations.

I’ve only experienced one true episode of hallucinating, but I can still close my eyes and relive the entire thing. As I laid on my back on my living room floor, I saw the popcorn ceiling of my old apartment rolling in waves, covered with what almost looked like an oil spill. I could see all of the atoms making up my surroundings shimmering and moving. I could feel every single cell in my body shifting. It caused me to take roughly a month off of work, and I felt unsafe to be at home by myself for a while. This was a high that led to a crash of being unable to keep food down and really make many coherent thoughts. My biggest fear through all of it wasn’t that I was unhealthy, but that it would cause the people around me to perceive me as “crazy”.

I’m not crazy, and deep down I’m aware of that fact. It’s a constant battle to remind myself that this is an illness that I have to find a way to live with, and having other people refer to this illness as craziness just makes that fight all the more difficult. In typical fashion, I tend to joke around about my mental illness in an effort to make those around me more comfortable. I very rarely am completely serious, but I’ve started to realize that jokingly referring to myself as crazy just hurts the overall fight against mental health stigmas. Words have power. Words alter a person’s perception. Be careful about word choices, especially when trying to change the stigma surrounding mental health.

Isle of Palms, South Carolina- May 2017

The Peace in Privacy

Miscarriages. Infertility. These are things that so many people struggle with, yet have a difficult time talking about.

I’ve been hit with the first. I’ve written about it before, but in the fall of 2011, I experienced the pain of an unexpected loss. One of my most painful memories during that season was finding out someone close to me was expecting a baby over Christmas of that year. I lost it. In fact, the news hit me so hard that I threw up and spent the entire next day in bed.

It’s hard to be happy for people when they’re expecting a child after you’ve been trying and hoping so hard for one of your own. It’s a sharp reminder of your own loss. I have a friend who has struggled with this pain for years, and when I first found out I was pregnant, my biggest concern was breaking the news to her. That story doesn’t have a pretty ending, but it did shape how I wanted to handle being pregnant in a public setting.

As of today, I’ve hit the halfway mark. I’ve stayed rather quiet on many aspects of this pregnancy, only mentioning it three or four times via social media. I’m planning on keeping it that way. There’s nothing wrong with weekly bump updates, sharing your pregnancy experiences online, or talking about all the things you have planned for the baby. However, for me, talking about it creates more self-guilt than excitement. I’ve finally reached the stage where I’m worrying less and less about how my mental health will affect my ability to be a good parent, and I’m learning to be excited for the future. However, I don’t want to be a contributor to my friends and family out there who are constantly bombarded with reminders of their loss.

I don’t want to hide anything from the world if it means giving up my ability to express myself, but I also want to be conscious of the people I’m surrounded with both in person and online. I want to be able to acknowledge that words can cause pain to others, even if that isn’t the intention. That’s the thing about writing: finding the fine balance between sharing who you are, and not damaging too many people along the way. When it comes to pregnancy and how it relates to my life, that’s a line I didn’t want to cross too often. It’s an aspect I hope to keep more private than others.

But today, I have no problem with expressing the joy in officially reaching the halfway point, and I’m enjoying the peace that comes with keeping things a little quiet and personal.

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The Fear of a Single Word

It’s been a little over a week since Josiah and I announced that we were expecting a baby at the end of September. For the past couple of months, my emotions about pregnancy have been mixed. On the one hand, I’m thrilled to see us become parents. I have a nervous excitement about the opportunity to raise a human with all the qualities that Josiah and I treasure so much.

I’m also scared. This was a total surprise for us. We had planned to really start talking about starting a family after Josiah’s first round of deployments. I selfishly wanted more solo time to get used to having my life partner gone and unavailable to talk for months at a time. I wanted to feel as mentally healthy as possible before adding anything else to our life.

And then last week happened. Last week, I got the official bipolar diagnosis. Bipolar. An intimidating word to be tied to any person, but for someone who is stepping into motherhood for the first time in six months, I’ve been terrified.

Suspicions of this diagnosis first popped up in early 2013, but the therapist I was seeing decided I was struggling with ptsd and major depressive disorder. Bipolar isn’t something that doctors and therapists like to easily diagnose because it can be a word that haunts someone for the rest of their life. But my symptoms have worsened in those four years. Untreated, they’ve started to affect more and more of my life. My depressive cycles have gotten harder to battle through, and my hypomania has left me wondering what kind of person I really am on multiple occasions.

So I’ve started medication. I’ve begun keeping a more dedicated record of my emotions. I have doctors that are helping to monitor my brain and the warning signs I might not think are important. But the fear is lingering. The fear that I won’t be able to be the kind of mother I really want to be because of my mental struggles. The worry that I’ll go through episodes while Josiah is out of the country and I’m the temporary sole caregiver of our child. The very real reality that our children will grow up knowing that sometimes their mother won’t be able to be as mentally present as they need me to be.

I know that both Josiah and I are blessed with families that would do absolutely everything they can to help us be the best parents we can be. Being willing and able to ask for that help is a constant battle for me. There are so many parenting stories I’ve been reading about mothers who struggle with postpartum depression, anxiety, and various other mental conditions. However, I don’t see many moms who struggle with bipolar. I don’t hear many successful parenting stories where a parent with bipolar was still able to provide their children with a healthy, loving, and positive environment. Part of me hopes that I’ll be able to start writing that kind of life story for our new family. Mental health is such a touchy writing subject because it makes so many people uncomfortable, and one of my goals with this blog has always been to change that stigma. But writing about it doesn’t make the fear any less real.

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Eiffel Tower, Paris, France- July 2014