By teaming up with a few friends, Jennifer has found some great solutions for meal planning. Plus, she’s got some great plans for easing meal-planning stress during her busiest time of the year!

Here at simplify 101, we’ve mostly got the holidays and kitchens on the brain this week! So, I guess it’s no surprise that I’ve been thinking a lot about cooking for the holidays. In years past, I’ve spent a great deal of time considering and preparing for the major holidays meals, and somehow I’d forget until the last minute that we need to eat at other times during the crazy month between Thanksgiving and Christmas. Thing are already tight – both in terms of money and time. I definitely dislike having to dash to the store for overpriced convenience meals, or having to dine out more than the budget allows. I don’t need that extra stress or expense! So, I’m planning ahead.

I’m in a better place this year to begin with, largely because I’ve been participating in a weekly “meal swap” with friends. I have to tell you I get a little bit giddy at how all this works out, and what an enormous benefit it’s been to my family! Picture this: I spend a few hours of one day each week cooking. I try to do this when I’m home alone. I throw on a pretty apron, play some good music, and give my knives and cutting boards a work out. And because I do that, I literally spend a few minutes each evening doing dinner prep. Minutes! Oh, it is such a load off… I just love it!

I have actually turned my husband down on offers to dine out. Why would we when we’ve got a delicious, healthy, home-cooked dinner on hand that’s already been paid for? It’s fantastic when the reasons to dine in far outweigh dining out! I really look forward to the meals my friends prepared. Take tonight, for example… I’ve got a beautiful mustard- and herb-rubbed roast with veggies waiting in the fridge. All I have to do is pop it in the oven when I get home from work. Oh, those veggies look and smell amazing!

Roast veggies copyright simplify101

There are so many ways to set up a meal swap, but here’s how we do ours. We are four very dear friends (which is a crucial point, as far as I’m concerned) who cook for each other each week. We made some agreements up front for how we wanted this to work. Most of our meals can be frozen. The meals serve six. We make a lot of casseroles and slow cooker recipes. Every week, we each make four of whatever dish we’re preparing. Then we meet up on Monday afternoons to trade, and we leave with three different meals for our families.

Freezer meals

Some meal swap groups use a pattern to rotate through so that there is good variety each week and it ends up being fairly equitable. We have opted to be a little less formal, and we use a Yahoo group to keep us organized. We have it set up to send an automatic reminder to us on Friday, and we each reply with what we plan to make. It helps us avoid having four Mexican dishes in the same week! We also post our cooking directions there. This is especially helpful when pulling out a frozen dish from several weeks back so we don’t have to hunt down where we put the recipe!

We have a “don’t make = don’t take” rule so that we can opt out of any week, which we notify each other of through the yahoo group. I know that with calendars getting super busy, there are going to be a lot of weeks between now and January when one or two can’t swap. I had an a-ha moment about the approaching holidays, though, and have decided that I’ll go ahead and make four meals each week even if not all four of us are participating. My freezer is going to be majorly stocked up! Even if we have weeks where none of us can swap, I know I’ll still have meals on hand.

Shopping list copyright simplify101
If you’d like more ideas on how to set up a meal swap, this web site was a huge help to us. I refer to it often for all the links they have to freezable meals and make-ahead recipes. If you don’t think a meal swap would work for you, Once a Month Cooking (OAMC) is another idea to consider. It’s largely the same concept, except you are doing all your meal planning and cooking for yourself just one day a month. And if all that sounds like too much, consider making just one extra dish each week to pop in the freezer. Double up your family’s favorite enchilada recipe, and freeze the second one. If you start this week, you’ll have seven extra meals in your freezer by the time December rolls around!

I’m super happy with how the meal swap system works out for my family, but I have to tell you honestly that keeping it all organized is tricky. I’ve gotten the planning/shopping/cooking part down pretty well, but I definitely need a better system for keeping track of what’s in my freezer. The hardest part for me is thinking ahead to make sure I let the food thaw before I need it. Trust me, it’s aggravating to still have to dash out to buy a lasagna when you’ve got a delicious homemade version in your freezer!

How about you? We’d love to hear your meal-planning/sanity-saving tips, too, as well as any tips for freezing meals!

Happy Organizing and Cooking!