What’s on my homescreen? 2020 Edition

With the introduction of widgets in iOS 14 going viral, it seemed like the perfect time to give an update on my home screen, and for the first time in what seems like years, my home screen is drastically different.

As I mentioned in past posts, I’ve always considered my homescreen to be dashboard for my day, and thanks to iOS 14, I can actually do that.

homescreen2020At the very top, I have Fantastical displaying my calendar. I love that Fantastical’s widget shows both my calendar AND the weather. This widget stack
also includes my Today list in Things and Dark Sky for the weather.

The next widget is Fitness. This is not a stacked widget. I briefly toyed with combining the next stack, but I like seeing my activity stats all day everyday. As you can see from this screenshot, I still need to get today’s workout in. You’ll also notice I modified my exercise minutes to reflect my realistic goals.

The final widget stack used to live to the right of the Fitness widget, but as anyone who’s ever tried arranging a home screen knows, apps and widgets seem to have a mind of their own, and this one kept moving to the next line. After moving it a handful of times, I gave up and left it where it is now, below the Fitness widget. Maybe my phone knew I’d like it here more, because having all my apps under my thumb makes them much easier to access.

In this third widget is Streaks, which I use for tracking my sleep, mindfulness minutes, exercise, and stand hours. One could argue a few of these are redundant since they’re already included in Fitness, but unless Apple comes out with a 1×2 widget, anything less than 4 habits looks weird in this widget. Also in this stack is Waterminder. One of my favorite features of the Waterminder widget is that it will switch to the front with a warning if I haven’t logged water in a while.

As a side note, most of my water is tracked automatically throughout the day with my Hidrate Steel water bottle. Both Hidrate and Waterminder sync to Apple Health, so I mainly use Waterminder to manually log non-water beverages.

As far as apps go, I have:
– Waze, of course, for quick access to directions
– YNAB for managing my budget on the go
– Gyroscope for getting a more holistic view of my health and wellness. I mainly use this for tracking my mood over time
– Lose It for tracking my calories because apparently the connection between calories, exercise, and weight doesn’t come naturally to me
– Castro for my ever growing list of podcasts
– Pocket for reading on the go
– Spotify for music
– and last but not least, Travel Guide, which is an excellent companion app for Animal Crossing: New Horizons. It’s basically a calendar and task list for the game.

My dock is the same as it usually is: Drafts, Messages, Safari, and Things, and I don’t see that changing any time soon.

And that’s it for my home screen – just the single one.

iOS does add the ability to hide home screens, so I may play around with trying out some temporary home screens, (e.g. one for travel), but I’m not exactly traveling right now so I’ll leave that for another day.

All my other apps have been moved to the App Library, which has been another welcome change but in an unexpected way. I actually think the way Apple auto-categorizes apps is quite terrible, but interestingly enough, the fact that it’s so bad is a perk for me. Because I generally can’t find an app unless I swipe over to search, I find I’m much more willing to keep apps on my phone knowing it’s harder for me to get to them and waste time.

Until next time…

Switching Things Up in Things

I’ve been using Things for years at this point, and while my workflow has changed here and there, there is one thing that has remained the same.

I’ve always kept the option to organize my Today list by project turned off, opting, instead, to order my tasks manually.

At least, that was the case until about 2 weeks ago.

With the defined boundaries of my day now gone due to working from home, I started noticing that I was resenting my Today list. Despite being relentless about what I put in my Today list, the list just felt overwhelming, and who needs to be more overwhelmed right now?

So in an effort to bring some control back to my day, I’ve done two things.

The first, of course, was setting my Today list to be grouped by project (Preferences > General > Group to-dos in the Today List by project or area). This meant giving up my ability to reorder my list manually, but with my areas and projects already ordered by priority, my Today list more or less ends up ordered close to how I’d have ordered the tasks on my own. I do have to jump around the list a little bit depending on how late the other half sleeps, but it’s not been terribly difficult to adjust to.

The second change I’ve made is to create a lone project called Daily Tasks above all of my areas. This is where my non-negotiable tasks go – things like exercise and taking a mindfulness break at some point during the day. It also includes the chores I include as part of my daily home reset.

For reasons I can’t explain, separating these daily tasks from my other tasks has removed a great deal of overwhelm. Instead of a sea of endless tasks, my brain has no trouble looking at the list, seeing them front and center, and thinking, “Okay, these are the things I do every day regardless, and these are the other tasks I hope to accomplish.”

I’m not sure whether this change will stick once things get back to a new normal, but for now, it’s a welcome and simple change to my workflow that has helped keep me on track.

Understanding Life’s True Expenses

When I started using You Need a Budget (YNAB), I kept hearing the term “true expenses.” Rule 2 of YNAB’s philosophy is actually “Embrace your true expenses.”

For non-YNABers, true expenses is a foreign concept. It’s not taught anywhere, but it’s single-handledly responsible for the biggest mindset shift I’ve had in months.

True expenses are those things you know are going to happen eventually. You might not know exactly when they’ll happen or maybe they happen every few months, every year, or every few years.

Amazon Prime is due next April. Your oil will need to be changed. Your cat will have an unexpected vet bill. Your windows will need to be replaced. The list goes on and on.

The point is they’re definitely going to happen someday, and if you know they’ll definitely happen you might as well start planning for them.

The problem is despite knowing these things will happen, they usually catch us off guard because we aren’t taught to plan for them. They throw a perfectly planned budget into chaos because suddenly you have to account for an extra $500 to cover that car repair. But let’s face it, there is no perfect month. There’s always something extra that happens above your normal month.

With YNAB, I quickly got into the habit of setting aside money monthly for those true expenses. Mom’s birthday’s in a month? No problem, I’ve been setting aside a few bucks every month and the money’s there waiting for me to buy her a gift.

True expenses not only help keep you from getting thrown off course when something out of the norm happens, they help you establish a baseline for what is actually the norm. I no longer think of my my yearly Disney+ subscription as a $70 email reminder that catches in me off guard. Instead it’s just another $6.36 that I set aside each month for expenses.

Seeing a clear breakdown of what your life actually costs per month including your true expenses is a real eye opening experience. Being able to see exactly how much my lifestyle costs allowed me to cut out subscriptions I no longer needed because I could see the true cost.

That being said, the lesson of true expenses doesn’t stop at budgeting. The real power is extending it to other areas of your life.

Working at a university, I understand that the start of the semester is a busy time, whereas other times are less busy. When I think of that in terms of “true expenses”, I can start to figure out if there are things I might be able do differently or spread out to other less busy times of the year so that I’m not quite as stressed during that first week or so.

And with that, it is the start of the semester for us, so I may be absent from the blog for the next few weeks, but I will be back with new content. I promise.

Thank you for all the kind words you all continue to send in, and if there’s something you want me to write about (Things, YNAB, productivity, tech, anything really), let me know!

Gaming My Impulse Spending

A number of my budget categories in YNAB reflect variable spending. These are things like groceries, gas, household items, personal care, and dining out. These categories also reflect areas where, if not careful, my spending can run amok pretty easily.

To combat this (and to make budgeting easier), I’ve set “Needed for Spending” goals on each of my variable spending categories. YNAB categories are essentially virtual cash envelopes, so the beginning of the month, I start with a capped amount available to be spent. Unlike cash envelopes, however, once the money runs out of a category, I’m not out of money entirely. YNAB still encourages me to “roll with the punches” by moving money from other categories.

Most months, I’m pretty good at staying under the amounts I’ve set. However, some months, I find myself more inclined to fall into a shopping binge and do need to pull from other categories.

In general, I try to limit myself to only pulling from other variable spending categories. I’m okay with pulling some money from my personal care category to cover an impulse bottle of wine on a Friday night. I’m less okay with pulling money from car maintenance to cover one.

How YNAB’s need for spending goals work tends to raise a number of questions and concerns for users because they don’t always work like other goal types. In my opinion, YNAB’s thought process is right though.

In short, when you budget into future months, unlike other goal types, YNAB expects you to budget the full goal amount regardless of how much you have available in the current month. The amount you need to budget doesn’t get reduced. This is because YNAB can’t know whether or not you’ll spend what’s currently available before the month ends. For instance if you have $75 to spend on dining out towards the end of the month, there’s still a possibility you may still spend that money before the month ends. Budgeting $75 less could leave you shorthanded in the next month if you spend that $75 between now and the beginning of the next month.

Some people combat this rollover problem by putting all of next month’s funds into a “next month” category and waiting until the first of the month to budget. I, on the other hand, still prefer to budget as a get paid because, quite frankly, I find “YNABing” fun. The more budgeting I get to do, the better.

In my case, when the first of the month rolls around and my available amounts from the previous month roll over, my categories are usually overfunded, which is actually a pretty good problem to have. I treat the money from any overfunded categories as a sort of mini-payday that I can then rebudget into the future. With my spending being lower due to the pandemic, that mini-payday typically amounts to around $200-$400, which is a pretty sizeable chunk of change.

I find getting my mini payday at the start of the month good enough on its own, but as an added incentive to curtail my impulse spending throughout the month, I go one step further. I set aside 10% of that mini-payday for items in my wish farm. Because of this, throughout the month, I’m constantly thinking, the less I spend on eating out or impulse buys, the sooner I get to buy something on my wishlist.

Overall, it’s only a couple hundred dollars a month, and in reality, it’s not new money. Mentally, though, my mini-payday at the start of each month has really helped reframe whether Chick-Fil-A breakfast for the third day in a row is actually worth more than buying myself a new Mac. (I decided it wasn’t.)

Yearly Theme Update & How I’m using Streaks to Stay on Track

If hindsight is 2020, maybe 2020 wasn’t the best year to pick health as my yearly theme. Nevertheless, here we are.

I’m nearing my 4th month of working from home due to the pandemic, and the biggest lesson I’ve learned during those 4 months is just how easy it is to slip out of a routine.

Skipping things I didn’t pay much attention to, like my afternoon walk, now suddenly have an incredible power to spiral my default behavior right back to sitting on the couch if I’m not careful. At the same time, I’m also being mindful that it’s okay that I’m not performing at the levels I normally would. These, after all, are not normal times, and giving myself a break is necessary at times.

With that being said, my intention for this year was and still is to focus on my health. I’ve just had to readjust my expectations to effectively fight the gravitational pull towards my couch. For that, I’ve been taking a page out of the ideas in James Clear’s Atomic Habits and BJ Fogg’s Tiny Habits and accepting that doing something regularly, even if it’s small, is better than doing nothing at all.

I’ve been using a combination of Apple’s Activity app and Streaks to set my goals. Using the Activity app’s trends tab, I set my goal to be only slightly above my average. If the app says I’m getting about 9 minutes of exercise a day, I’ll set my goal to 10.

Right now I have goals set in Streaks for “Move” calories, walking distance, stand hours, exercise, sleep, and meditation. Streaks syncs with Apple Health as well so the actual effort of tracking my goals is minimal, and because the goals themselves are only slightly more than what I usually do in a day, I’ve actually been meeting the goals almost every day. In fact, most days, I exceed them. Contrast this to a few weeks ago, when the idea of meeting any of them let alone all of them seemed out of reach – this is a win in my book.

Because I’m going off of the average trend, the goals feel achievable even on my worst days. More importantly, as the trend goes up, I’ve been incrementally increasing the goals (albeit slowly), which much to my surprise hasn’t felt as onerous as it had in the past.

Maybe, by the end of the year, I’ll be back up to where I’d hope to be, but for now, making progress a little at a time feels good. And feeling good is something we could all use a little more of right now.

How I Set Up My Budget in YNAB

katie-harp-dRCjgmc4B8I-unsplash

In my last post, I shared how YNAB has helped me get a better handle on my finances. Today, I want to share how I’ve organized it.

When you start using YNAB, they pre-populate your budget with a selection of recommended categories. I’ll be honest, I didn’t find them all that helpful. Having not read the book yet, I actually found them confusing because the category group names, like true expenses or quality of life goals, are terms people generally don’t use outside of the YNAB community. Additionally, not all the categories were relevant to me. For these reasons, I deleted them all and started over.

I structure my budget categories and groups in a few ways:

  • Category groups are listed from highest priority to lowest.
  • Category groups are also arranged based on where the money lives (i.e. checking vs. savings).
  • Within each category group, categories are named with and listed in order of their due date.
  • Each category has a goal.

Structuring my budget this way allows for two things:

  1. I can fund my goals from top to bottom as money comes in, always knowing my money is going to the next most important area.
  2. I can verify how much money needs to be in my checking account or should be in my savings account at all times.*
  3. I can use the quick budget feature to not only quickly budget my money when it arrives, but also quickly estimate how much money I need to set aside each month.

*Technically YNAB will tell you that your budget is only a plan for your money and where you keep your money is irrelevant in terms of the budget, but given I don’t want to overdraft my account or miss out on interest I could be earning, I don’t buy into that.

So what are my category groups?

  • Current Baby Step – This is where I put my top priority savings goal according to Dave Ramsey’s Baby Steps. Currently, I’m on Baby Step 2, paying off my car, so this is where car payment lives. Once I’m done paying off my car (hopefully by the end of the year), this group will include building up my 3-6 month emergency fund. I separated this out to call extra attention to my main financial goal. Whenever I’m done funding the upcoming month’s goals, I dump any extra money I may have leftover towards this goal.
  • Credit Card Payments – YNAB automatically creates this category. Because my cards are paid in full, I don’t actually need to budget any money for these categories. Anytime I make a purchase on a card with the money I’ve already budgeted for, YNAB automatically moves that money to these categories so that I’m able to pay off the credit card when the bill is due.
  • Monthly Bills – This is where my fixed monthly expenses live (e.g. my mortgage payment, my Spotify subscription, etc). Anything in this category group is something that costs exactly the same amount and is due on the same day of each month.
  • Variable Expenses – I think of these as my cash envelopes. These are categories like groceries, gas, or eating out where I may spend more or less each month, but I aim to spend less than a certain amount.
  • Upcoming Expenses – These are fixed, recurring expenses that occur less than monthly, but will be due in the next 30 days.

I want to take a break here to point out that the category groups up to this point represent my checking account. Moving forward, the following categories switch to my savings account. As mentioned previously, I use this separation of category groups to quickly see how much should be in my accounts at any time and help me to know exactly how much to transfer between accounts.

  • Subscriptions/Recurring Expenses – The previously mentioned Upcoming Expenses and this category work together. Again, these are expenses that do have a fixed amount but occur less regularly (like my yearly Amazon Prime subscription). For GTD fans, these two categories essentially work as a tickler file. Once I’ve paid a recurring expense in the Upcoming category, I move it back to the bottom of my Subscriptions/Recurring Expenses category and reset its goal for its next due date. In this way, everything is ordered by date, so I always know which subscriptions are coming up next, how much to pull out of savings to pay them, and I can begin saving for them again right away.
  • Sinking Funds – This is where I save for expenses that will happen eventually. I just don’t know when they’ll happen or how much they’ll cost (e.g. home maintenance, health, vet bills).
  • Long Term Savings Goals – This category is where I keep future savings goals like my 3-6 month emergency fund, our house downpayment fund, and my future Tesla fund. (A girl can dream…) Right now, I’m focusing on other priorities, but I look forward to the day when I can actually fund these. (For now, this category group is hidden from my budget since I’m not actively contributing to them.)
  • Wish Farm – I’ll just link to YNAB’s explanation of a Wish Farm as it’s easier to let them explain what exactly a Wish Farm is.
  • Wish List – This is exactly what it sounds like. Anytime I want something I put it here, and eventually, it may make its way to my Wish Farm to be funded. (I also keep this group hidden to keep my focus on my current goals).
  • Gift Cards – This category keeps track of the money I have on my Starbucks and Dunkin cards that I use for rewards points. I also keep track of my Amazon gift card balance, as well as Apple Cash. Whenever I make a purchase using these categories, I move the money to one of the appropriate categories above to accurately categorize the spending.

One of the rules of YNAB is to “roll with the punches,” so YNABers (people who use YNAB) are actually encouraged to adjust their budget as needed, and I adjusted my categories quite frequently during the first month or so. I’ve since settled into a groove with this category structure, so that’s how I structure my budget in YNAB (at least for now).

I hope everyone’s doing well during this time. Well at least as best as well all can. Stay safe everyone. Until next time.

Photo by Katie Harp on Unsplash

The Last Frontier of Organizing – Budgeting with YNAB

In most areas of my life, I’d say I’ve always been fairly organized – maybe a little too organized if you ask some people. My budget, however, is one area that has lurked like a terrifying junk drawer in the back of my mind for as long as I can remember.

I want to start by saying that I realize I’ve been luckier than most to have gotten where I am without student loans. If it weren’t for that, I know I would be in a completely different situation financially, and I probably would have been forced to confront my financial situation sooner. I realize this is not the norm for a number of people, and I truly can’t imagine how difficult it must be to get by on a daily basis while also dealing with the amounts of debt I’ve seen some of my friends and family talk about.

With that out of the way, I will wholeheartedly admit, I’ve made a number of mistakes financially over the years by acting as if the money in my bank account was Schrodinger’s cat, and despite having a well-paying job, I still fell victim to credit debt, a car loan, a mortgage payment I could just barely afford, and impulse buys galore which ultimately resulted in me living paycheck to paycheck.

I’ve always had plans to pay off debt. I understood how debt payoff worked, but no matter what I tried (ahem… Mint…), I never became one of those success stories of paying off thousands of dollars worth of debt in 6 months.

This year, one of my goals was to really get serious about a budget. I decided to retry You Need A Budget, or YNAB as its users like to call it. I’m happy to say, this time finally clicked. Happy may actually be an understatement. If it weren’t for being in quarantine, I’d be singing its praises to everyone I meet. Until then, this post will have to do.

As a former Mint user, my #1 piece of advice for anyone trying YNAB has to be forget everything you know about managing your money with Mint or anything else.

If you’re looking for a place to start, I can’t recommend their videos and Nick True’s videos on YouTube enough. I have to credit them for retraining my brain for the YNAB way. (The book is also a good resource.)

I think of YNAB as a sort of “reverse” Mint. Instead of looking at your transactions to see how you’ve spent your money and trying to budget from there, YNAB asks you to look at the money you have right now and plan out exactly how you need to spend it down to the very last dollar – Give every money a job, as YNAB likes to call it.

The key to this is you’re not budgeting the money you expect to earn for the month, only the money you have available right now, which took quite some time to wrap my head around. Budgeting for all my expenses as I typically would have with Mint resulted in quickly being told I was over budget. I had to stop thinking in terms of hopeful money, and more in terms of what my actual money needed to do first and foremost until I got paid again.

By giving every dollar a job, suddenly things didn’t seem so grim. In fact, they looked surprisingly manageable. In fact, I could clearly see just how much money I had leftover after bills rather than mentally calculating whether I had enough for every purchase. I began to set that “extra” money aside for actual jobs (my car’s next oil change, my fiancé’s birthday, our wedding…). Suddenly opening my budget was less like opening a junk drawer and more like finding $100 in the couch cushions every time.

The YNAB website says that “On average, new budgeters save $600 by month two and more than $6,000 their first year.” I’ll be honest, I didn’t learn this until after I started seeing it mentioned on the YNAB subreddit. Had I seen it before I started, I probably would have dismissed it as a typical marketing ploy. I still want to, and yet in the first two months of using YNAB, I was able to find money to pay off not one, not two, but all THREE of my credit card balances in full (almost $4000). Of course, a big portion of that is due to a couple of windfalls (including tax refunds and a stimulus check) and not going out due to the current state of the world, but without YNAB, I’d have without a doubt blown that money on something stupid. Instead, I was able to use it to further my goals. (Oh, by the way, speaking of goals… Mint’s goal function had me thinking it’d be a struggle to pay off ONE card by next January…)

The other crazy thing is I paid off those card balances while still using those cards for bills and other expenses. This is IMO the real genius of YNAB. YNAB treats credit cards like debit cards, meaning you’re expected to budget for any spending (even credit card spending) with money you actually have. Once you spend in a budgeted category, YNAB automatically applies any that money to the card’s payment to cover your balance. This is what lets you account for paying off the existing balance AND any continued spending. As an example, say I planned to pay $400 towards my existing balance, and also charge $60 in groceries. As long as I’ve already budgeted $60 for groceries, YNAB will move that $60 of real money I had set aside for groceries to cover the additional charges on the card, increasing my total available for payment to $460. This was huge for me.

Debt repayment aside, YNAB has shown me the importance of setting up sinking funds for all my long term expenses, and yearly subscriptions, and other recurring expenses that I hadn’t included in my budgets before. Anytime I come across a subscription renewal or big-ticket item I will need down the road, I add it to the budget now. Not only has this forced me to come to terms with my subscriptions and recurring expenses, but I can also now budget for them little by little over the course of a year rather than having to come up with the money all at once.

I realize money’s a touchy subject, and budgeting is a little different in terms of topics I’d normally cover here. That being said, I’m curious if this is something you’d like to hear more about on the blog. Right now, I’m thinking it might be interesting to see how my categories stack up in YNAB, and how I typically budget a paycheck. Let me know if this is something you’re interested in or not in the comments below.

Also, if you’re interested in trying YNAB, you can score an extra month for free using this link.

Photo by Fabian Blank on Unsplash

Some Tips for Working from Home

As I’m sure many of you also are, I’ve been working from home due to the current COVID-19 pandemic for a little over 2 weeks now. Previously, I’d been teleworking one day a week, but working from home full-time is an entirely different experience. While I adapted quickly to teleworking, I quickly realized working from home was going to take some extra considerations on my part, so I figured I’d share some of those tactics I’ve been using with you all.

Get Dressed Every Day

While it’s tempting to wear comfy clothes all day, I’ve made it a point to still get up and get dressed as though I’m going to work each morning. I get to sleep in a little extra because I’m not actually commuting, but I’m still at my computer every morning at 7:45AM ready to work and also ready for any surprise Webex meetings.

Fake a Commute

Two issues with working from home are the tendency to sit all day and also the lack of a concrete beginning and end to the workday. To solve both of these, I’ve started hopping on my spin bike for 15 minutes at the beginning and end of each day. It not only closes my Apple Watch’s exercise ring for the day, but it also creates a beginning and end to my workday that has been sorely missing now that I’m not driving to and from work each day.

I also rigged up a makeshift laptop stand for my spin bike with some random things lying around the house, so if I’m feeling restless during the day, I can get a bit of additional activity in.

Engage All the “House Bots”

I think I got this idea from CGPGrey, but it’s simple and oddly effective. If needed, I try to start my dishwasher, washing machine, dryer, and/or robotic vacuum before I start working. It seems sad to say but I almost feel a sense of guilt for not working if they are. I also employ this on particularly lazy weekends or sick days, with the understanding that even if I feel like I’ve not done much, the “house bots” have at least done something to keep things moving.

Create a Dedicated Workspace

This one seems obvious, but I honestly put off having a dedicated workspace for much longer than I should have. When teleworking just once a week, I didn’t really see much of a point. I just grabbed my laptop and rotated through several locations (couch, patio, dining room table, etc) depending on the time of day and lighting in the house.

It took about a week of working from home full time to realize I missed some of the things I had at work like my extra monitor. I also realized how darn uncomfortable my dining room chairs are for sitting any longer than about an hour. Buying a chair cushion and pulling my old Apple Thunderbolt Display out from the depths of my closet were a must.

Do a Daily House Reset

This is a habit I got into before having to work from home, but I’m glad I did. Each day, I make sure to do a few basic things to keep the house in order. I don’t do them all at once. I generally spread them throughout the day whenever it makes sense so it doesn’t feel like a lot but doing them makes spending all day every day at home a little more tolerable.

At a minimum, these are some of the things I do as part of my daily house reset:

  • Make the bed when we wake up (This is actually possible right now since the other half is waking up with me.)
  • Scoop the cat box while I’m in the bathroom getting ready.
  • Empty the dishwasher while making my morning coffee.
  • Pick up anything that’s out of place as I’m walking around the house. I try to drop it off as close to the room it does belong in on my way to wherever I’m going. Our condo is essentially one long hallway so things are generally going one way or another down it.
  • Before bed, pick up any dishes and start the dishwasher.

Practice Self-Care

Let me start by saying I hate the phrase self-care. At the same time, I feel like we all really need it right now. For most of us, our lives have been upended by what’s going on. We’re having to deal with the reality of an awful pandemic that’s affecting just about everyone we know and love. We’re having to find creative ways to socialize with friends remotely. We’re learning to cohabitate (read: not fight) with housemates in closer quarters than usual, and if you’re like me, you’re also probably having to rebuild your entire work-life remotely in a time when work doesn’t always seem quite as important as everything else going on. None of this is normal, and it can be pretty overwhelming if you don’t take time for yourself.

I realized it’s way too easy to get caught in a cycle of scrolling through news, and if that’s the only thing you do, things start to look pretty grim. I’ve made it a point to carve time out of each day to practice mindfulness and think about what I’m grateful for, while also intentionally limiting my news consumption. I’ve also lowered some of the expectations for myself during this time. There are more important things to worry right now about than depriving myself of a piece of cake after dinner.

I hope everyone is doing well. If there’s any way I can be of help during this time, don’t hesitate to reach out.

More Efficient Meal Planning, Part Two

Today I wanted to check back into a post I shared recently about how we’ve been approaching meal planning.

We’ve been using the Cook Once Eat All Week cookbook for 8 weeks now. I feel like I can count the number of things I’ve stuck with for 8 weeks over my entire life on one hand, so to say that we’ve stuck to this for so long says something about how well it’s working for us.

As I mentioned in the prior post, each week we pick a week that’s in season from the book. I actually wrote the seasons directly in the book so it’s easily accessible but she offers a Seasonal Guide chart as a downloadable PDF when you buy the book. Admittedly, now that we’re several weeks in, it’s becoming more challenging to pick a week that’s in-season that we’d both like that doesn’t seem like something we just had, but with a little compromise, we’ve been able to make it work.

One of the things I also mentioned was that I’ve been keeping a log of sorts in Evernote to capture our thoughts on each of the weeks we’ve tried. In the log, I include a link to a separate note containing photos of the recipes and meal prep instructions (more on why below), the main ingredients, when the week’s in season, how easy or hard the prep was and how we liked each of the meals. At the end of the week, these give us a pretty good idea as to whether we would make the week again, so I color code the week accordingly.

Our Evernote Log

One of the unexpected benefits of keeping this log is that it’s allowed us to see that many of our favorite recipes, despite being from different weeks, still share similar ingredients. With our confidence in meal prepping increasing with each week, we’ve started toying with the idea of our own custom “weeks”. (Side note: I realize the concepts of meal planning and prepping aren’t new, but they are fairly new to us, so the concepts in this book have helped teach us the basics without seeming overwhelming.)

I was already saving our favorite recipes from each week into my recipe manager, Paprika, for safekeeping, and Paprika’s built-in menu feature makes creating custom weeks almost as easy as having them in the book. To make a custom week, I pick 3 of our recipes with similar ingredients to add to the menu. In the description section of the menu, I note any meal prep instructions specific to those meals. Since many of the ingredients are similar, we can still take advantage of prepping in bulk ahead of time.  As far as the grocery list, Paprika does all the heavy lifting to combine like ingredients and generate a grocery list that can be sent directly to our shared shopping list in Reminders.

Custom Menu in Paprika

Our Shopping List in RemindersSpeaking of our shared shopping list, for weeks we pull directly from the book, I’ve been saving time by copying them from the ebook (If considering the ebook, be sure to see my note below). Each week, I copy the week’s grocery list and paste it into Drafts. Unfortunately, this removes all the line breaks, so do I have to go back and add them back in, but from there, I just use a Send to Shopping List action to send everything directly to our shopping list. As an added bonus, the sections Cassey breaks the items into tend to map quite closely to our local Aldi’s layout, so I keep them and indent the ingredients as sub-tasks to organize the list.

A note on the Kindle version: As someone who prefers cooking from my iPad, I bought a copy of the Kindle version of the book thinking I’d be able to use it while cooking. However, the Kindle version strips out all of the formatting that makes the physical copy of the book so easy to follow. (This is the reason I’ve been snapping pictures of each week’s recipes to Evernote.) If you’re an e-book person like myself, I strongly recommend NOT getting the ebook version of this book.

In my first post about how we were meal planning, I shared a few of the benefits we saw right away (mainly focused around keeping our kitchen cleaner), so before I go, I wanted to wrap up by sharing some of the other benefits we’ve noticed now that we’ve been doing this for a couple of months :

  1. Because we have a plan for the week, impulse buys have pretty much stopped. Don’t get me wrong, we still grab the occasional ice cream or candy, but our pantry, fridge, and freezer are no longer bursting at the seams with random ingredients we picked up thinking they might be useful for a meal one day.
  2. We have a better understanding of what we actually have. Without all the random ingredients, it’s easier to notice the extra chicken in the freezer, which means we reduce the amount of chicken we buy for the week accordingly to use up what we already have.
  3. We’ve started making better use of our freezer. Another benefit of having a freezer that’s not overflowing with freezer meals is that we actually have room to freeze leftover ingredients and meals, instead of letting them go to waste.
  4. We’ve reorganized our kitchen. In most cases, this was as simple as relocating things we use regularly to be more easily within reach, but we did spend a few dollars on things like lazy susans or bins to make better use of our space as well. As a vertically challenged person, not having to get out a step stool to grab things is a huge time saver.
  5. We’re learning which tools we use, which we don’t, and most importantly what’s worth upgrading. For example, I had been thinking about replacing my cheap set of kitchen utensils for a while, but it turns out, nine times out of ten, I reach for my favorite spatula when cooking. I ended up just buying another spatula instead of a full set.

One last thing of note, while you can buy a spiral-bound copy of the book, the copy we have is the regular paperback version which has a tendency to close while we’re cooking if we don’t weigh it down. Recently, however, I saw someone who had rebound their copy using discs and seeing as how I still had a disc binding punch leftover from my paper planning days, it seemed like a logical upgrade for our book as well, so wish us luck in performing a bit of surgery on our copy.

More Efficient Meal Planning

I wanted to take a bit of a detour on the blog today and share something that I’ve been trying out recently to simplify things at home and save us a bit of money in the process. (Added bonus, it’s also helping me be more healthy so it’s also contributing to my year of health).

I received a copy of Cook Once Eat All Week for Christmas, and it’s been getting used just about every week since.

In essence it’s a cookbook centered on meal planning, but if by meal planning, you’re thinking you have to eat the same thing packaged into containers for a week straight, think again. The recipes are each quite different.

Meal Prepped Food In Containers

Prepped Ingredients from Week 1

The title itself is actually a bit of a misnomer. You don’t actually cook once. You actually cook throughout the week. What you actually do once is most of the meal prep, which cuts the time you spend on cooking during the rest week down to 10 or 20 minutes.

There are a few things about the book that have made it work for us more-so than other cookbooks or recipe services we’ve tried in the past:

  1. Each week is based around 3 main ingredients (usually a protein, a veggie, and a starch). This means we can save by buying things in bulk even though we’re only a household of two with limited freezer space.
  2. Each week features 3 recipes that serve 4-6 (plus two bonus meals). Well before this book, I found that planning for 3 dinners at home is the perfect amount for us each week. Three dinners (plus our usual night or two out or ordering carryout) usually leave just enough leftovers for lunches or nights when only one of us is home without throwing away a ton of food. This has taken a lot of the guesswork out of which meals to make each week. I just pick a week and those are my three meals. For larger families or those who prefer to eat in every night, I realize 3 meals isn’t enough, but for us, it’s just about perfect.
  3. Grocery lists are already made. Each week also comes with a pre-prepared grocery list meaning as long as we stick to those 3 meals, our grocery list is practically made for us give or take a few usual extras like milk, coffee creamer, or some time of fruit.
  4. Ingredients are straight forward. I’ve tried meal planning services in the past, and the one thing I couldn’t stand was always having to buy some obscure ingredient. Not only did this require a special trip to a grocery store other than Aldi, I often never used the items again. This book seems to feature pretty common ingredients. There have been a few items Aldi hasn’t stocked but they’re often pantry items I’ve reused in subsequent weeks. As we start to stock our pantry properly, I’m finding that our grocery list is becoming mostly just meats and produce.

Unexpectedly, I’ve found a couple unexpected bonuses as well:

  • Prepping everything on a single day means the kitchen only gets really messy for one day versus multiple days. Most of the messy steps requiring pots, pans, knives, and cutting boards have already been taken care of prior to cooking during the week.
  • It simplifies trash and compost. We tend to do our shopping and meal prep on Sundays or Mondays which happens to be around the time we set out our trash to get picked up for the week so most of the packaging gets thrown out almost immediately. I also keep our compost bin out and open while prepping so the bulk of our scraps get tossed into the bin all at once rather than having to open it several times throughout the week.
  • Last but not least, I find I’m getting more confident in the kitchen. I don’t mind cooking, and I’ve never been told I’m terrible at it. That being said, I tend to gravitate towards making what I’m comfortable with and that tends to be some variation of a cheesy chicken casserole found on Pinterest. This book has pushed me out of my comfort zone both in terms of flavors but also by helping me improve overall skills.

The book is composed of 26 weeks of recipes. Rather than working straight through from Week 1-26, we’re working through the weeks based on what’s in season (based on a chart included as an online extra). Thus far, we’re halfway through our 5th week and have made Weeks 1, 3, 4, and now 8.

Food in Casserole Dish

BBQ Chicken Broccoli Cauliflower Rice Casserole Before it went in the oven

Admittedly, some weeks have been home runs (e.g. Week 1) and others not so much, so I’m recording our thoughts on each week in Evernote in hopes that I can find at least several to rotate through. As an added help on my part, I’m also snapping photos of each week’s worth of prep and recipes and including them in Evernote as well. Not only does this allow me to have the recipes on my iPad while I cook, which I prefer, I can also pull up the recipes or prep instructions while I’m away from home if I need to. For our home run recipes like the Loaded Cauliflower Casserole from Week 3, I’ve also added just the recipes themselves directly to my recipe manager, Paprika, in the event we just want to make the recipe on its own.

All in all, this book has taken most of the guesswork out of cooking for the week. Cooking is almost fun again. We’re eating at home more and we’re eating much better too. Two thumbs up for this book from me.