By Crystal Paine , Contributing Writer
Are you working to ditch processed foods and put more real food on the table? This month we’re running a series called Real Food Made Simple: A Beginner’s Guide to Eating Better . Our goal is to answer the questions  you might have and make the transition a whole lot easier!
Plan Ahead to Save Your Sanity
Meal planning  is key to success and efficiency in the kitchen. We all probably know this. But you have to be intentional about it, or it doesn’t happen.
I’ve done different things over the years, but what’s currently working is to set aside time on Saturday morning to plan our menu for the upcoming week. While I’m planning the menu, I also make the grocery list. Then, on Saturday afternoon, I head to the store to do the shopping.
This ensures that we start the week with a full refrigerator and pantry — and that we have the ingredients on hand to make the items on our menu! Then, throughout the week, I just have to work the plan.
My usual set up when planning our weekly menus  — laptop, magazine clippings, my home management binder, and coffee!
Here are some menu-planning helps and ideas:
- Use Pinterest for inspiration. I have a board called Recipes I Want to Try  and every time I find a yummy-looking recipe on Pinterest, I pin it to this board. Then, when I’m planning our weekly menu, I consult this board for ideas.
- Buy a copy of Plan It, Don’t Panic . This eBook is packed with great ideas and inspiration for menu planning.
- Download meal-planning printable forms. Instead of scratching down your menu on the back of an envelope, print one of these free menu planning forms (there are more here ), fill it out, and stick it on the side of your refrigerator.
- Create a cute board. Make menu planning more exciting with one of these meal-planning boards. 
- Plan according to what you have on hand. Save money (and reduce waste!) by starting your menu plan based upon what you already have in your refrigerator and freezer . I like to use the Ingredient Search Feature on AllRecipes.com  to generate a list of ideas.
- Base your menu on what’s in season and on sale. Check the sale’s fliers for your local stores and see what the rock-bottom sales are for that week. This is a really easy and almost-effortless way to cut your grocery bill.
- Rotate a 3-month menu plan. If you want to simplify your life, consider taking the time to put together two or three month’s worth of menus  and a corresponding grocery list. Then, just rotate these menus. This way, you can keep re-using them over and over again saving you valuable time.
German Chocolate Fudge Bites  — so yummy! These can be made ahead of time and kept in the freezer for up to 4-6 weeks.
Double Up Your Efforts to Save You Time
I love to cook and bake. But I often don’t have time to spend hours in the kitchen — especially on busy weekdays. However, that doesn’t mean we can’t still enjoy home-cooked meals. It just means I have to get creative and make the most of my time in the kitchen.
Here are some things that help me save time and effort in the kitchen:
- Cook it once, eat it twice. Make a big pot of soup for dinner and serve it for two nights in a row. Or, make two meatloaves instead of one and eat one for dinner and freeze the extra meatloaf for later. It takes a lot less time to double a recipe than it does to make it two separate times. Plus, you only have to do the dishes once!
- Keep your freezer stocked. Take at least two hours on the weekend to make and freeze food for the coming week. It’s amazing how much you can get done in a short amount of time if you set your mind to it, set the timer, and have a plan. If you’re new to freezer cooking, check out my Beginner’s Guide to Freezer Cooking post . You can also read about some of Stephanie’s Real Food Freezer Cooking sessions. 
- Make a week’s worth of layered salads  in mason jars. Such a simple way to make eating fresh salads all week a snap!
- Cook meat in bulk. Never just cook one pound of meat. Make it worth your while by browning multiple pounds of ground beef. Save yourself some effort by browning it in the crock pot. 
- Prep your food as soon as you come home from the store. When you walk in the door from a shopping trip, do yourself a favor and go ahead and brown the ground beef, marinate the chicken, wash and chop all the veggies, and boil eggs… or whatever it is that you’re planning to do with the food you bought. Work as quickly as you can to get this all done — and then go put your feet up and enjoy the feeling of knowing you’ve done much of your kitchen prep work for the week already!
- Make bulk batches of baking mixes for your favorite recipes. Do you have certain baked goods that you like to make regularly? Take 15 minutes on the weekends to a quadruple batch of the dry ingredients together. Then, when you’re ready to make pancakes  or cookies or muffins, half the job is already done. By the way, here’s my favorite homemade baking mix .
Put Your Appliances to Work For You to Save You Energy
We might not live in the age of servants, but we certainly have some fantastic modern appliances at our disposal. Use them to your advantage!
Here are my favorite appliances:
- Crockpot. Every woman needs one of these in her kitchen! Use it to make amazing rotisserie chicken , homemade yogurt , homemade applesauce , and much more. I love the ideas for Crockpot Freezer Cooking , too! (Stephanie’s note- Have you seen the new ebook “Crock On” ? Tons of easy recipes!)
- Bread Machine. I love my Zojirushi Bread Machine  and use it to make homemade bread , bread sticks , cinnamon swirl bread , homemade rolls , cinnamon rolls , and more!
- VitaMix. This is an expensive kitchen tool, but it’s probably my most-used appliance , next to my bread machine. I use it to make homemade fruit smoothies , green smoothies , healthy peanut butter chocolate banana “ice cream” , and more. You can also make very inexpensive homemade rice milk in it.
- KitchenAid. I inherited this appliance from my grandma and it’s so helpful for mixing up big batches of dough and batter.
Making Homemade Applesauce in the Crock Pot 
Other posts in the series:
What Is Real Food? 
7 Foods to Avoid