Saturday, August 10, 2013

Meal Planning 101

After my latest post, I had a request to talk about HOW to meal plan.  Until I came up with this system, it was a pretty big pain in the butt, and we would frequently give up and order out.  In the first two weeks that we used the system, we did not order or eat out once.  We had dinner at our parent's homes, but that does not count as dining out.

Mandarin Pork and Rice
Step 1: Gather your resources
 - Figure out what is already in your cupboards.  This will prevent you from wasting food and from buying things you don't actually need at the store (which is how meal planning saves money).
 - Gather the recipes in your wheel house.  Don't try to learn to make a million new things.  Obviously you have seen what I can make (and that we have an unhealthy obsession with chicken), and we add a new recipe when we can.  Be realistic.
Strawberry Pretzel Salad

Step 2: Organize!
 - I have a board on our fridge that houses the schedule for the week.  It has places for five people's schedule, but obviously, there are only three of us (with schedules...Barney is super lazy).  In the bottom row, I write the dinner for the evening.  We all know what it is and can see how it fits into the schedule.
 - To make future meal planning easier, I got some blank 3" x 5" index cards.  On each card, I wrote a meal / entree and its ingredients on the front, and the procedure on the back.  Because I am a little anal retentive, I also coded the cards by the meat (or lack thereof) and grain contents.  If I didn't, we'd end up having a weeks worth of chicken or pasta dishes.  We try not to have consecutive nights of the same meat.  We also try to have one meatless night, or at least seafood.
 - Each week (whenever is good for you; we do this on Sundays), we plan the week's meals.  We set out the cards, make a grocery list, find coupons, and set aside the food we already have for those meals.  I was finding that I would accidentally use something to make lunch, or Jason would use it to bake, so if we set it in a special place, it doesn't get used.
 - For lunch, we eat leftovers and a few standards (deli sandwiches, hot dogs, mac and cheese, PB&J) so we also make sure to purchase those things and breakfast items.
Buffalo Chicken Mac & Cheese

Step 3: Shop
 - Do not grocery shop without a list.  I repeat: DO NOT CROSS THE THRESHOLD OF THE STORE WITHOUT A LIST IN YOUR HAND.  Otherwise, all the planning is for naught.  On my list, I also note which things I have coupons for to make comparison shopping easier.  If the coupon requires a certain number of things to get the discount, I also note that on my list.
 - My kiddo is a pretty good sidekick for errands.  As long as I talk to him a lot and play, he has enough patience to last the trip.  I find it takes me longer to shop without him because I end up making impulse purchases, I wander in the store, and I have no reason to make the trip quick.  If your kids make the trip longer or whatever, see if you can avoid taking them on the big trip.  Go after your spouse is home and the kid is in bed.  Also, find out when the Senior Discount Day is and avoid that morning.
 - Unless you need delicate produce, try to get all of your ingredients in one trip.  This helps avoid smaller trips that tend to add up throughout the week.

Cayenne Lime Chicken and Mango Salsa
Once you've made the cards, meal planning and shopping for me takes about an hour and half total.  I'm definitely buying and wasting less because of this system.

That said, organization is a pretty personal thing.  You can get ideas from others, but making it work for you and your family is probably going to require some tweaking.

Stout Cupcakes
*Remember: If you are ever bored with your dinner plans and need a new recipe, check out the entries under "recipes" in the tag cloud.

- M.