13 September 2012

A Really Long Post about Meal Planning

So, I've been thinking about doing this post for a while since I feel like I talk and rave about meal planning to all of our family and friends and many people seem to think it sounds too hard for them to do.  Lately, lots of people we know are either trying to save some cash money by not eating out, or are getting married, or are procreating, and I think that Matt and I have a little something to offer here.  Obviously, there are people who are probably way, way better at meal planning than we are, but this is the system that's worked for us over the last few years, and I think it could work for lots of you, too.

First of all, why even bother meal planning?  Well, here's why (besides the fact that it's just plain awesome): it saves a tremendous amount of time, it saves lots and lots of money, it's healthier, it's easier, it cuts down on stress, and it's fun (fun because then you have totally awesome food to eat at home and you don't have to hem and haw about what to do for dinner or become a cranky monster because you're hungry and tired of eating Spaghetti-O's). Here are the basic steps we have for our meal planning.

1. Amass pantry and fridge staples.
2. Think about food and recipes.
3. Do an inventory of fridge and pantry.
4. Come up with list of meals and sides.
5. Look at recipes and write out grocery list.
6. SHOP!
7. Post list of meals.

Okay, here we go! (Totes get ready for lots and lots of words, peeps.) 1.  Amass pantry and fridge staples.  These will vary depending on the kind of food you like to cook and the diet that you have.  The things we try to always have on hand at home are
  • half and half
  • lemons
  • limes
  • pasta
  • extra virgin olive oil
  • fresh garlic
  • sriracha 
  • eggs
  • bacon 
  • crushed red pepper
  • kosher salt
  • onions
  • parmesan cheese
  • butter
  • spaghetti sauce
  • chicken broth
  • soy sauce
  • panko bread crumbs
  • carrots 
  • basmati rice
  • vinegar (wonderful because we use it for cleaning, for laundry, and for making buttermilk)
Having these staples available to us at any time means that there are a handful of meals we can make without really doing any shopping at all (granted, they are too often carbonara and chicken parmesan, which aren't the healthiest--but boy are they tasty!).  There are some other staples that we have that are much more specific, like sesame oil and rice wine for making Asian dishes, but we'll save those for another day.  I think it's really important to have a well-stocked fridge and pantry because you can use those ingredients for so many different meals, and then it doesn't really take much to add a few ingredients to create an awesome dinner.  It might take some time to stock your pantry the way you'll like it, but it's totally worth the time and money, and you'll be happy you did.

*Side note, I have different staples for baking.  They are vanilla, vanilla bean paste, flour, cake flour, sugar, baking soda, baking powder, food coloring, powdered sugar.  Some of the other staples above like butter and half and half double as baking staples.

**Matt's note:  Matt says that if you don't already have one you should get a pepper grinder because it makes everything better.  I will add that you should also always always always shred your own parmesan cheese and never ever buy that stuff in the green can.

2.  Think about recipes.  We think about food A LOT.  Is that what everyone does?  In the days before we make out a meal plan, Matt and I mention to one another the meals we'd like to have soon, whether they're things we've made a million times or just recipes we saw in a cookbook.  I read a number of food blogs, too, and when I find something that I think we'd enjoy, I'll email the post to Matt and myself for later consideration.  Thinking about recipes is a huge part of our meal planning, because that's what gets us excited about making dinner.  Also, we are total fatties.

3.  Take an inventory of the fridge and pantry.  This sounds way harder than it is.  Really, all I do is look at what we have and need to use, and what we are out of.  It'll be like noticing that we have 6 lemons (we always buy them by the bag) and thinking that our next plan should use up some lemons (so maybe we'll make Bitten Word rosemary lemon chicken or panko chicken with lemon sauce?) or noticing that we're totally out of bacon and need to stock up.  Fridge inventory time is also when I get around to throwing out that sour cream that's 2 weeks expired or realizing that we have homemade BBQ sauce that will be good for another week that we should use.  It's nice to have the refrigerator cleaned out and organized when we get home from the grocery store, too.

4.  Make our meal list (complete with sides).  I should preface by telling you that this only takes like 30 minutes, even though it might sound like it takes longer.  Making the list is one of the easiest and most fun parts of meal planning.  Matt and I sit down and write down the meals we want to make.  We try to maintain a good balance, too, so we're not having two weeks of Fatty McFatterson meals or all salads (which would really just mean we'd high-tail it to Mexico for some burritos).  The nice thing about cooking at home is that even our lard ass meals are healthier than the salads at many chain restaurants, so we can feel good about ourselves and what we're eating.  We usually do meal plans that have about 10-12 dinners on them, and that will last us about 2 1/2 to 3 weeks (with Matt working some nights and the occasional night that we go out or decide just to eat pasta with parmesan and butter).

When we think of the sides that we will make, we try to consider the sides we've already planned for.  So, for example, if we're going to have mashed potatoes one night, we might try to add in one or two other potato sides (like grilled potatoes or spicy baked oven fries) so that we use the entire bag of potatoes and don't end up tossing any of them.  This strategy saves us money and guilt since we don't have to feel bad about wasting food.

Lately, as we've grown slightly more savvy, we've started dividing our meal list into two and just buying the produce for the first five or six meals on our major trip.  We we need the rest of the stuff, one of us will dip into Publix for the rest of the time (I try to do it to get some quiet time for myself).  We started doing it that way because we kept kicking ourselves for letting produce go bad.  Now we also try to cook the recipes that require the produce that goes bad quickly (looking at you, green onions!) earlier than the others.

For other people, it'd probably be easier just to shop for fewer meals each time, like 5 or 6 instead of 10 or 12.  Since Matt works three nights a week now, though, and it's hard to find time and energy to get to the store with baby in tow during the school year when we're stressed to the max, we do it this way.

5.  Make the grocery list.  It's exactly what it sounds like, but make sure that you actually look up the recipes to ensure that you have everything written down.  Nothing's more annoying than going to cook dinner and realizing that you're missing one of the key ingredients.

6.  SHOP!  This part is fun, and we've gotten to where we have it down to a science.  I try to check the weekly ads online before we go to the store just to see if we should adjust our list.  Usually, we're in and out of the grocery store in about 40 minutes or so, and we spend about $100-$150 for 2-3 weeks worth of food (not counting the supplemental produce trip later that might be about $40 or so).  When you consider that just going to even a cheap restaurant will set you back $30 easy, and that you're eating way better food at home (better taste and better nutrition), and you do your arithmetic on the way home to figure out just how cheap each of those meals are, you'll pat yourself on the back.

For our regular grocery shopping, we go to Publix, which is sometimes more expensive than other, more disgusting grocery stores, but it is like a bajillion times nicer.  We're always happier when we leave Publix, so we decided that it was worth a few extra dollars.  Kroger makes me hate the world.

Okay, and here's the really shameful part.  We also go to Sam's (speaking of hating the world).  I detest it but we save a lot of money by going there.  I only go every 4-6 weeks or so (and I try to go on Sunday mornings while everyone's at church), and I only get items there that I know we'll use and that we have room for.  Also, I had to get to know what stuff actually costs elsewhere to know if I was even getting a deal at Sam's.  A Sam's trip usually involves getting (in addition to a healthy dose of self-loathing) parmesan cheese, hummus, baby carrots, pork tenderloin (or other meat that's on sale--we used to buy boneless skinless chicken breasts there because they were so cheap, but we stopped because they started to suck), peanut butter, granola bars (for school lunches), half and half, butter, berries, celery, sometimes bacon, and annually a 20 lb. bag of basmati rice.  (Sam's is also way cheaper for Mach 3 razors, which I buy about once a year and then gripe about for six weeks because they just should not be that expensive.)

7.  Post the list.  The last thing about our meal planning is super easy and definitely crucial.  We write a list of all of the meals we have the ingredients for and then post it on the refrigerator.  We don't get as specific as "On Monday we'll have pot roast and on Tuesday we'll have kung pao chicken" because we've found that sometimes we just don't feel like eating or preparing certain meals on certain days.  We do try to make the meals that use the most perishable produce early on, though, just to avoid waste.  We try to use common sense and make slow-cooked meals on the weekends and quick meals on weeknights.

Oh, and if you want to do meal planning and you don't have some already, I'd recommend getting a few great cookbooks.  Great Food Fast and Dinner: A Love Story are two of our favorites.  We also subscribe to Everyday Food, and I read a handful of food blogs whose recipes I've come to trust (DALS, Smitten Kitchen, Simply Recipes, The Girl Who Ate Everything).  And if you're just starting out cooking, I'd recommend either of the Real Simple cookbooks.  They're fantastic!

Phew!  There you have it!  Do you do meal planning?  What's your system?


  1. Meal planning for the win! How do people even eat dinner without it?

  2. I wholeheartedly second your feelings about Kroger.

  3. Thanks for this post. It prompted me to throw out a bunch of expired condiments from my fridge. :)

  4. Loved this post! I have a system, but do not always stick to it. There's sewing to be done over here!!

  5. I always have chicken in my freezer because I buy Springer and stock up when it's a decent price. Your other staples are in my kitchen too! I shop weekly and base my meals around what produce is on sale and then eat our vegetarian or seafood meals early in the week, defrosting chicken or other meat towards the end. I definitely get tired of meal planning though and mentally kick myself in anger when I shop for an unplanned week.



Related Posts with Thumbnails