Updated: Nov 5, 2019
What's for dinner?
The answer to this question may bring joy, anticipation, anxiety, or disappointment. "From 2015 to 2016, for the first time in history, Americans spent more money at bars and restaurants ($54.857 billion) than they did on groceries ($52.503 billion)" according to foxbusiness.com (article found here). It seems like meal planning is not a priority for many Americans, even though we know it improves health (with healthy recipes), saves money, saves time, and eliminates food waste.
Where Rubber Meets the Road
When I was in Home Economics (now called Family and Consumer Sciences... I guess baking is chemistry) at thirteen, meal planning was not as important as the zit on my nose. All I remember is that my teacher could make anything from Bisquik. She is now retired and living in an adobe style Bisquik home in New Mexico. A friend recalled the spaghetti noodle test from Home Ec where you throw the noodle at the wall. Hands-on cooking information (Bisquik and spaghetti) was retained. Meal planning not so much.
Jim Carrey once said (try not to picture Ace Ventura talking with his butt cheeks, oops sorry) "People need motivation to do anything. I don't think human beings learn anything without desperation."
If you are desperately lost when it comes to meal planning, I hope I can point you in the right direction. Not naturally domestic, this information comes through many trials and errors.
Recipe for Greatness
I enjoy cooking, but inventing recipes is not a gift of mine. Digital recipes work best for me. I donated almost all my cook books, freeing up space. Mastering the Art of French Cooking by Julia Child remained. Following the recipe for boeuf bourguignon in that beautiful book brings me joy. If you like hard copies and your Grandmother's handwritten recipe cards make you happy, use them!
Planning is easiest with your recipes in one place and in an order that makes sense to you. I use the Plan To Eat (PTE) website as my recipe database. I found all my cookbook recipes online by searching the titles of the recipe and book. I filed each recipe with a click of the PTE button in my toolbar. I manually entered a few family recipes. It is easy to add recipes that I find online. My twenty dollar membership (I renew on Black Friday's half-off sale) pays for itself in food, time, and brain power. You can search your recipes or your friends' if they are members. Join and we can share!
Plan to Plan
I only meal plan if I plan to meal plan. Make it fun. Buy a pretty planner. Drink a yummy drink. Play some music. Add planning to your household tasks routine. Post your routine on the fridge, enter it into your calendar, or set a reminder on your phone until it becomes habit.
Life happens and flexibility is important, but this is my planning/grocery routine currently:
Friday ~ Plan the meals for the next week, Monday through Sunday and make a shopping list.
Saturday ~ Check for leftovers to use. There usually isn't much. Take care of any fridge messes for bonus points.
Sunday ~ Write the new menu on the chalk board menu.
Monday ~ Shop with the baby while the middle kid is at morning preschool.
Avoid Blank Menu Anxiety
Planning can be overwhelming with infinite choices. This can lead to meal ruts. "This again?!" Artists know that constraints lead to creativity. Use themes.
We have moved past Meat Free Mondays and are now Weekday Vegetarians. Our current themes are:
Sunday - Salmon from the freezer (easy on my "day off")
Monday - Mexican (healthy Mexican)
Tuesday - Thai
Wednesday - Freezer- Extra to Freeze or Thaw
Thursday - Salad
Friday - Hippie Bowl (a.k.a. Power, Buddha, or Macro Bowl)
Saturday - Family Member Pick Rotation (keep 'em happy)
Using themes uses ingredients more steadily and cuts down on waste. For instance, I no longer wonder when was the last time I made Thai and how old is the fish sauce. (Not that you would notice a change in quality or smell. Piu! I don't think it can actually spoil.)
As a side note- We start each meal with a large salad. The girls have raw or cooked veggies. Salad/veggies are really our main course.
Make a Seasonal Playlist
Using my themes, I came up with a month of meals. You could make a list of meals or arrange recipes in a binder in this way. There is a feature on PTE to copy your plans from previous weeks or months. This feature comes in handy for seasonal menu planning. "I wonder what we did with all the zucchini last year? Ohhh right!"
A relaxed summer playlist accommodates the influx of garden goodies. Summer is a season for play and spontaneity with my kids and husband home (he's a teacher).
Look at your calendar while you plan. My husband and I use Google Calendar to stay on the same page.
Last week I saw on my calendar I needed to make treats for school and a get together so I planned to make double of the same thing. I planned to take a fruit salad to preschool for the teacher appreciation luncheon. Checking the calendar when planning saves me many trips to the store.
Theme nights might not stay in order and ruin Mexican Monday's alliteration. On Tuesday my husband started his softball season, Chipotle had BOGO for teachers, and our daughter's school's fundraiser was at Sweet Frog next door. It was a no-brainer to plan Chipotle and Sweet Frog that night. Apparently we are unlike most Americans as eating out is a treat for us. The kids were excited to see Chipotle and Sweet Frog on the menu board.
Post a Menu
Writing on our menu chalkboard brings me joy. I can see what's on deck without getting on the computer. My kids really like to see what's coming too. They like it almost as much as they like to mess with the menu.
Make Your List and Check it Twice
Make your list in order by aisle to help prevent back tracking. To create a printable form with aisle categories customized to your stores, like the one seen above, jot down the order of the aisles (produce, breakfast, condiments, etc.) next time you are at the store, or see if this information is on the store's website. Some stores even let you make a list on their website. Chances are you can remember the order from memory. I know Aldi like the back of my hand. The list above is one I used to use for Target, Aldi and Wegman's. PTE's list
is customizable and you can even assign ingredients to different stores. It generates your list based the recipes in you planner. I have gone paperless and use my PTE list on my phone.
Coupons don't effect my planning. I shop at Aldi which sells their own brand that do not have coupons. Often coupons get you to try processed convenience foods. Eating seasonal produce saves us money. Wegman's has digital coupons that I might use on things I was already buying, like $2 off the produce section. Couponing can lead to impulse buys, deal hoarding, and unhealthy choices.
Keep a Capsule Pantry
Do you have a mini grocery store in your house? A cluttered and crowded pantry makes planning harder, especially if you are storing food in overflow locations. Seeing all your food cuts down on waste.
On high, deep shelves, add stadium seating (a flipped over clementine box works) to see the things in the back. I put oils, vinegar, etc. on this shelf since they have labels on the front.
I have baking supplies at eye level.
Dry goods in mason jars with labeled tops (sharpie easily comes off with a magic eraser) do well on lower shelves as the tops can be read. You can see when an ingredient is running low, they use vertical space, and the shelf doesn't look like a mess of bags of beans and rice.
I keep fruit for snacks on the lowest shelf for the kids to reach.
Mountable racks store spices nicely on the back of a pantry or cabinet door. Make sure that the door will shut before mounting. The shelves will need to line up in the space between the spices and racks. Ask me how I know. Using an Elfa Door Rack eliminates this problem as they are adjustable.
I meal plan in the kitchen and get up and look in the fridge or pantry if I am unsure on the amount I have. When low, I restock the new ingredient next to the old one. Even though the new mustard isn't opened yet, it goes in the fridge next to the one doing a head stand.
Be More With Less has a wardrobe challenge called Project 333 that challenges you to wear only 33 items for 3 months. They now also have a capsule pantry challenge. If you are looking to find discipline in the grocery store, this might be a good way to change your habits.
Giving Thanks for Daily Bread (or salad)
Food waste is a huge reason to meal plan. As we prepare to eat, may we always be grateful and remember for some the answer to the question "What's for dinner?" is often nothing. I am trying to remember this when my kids are a bit less than enthusiastic about the menu. I am grateful they ask the question knowing there is something to be eaten, even if they turn up their noses. In fact, I might change one of our meal themes to beans and rice as author Kristen Welch does in her book Raising Grateful Kids in an Entitled World. Read about it and see her very simple recipe here on her blog. We already eat a lot of beans and rice around here, but being intentional about making that all we have once a week would be a great way to remember those with less. Even if my kids don't pick up on kitchen tips from me or their teacher, that is one lesson that will be retained.
You Can Do It!
It's a little bit of work to get started if you have never meal planned before. Like Jim said, you need motivation and maybe desperation. Perhaps your motivation is eating more family dinners, eating healthier, saving money, or all of the above.
If this is overwhelming, there are many bloggers you can pay to download a month of recipes and shopping lists. Let them do some of the work for you. You still have to cook it. Of course if you just had a baby and are surviving on take out, that's to be expected. We all go through seasons and figure out what works for now, like naptime or weekend meal prep, freezer and crock pot cooking.
If you are curious about Plan To Eat, they give you a 30 day free trial and it doesn't automatically charge you if you forget to cancel. They are nice.
Does anyone have any good tips? I'd love to know what you do!
"I was thirty-two when I started cooking; up until then I just ate."
"No one is born a great cook, one learns by doing."