Friday, August 14, 2009

Disco Mom Takes on Meal Planning

A couple months ago I posted my shopping list m.o. and my friend Kat made the key comment - she said, "What I want to know is the secret to actually planning out meals ahead of time!" MOST EXCELLENT point. Meal planning makes grocery shopping faster, more concise and often cheaper but it's confusing, time-consuming and a pain in the butt. I'm sorry, there's no way around it - this is going to be a long post.

My meal planning success varies from week to week but for the most part I've got a rhythm. I usually sit down Sunday or Monday night (I shop early Tuesday morning), write out 6 meals - main dish, any sides, etc. - plus one night is always left open for leftovers, eating out or mac & cheese from a box. I also write next to everything where the recipe is found, if necessary - magazine or cookbook and page number, so I can find everything again easily. Then I look at my calendar, especially what's going on in the afternoons and evenings, and assign days to each meal according to prep and cook time needed and what will work for each day. I go back through the meal plan and recipes and make my shopping list. Then I put the meal plan on the side of the fridge where I can see it easily that week. When the week is over I put the paper in a file folder I keep; sometimes I look back through to get meal ideas.But how the heck to come up with six good meals every week that aren't always the same thing and don't break the bank or hurt my brain? There are several ways I go about it, depending on what is the strongest motivator that week.

Circulars - When keeping the grocery bill minimal is priority (like the week before payday), I decide where I'm going shopping, look through the circular that comes in the paper (most are online, too), and base meals off what is on special that week. I also buy extra of things, especially meat and canned goods, that are on special so I can use them another time.

Cookbooks - I've got so many awesome cookbooks, most of which I have under-used. When I really want to delve into a cookbook I like, I go flipping through to find things that 1) look good; 2) sound good; 3) use in-season or on-special foods; 4) are easy; 5) I think my kids might like; 6) you get the idea. This is one of my favorite ways to meal plan but it takes the most time.

Clean Out the Kitchen - Like I mentioned, when things go on sale I sometimes stock up. But I don't have an extra fridge/freezer, and cupboard/storage space is limited too so at least once a month I need to clean out. I go through the fridge, freezer and cupboards and list things I have or want to use up, and base meals off that. This is another one that keeps the grocery bill smaller.

Old Standbys - At least once a week we have a meal that requires no recipe at all: spaghetti and salad, homemade pizza, casserole, Trader Joe's frozen orange chicken and rice, BBQ chicken and roasted potatoes, etc. Cuts out 1/6 of the work every meal planning session!

"Programs" - This refers to set plans that you repeat each week, like eating fish once a week. Or like I try to do one slow cooker meal each week (or I did before my slow cooker broke and it threw me off my game.) A few other "programs" I do or have done in the past:
  1. Print off a Month of Menus from Woman's Day (they are awesome!) and highlight a few that look good. Make one a week.

  2. Choose a great cookbook, like Rachael Ray's 365: No Repeats and make one meal a week out of that book. I have a new cookbook called 52 Weeks of Proven Recipes for Picky Eaters. I make one meal a week out of it, on Friday nights, so that's another night I don't have to think about, just look up what the next menu is. I'm going to do a separate post about this book once I've done it for awhile and know whether it's a success or flop. We're on week 4.

  3. Robin Miller of Food Network has a program called Quick Fix Meals. It is ideal for people who can't stand meal planning because she usually gets two or three meals out of one major prep. For example, in her Thai One On episode, you make a peanut sauce and do some extra ingredient chopping on the first night that you also use later in the week for meals #2 and #3. You can find all the recipes online, along with the week's gameplan and shopping list for each menu. She's done half the work for you!

  4. Choose a dish or appliance. I mentioned one slow cooker recipe a week - it's awesome. I keep a binder of slow cooker recipes to try and although over half of them are not worth repeating or recommending, I keep at it in the hopes of finding the needles in the haystack. Or plan to use your breadmaker once a week and have sandwiches with fresh bread. Or your rice cooker, and have fried rice or burritos or rice and beans once a week. Weekly waffles anyone? (Grilled cheese sandwiches in the waffle maker are popular with my girls, though a bit messy to clean up...)
I usually do a combination of the above, depending on the week. But right now I always have 1) an open/easy/whatever day, 2) Fridays come from 52 Weeks, and 3) Sundays are often slow cooker or leftover days because we have church from 1 to 4. So that only leaves four meals a week to plan. Robin Miller could take care of three of those.

Or I could do 1) one from a Month of Menus, 2) one standby night like grilled burgers, 3) something from the circular (like chicken thighs are on sale so I put garlic & rosemary under the skin, brush with lemon curd - no joke, it's DELICIOUS - and roast until they're so golden I want to cry), and 4) one from that cool vegetarian cookbook I don't open enough.

Or (ok, I promise this is the last example!) 1) a pasta bake to use up half a box of bowties in the cupboard and a jar of sauce in the fridge getting old, 2) a zucchini-rice frittata to use those three zucchinis from my friend's garden, 3) something from Rachael Ray's 365, and 4) BLT's because bacon is BOGO at Safeway.

Voila! Another week of dinners is done!

Have other suggestions or things that work for you? Please share!


Shanda said...

Because I am so lazy when it comes to planing meals I found a couple of site that I like. I have done some of the freezer meals from and they were all great. I have also used the FREE menus from
Sometimes I change that one a little but I like that it gives me a printable grocery list and all the recepies. Plus I usually spend $70 - $100 on the weekly menu. Kari...I would much rather have you cook for me! Great ideas!

Alex M. said...

Trader Joes Frozen orange chicken with white rice has become a "fashion staple" only for food in our house. When my mom hasn't really planned anything she just makes that. It's yummy and affordable (thanks Joe!)!

Emily said...

It's so nice to read something on your blog and be like, wow, I do that too! And if DM does it, maybe I'm not so bad at this as I thought. :)

kat said...

excellent. now if i can just implement. maybe you could just post your weekly menus and i can be super mooch. and how about coming out here to go shopping with me? i need to admit that this is the body i have and actually get some close to maximize it. sigh.

Nells-Bells said...

love this! thanks for sharing. your tips are awesome and i plan on utilizing them. i am horrible at meal planning so this is great.

Heather M. said...

Thanks so much for articulating what I do... now i can send friends to your website when they ask me how I do it. It's pretty close to your planning, at least when I'm not lazy about it, which I have been all summer. Oh well, September is almost here and I'll have no choice anymore, especially since everything with the kids after school is at dinnertime and planning is key or we eat junk! You are awesome! Oh... a few ideas from me: Cooking Light is awesome! And always always good to have cleanup/out ideas like your pasta bake. We do variations on a paella (I call it a rice mess) with whatever proteins/veggies are leftover, and spice it up with spanish, mexican, asian, creole, or island (I could go on...)flavors. Fried rice also works well for this. And, as you mentioned, for those crazy days, Trader Joe's is way better than fast food! :-)

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