Last week, for a reason I can't remember, I didn't make a meal plan (hence no Post-Kid Kitchen last week). This week, I made a plan but changed my mind and slothed out on Tuesday and abandoned it. And this is the last time I do either of these things!
I know there are people who rarely (or never!) plan meals, and after the past couple weeks, I don't know how they don't go crazy. Asking myself "what's for dinner?" every afternoon and then trying to cobble together something tasty and nutritious from a hodgepodge of ingredients is exhausting. Not to mention expensive! I manage our household budget by logging purchases and crunching numbers at least twice a week, and abandoning meal-planning was a great waste of time and hundreds of dollars. Yes, hundreds, plural.
That's the end of that: from now on, I will never, NOT EVER shop without a meal plan. And I won't wuss out on my meal plan once I've made it. Because meal planning? Saves a ton of time and money! And contrary of what many non-planners think, it's not that difficult.
There are meal-planning tips all over the place, and most of them will advise you to plan your dinners from the food ads in the newspaper. This doesn't work for me, as supermarket specials are often on things like pork chops, cow's milk, and packaged snack "foods." If I find a coupon for something I was going to buy anyway - fortified non-dairy milk for Westley, for instance - I certainly won't turn my nose up at it. But letting supermarket sales govern your planning can result in some less-than-healthful meals.
I do most of my meal-planning the night before I shop. For me, that means Sunday night. My process looks a little something like this:
- Shop the fridge and the pantry. Are there any vegetables left over from last week? How's the supply of milks looking? Do I have beans, rice, quinoa, oats, rice pasta, or anything else that might serve as a jumping-off point for a dinner? How long has that been in there?
- Round up notebook, pen, and a few cookbooks. I make my shopping list in a little hardcover spiral-bound journal. This keeps me from losing my list, keeps the list from getting crunched to death in my bag, and gives me the option of looking back at previous weeks' lists and meals for inspiration.
- Flip through the cookbooks for ideas. Sometimes I'll search the index for an ingredient that's overflowing in my pantry (a particular kind of bean, for example). I aim for six planned dinners and one night of leftovers. As I choose entrees, I write them down in my notebook, along with the cookbook name and page number, and note the ingredients I need to buy. When Rob and I were first married and we shopped almost entirely from one grocery store (together, holding hands and making eyes at each other among the eggplants) I organized my list by supermarket aisles. Now, I just make two columns: Produce and Not Produce.
- Ask for input from Rob and Westley. Is there anything that sounds especially good for dinner? Are we out of an ingredient and I didn't notice?
- Go to bed!
- Monday morning, after breakfast, it's time to shop - with an open mind. Sometimes an ingredient I'd planned on isn't available, and I'll have to find a substitution. I'll also substitute (or stock up) if I find a great deal. Local Granny Smith apples for 69 cents a pound? Yes, please!
- Return home and put groceries away. Decide which dinner I'll make on which day. Risotto is better suited to a weekend afternoon, when Rob can entertain Westley while I stir, constantly, for an hour. Lentil chili that I can cook at breakfast time and reheat later in the day is perfect for a busy day with lots of afternoon outings.
The next step, which I have yet to take on, is recycling meal plans. I keep fantasizing about coming up with a list of 30 or so inexpensive, healthful, relatively easy meals to fall back on when I still find myself asking, "What's for dinner?"