I have arrived home from a long day at work, starving, and stared into my refrigerator. Behind my weary gaze, I try to conjure in my mind how the contents of my fridge and pantry could miraculously combine to make the perfect dinner. I want something delicious, maybe something healthy, and definitely something quick. In my single days my tired brain would give up and I’d either hit a drive thru window or pop a freezer dinner into the microwave. Lean Cuisine, anyone?
Now I’m a mom and I’m cooking for my family. When my oldest child was almost a year old I went back to work. Once again, I found myself standing in front of our refrigerator with that blank what-am-I-gonna-fix-for-dinner stare. Or, I knew what I was going to fix for dinner (by around 3:00 that afternoon), and I needed to stop at the grocery for that dreaded missing ingredient. I repeated this behavior about every other day. Not only was I wasting my time parking, shopping, and waiting in the check out line after work when I just wanted to see my baby, 3-5 trips to the grocery every week was costing some cash! Ever run in for milk and end up with thirty bucks worth of “stuff”? It’s possible that you readers are more disciplined than I. Kudos to you! But me, I need a list when I head to the store.
So, I started making meal plans and specific grocery lists. Maybe you happen to be one of those anal people like me that loves to make lists, loves to plan. Maybe not. For the record, I used to hate lists….making them, following them… I’m really not sure what happened. My mom’s Type A influence finally manifested itself in organizational skills? Whether you are a planner or not, it is a good feeling to know what’s for dinner, know you have the ingredients in your kitchen, and maybe even have some of the prep work finished ahead of time. I’m not saying that I create a gourmet meal every night. I am currently blessed to stay home with our children, so I do have more time afforded to meal preparation. However, even when I was working outside of the home, I’d plan quick and easy meals for those nights that I knew I’d return home, drained from a day in the classroom and no desire to fire up the stove. Heck, sometimes it was Hamburger Helper for dinner. At least I could look at the plan and think, “Hey, I need to transfer a pound of ground beef to the refrigerator to defrost for dinner tomorrow night.”
Without further ado…and because I’m starting to sound like an infomercial, I am happy to pass on this meal planning way of life. It has helped with our budget, reduced the amount of trips to the grocery to only one BIG trip every 2 weeks (we usually make a milk, bread, and fresh produce run in between) and increased the over-all satisfaction with what is placed on my table. So here’s my process, the way I make a meal plan.
1) Gather Your Recipes
Collecting recipes is an ongoing process. Some of my favorite sources:
- Kraft Food and Family- you can sign up for this free publication at http://www.kraftfoods.com/ Great fast and easy recipes.
- Taste of Home’s Light and Tasty- not only are the recipes delicious, but I love that each recipe comes with complete nutritional information per serving. You can check it out at http://www.tasteofhome.com/. This site is awesome for searching if you have specific dietary needs or if you want to find a recipe that uses a certain ingredient. For example: you have a bumper crop of rhubarb. Just type in “Rhubarb” and you’ll find 279 recipes, some with pictures.
- Better Homes and Gardens. Just go to http://www.bhg.com/ and click on Food & Recipes.
- My own personal stash of recipes. If you don’t have one of your own, start one today. I keep a notebook of family recipes and old favorites that we have tried and love. I also have a file with new recipes that I want to try. Some of them make it into the notebook…if they’re worthy.
Tip: When I get a magazine, I read it with post-its handy. I mark all of the recipes that I’d like to try with a post it. When I search a website for recipes, I print them out. Then I stack these printed recipes and marked magazines somewhere out of the way until I’m ready to make my meal plan.
2) Choose a Time and Place to Write Your Plan
Ideally, I like to go someplace enjoyable and make the planning session fun. Order a drink and settle in at your favorite coffee house after work. At least, that’s what I used to do. Guilty confession: one of the best places for mommies to make meal plans….McDonald’s Playland. Feed the kiddos and send them off to play and then you can spread out your recipes and work away at the table while you keep an eye on you little cuties at the same time. A picnic table at the park works just as well, provided that it’s not a windy day. Hello, recipes and coupons blowing everywhere! Not good. I speak from experience. Now that I have 2 little ones, most of my meal plans are composed at my kitchen table during nap time.
3) Inventory the Contents of Your Freezer and Pantry
I like to check what I already have on hand that I could make into a meal. Do I have chicken in the freezer, a pot roast, a frozen casserole? Do I have potatoes that are starting to sprout or cheese that needs to be used up? These are considerations that I will influence my meal plan. I also consider what types of fruits and vegetables are in season, that way they will be of the freshest quality and hopefully the most cost effective.
4) Make the Plan, Already!
Here’s what you’ll need: the recipes you’ve collected, your calendar, paper (I use a legal pad, but that’s completely a matter of preference), and a pen or pencil.
Here are the steps:
- List the days of the week and date on your paper. Leave space in between each to write the meals you will prepare on those days. Like this:
Wednesday 10/15 …..and so on.
You could also just write the meal plan directly on your calendar.
- Reference your calendar when making the plan. Note anything that will affect your plan. For example, if you’re having dinner out with friends on Tuesday night, you obviously don’t need to plan for that night. If you know you work late on Wednesdays you may want to plan something quick and easy for that day. Or better yet, plan a crock pot meal that night and set it before you leave in the morning.
- Plan for leftovers. I usually designate one night of my meal plan “Leftover Night” Also, if your family has a weekly meal ritual like ours, pencil that in. In our house, every Friday night is “Make Your Own Pizza Night” I know I don’t have to come up with a plan for that night; I just need to make sure that I have the groceries to make the pizza.
A couple of extra tips:
- When I write a recipe on my plan, I write the recipe source with the page number so that I know exactly where to look. If it’s a recipe I printed off of the internet, I staple or paperclip it to my meal plan.
- If you or someone in your family is dieting, write the nutritional information from the recipe right on the meal plan. Not only does this help with planning ahead for your daily intake, but if you make the recipe again, the information is available at a glance. I was a Weight Watcher, so many of my meal plans have the serving size and points per serving written next to the recipe. My in-laws followed the diabetic diet and when they came over for dinner I could usually tell them how many carbs or starches they were getting per serving.
5) Make Your Grocery List and Go Shopping
I make my grocery list at the same time I make my meal plan. That way, if a recipe calls for an ingredient that I know I don’t have, I write it on the shopping list. If I’m not sure if I have the ingredient, it goes on the right side of my list under Check For
I also break my list into categories in the order that I will walk through the supermarket. My categories are:
- Canned Goods
This makes the shopping go more smoothly and I seem to miss less. Remember, we want to avoid extra trips to the store!
Before I do my shopping, I go through my Check For list and see if I can’t cross anything off. I’m one of those people that always thinks that I’m out of something that I already have. Rice, for instance. Then when I’m putting away the groceries I find that I already had 2 bags. So I check! I also pull relevant coupons and I put a star next to the items on my list that I have a coupon for, that way when the baby starts to cry and my older child gets whiny and begs and pleads for a candy bar in the checkout, I don’t forget to which coupons that I need while I am losing my mind!
6) Make the Food!
So that’s pretty much it. Now you have the plan and ingredients, the rest is up to you. It may sound complicated and overwhelming, but honestly once it’s a habit, life is so much easier. I’ve been doing meal plans for 4 or 5 years now. Sometimes I just pull out old meal plans and recycle them.
Note, that there is a flexibility factor in meal planning. If you’ve thawed pork chops for Monday and when you arrive home on Monday you can’t stand the thought of chops, save them for Tuesday, they’ll keep. Throw in a frozen pizza or make grilled cheese and tomato soup. I often freeze the extra portions of a casserole or soup and pull them out on nights where my plan just isn’t hitting the spot.
Good luck and happy planning!