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(How I) Make a Meal Plan!

November 9, 2011

Apologies for the boring photos lately - we just got a new roommate, and I don't want to scare him off too soon my dragging my camera into the kitchen per the usual.

My goodness – is it Wednesday already?  Last weekend blew by in a whirl of driving, breathing freezing mountain air, photography, and wonderful conversation.  And not a lot of cooking.  I’m going to hold off on reporting last week’s grocery challenge results until this Friday; since I knew I would be in Yosemite last weekend, I did most of this week’s shopping two weekends ago, which resulted in a kind of combined budget.  I will admit, though, that I rather forgot that traveling means a lot of eating out, and so I unfortunately expect to be over budget this time.

But in the meantime, I’d like to share with you a bit about how I plan meals.  Meal planning has been a massive stress-reducer for me, as it means I no longer have to think about what to cook at the end of the day when my brain power is spent.  I know what’s on the menu each night, and I have the ingredients on hand.  (Insider tip: this means no more dreaded, starving, last-minute grocery store trips.)  I do feel free to switch things up if the planned meal isn’t floating my boat, but I generally don’t stray far from the plan.  I’ve come to really love sitting down on Saturday mornings with breakfast, a cup of tea, and my meal planning pad.  (And no – if you’re curious, they’re not paying me to promote that notepad.  I just genuinely love it.)  And as a bonus, I have far fewer fuzzy mystery items floating in the back of the fridge.

Disclaimer: this process works for me, but of course every person and household are different.  If you’re looking to start meal planning, I recommend the Frankenstein approach: take bits of whatever works for you from a number of different approaches.

Step One: Figure out what you like to eat.  Making a plan is so much harder if every week you have to come up with meal ideas from scratch.  I’m all for trying new stuff when it interests me, but having a list of things I already know I like to eat is a real time-saver.  I actually keep two lists: one for spring/summer meals and one for fall/winter (though there is some overlap).  Because eating seasonal produce is important to me, my meals generally look quite different between November and May.  It’s also quite unappealing to grill veggies on the barbeque when its 40 degrees outside in December, and soup just doesn’t hit the spot in the heat of summer.  So a seasonal list works for me, but a list divided into simple and fancy meals or maybe just one big master list might work for you.  My lists include the cookbook and page number or the electronic link where the recipe is located, which makes it much easier to make a grocery list.  I cook mostly for myself, but if you’ve got a passel of folks clamoring for your home cookin’, by all means ask for their help in putting together your list!

I keep my meal idea lists in an electronic planner/calendar app (I use Cozi, but have also used Remember the Milk, and I imagine many others would work as well.), which I like because I can access and add to my lists wherever I am, on my phone or computer.  I tend to forget things if I don’t jot them down while they’re fresh in my mind, so the electronic format is helpful for me. I also use Pinterest to keep track of new tasty things I run across that I might like to try.

Step Two: check the pantry.  Is there anything in there from 2009 that really should be used up?  Anything I bought on a whim but haven’t gotten around to trying yet?   Anything forgotten about in the back of the fridge or freezer? Regularly taking stock of what needs to be used really helps to keep the budget reasonable, and it means I’ll have fewer stinky things to clean out of the fridge three weeks from now.

Step Three: look at the calendar. What’s on the schedule each night for the upcoming week?  For nights that I know I’ll be working late or have plans after work, I assign leftovers or a quick and easy meal, like pasta with frozen cubes of pesto or some such.  Other weekday nights it’s safe to assume that I’ll be hungry and tired when I get home, so I rarely plan anything complex or time-consuming for weeknights.  On weekends, when I know I’ll be home and think I might be inclined to make a big mess in the kitchen, I schedule something a little more special – lasagna, anyone?  Bonus points if the weekend recipe freezes well – pasties are an excellent example.  If I know I’m going to be out of town the next weekend, and I’m feeling like an overachiever, I’ll do my best to plan and shop for two weeks’ meals.  Week two usually has lots of leftovers from week one (the freezer comes in handy here!), and some veggies that keep particularly well.

Step Four: make a list.  A word to the wise: don’t be like me.  Please check your pantry, spice cabinet, etc. to see what what ingredients you already have before you buy more at the grocery store.  Or, like me, you might end up with an entire pint of turmeric.  Thank goodness I’ve (mostly) learned my lesson since then.  This step sounds like a pain, but if you cook regularly, I’ll bet you’ve got a pretty good idea already of what you have and what you don’t.

Step Five: shop.  Our local farmer’s market is on Saturday mornings, so that’s become my meal planning/grocery shopping day.  Having a designated day for grocery shopping is a big relief, and a big budget-saver, since I’m not making last-minute purchases several times a week.  Armed with a list, the shopping is generally quick and painless, and I really love my weekly farmer’s market trip.

Most importantly, don’t get overwhelmed.  Once I spent the initial half hour to make my meal ideas list, the rest fell into place.  It took me a while to get into the habit of planning meals every week, and sometimes it still falls apart.  But even managing it most of the time has helped things run so much more smoothly around here that I can’t imagine going back.  I hope you have the same success!

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. November 12, 2011 6:36 am

    This sounds like a good idea :)!
    I really need to sit down and do such things rather than watching mindless TV and falling asleep…
    Thanks :D!

    • Ashley permalink*
      December 8, 2011 10:28 am

      See, I think a meal plan should be simple enough that you can make it *while* watching mindless TV if you have to. 🙂 Sometimes you just need a little zone-out time!

  2. monica permalink
    November 26, 2011 11:32 pm

    Great tips! I’ve found that planning my meals ahead of time definitely helps ensure a smoother workweek. If only I could be as diligent about doing it every weekend as you are!

    • Ashley permalink*
      December 8, 2011 10:30 am

      I am so not as diligent as I should be. Meal planning is a sort of “best practice.” I do it most of the time, but of course sometimes things just get away from me. I do try to at least think about my options on the weeks when I don’t manage to make an actual plan, and when I’m on top of things I try to stuff some leftovers in the freezer for the weeks when I don’t have it so together. But it’s a process!

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