July 9, 2012

Have you ever been home at 5:30 and thought “guess we’re having cereal again tonight” or panicked and put another pizza or chicken fingers and fries in the oven because you don’t have anything thawed for dinner?  Have you ever balked at your grocery bill, yet thrown out loads of produce because it hasn’t been eaten or used?  Do you have great plans for cooking and baking that usually don’t pan out because plans get changed? 

I’ve been there, done that.  My routine used to be sort of wandering aimlessly through the aisles of the grocery store once a week, thinking of fabulous bohemian dishes to put together at some point in the next week or two.  Inevitably I ended up throwing a mish mash of fruits, vegetables and dry goods into my cart - some of which we would eat, most of which we wouldn’t – spend a small fortune only to get it home and realize I already have one third of what I’ve bought in my fridge, and three weeks later throw out enough food to feed a small Ethiopian village. 

The problem is that I hate throwing out food.  Growing up with 6 brothers and 1 sister, food was recycled.  If it wasn’t eaten, it was served again.  And again.  And again.  Until it didn’t look anything like it had originally, yet was still marginally edible.  So going through my fridge every couple of weeks and filling up my trashcan with spoiled and rotten food really grated against everything I am.  But I didn’t know what else to do.  My excuse was that I was cooking for two, and everything we bought comes in large portions – waste was inevitable, in my rationale. 

Until one day I came across not just one but several websites extolling the virtues of meal planning.  What a novel idea – planning out your meals for the week, or even the whole month, and buying only the food that was needed for ‘the plan’.  The sites even had handy dandy links to cute little free charts (like this oneyou could print out to use for just the occasion. 

So I printed out a few, picked the cutest one and went to my fridge.  At first, it’s a little bit trickier than just plotting out 7 recipes, but if you stick with it, your kitchen will be running smoothly in no time, with no more panic when dinner time rolls around.  Here are the steps I took, and a few tips, on my journey to Epic Meal Planning Perfection.  

Choose your family’s faves
First off, jot down 14 to 28 of your favourite recipes (from books or your head) in a notebook somewhere and 5 or 6 recipes you’d like to try.  I divided my faves up into categories of beef, chicken, pork, meatless and side dishes since I usually work around the meat, but you can divide them however you like.  Try and put all the recipes (if you still need to read them) into one spot in the kitchen.  If you primarily read your recipes from books, put the book title and page number on your list beside the recipe. 

Take everything out of the fridge and freezer
That’s right, you heard me.  Do it.  You won’t regret it.  Not only do you need to know what you already have, but if you’re at all like me when I first started this process, there was a ton of food being saved for Armageddon in the depths of my freezer and it needed to be eaten before buying anything new.  Initially this step will likely take you a good bit of time to accomplish, especially if you haven’t looked to the bottom or back of the freezer in a while, but this is a good habit to foster. Every week I check the freezer and fridge, just a quick 20-second run down of what I still have waiting there, before planning the next week’s meals.  (Also, I try and use this opportunity to clean any spills in the fridge/freezer as well. Anything that makes for lighter cleaning is FINE with me.)  While you’re clearing out the freezer-burned, 8 year old pork chops you forgot about 6 years ago, and wiping up the spilled grape juice from yesterday, make a list of the still-edible goods you have in both the fridge and the freezer.

If I already know what I have on hand, and am working from a somewhat-empty fridge and freezer (I love having an empty fridge…means we’re eating what we’re buying!), then at this point I check out the flyers for our local grocery stores.  I check out what’s on sale and will try and plan weekly meals around the meat and produce that’s on.  I also try and stock up a little (how much you stock up would vary for your family size) on the staples I know that we eat.

Combine the two
Now you’re ready!  Start slotting dinner ideas into each day, working around what you have in the freezer and fridge and what’s on sale.  Sometimes I will even take the weather into account and put in easy, no-bake meals on exceptionally hot days, or oven-heavy meals on cold days. 

Try putting recipes with similar ingredients together.  If your family likes meatloaf that has fresh parsley in it and the herb is only sold in large bunches, find a few other recipes for potatoes or chicken with parsley in order to use up what you have. 

Grocery list
Congratulations!  You’ve got 7 meals planned for the seven days of next week – good for you!  Now snag the recipes and list out the ingredients you don’t have.  At this point I have to factor in other meals as well.  Since it’s just the hubby and myself, I don’t really think too much about planning breakfast and lunch.  I have made a general list of the food we normally eat for breakfast and lunch and make sure I have the staples for each: cereal, bread, sandwich meat, veggies, etc.  For those of you with children, it might behoove you to plan out lunch as well as dinner in order to avoid having to shop mid week, and to avoid the kids resorting to junk every day.

I’m sometimes accused of being too rigid in my meal planning, ie. No spontaneity or ability to go with the flow when meal plans are thwarted.  But I’ve learned to switch things up a bit.  Sometimes I will drop a meal when someone unexpectedly invites us for dinner or we end up having to work very late, which can result in more waste, but more often than not I’m able to incorporate that meal’s ingredients back into the mix somehow.  In the past I’ve put together side dishes that use up the food I need to use, or realized that some meals can be pushed back a few days without the ingredients going bad.  I’m still throwing out 90% less than what I was and dinnertime hasn’t included cereal since I started – so I feel I’m coming out on top. 

I guarantee you this process will save you money, cut down on impulse buying and will increase the nutritional value of your family’s meals.  It will also give you peace of mind and reduce the amount of panic related to mealtimes.  It’s worth the initial work because once you’re started, the weekly planning sessions become second nature, something you look forward to, especially if you like cooking and/or baking at all.  Mealtimes become exciting instead of stressful.  Once you’re settled with planning one week, try planning for two or three weeks, or even one month at a time.  Or, once you’ve established three or four weeks worth of meal plans, if you like you can use the same weekly plans and cycle them– eating each dish once every three or four weeks.  This can take a huge load off busy families and those who cook for them. 

Now that I have adopted this practice for a few years, it’s become second nature.  Sometimes my family and friends see my white board every week and comment on my meal plans – saying that I’m “hyper-organized and that would never work for me” – I think about the small Ethiopian villages that have food now because I am not throwing out their portions anymore.  It’s worth a try, isn’t it?  


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