Thursday, March 15, 2012

Meal Planning and Grocery Shopping Tips

"What's for dinner?" This used to be a question that caused a lot of angst in my life. Often asked in my own head—but also by my husband or one of my children—in the late afternoon or early evening, it would put me into a state of agitation: searching through the fridge, freezer, and pantry to see what we had on hand and what I could possibly create. Dinner was usually a thrown-together affair (though even in these frazzled times, it was still most often made from scratch) served late in the evening. Grocery shopping, while less angst-ridden, was often inefficient, off-budget, and very frequently included the purchase of perishable items that went bad before they were used or unneeded items that got lost in the pantry.

After literally years of dreading the question "what's for dinner?" I finally wised up and developed a plan of attack to save my sanity (and my grocery budget). This plan involved 3 key components:

  1. Organizing the pantry (and the fridge) and keeping it stocked with bulk items that we eat frequently.
  2. Creating a weekly meal plan.
  3. Creating my shopping list(s) using a simple equation: All ingredients needed to make the dinners for the week – pantry items already on hand = weekly shopping list(s).
The Pantry

I dream about a walk-in pantry like the one we had growing up, but my "pantry" actually consists of a large cupboard in the garage, another in the house, a drawer in my buffet for potatoes, onions, winter squash, etc, and my spice cabinet. There used to be no real rhyme or reason to the organizational system—mainly it relied on my semi-photographic memory of where I had stashed something (which failed terribly when the boys or my husband would rummage around for snacks). Now, I've created an organization system that works much better for my space—the key being that items are much more easily visible, bulk containers are labeled with their contents, and shelves are organized by category (eg—baking supplies, canned savory foods, canned fruit, dried pasta, rice, beans, and snack foods are separated into specific locations). See my nicely organized pantry:

You should organize your fridge and freezer in the same way. I haven't taken the final step to complete organization by making an inventory, but can definitely see the value in that (it would save the perusal through the cupboards, fridge, and freezer that I do as I complete my shopping list each week). It would also help keep food from expiring before you get around to using it.

The Weekly Meal Plan

At my house, this means planning home-made dinners (with occasional eating out) for the full week. I usually make big enough meals that there are leftovers—either for another dinner to eat the next night, to freeze for later, or to be lunch for my husband and I the next day. Breakfast and lunch are pretty much fend-for-yourself meals at our house but I make sure we have ingredients on hand for both. I'm fortunate to be able to be home early enough most evenings to cook unhurried dinners from scratch and my meal planning works around the nights I work later and don't have as much time to cook. Even if you work full time, you could still plan home-made meals for the week and do most of your prep work and cooking on a day off so all you have to do is throw a pre-made dish in the oven when you get home or toss together pre-prepped items (such as a quick stirfry). Here's my meal plan for this week (I painted my cupboard doors with chalkboard paint just so I could do this):

As I plan my dinners, I try to include a variety of proteins, veggies, grains, etc. so we aren't eating the same thing over and over—it's a very loose rotation diet (which helps reduce the development of food allergies—I'll plan to write a post about this in the near future). I plan more elaborate dinners for the nights I have more time to cook and easy dinners (soup & sandwiches, tacos, doctored pizzas, and frozen leftovers are typical for us). Over the past year, I've also made an effort to have one meal a week where one my boys is in charge (for Christmas 2010 I make them aprons, chef hats, and oven mitts and gave them kid-friendly cookbooks—look for future posts about cooking with your kids). Having your kids help with cooking goes a long way with picky eaters!

The Shopping List(s)

Working from one day of my meal plan at a time, I determine the necessary ingredients, check if I already have them on hand, and whatever I don't have goes on the list. Focusing on one meal at a time helps me make sure I don't forget anything and thus eliminates extra trips to the store. After I've got everything for dinner, I'll add extras for breakfasts and lunches such as milk, sliced bread, cereal, fruit for snacks, etc. If I've stayed with my plan, this usually means that I only have to grocery shop once a week and I make a trip to Costco about once a month. How you make your list is up to you but I paid for an app for my iPhone that memorizes items as I add them, let's me indicate quantity, categorizes items by where I find them in the store, creates separate lists for separate stores—an even lets me email the list to my hubby on days when he's kind enough to do the shopping on his way home! Otherwise, I would recommend creating master lists on your computer where you can highlight the items you need and add to it as necessary.

So, that's how I rid myself of "what's for dinner" angst! And just for fun, here's a pic of last night's dinner from my meal plan:

How do you approach meal planning and grocery shopping? Does it stress you out? Are these tips helpful? Please share!

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