11 October 2016

How I Meal Plan

Meal planners come in all shapes and sizes. Some believe in planning a month at a time, doing one huge monthly grocery haul, and freezing everything. Me? I plan/shop one week at a time, always on Sundays, with food prep as soon as I get home. How you do it is totally up to what works best for you, your family, and your schedule. I'm not an expert; I'm just a home cook who loves to make plans and lists and has honed my process over literally hundreds of attempts. Here is how I do it.

Step 1: Know What Your Week Looks Like

Before I begin planning, I check my calendar. Nothing will affect your meal plan like all your other plans, so be aware of when you have more time to cook vs when you have very little time and need to run out the door. It seems obvious, but it bears mentioning: don’t plan a meal that takes 90 minutes to make when you will only have 30 minutes to spare. Also, differing family member schedules don’t have to be a problem; that’s what a fridge is for. For example, every Tuesday night, I have to be at rehearsal before my husband gets home from work. So I make meals that can be easily refrigerated for him to grab and reheat when he gets home.

Next, I check the weather forecast. This might seem unnecessary to some, but it’s just how I think. On hot summer nights, I plan meals that utilize the outdoor grill and include refreshing dishes, like salads. On exceptionally stormy winter nights, I plan hearty comfort foods.

Step 2: Easy weekly set up

I find it helps to start with the protein of the main dish. My weeks usually contains 1 red meat meal, 1-2 seafood meals, and 2-3 poultry meals. Then, I think in terms of ethnicities/cuisines, and I just mix and match. 1 Asian, 1 Mexican/Hispanic, 1 Italian, 1 comfort food, 1 Breakfast-for-Dinner, etc. For sanity sake, I allow myself one splurge night to either go out to a restaurant or order takeout. It's also smart to plan one leftovers night, the night before your grocery trip, to clean out everything in your fridge.

This results in a week that typically looks like this:
Mon: Poultry meal
Tues: Seafood meal
Wed: Red meat meal
Thurs: Poultry meal
Fri: Seafood meal
Sat: Leftovers night
Sun: Splurge night

Step 3: Set up your plate

Thinking in terms of what your dinner plate looks like will help break down what you need to put on it. This is where dietary restrictions and belief systems about food come in. Because of my family's needs, I aim to build every plate to contain one-half protein, one-half fruit/veggies, with an occasional carby splurge. Other families prefer to do one-third protein, one-third carb, one-third fruit/veggies at every meal. Whatever your personal choices, be aware of your own preferences so you can plan the entire meal appropriately.

Also, when choosing sides, remember to consider the prep required for the main entree you're already making. For example, if you only own one slow cooker and you're using it for your main entree, don't choose a side that requires that same, now unavailable, slow cooker.

Step 4: Choose the food

To make the process faster and easier, I keep a master list of all of our most common, favorite meals, organized by dish type. Most of the time, simply scanning this list is all I need; my appetite chooses whatever sounds good and basically does the planning for me.

As a home cook, I also challenge myself to try at least one new recipe a week, if I have the time. Sometimes, I'm sick of the same old meals all the time. And sometimes, I'm just straight-up craving something specific. My primary inspiration for new ideas and recipes is Pinterest. I keep my own Pinterest recipe boards organized by dish type to find new meals as easy as possible. Feel free to use them, if you want.

Step 5: Make your grocery list

Now that you’ve chosen what food you’re eating, you need to know what ingredients you already own vs what you still need to buy. For this, I created a master shopping list that already lists my most commonly purchased ingredients. It is organized by which stores at which I shop. I read through all the recipes of my planned meals and note how many TOTAL of everything I will need. For example, one of the items on my master shopping list is onions. Every time I see an onion will be needed in a recipe, I make a mark next to “Onion”. By the time I’ve read through all the recipes, I can see I will need a total of 5 onions this week.

Once my master list is done based on the recipes from my meal plan, I head into the kitchen to see what I already have. If I need 5 onions for the week, but I already have 3, I only need to buy 2. Adjust the amount on your list; do the same to all needed ingredients. Et voila, you have your grocery shopping list!

Step 6: Be efficient and price conscious

Like most people, I love saving money, but I don't have the time to clip coupons. So I do what I can to save as much money as possible by utilizing club cards/programs. I also keep track of what items are priced best at which store. For example, I'd never buy toiletries at a grocery store; that's Target territory. I also try to pay attention to the per unit price at club stores; a surprising number of things are actually cheaper per unit at smaller stores, especially for smaller families like mine that won't use bulk amounts before they go bad.

That said, time is money to me. I want to go on one large, efficient shopping trip and be done with it. So if the convenience of a purchase is worth spending a little bit more money, within reason, I'll do it. It really is up to what matters most to you. For this reason, my shopping list is organized by store, which I highly recommend.

Once you get home with your groceries, it's time for food prep to save even more time and sanity in the long run. Stay tuned for that post later...