13 July 2011

The meal plan, Stan

Before last summer, as a single person living alone, I usually only cooked once or twice a week. I’ve always cooked family-sized amounts of food (reasoning that if I’m going to the trouble, I’m gonna make it last more than one meal), so I’d eat that for the rest of the week, sometimes parsed out into tupperware and stuck in the freezer. In between leftovers, I’d have my old favorites: tortillas with cheese and refried beans, canned soup (loaded with sodium, of course), and PBJs. Oh, and of course, fast food, at least once per week – in addition to meeting Mr. P on the weekends and eating at restaurants with him, too. Maybe not the most unhealthy eating habits imaginable – ramen was at a minimum – but most definitely LOTS of room for improvement.

When Mr. P and I got married, some switch flipped in my brain and suddenly I became obsessed with “feeding my family” properly. Part of it was realizing that if we want to be married for a long time, we need to live for a long time, and to encourage that we should eat nutritiously. But also, I don’t do many of the stereotypical wifely things, like vacuuming or folding laundry, but I enjoy cooking so apparently I subconsciously decided that BY GOLLY I was going to be a Wife That Cooks. It would be My Contribution. (Mr. P, for the record, does the bulk of cleaning. Egalitarianism for the win!)

In order to feed my family to my satisfaction (not necessarily Mr. P’s, as he would be totally okay whether I cook or not), I started meal planning. It takes maybe a half hour of my time before our weekly visit to the grocery store, which is also quick and efficient thanks to planning it out in advance. This works really well for our tiny family of two and so I thought I’d share what I’ve learned. Maybe it's a no-brainer and every married lady does this stuff, but I could have used a guide to help me get the hang of it!

Here’s how I do it:

1. Rummage through the kitchen and make note of what I find

I do this to keep food from going bad and to prevent buying things we already don’t need. First, I check what meat we have on hand. I buy several pounds of meat when it’s on sale and divide it into portions for freezing. I try to keep a mental tally to know when it’s time to stock up, IF it’s on sale (sometimes meat is on sale more frequently than we need it).

For instance, here’s four pounds of chicken breasts, a four pound pork loin, and three pounds of beef (of a five-pound package, we used some immediately so only three pounds are shown, one already cooked) that we purchased one week when stocking up.

Normally we don’t buy so much in one week, but our supply was low, and the chicken and beef were $2 per pound and the pork loin was $2.50 per pound – the lowest prices I typically see for the cuts of meat we want. So we bought it up, divided it into portions, and froze it. For the pork, I went with a 2 lb. slab for turning into crockpot barbecue as well as 8 quarter-pound slices for grilling. Here it is packaged up for freezing. I put the portions in sandwich bags, let them freeze out flat on a cookie sheet, and once frozen I transfer them to heavy-duty freezer bags. I’ve learned the hard way NOT to cram them in the freezer bag while thawed, because I do not enjoy taking apart a three-dimensional frozen jigsaw puzzle of raw meat.

I also check our frozen vegetable supply. YES, fresh vegetables would be better, but the few extra minutes they take to prepare (washing and trimming) means I avoid buying them, and if I DO buy them I avoid making them on weeknights, which means they often spoil. Silly, but that’s what happens. So we buy frozen, which has virtually the same nutrient content and I don’t have to worry about spoilage. These 12-oz packages of frozen veggies are a dollar each, and it provides four servings (two meals’ worth for the two of us, for you non-mathy people) of green vegetables for our dinner. I try to keep a few different kinds of veggies in the freezer at all times, so I check what we have before heading to the store.

Then I take stock of what other food we have on hand. Throughout the week Mr. P and I make a note of things we need on a notepad, so this is more about seeing what we already have. Sometimes I find leftovers of the previous week’s meal that still need to be eaten – which I consider for the meal plan. Sometimes I find ingredients that I need to use up soon, like eggs or produce or the Frozen Spinach of Marital Discord. Sometimes I discover a forgotten ingredient for a dish we haven’t had in a while which reminds me, hey, I should make that again.

Finally, I gather any worthwhile coupons. I ONLY use coupons for things we would normally buy anyway, or those awesome Kroger coupons for a FREE dozen eggs or cake mix. That’s IT. NO OTHER COUPONS. I think they mostly just sucker us into buying things we wouldn't normally buy, and I refuse to let coupons dictate what I spend money on. Sure, extreme couponing works well for some people, but for us – a family of two, both with full-time jobs – it’s not much more than organized hoarding.

All of this rummaging sounds like a lot of work, but it seriously takes like two minutes – far less time than it took you to read how I do it!

2. Check our calendars

This sounds silly, but it’s true – I might plan to make a giant batch of homemade meatballs on Saturday only to realize we already have plans that night. Or I’ll plan a swanky dinner for two but then realize I have a giant presentation the next day. So I take another minute to check and see what’s going on for us that week.

3. Ask Mr. P what he wants to eat that week

Ninety-nine times out of a hundred, the answer is “whatever”. But I still ask. Just in case.

4. Decide on five meals to make that week

This is it, the true planning part of meal planning!

It depends on the meals and the week’s plans, but I’ve found the magic number for us is usually to cook FIVE times. Both Mr. P and I are fine eating leftovers, and as I said above, I rarely cook for only one meal. Cooking five meal-entrees a week usually creates enough leftovers for hot lunches and a leftovers-for-dinner night or two.

Here’s how I choose the five meals. First, I try to have a mix of meals that can be partially or completely prepared in advance (usually casserole-type all-in-one dishes), meals that can be prepared quickly (pastas and tacos, or with Mr. P’s help on the grill), and meals that can take awhile to make. The first two categories are for weeknights, and the last category is for the weekend. I refuse to make things that take a long time on weeknights. Like, washing and chopping and roasting potatoes takes an hour and I am just not doing that after a full day at work. TOO HUNGRY TOO SOON.

Over the last year I’ve found some of our favorites for each category, which end up in the usual rotation – several of which I’m writing about here. If I have a particular ingredient that I need to use up, I use AllRecipe’s ingredient search. Sometimes I feel like trying something new, and for that I head to Budget Bytes, Crockpot 365, and Pioneer Woman for inspiration. To keep track of those ideas, I used to sort my recipes with Yummy Soup, which is a program worth purchasing if you want a good recipe collection program (Mr. P purchased it for me a while back). Lately, though, I’ve switched to using Pinterest for meal ideas. Whenever I stumble on something that looks good, I pin it to my food board, and at meal-planning time I glance over my board for ideas.

Finally – FINALLY – I decide on five meals and assign them to a day of the week. It’s a bit of an art and it took a little while to get the hang of it to do it quickly. Basically, I try to minimize unnecessary cooking and ingredients. For instance, if Mr. P makes a batch of rice in his rice cooker, we normally have enough for two meals, so I plan on one Asian-inspired meal and another where rice serves as the starch. If we’re having salad, I plan to have it more than once, both times soon after grocery day, to use up the whole head of lettuce. If I make or buy meatballs, we have spaghetti one night and Swedish meatballs another. It doesn’t always work out perfectly, but well enough.

This is the most time-consuming and thoughtful part of meal planning, but it takes all of, oh, twenty minutes. To organize it all, I make a word document with two columns. The meal ideas for that week are on the left column, like so:

What’s that on the right side? The shopping list!

5. Organize shopping list

We’re in the home stretch. First I copy down the short list Mr. P and I make throughout the week when we notice we’re out of something. Then I check each day’s recipe – either mentally, or on a website or somesuch – and write down all the ingredients I need for it in the right-hand column. Usually I remember what’s in the kitchen from the very first step, but if I’m wondering just how much flour we have or something, I’ll check to see what’s on hand. I also add the things we buy every week, which are tattooed onto my brain by now (bananasmilkyogurtcerealjuicesodaandsometimesgranolabars).

Then comes the step that I realize sounds totally crazypants: I re-order the shopping list in the order we come to things in the store. See, I like to get in and get out of the grocery, and in my haste I’ll miss an important item on the list and end up backtracking. Every time. WITHOUT FAIL. Ordering the list takes less time than backtracking! So yeah, maybe I am a freak. But hey, a freak that usually gets to the checkout counter in under thirty minutes. Booyah.

6. Head to the grocery with Mr. P

List? Check! Kroger card? Check! Reusable bags? Check!

Mr. P always pushes the cart. Can’t be any other way.

BONUS 7. Do the bulk of cooking on Sunday night

So once I’ve finally done all the meal planning for the week, I see if there is any weeknight cooking I can do in advance. For instance, in the photo below, I had already cooked chicken in the skillet and turned it into enchilada filling. I wrapped up the enchiladas that night and stuck them in the fridge to bake the following night. While I assembled the enchiladas, I cooked two pounds of ground beef in the same skillet (only have to wash it once that way!). One pound of beef was frozen and stored for tacos later in the week to use up the rest of the flour tortillas, and the other pound would be incorporated into a marinara sauce – note the can of tomatoes – to simmer now but serve with pasta that week.

If I stock up on meat, this is also when I portion it out for freezing, as I described at the beginning. I also use my Sunday nights to make up batches of things that take time to make – like bread or dough that has to rise, or sauces that need to simmer – that can be frozen and thawed as needed.

Thanks to the little extra work I do on the weekend, meals come together SUPER quickly on weeknights. Usually in the time it takes me to boil two servings of frozen veggies in my little pot, the rest of the meal is ready to go.

Whew! I've made it sound like so much work, but meal planning and shopping takes about an hour total, and if I spend another hour or so cooking on Sunday night – while doing laundry or other things that everyone waits until Sunday to do – I barely have to do any cooking for the rest of the week, let alone think about it. Worth it!

Now you may be wondering, but Sarah, what happens if you can’t follow your meal plan? What if you get a spontaneous dinner invite, or end up having to work late, or realize you forgot a crucial ingredient? To that I say, thank you so much for pretending that those are the reasons we stray from the plan and not just because I REALLY WANT SOME BUFFALO WILD WINGS NOW NOW NOW.

So yeah, we don’t always follow it exactly. Many weeks I end up shuffling the meals around a bit as life happens and what we feel like eating. Still, for the most part, I have found that meal planning helps us eat more nutritiously while also saving time and money. If we know we’ve already purchased and mostly prepared a meal that’s good for us, we aren’t compelled to go out for fast food. Although if we REALLY want fast food, we have it as a treat, because most of the time we are eating economically and nutritiously. For us, it works. And if you decide to give it a try, I hope it works for you too!


Mary Beth said...

Ok... A) I'm hungry now. B) Can I come live with you? I need to be more nutritious. C) Today on FB, someone called their particular Kroger "Kroghetto." I thought that was funny :) I don't even think we have Krogers here. D) How in the world do you have all of these hobbies AND a full-time job? I barely have enough time to watch all of my tv shows!

Laura said...

This is exactly the way I felt after we got married, too! I am not nearly as organized as you, and I may have to adopt your system. What are you making tonight? I am making chicken fricassee, which is horribly easy. I can give you the recipe if you want!

Also, I giggled aloud at the chicken jigsaw puzzle thing. I can't stand when that happens. I mean, like I have all day to run hot water over the pieces to try to get them to break apart. Well, actually, I'm still looking for a job, so maybe I kind of do have all day. ;) But still. It's an annoyance, for sure.

Sarah said...

Mary Beth, you are welcome to come for dinner anytime! I can't promise it will be that nutritious though :) And I guess this is what I do instead of watching tv... but now I'm pitifully behind on pop culture.

Laura, we are having pizza... with dough made with your sister's recipe, yay! I always love new recipes from your family :)

Rebecca said...

Sarah, I just wanted you to know that you're not the only one who does this. I, too, plan out 5 meals for the week and order my list as the items are organized in the store. Here's my list template: http://bettybecca.wordpress.com/2011/01/30/grocery-planning/. You have some great pointers. I'll have to adopt some of your tips!