Through our 25 years together, my husband Drake and I have been avid meal-planners. For us, that means we start the week with an idea of what will have for dinner each night, using Sunday as time to get a running start on "food for the week." I hadn't given our system much thought until a year or so ago, when I read an article in the New York Times written by a working mom who uses a remarkably similar system. She had "drawn a line in the sand," unwilling to surrender home-cooked meals for her family.
Given current times, it seems more people are cooking at home. I'm completely sold on the advantages of home cooking from a cost, health, and pure food enjoyment perspective.
For this post, I'll take you on a quick tour of our meal-planning routine--and share some great resources for developing your own meal-planning process...
Our planning cycle begins Saturday morning when we start evaluating what we might eat during the weekend and upcoming work week. This involves a loose evaluation that typically includes:
- What's in the fridge? This is a great time to see what needs to be used--or what needs to be cleaned out.
- What's on special at the market? Here we either check the weekly specials mailing we receive or view it online (many groceries post specials on-line).
- What's in season? Many seasonal items are highlighted in the weekly mailer, but not all. We are not shy about calling the produce department if we have a question about what's available.
- What's our schedule next week? Understanding the contour of the week is important. Some weeks we have more time for weekday cooking than others. Some days we may not be eating at home.
If the above seems protracted, in reality, it's not. It's typically a 5 or 10 minute routine that gets meal-planning in progress.
A Pattern to the Week's Menus
We have a baseline pattern to our cooking routine:
- Saturday, Sunday, Tuesday, and Thursday tend to be cooking days.
- Monday, Wednesday and Friday we are more likely to re-purpose leftovers.
- Sunday typically involves a roast, stew, casserole (in cool weather) or a storehouse of grilled items (in warmer weather) to carry us through the first part of the week.
- Saturday is more of a wild card food-wise. We may be entertaining or going out or just hanging around home.
Our baseline pattern is just a starting point, adjusted to each particular week.
Establishing a baseline pattern is important because it provides some constraints to work within. Facing the week's meal planning with a blank slate, I think, can be overwhelming. Another approach is to designate a specific type of dish for each day of the week. For example:
- Monday: Vegetarian
- Tuesday: Chicken
- Wednesday: Pasta
- Thursday: Casserole
- Friday: Pizza
- Saturday: Seafood
- Sunday: Roast
With some type of a established meal pattern you are less likely to become paralyzed by choice in the planning process.
Scheduling Meal Plans
I recently started entering meal plans right into my appointment calendar (rather than working it out on paper separately). I enter each day's dinner as a color-coded "all day event" so it appears at the top of each day. The advantage of working right in my calendar is that more clearly fits meal plans into what else is going on during the week.
Preparing the Shopping List
Once I've figured out what we'll have for the week, I gather up the recipes I'll need and bring them into the kitchen to prepare the shopping list. By tackling the list-writing in the kitchen, I can easily to check what items I already have and what I need to buy. We have a stash of scrap paper that Drake (aka Mr. Thrifty) has cut-up for shopping lists. I like the "footprint" of a long, narrow piece of paper--less bulk to deal with at the grocery than a full 8 1/2" by 11" sheet.
Armed with shopping list, it's off to the grocery store. We are lucky to have a neighborhood market that features fresh, local produce. Even after reviewing the weekly flyer, sometimes there is a special or other featured item that causes me to re-think a planned meal. In this case, I'll shift gears. Pre-iPhone, I sometimes wandered over to the magazine section, browsing food magazines for inspiration. Now, I get out my iPhone, search for the ingredient in my Evernote recipe data base, and pull up likely recipes. I find grocery shopping a bit of an adventure, full of meal ideas and surprises, so if I don't mind re-thinking plans once I get to the store.
While I love to do more leisurely cooking on the weekends, weekdays don't normally provide that luxury. Sunday afternoons are typically reserved for a "big cook" - prepping and cooking ahead to the extent possible for the week. My goal is to keep weekday food preparation down to 30 minutes or less. Any longer than that and it pushes dinner later, which not only disrupts the evening but I am more likely to snack or get over-hungry when dinner runs too late.
The Best Laid Plans...
Sometimes, we don't get much of running start to the week--for example if we've been out of town for the weekend. Or, we have some unexpected schedule change. For these situations, we have a repertoire of quick meals we can prepare with items we typically have on-hand. (Coming soon: a recipe series on our favorite pantry meals.)
Frozen Vegetables: The Other Fast Food. I think frozen vegetables are a seriously underrated alternative among food purists--and I much prefer them to the prepped and bagged "fresh" vegetables in the grocery. This topic warrants a post of its own, but suffice it to say that tossing some frozen vegetables in a skillet with shredded rotisserie chicken and a favorite stir-fry sauce beats most prepared food and fast-food alternatives. In my humble opinion anyway.
There are all sort of resources available to help with meal-planning--from paper forms to software applications to services that do the meal-planning for you. I've listed a sampling of these below.
Articles & Blog Posts
A Mom Puts Family on Her Meal Plan (New York Times)
Creating a Weekly Meal Plan (Unclutterer)
Meal Planning Forms
"Traditional" Meal-Planning Form (OrganizedHome.com)
"Fun & Funky" Meal-Planning Form (Future Girl Craft Blog)
I love this form!
Tasty Planner is a well-designed (and free) web application that lets you add recipes to a weekly meal planner. Ingredients required for recipes are automatically added to an (editable) grocery list, which you can print, email, or view on your iPhone. With Tasty Planner you can also add your meal plan to any calendar that supports the iCalendar standard, including Apple iCal, Microsoft Outlook, and Google Calendar.
Recipe Management Software
Many recipe management programs include meal-planning functionality: MacGourmet (OS X only; meal-planning is a separate plug-in to the core product), MasterCook (Windows only), Shop 'N Cook Menu (OS X and Windows).
If the thought of figure out all the meals and putting together shopping lists is daunting, there are web-based services that do this groundwork for you (for a subscription fee). These include Saving Dinner, Dinners in a Flash, and Meal Mixer.
How do you plan meals?
I'd love to hear how you plan meals. Do you have special tips and tricks? Feel free to comment and share your ideas.
I hope you enjoyed this post! To view my full list of step-by-step recipes, see the complete recipe index.
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