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Thursday, May 26, 2011

We Are Stage Managers, And Therefore We Plan What To Eat.

We haven't always been meal planners. In fact, we only started doing it about a year ago. Friends, if you aren't doing this, you are seriously missing out. I know it sounds like a lot of effort, and like you have to be really anal and/or an amazing cook to make it happen, but I promise it's really not that bad. Without further ado, pros and cons and how we do it.

WHY MEAL PLANNING TOTALLY ROCKS:
  • Save Money. When you've planned a whole week (or more) of meals, you hit the store with a really functional list. If you stick to it (takes a little practice, and yeah, sometimes I still fail at it) you will avoid most impulse purchases, which means you spend less.
  • Shop less often (and Save Money.) Way fewer stops on the way home because we're out of this or that or we need to pick up something for dinner tonight and oh god, what do we feel like making and do we have any couscous left in the pantry? Seriously, this point alone could just about convince me. Fewer stops = fewer impulse buys = spend less money.
  • Waste less food (and Save Money. See a theme here?) You only buy stuff that's going in a recipe plus any pantry staples you're running low on. If you pay attention when you plan, you can make several meals using similar ingredients, thus avoiding that half-bunch of cilantro rotting in the veggie drawer. Plus, you don't buy a bunch of grapes and then forget about them. Everything you buy, you use. 
Ok, onto non-financially tangible benefits. 
  • No more frantically wondering what to make. Once you've planned, you don't have to think about it until the next planning period. You just look at your plan and do what it says.
  • Easy lunches plus a portion-control bonus. We make all our dinner recipes to serve four. We serve two portions onto plates to eat, and immediately pack up the other two servings for the next day's lunch. Let me tell you how long it takes me to pack my lunch for work: however long it takes me to get it out of the refrigerator and put it in my lunch bag. Done and done. If you are not a morning person, this helps. (And maybe it should go above, because packing lunch means not buying lunch which equals saving money.) As for the bonus - because we pack lunch when we serve, not when we clean up, there is no going back for seconds. It forces us to eat the amount we are supposed to. (Not a fail-safe though, some recipe portion sizes are out of control to begin with, so... you gotta watch for that.)
  • Healthy eating just got way easier. When you sit down and plan your meals while you're neither hungry nor at the grocery store, it's easy to decide on lean proteins, more fish, less fat and sugar, and plenty of vegetables instead of whatever you can defrost fastest because you got off work late and you're famished and you just want to eat already.
THINGS THAT KINDA SUCK ABOUT MEAL PLANNING:
  • Less spontaneity. The menu is pointless if you don't stick to it, so, yeah, sometimes you're not going to be in the mood for whatever you decided on last Tuesday. And if your spouse did the planning this week and your food preferences differ, you risk a week of meals that you don't necessarily love.
  • Time spent planning. Particularly if you are not already sitting on a stash of tried and true recipes, this can be somewhat time-consuming. (Though if you keep it up, you will build that stockpile pretty quickly.)
  • You have to cook it. Working on the assumption that your meal plan isn't going to be comprised of frozen dinners that you only need to pop in the oven, you'll likely be spending more time and effort cooking than you have in the past. And sometimes, you just won't feel like doing it and neither will your spouse.
TIPS TO MAKE IT EASIER:
  • Know Thyself. Meal planning does not have to equal gourmet cooking. As you know, we enjoy making fancy meals, but we are busy busy busy like everyone else, so most of the time we are looking for recipes with basic ingredients that take 30 minutes or less. [Should I start a "quick dinners" series?] Because after a long day at work, when you're hungry before you even get home, you do not want dinner prep to take any longer to make than the pizza or Chinese you're thinking about ordering would. Know what your personal limits are, in both skills and in time available.
  • Write it down! The menu and the grocery list. And check the list against the recipes twice. And then check the pantry to make sure you're not running low on anything you've put on your mental "I don't need to buy that because we always have some on hand" list. For real. And it's homey and fun to keep a menu on your fridge.
  • Shop the sales flyers. Before you plan, glance at the weekly sales from your regular grocery store(s). Plan your meals around what's on sale (which, produce-wise, also tends to be what's in season, so there's some effortless 'cooking seasonally' for you) and you will save money.
  • Pick meals that go together. Mentioned above, but let's say you're having tacos this week. A bunch of cilantro can be shared with a salmon dish, which can share couscous with a chickpea dish, which can share Swiss chard with veggie lasagna... and on and on.
  • Be flexible. I usually plan 8-10 dinners and do a big shopping trip every other week, knowing that there will be a few nights we don't feel like cooking or we have extra leftovers or whatever, and those extra meals will be filled in with simple staples like pasta or homemade pizza or even a meal out from time to time. I also plan the number of meals, but not really which day we'll eat them on. That way I can decide a little more based on what we're in the mood for. We do 3 vegetarian nights each week, so there's usually an alternative to a meat or fish dish if we don't feel like having it. Flexibility ends there though, since to swap out a veggie meal, we have to defrost a protein... Anyway, leave yourself some wiggle room and don't feel guilty if you don't stick exactly to your plan.
And that's all there is to it. Questions? Fire away.

3 comments:

kindofamess said...

This is brillant. I have SUCH a hard time with meal planning....motly because I'm a brat and I'll see some great recipe I want to try and I'm all, "I'll make that TONIGHT!!!" I'm definitely going to follow your example and try this next week. Especially since I'm on Weight Watchers now, I need to be better about this stuff...

Do you guys plan for leftovers? Is it like, "we're having X two days in a row" or do you get fancy and use the leftovers to make something new?

One thing that helps me with the pantry is keeping a dry erase board on the inside of the door; that way when I'm running low or finish something I can put it on the list and work from there. (Doesn't always work, but that's because I'm lazy....)

Cindy said...

We usually eat our dinner leftovers for lunch the next day. So, lunches? Done and done. (And we eat the same thing for breakfast pretty much all the time, except weekends when I get all fancy, so as long as I plan dinners, we're set.)

Cindy said...

also - if you tend to find your recipes on the internet, you may want to get some recipe software, or start a binder to keep them in (we do both). If you keep your menu on the computer (I do it in a simple notepad doc), just add those recipes to the next weeks menu when you find them and half your planning will be done!