Thursday, February 10, 2011

Meal-Planning: Have a Plan, Make a List

I typically plan my week's dinner menus on Sunday night or on Monday.  You'll usually find me on the living room sofa, laptop on one side, pen and paper on the other.  I ask Brian what he wants for dinner.  He'll usually tell me what he's been craving lately and then I'll search for the perfect recipe.  Sometimes he'll request a frequent favorite and then I'll jot down the list of ingredients from memory.

I always plan at least four menus for our week.  On the fifth day we eat leftovers.  On the sixth day we may eat out or order in or have other plans.  On the seventh day I leave room for making whatever our hearts' desire.  It might be buttered noodles.  It might be breakfast for dinner.  Or it might be an intricate recipe that I saw on the Food Network that morning and sent Brian out for the ingredients.  It's a routine that works for us.  (I should note that Days 1-4 don't always correlate to Mon-Thurs.  Sometimes we have leftovers on a Wednesday.  Sometimes we have dinner out on a Friday.  It all depends on the week.)

I realize that every family is different and every cook is at a different level.  So here are my top tips for being a successful meal-planner:

1.  Get inspired.  If you don't already love to cook, learn how to love to cook.  Watch the Food Network, or Rachael Ray or a cooking segment on the Today Show.  You can even search for cooking shows on YouTube.  Watching others do it will inspire you to try it at home.  I recommend Giada at Home or The Barefoot Contessa on the Food Network.  As a bonus, all of the recipes used on television are usually found on that show's website so there's never a need to frantically write everything down while you watch.

2.  Follow your cravings.  If you're craving Chinese food, for example, try searching for a Chicken Cashew dish online.  Maybe you've got a hankering for Chipotle?  Try searching for a burrito recipe.  Here are my top three favorite recipe websites:

(Note: Sometimes if I'm stuck on what to make, I'll take the first dish featured on the homepage and give it a try.)

3.  Plan for at least two tried and true meals.  If you try a brand new recipe every single day of the week, you're going to get burned out really fast.  Instead, aim to try at least one or two new recipes a week.  Here are some of our family's favorite recipes that we eat at least once a month:

Chicken Enchiladas
Homemade pizza (sometimes a homemade crust, sometimes a Boboli crust)
Creamy Orzo
Guacamole Salad
Spaghetti with Edamame
Mushrooms sauteed in beef broth and flour served with noodles and peas
Stuffed Pepper Soup
Shrimp & Bean Couscous
Kiddie Cobb Salad
Beef Stir Fry

4.  When in doubt, break out the slowcooker.  If you don't already own a slowcooker, buy one.  Now.  It will be your best investment in cooking.  If you really cannot come up with a recipe idea, buy a whole chicken and throw it in your slowcooker in the morning with a cup of stock or water and some raw veggies.  Set it on low and it will be ready by dinnertime.  Want something heartier?  Buy a pork or beef roast and a McCormick seasoning packet.  Feel like some soup?  Search online for Slowcooker Soups and you'll get hundreds of options.

5.  Find the healthy happy medium.  I am a big believer that you can eat whatever you want without many physical consequences as long as you make it yourself from scratch.  (Even baked goods!)  So if your recipe includes butter or heavy cream, don't fret!  It's probably still loads healthier than any take-out or fast food option.

On the flip side, however, just because you bought it at a grocery store and not through a drive-thru does not make it healthy.  Avoid box dinners and frozen entrees like the plague.  Even the big blue box has been banned in our house.  Cheese was never meant to be powdered, people.

Instead, if there's a box dinner you totally heart, try searching for a recipe online.  There are tons of recipe options for tuna noodle casserole or macaroni and cheese.  These homemade alternatives are usually cheaper, healthier and tastier!  (And just as quick as their packaged counterparts.)

6.  Save money by using what you already have on hand.  If I already have a full package of flour tortillas, you can bet enchiladas will be on the menu that week.  If I have a lot of rice on hand, I might make stir fry that week.  If I found a jar of pizza sauce, pizza it is!  Check your shelves and freezer.  Even if you have just one item from a recipe on hand, it will make a huge difference in your weekly grocery budget.

7.  Don't let ingredients scare you.  When I first started cooking I would follow recipes exactly.  More often than not I would get to an ingredient that was either unknown or unfamiliar to me and then I would completely throw out that recipe convincing myself I couldn't make it.  Does that ever happen to you?

Enter the 21st Century, my friends.  This weekend I made chicken drumsticks and the recipe contained arrowroot.  I had no idea what arrowroot was.  So I Googled it.  If you're unsure of an ingredient ask Google what it is.  Ask Google in what aisle it's usually found.  Ask Google for possible substitutions.  Google is your friend.

Other questions I've asked Google in the past: How to cut a pineappleHow to peel a pomegranateThe best way to dice an avocadoA perfect hard boiled egg.  It's fun!  Try it.

8.  Don't dictate which day gets which menu.  Life is unpredictable.  Life with kids is even more unpredictable.  You'll set yourself up for more success if you don't assign menus to each day.  Instead, know that you have ingredients on hand to make X number of meals.  Wake up in the morning and see how the day goes.  If it's totally crazy you might opt for your easiest recipe.  If the kids seem happy, now might be a good time to tackle that recipe you've never tried before.  Go with the flow.

On a related note, don't freeze meat that you intend to use within the week.  You'll get frustrated if you forgot to thaw it out the night before and meat doesn't go bad that quickly.  If the end of the week nears and you still haven't used the meat, then opt for the freezer.

9.  This list is your Bible.  When making your list, make sure you write down every single item you need for a recipe.  Leave out items you already have on hand so that you don't confuse yourself come shopping day.  For some items it helps if you list how much or how many you need so that you don't overspend.  If the recipe calls for two cups of cheddar and you buy four cups, there's a good chance the extra cheese will go bad before you need it next and that extra money will have gone to waste.  Buying in bulk isn't always better.

Also, resist the urge to add extra items to the list that are not a part of your staples or included in your menus.  Unless you have a planned event, try not to include chips, crackers or cookies.  (Note: Baking ingredients for homemade sweets are OK as long as they aren't from a box!)  These extras will really hike up your grocery bill and they will only distract from the meal-planning goal.  If this is tough for you or your family, try to keep these items off-limits during the week and allow yourself to have them during the weekend.  Brian and I definitely splurge on chips and dip on the weekends, especially during college football season.

10.  Organize your list.  When I was grocery shopping with a newborn, I knew my time was limited to the next feeding.  So in order to make things easier on myself once I got to the store, I would write out my grocery list twice.  First I would write out everything I needed.  Then I would write the same list out a second time with everything listed out in four categories: Produce, Non-Perishables, Dairy, and Frozen.  It's no exaggeration to say that this simple trick cut my shopping time in half.

I admit I don't really do this anymore mostly because grocery shopping is an excuse to get out of the house when it's too cold to play outside!

What have I missed?  What are your top tips for menu-planning and list-making?
Next up, how to make your grocery shopping trip a success!

Previous Meal-Planning Posts
Breakfast and Lunch Staples

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