Confession – meal planning was one of the few organizational tips and tricks that I had never adopted. I have helped clients with theirs, and I definitely saw the value in it. But it just hadn’t really worked with the kind of life my family led. We had dinner together whenever practices, rehearsals, part-time jobs, travel schedules, etc. allowed. I just didn’t usually have a plan, and that worked okay for us. Honestly, it was one of the few things that I enjoyed not planning.
Or so I thought.
Enter the Pandemic
Suddenly, my usual two or three trips a week to the grocery store were not going to be an option. I did an inventory of what I had in the freezer (not much) and the pantry (even less). I quickly made a list of things I could cook with what I had. Then, I looked at a dozen or so of our favorite recipes and added what I needed for those to the list. Finally, I went to Costco and to my local grocery store and got enough food to make three meals a day, for four people, for the next two weeks.
A Journey of Discovery
- Food is expensive. I had somewhat insulated myself from that reality by making multiple trips and only buying a few days’ worth of food at a time. Yes, when I looked at the ‘Groceries’ category in Quicken, it added up to a lot of money. But we also ate at restaurants more frequently than I appreciated.
- They call it ‘perishable’ food for a reason. The berries and avocadoes that my family liked to eat? You can’t buy those two weeks at a time. Making a grocery list required some algebraic calculations. How many people would eat this item? Realistically, how many would each person eat? How many days would they keep? My family can tell you about ‘Enforced Orange Day’, where everybody ate only Clementine oranges as snacks to finish the bag before it went bad. Or ‘Leftovers Dinner’, which is a motley assortment of storage container contents the night before the trash goes out.
- I needed to expand our menu. After a few years of less eating dinner together at home, my family had a small list of favorite meals that we cooked. Eating at home for every meal, every day, those would get old really quickly. Also, shortages at the grocery store meant having to make adjustments and substitutions. Some of our new favorite recipes so far are Spaghetti al Limone, Brioche French Toast, this Fajita Marinade (discovered when our go-to pre-marinated fajitas were no longer available), and homemade pizzas with this Pizza Dough.
Meal Planning – Getting Started
You don’t need anything complicated to begin planning your meals. The online magazine The Kitchn has a free downloadable template that you can use to get started. Or, you can Google ‘meal plan template’ and find hundreds of options. Then, you can customize and adapt one of those to your liking.
I’ve found it helpful to have these on my template:
- A place to write (next to the meal for that day) what ingredients I will need to buy;
- Enough room to write the name of the recipe and where to find it;
- A section to list what perishable foods I need to use up that week; and
- Some way to highlight meals that need to or can be made in advance.
It is REALLY important to organize before you start. Luckily, this was one I didn’t have to worry about. My pantry was in good order (although, I did have to reconfigure some things to accommodate so much more food). But you will need to know what you have before you begin and that is hard to do if your pantry, refrigerator, or freezer are a mess.
- First, take everything out. If you’re working in your pantry, I always recommend taking ALL of it out at once. That way, you can see what you have and how much you have, and group things together in a way that makes sense. In the refrigerator, you can work by area (shelves, door, etc.).
- Second, throw away anything that is past its prime. If it’s expired, stale, moldy, or discolored, it goes in the trash. If it’s something you use regularly, remember to replace it.
- Third, set aside anything that has been in there for a long time, but nobody has eaten. If it’s been forgotten, put it front and center and remind everyone that it’s there. If nobody is going to eat it, get rid of it.
- Fourth, sort the food into categories – canned goods, dried goods, snacks, breakfast items, etc. That way, you can see what you already have. Hopefully, that will spark some ideas for meals to cook.
- Finally, take an inventory of what you have, and what you’re out of or running low on. Use this to make a grocery shopping list.
The ‘Planning’ Part of Meal Planning
Now it’s time to figure out what you’re going to eat for the next week or two. This was the part that I always found intimidating. Even though I’m a planner generally, I never minded winging it when it came to my meals. I thought that I wouldn’t like being locked into eating a certain thing on a certain night. What if I changed my mind?
So, my meal planning is pretty flexible. I buy groceries every two weeks, and I plan for that number of meals, but not necessarily on specific days. That way, I can adjust based on what we’re in the mood for. Do what works for you.
The essential part of the planning is to make sure that you have everything that you will need to cook that meal. Look at your inventory and see what you can make that will use up ingredients that are close to expiring, or that you have a lot of.
There are plenty of people who have been doing this longer, and better, than I have. Dozens of websites have meal planning suggestions, recipe ideas, etc. I started meal planning more out of necessity due to the circumstances. But I have found that I really like going grocery shopping with a plan instead of wandering the aisles waiting for inspiration to strike. And, I like not deciding on a meal only to find that I don’t have one or two of the ingredients that I need. So, I will probably keep up meal planning even after life returns to normal (whenever that is).