Meal planning prep

How I do love a good Anne Taintor magnet! My meal planning research
suggests that posting a weekly menu can cut down on persistent
“what’s for dinner” querying from the kiddos. Someone report back on that.

Tacos, spaghetti, chicken and rice bake. Tacos, spaghetti, salad, salad, chicken something. Tacos, spaghetti, chicken something, soup. Until Mr. T and I got together, I never realized what a creature of habit eater I was.

Partially, the sameness had to do with less refined culinary skills and lack of time, but mostly it was me finding comfort in the familiar. I don’t mind leftovers and repeats, and I often go on food “kicks” wherein I’ll eat the same thing day after day after day after day, and then never want to see it again (hello, Greek yogurt!). But someone in the household complained about the lack of variety and it wasn’t Goliath.

At first it was a challenge to think up new dishes (this was pre-Pinterest, after all), but I readily got into the habit of hunting down recipes and trying more exotic (to us) ingredients. In the last few years, I’ve spent a ton of time in the kitchen learning new cooking techniques and experimenting. (It helps that I consider chopping a stress relieving activity.) So it is no wonder that my food spending got a little wild over the last couple years with my “everyday gourmet” attempts at foodie-ism.

But as kitchen austerity measures are in full effect in the Redden household, I’m cogitating on ways to manage expenses and reduce waste. In addition to saving my kitchen scraps for stock, this means some measure of meal planning.

Some days…

Quick research indicates about a zillion ways to plan meals. The Mayo Clinic discusses nutrition-forward techniques such as creating a calendar and filling in healthy proteins, veggies, fruits and grains for every meal. Some folks tend towards a week-long meal calendar while others advocate building a two-week base of favorite recipes and then repeating twice. Others suggest doing “theme” nights a la “taco Tuesday,” “fish Friday,” “Sunday soups” or creating a  collection of recipes to cook from in a given week but leaving the days up in the air. And some folks cook ahead, prepping meals a week in advance, or throwing together “freezer meals” that can be crockpotted throughout the week.

What do all of these methods have in common? They all begin with taking stock of pantry stores, keeping staples on hand, and figuring out a method of grocery shopping (there are as many shopping techniques as there are meal planning types, it seems!).

1. Taking stock. This means figuring out exactly what’s in your pantry, fridge and freezer. It’s much easier to plan menus in advance when you know what you’re working with. Yours truly was stunned to find out how much I’ve been hoarding in my freezers (yes, plural. How I do love our garage chest freezer). Last weekend, I went through every frozen nook and recorded the contents, with dates. I keep the list on the fridge so I can scan to see what should be used up first. As I tend to buy meat in bulk and freeze, this system should help prevent waste and repeat buying. Now I have to dive into the pantry and do the same!

2. Pantry staples. Cooking is infinitely easier when you’ve got a good supply of basic staples on hand. For instance, my kitchen is rarely without red onions and garlic, olive and canola oil, organic chicken breasts and thighs (frozen), hamburger, pasta, marinara (jarred or frozen), diced tomatoes and tomato sauce, chicken stock, flour, rice, cornstarch, and cheese (cheddar, mozzarella, and Parmesan). I tend to buy those items in bulk when possible and then do light shopping every week for perishables. I try to keep milk, sour cream, bell peppers, celery, onions and broccoli stocked, too, so I’m always able to throw together some sort of meal quickly.

There are give or take 7 million free meal planning and grocery list
printables online.

The Pioneer Woman has a nice post about pantry stocking with a printable list. But bottom line, keep things in stock that you actually love and use. For me, in addition to the basics above, that means sauces/vinegar/oils to make various Asian dishes from scratch (e.g., stir fry, kung pao, Thai curry), and favorite salad dressings and condiments to liven up boring veggies.

3. Shopping lists. Presuming you’ve taken stock of supplies and chosen a meal planning method, then comes the shopping. Some folks plan meals around grocery store circulars and sales, but I know I’ll never be that methodical. Others keep a pre-printed list of staples to check every week with a fill-in area for extra ingredients required to make meals.

Yours truly keeps three grocery lists- One for bulk items usually purchased at Costco, one for perishables that usually get picked up once or twice a week from the regular grocery store, and one for staple stocking up, which is often a trip to Winco, a discount grocery store. Now, if I would just stick to the lists I make, I’d be fine.

Do you use a meal planning method? Any hot tips for grocery shopping? Do tell!


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