Friday, May 3, 2013

Meal Planning 101

Meal planning has come to be second nature for our family. There's no longer the question of what's for dinner most nights (sometimes we throw caution to the wind and break out the emergency frozen pizza or ravioli) and it saves time in grocery shopping and cooking. Best of all, it saves our grocery budget, which is usually around $40 a week, although there are weeks we don't grocery shop at all and weeks we go over when we're stocking up. Generally, we probably spend between $100-$150 on groceries per month, and this includes laundry detergent, toilet paper, and paper towels (which we cut down on by using rags--I think we maybe use four rolls in a year unless we have a ton of company). I know, some of you spend that in a week. Take your time, you'll get there. And remember, our family is small compared to some.

So, here's my general plan of attack at the end of the month to prepare for the next month.

1. Assess the stockpile in the pantry, fridge, freezer, and garden when in season.

This month I took a look in the freezer and found lots of meat I'd forgotten about; chicken breasts, kielbasa, filet mignon (leftover from the Valentine's Day sale at EarthFare), ground turkey, and a turkey carcass from Thanksgiving. Then of course there's the veggies: corn, green beans and swiss chard from the summer garden, spinach, cilantro, and okra. I also found black beans, quinoa, barley, brown rice, canned tomatoes, tomato sauce, pineapple chunks, mandarin orange slices, salsa verde, and dried mushrooms in the pantry, among other staples for baking, etc. Then, in the fridge, there were sundried tomatoes, carrots, eggs from our friends who have chickens, mozzarella cheese, bacon, a can of crescent rolls, jams and jellies of various sorts, milk, half and half, and the general condiments.

2. After compiling my list of things we have on hand, I then plan the menu. Friday night is almost always pizza night around here... it keeps things easy and it helps us clean out the fridge of leftovers. Half a green pepper, check. A little chicken, great on a pizza. Leftover breakfast sausage or bacon, yum.

This month's menu went like this:

Week 1: chili verde, pizza, carrot and cilantro soup, breakfast casserole
Week 2: ravioli, chicken tacos/fajitas, whole wheat waffles/pancakes and fruit, pizza
Week 3: turkey burgers, 3-bean salad with quinoa, veggie fried rice
Week 4: bean and cheese quesadillas, jambalaya, quiche, pizza

As you can see, there's some flexibility in there for ingredients I find on sale. If mushrooms are on sale, they'll be great in quiche, breakfast casserole, or on a pizza. If fruit is on sale, then it'll be a wonderful side to breakfast casserole, quiche, or waffles. I give myself some wiggle room to move things around if we need to depending on what we find at the farmer's market or on the sale rack in the produce section.

3. Shop. Shopping is the easy part at this point. I find my recipes, check for missing ingredients, and build the list for the week. I also assess my baking stash since I'll be making various breads (breakfast breads, burger buns, waffles, etc.). Then I check for coupon matchups on The Grocery Game. We only purchase items that we will really use with coupons, not just because we have a coupon. So, if corn bread mix is on sale and has a coupon, I'll buy it because it's generally cheaper that way than from scratch. But, if I don't have a mix in my pantry stockpile, then I will make it from scratch, rather than buying a mix at full price. We make a lot of things from scratch (bread, cookies, cakes, stock, cream sauce, mac and cheese, etc.), even with a little one in the house, and because we've done it for so long, it's pretty easy. Plus, making things from scratch is generally better for you than buying ready made because you eliminate lots of extra fat and preservatives.

In order to make the most of things, I have a few go to cookbooks, like More with Less, Cheap. Fast. Good., The Soup Bible, and Joy of Cooking. There are casseroles, salads, stir fries, etc. that I can easily mix and match ingredients depending on what I have on hand. And of course, I use my bread machine like the workhorse that it is to do a lot of the work for me with pizza dough, burger buns, breakfast breads, etc.

So, I hope this helps some of you get started with your meal planning. If a month is overwhelming, start with a week and go from there. I think you'll be amazed at how it simplifies your life and shrinks your grocery budget. Here's to living green and saving green!

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