Meal planning has changed my life.
I know it sounds overdramatic, but I really think it’s true.
A couple years ago I took a long, hard look at our monthly expenses. We had been going out to eat and buying lunch more than I knew was a good idea, and I wanted to put a dollar sign on the gut feeling I had that we were spending too much.
What I found was astounding. Not only were our grocery expenses moderately high (which I am mostly okay with, because I have high standards for good food), but our expenses for restaurant foods were 2 to 3 times our total grocery bill. This was completely unacceptable and unsustainable.
On top of the financial drain, I often found myself stressed at the end of the day because I didn’t know what to make for dinner. The cycle was:
- Arrive home
- Procrastinate because I didn’t know what to make
- Scour cookbooks and recipe sites for meal ideas for 30-45 minutes
- Decide what I would make
- Start cooking and get to the middle of the recipe and realize I didn’t some major ingredient
- Frantically try to either a) make the recipe work without the ingredient (generally a bad idea) or b) send Charlie out on an emergency grocery store run to buy the missing item
- Eat a very late, anxiety-ridden meal
I had heard of this thing called “meal planning” but had never attempted to do it. I called up my friend Amanda whom I knew was religious about meal planning to keep costs down. I also gathered suggestions from family on how to minimize food costs while still maintaining a high quality diet. With their tips and encouragement, and the motivation that I could save the equivalent of $15-20/day just by taking 15 minutes to make our lunches in the morning ($60-80/hour ain’t a bad wage), I determined to start meal planning.
Two years later, I think I’ve got this meal planning thing down. I don’t do anything fancy for lunches (mostly sandwiches and easy salads that we can bring to work), so I primarily meal plan for dinners. I use a Moleskine calendar to record everything by date.
Here’s my strategy:
- Assess and make a list of what I already have on hand. This includes what’s ready to be harvested in the garden, leftovers from the previous week, anything that needs to be used up soon, foods in the freezer and in storage. I organize the items primarily into groups of vegetables and proteins.
- Write down any events or commitments we have that week. This helps me know when I will have more time to cook, and when I should plan to have something easy on hand.
- Find recipes that mostly match what foods I already have on hand. (We do usually have quite a bit of food on hand, so this helps us make the most use of it and prevents waste. If we didn’t have much, though, I would move to the next step.) I cook out of Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone about 90% of the time, so I always start here. But if I’ve found a recipe online that looks good, I will save it for a week when we have most of the ingredients or I think it would work well in the week’s overall menu. I occasionally do Google cooking as well, but not surprisingly the recipes aren’t usually as good.
- Balance meal selections by their protein content. We don’t eat much meat, so I try to have a variety of protein sources over the course of the week. Each day would ideally have a different protein. I allow myself about one non-protein heavy meal (like a vegetarian pasta or rice dish) a week. This could look like:
- Meat (beef, chicken, fish)
- Choose which day to prepare each meal based on our schedule and write it in the calendar. If we have something going on, I don’t try to do something fancy. Instead I’ll plan on easy meals or using leftovers. I plan to cook meals on 4 weeknights, with one night designated as leftovers night. We often make pizza on Saturday night, and I try to plan something easy for Sunday night because I’m usually worn out from working in the garden all day.
- Make notes in the calendar on days that I need to take something out of the freezer to let it thaw for the next night, or pre-cook something, like beans or rice.
- Make a list of what foods I need to buy for the week.
I usually meal plan on Saturday nights. It takes me 30 minutes to an hour, depending on how complicated I want to make the meals and how long it takes me to find what I want. I usually buy groceries right afterwards (the stores are totally dead on Saturday nights), so our meal cycle begins on Sunday.
Now that I meal plan, there’s no stress at the end of the day. I know exactly what I’m going to make, and I know that I have all the ingredients. We don’t eat as late in the night because I can get started on cooking as soon as I get home. Our food waste has gone to basically zero, because each week I reassess what needs to be used up.
Having lived this method for the past two years, now I can’t imagine not meal planning. What, you just go to the grocery store, buy a bunch of random stuff and hope it all works out? No wonder I never had everything that I needed.
Do you meal plan? What’s your strategy?