Recently I had the opportunity to share with a group of MOPS (Mothers of Preschoolers) ladies some of my thoughts on Meal Planning. The following is an outline of what I shared. My small disclaimer is that I can only share about my journey and then encourage you all on yours. You don't have to plan meals the way I do. My hope is that you can take away from this something small - a new goal, a new recipe, a new way of thinking about food, grocery shopping, even cooking.
Where I Begin:
On Thursday and Friday I start thinking about what I'm in the mood to eat. It starts with you. If you're not interested in eating what you cook, why would your family be? I peruse food magazines, cookbooks from the library or from my personal collection and even recipe web sites on a regular basis to get my taste buds working. I love EatingWell.com and FoodNetwork.com. I always check out what Giada de Laurentis and Ellie Krieger from Food Network are making. My friend Allison swears by AllRecipes.com because they have a spot where you can enter ingredients you have or even ones you want to avoid and tons of recipes pop up.
I write out my Meal Plans each week in a calendar I can carry around. If you're more of a computer person, check out PlanToEat.com or other similar sites that allow you to make and store grocery lists and a calendar of meal plans. I love being able to flip through my personal calendar (even when the internet is down!) and remind myself of what we ate last month.
As I plan I am always very aware of our schedule. As the mama of two, caretaker of two more and a coach's wife to boot it's really important that I take into account the busy evenings when I won't have lots of cooking time. I teach a college course on Monday nights so I can't even serve the meal then. That said, we do make dinner a priority on other nights and try our best to eat as a family.
I think in these categories of meals:
Creative Crockpots - These are fast meals that I can dump in the crockpot in the morning when I know we are headed to a meeting or track event. I love Pomegranate Beef or Taco Soup and I'm discovering more off blogs.
Super Soups & Chilis - These are one-pot meals that I serve up at least once a week when the weather is cooler. In summer months, this category changes to One-dish Pastas. These might include our Pumpkin Party Soup in fall when the pumpkins are ripe and in season or Italian Wedding Soup when greens are growing everywhere in our winter garden. Sometimes I'll even make a soup or chili and freeze half or double the batch so I can have it for lunches too.
Dinner for Company - We love to entertain. We host a Cooking Club at our house once a month and we meet with a Life group of three other families every other week where we share dinner. We also host my parents for a meal three times a week (and they pitch in some for groceries.) These meals are ones I might spend a little more time preparing. I like to try ethnic foods like Indian Butter Chicken or Ethiopian Lentil Sauce.
Vegetarian - This is a newer category for us. In 2010, our goal is to eat 2-3 vegetarian meals a week. We aren't entirely against meat. (I grew up a total carnivore!) However, we do think our body needs a good veggie cleanse on a regular basis so I'm trying out some new vegetarian dishes this year with that end in mind.
Batch Cooking - This category includes meals that I make (usually on the weekends) in big batches. For example, I make a batch of my mom's Italian Meat Sauce with Manicotti and it will last for several meals. I might make two Rainbow Vegetarian Lasagnas at a time and freeze one or I make Whole Wheat Pizza dough and freeze 3/4 of it for lunches or Friday nights. This saves me gobs of time. I can just thaw something from the freezer and heat it up on the busier nights or nights when this mama is just plain tired.
Don't shop 'til you Drop:
As I write down my meal plans, I start a grocery list at the same time. Throughout the week, I keep a running list of pantry items we're out of like salad dressings, whole wheat tortillas or juice. Then I add in what we'll need for dinners. Just making a list is a step toward saving money. If you just browse the grocery aisles, you will end up with a bunch of stuff in your cart that you don't need or can't afford. Don't get me wrong, I sometimes take "field trip" grocery outings and allow myself time to check things out. But more often than not I'm speeding down the aisles with two kids in tow trying to find what I need.
Where I spend my loot:
My grocery shopping always starts with our local farmer's market. I am blessed to have a market just a few miles from my house that is open every Wednesday evening and Saturday morning year round. Unless we are out of town, it's a family ritual to go to the market on Saturdays and buy our organic produce and raw milk. I also weekly go to Trader Joe's. No, they did not pay me to say this but it is the best store in Fresno. I've done my homework and TJ's has the best deals on fresh, organic or local, minimally-processed foods. If I can't get it at the market, I usually get it at Trader Joe's. My goal between the market and TJ's is to spend $100 a week for our family of four. I also spend $100-125 more at Costco and Winco. I shop at Costco for organic snacks for my kids and big box items like tomato sauce. I shopt at Winco for their bulk section. That's where I buy our month's supply of dried beans, rice, nuts and even fresh-pressed peanut butter for the granola I make. My husband will eat this for every breakfast if I can keep the container full. I also sometimes check out Whole Foods for specialty items or a new store in our area called Fresh & Easy.
I generally do the market on Saturday and then head to TJ's on Sunday or Monday, depending on our schedule. Some regularity to grocery shopping also helps the budget. If you plan a week or two at a time then you won't be running out at the last minute for that one item.
For those of you who know me you know I love to cook. Cooking is my stress relief. I recognize that cooking stresses some people out. Cooking does stress me out when I'm tired, have three kids hanging on my clothes and I'm rushing to a meeting. Meal Planning does relieve some of that stress so you aren't deciding on a meal in the midst of the craziness. I also suggest maximizing weekend time or evening time when you are not stressed to plan ahead for other meals. My daughter and I often mix up batches of muffins and granola on a Sunday night to prepare for the week. We enjoy this time together.
The bottom line is: have fun. Share resources with friends. Check out new meal options. Ask questions. Leave us a comment. We love to chat on this topic. Happy Meal Planning!