Monday, October 17, 2011

Frugal Meal Planning I misspoke in my last food budgeting post and told you that the next step would be the coupon binder. Well, I got so excited about showing the crafty part that I completely skipped two steps. Oops. Hopefully you won't be too disappointed to know that today we get to go over meal planning instead.

Meal planning sounds all super organized and time consuming, but it's really not as tough as it sounds and it's a huge help in freeing up both time and money.

Prior to embracing this whole process I spent time every night figuring out what we were going to eat before I started fixing it. I hated this. Coming home after a long day at work, having to figure out a meal and then verifying that all of the ingredients actually exist in the house? Sucky. It frustrated the crap out of me. Not to mention the fact that my dinners were often delayed by up to thirty minutes while I made a decision and then had to defrost meat.

I have multiple sources that I use for my meals. I have a pile of "old standby" recipes that I've gathered over the years. My family has their favorites so we have a few that always make the rotation (e.g. breakfast for dinner, meatloaf). Added to that are recipes from the family cookbook I made for my mom for Mother's Day a few years back (don't worry...I'll share this project at a later date), recipes that I've gotten from friends, magazines and - of course - Pinterest.

In the mix I also always add a few special occasions. Collin & I try to have a date night at least once a month and we also try to always have Family Movie Night. Family Movie Night is when we watch a movie together while eating either takeout or finger foods like mozzarella sticks, pizza bites and jalapeno poppers. Fun and easy.

My first step is to figure out a list of recipes to make. I build this using the inventory that I've created for the month. I determine what recipes will best use up any remaining meat and vegetables first. After that I look at large stock items. This way I keep a regular rotation of the items I have a lot of. I then I dig through the new recipes I want to try during the month and maybe pull out a few meals that we haven't had in a while. For example, this month I added my jambalaya to the mix. My family loves it, but it's not the best recipe for summer. Now that it's getting cooler around here it's just the right time. If I still have open slots I badger Collin into giving me some ideas. 

While I'm adding recipes to the list I note the ingredients on the inventory. I just put a little check mark next to the item each time I need it. So by the end if I have five check marks next to green bell peppers and my inventory shows that I have two already in the fridge, then I know that I need to plan on three for my shopping list.

My recipe list isn't pretty. I just use a piece of scratch paper. Here's this month's list.

I always make sure to include a mix of easy meals with the meals that actually take preparation. No way I'm spending hours in the kitchen each night. I have things to do. I also don't worry too much about the side dishes to start with. I always have plenty of stuff to fill the gaps.

Once I have my main dishes, I pair them with appropriate sides. I learned from my mother. She always did a really good job giving us balanced meals as kids, so I try and do the same. I make sure we hit the major food groups as well as possible.  Meat, veggies, bread & dairy. Most often our dairy is actually the glass of milk that we drink with dinner. Everyone in the family loves milk.

With each meal coordinated, I bust out the glass calendar that hangs on our hallway wall. I bought it a few years ago (ya ya, I probably could have made it) and I love it. We use it to track meals as well as where we are all supposed to be during the month. Collin's schedule has proven rather tricky this month.  I use chalk markers and keep everyone color coded. Black is meals and holidays, green is Collin, blue is Darian and I'm white (Huh. Never realized how appropriate that is...I'm just this side of mayonaise.)

There is also a method to how things land on the calendar. I don't just walk down the list and plug things in one day after another. I try to keep things mixed so we don't eat similar items multiple days in a row. (Burritos followed by tacos followed by nachos? Pretty sure all the pepto would be gone and I'd be getting the evil eye from Collin...along with anyone who has to work with him.) I also arrange it based on my work schedule. Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays I typically work full days so I don't want to work that hard when I get home. The other days are a little more open so I book those with the newer recipes I haven't tried yet and ones that I know will take me more time.

Here's a blow up of the calendar...a three week spread of Sunday through Wednesday. Notice that the Sundays are more involved meals that take longer to prepare and/or cook. The rest are straight forward. Nothing in the Monday-Wednesdays shown takes me longer than about 20 minutes. Awesome.

Once it's all in the calendar I return to the inventory list. I take those items and add them to the ones that we've jotted down on the grocery list over the month. (I'm hoping that posting the inventory in the kitchen will help me eliminate the grocery list and just keep everything together.) I pick a day during the month when I will most likely be going back for the second half of produce (usually the 2nd Thursday or Friday of the month) and keep those items on a list for later. This way I minimize what might go bad.

The grocery list. This item will be back during a later step.;

Keep in mind, the calendar is still somewhat of a loose guideline. Sometimes things change during the month and I have to shuffle recipes. Like last week...we ended up with a few recipes where I had a large amount of leftovers. So...we had leftovers a couple of nights and those recipes got bumped. Nothing in those meals had a risk of spoiling so I was fine. If I had something planned with veggies that were perishable, then I would plug it in this week in place of a nonperishable recipe. It's a bit of a juggling act, but it still works pretty well. the end of the month, I take any recipes that weren't used and just plug them into the next month. Haha!! Saving more money!

So that's it for meal planning. Hopefully this made sense. I admit that I was somewhat distracted by The Sing-Off (it's a guilty pleasure). And this time I'm going to get the follow up post correct. The next in the series is coupon clipping.


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