Monday, March 29, 2010

Three Steps to Easy Weekly Meal Planning

By semi-popular demand, here is my method for weekly meal planning. It's a simple method that works for me and may work for you, too. One caveat, though. I only shop once a week. I buy everything we need for the week on Sunday afternoons and, unless there is something I couldn't find or forgot, I don't buy anything through the week.

During the winter months I drive my car to shop at a supermarket and a bulk food store. During the warmer months I ride my bike to the farmer's market and get my bulk items at the health food store across the street. As much as I love the idea of daily, European-style shopping, this wouldn't work for our household right now. Sometimes I succumb to convenience to avoid losing my mind.

why they call it a Fit

Step One: Make A Menu

This may seem like a pain in the ass, but it is UNAVOIDABLE. There is no magical way to buy the food you need unless you actually know what that food is. Making a meal plan will probably get you out of any food ruts you may have, because if you actually write down that you will eat brown rice, kale, and tofu every night of the week, you will feel kind of sad.

Here are some things I do to pick recipes for the week:

-Keep a "recipes" bookmark file on my computer so I can save links to recipes that I see on food blogs throughout the week.
-Always plan my menu when I'm a bit hungry so I can really think about what I'd like to eat.
-Ask the Man of Science what he'd like to eat. This is why we have a weekly "soup and sandwich" day.
-Get into bed with a stack of cookbooks and browse for things that sound good.

Step Two: Make A List

Dear God, make a list! I can not stress this enough. Unless you are Dougie Howser, you do not have the brain power to remember everything that you need. How you organize your list is your own business, but this is what I do:

-Have one list per store. That way I don't overlook anything and have to go back and forth.
-If I'm going to larger supermarket I organize my list according to the layout of the store. That way I don't have to go back and forth from produce to frozen foods and back to produce again. This is especially important to me because I shop on Sunday afternoons when the stores are full of people who lose their ability to move swiftly and carefully as soon as their hands touch a grocery cart.
-Make the list while I am standing in the kitchen with the pantry doors open. That way, if I'm not sure how much pasta I have, I can just check instead of ending up with too much or too little.
-Though I only do meal planning for dinners, I make sure that I have ingredients for my breakfast smoothies and that I've accounted for the snacks we will inevitably long for.

weekly menu + shopping list

Step Three: Put Your Menu and Your List(s) On The SAME PAGE.

Though this may not seem important, it is the factor that makes this whole system work for me week after week. Why does this make things easier? If I'm shopping and something is unavailable or yucky (I'm looking at you, Spinach) I can check back to the menu and see what would make a good replacement in that particular meal. This saves me wondering "what was I going to make with this again?"

Having the menu right beside my shopping lists also allows me for one last check to make sure I have everything I need. Also, it clarifies the amount needed which I sometimes forget to note on my list. Am I cooking broccoli twice or just once? Do I need lots of tomatoes for a sauce or just one to cut up for sandwiches?

Essentially, the one-sheet method provides a safety net for the human error that inevitably happens when one is racing around, readings labels, and trying to decide whether that chocolate bar is a reasonable purchase. As with anything else complicated, it helps to have a system.

And then?

When I get home I post the menu on the fridge. You'll notice from the photo above that the Man of Science cooks on Tuesday nights. Having the menu posted means that when he chooses what he will make he can avoid making something that I'm going to be making the next day. He tends to decide what he wants to make on the day of, so he picks up any extra groceries he needs on his way home from work. If I'm/we're going out for dinner on one of the nights I write that in too. It helps us keep everything straight.

For anyone who feels that this would be too structured or limiting, I want to point out that I almost never make exactly what is on the menu every single day of the week. For example, last night the sweet potato bread pudding seemed too heavy, so I switched it for Monday's tofu, rice, and greens. This is also why there is no meal listed for Saturday. Having a day with no meal planned means we are free to go out to eat, or make a fun, spur of the moment, dinner, like last Saturday night's awesome vegan mushroom pizza.

I know this may not be the magical answer to everyone's meal-planning problems, but it works for us and I hope it helps at least a few people.

Some Notes:

-Before anyone asks, yes, that is a big box of diet gingerale in the back of my car. I'm no friend of aspartame, but the Man of Science likes it.

-Oh, and the white mesh things in the grocery bins are my reuseable produce bags. They are a bit too big and floppy, but they were cheap.

-When the MoS saw my menu for the week and noticed he was referred to by his pseudonom, he said, "What, you don't call me by my real name anymore?" Rest assured, on next week's menu he'll be addressed by his not-quite-top-secret real name.


This Time Last Year: Warm and Lovely Chickpea Stew


Ricki said...

This sounds so great--thank you! (But darn! I really DO have to plan out that menu in advance). I love the tip of putting everything on the same page--what a terrific way to compensate for ingredients you can't get. And I like the idea of leaving Saturday night open, too. And wow--you have such neat handwriting! (said the teacher) ;)

Brigid said...

My system is almost the same as yours. I plan out all my meals for the week, and we shop once a week on Saturday or Sunday. It saves so much time and energy.

Allison, The Busy (Happy!) Vegan said...

We put almost the exact same system into place a few months ago. It saved us a ton of time, MONEY, and those panicky oh-no-what-are-we-going-to-eat-for-supper-we-only-have-6-beets-and-mustard-in-the-fridge moments! Recently, though, we started receiving CSA boxes every second Tuesday, so we've had to shift things around a bit - it's been adding some excitement to the mix!

The Kuntrageous Vegan said...

This is actually how I grocery shop. Thanks for making me feel a little bit more normal.

Tiana said...

We do the same thing save for posting it on the fridge after. Next on my to-do list!!!

Heather Moore said...

I do the meal planning and the list but I never thought of putting both on the same page! Doh! ;)

XUP said...

I admire your organization.I guess I'm Dougie Howser because I go shopping with my menus and my shopping list in my head. I usually go to 3 different places to get everything I need and I usually try to get that all done in one day. Of course, I also don't have any recipes per se -- I just sort of throw stuff together on a whim. But I do try to make different things and use different ingredients regularly

Trinity (of haiku tofu) said...

While I will probably never be that organized, I must admit it pleases me to read other people's lists and game plans.

Jennifer (It Ain't Meat, Babe) said...

Ricki: Thanks! My mom is a teacher, and I credit the handwriting to her influence. :)

Brigid, Allison, KV: I think we must be on to something!

Tiana: I'm a fan of having things staring me right in the face!

Heather: That's the main reason why I did this post, because it took me a bunch of tries to get to that point. I hope it works for you.

XUP: Dougie!

Trinity: I like it too. Kind of like peering into someone's life. I admit it, I'm a bit nosy. :)

theravegan said...

This is just what I need to read right now. I am working on instituting menus here but it is slow going so any suggestions are welcome. We have made two transitions in the last 6 weeks (first to veganism and then to wheat-free)and we are scrambling to adjust. And I love the idea of looking at other peoples' lists as well. It gives me ideas. Thanks.