Wednesday, June 19, 2013

How to meal plan

This post is by way of apology.  Our summer thus far has just been weird.  I've been grocery shopping on unusual days, and hitting two different stores on two different days, and having our schedule change randomly and unpredictably.  So I haven't been menu planning the way I should.  So, because I can't promise I'll do better about planning the menu a week in advance and posting here the way I try to, I will instead endeavor to expand your wallet and shrink your waistline with my meal planning strategy.

For point of reference, we buy organic, ethical meat from a CSA and conventional produce from local grocery stores.  The USDA publishes food spending data based on family size and makeup, and our family of 4 with one on the way spends about as much in a month as the average thrifty family spends in a week.  Ready?  Let's go!

First the tips: 

Base your meals around fresh produce.  A lot of people complain about how expensive produce is.  Ok, it's true that you can get more calories of potato chips than broccoli for a dollar, but the nutritional bang for your buck on veggies can't be beat.

Stock your freezer with meat.  If you buy what's on sale, you'll be limiting yourself to 1 or 2 types of meat each week.  If you buy what you want, you'll be spending an arm and a leg.  If you don't want to buy from a supermarket, frozen is your only option.  Having the meat in the freezer lets you focus on your veggies.

Endeavor to use less meat in each meal.  A serving of meat is 4 ounces before cooking.  That means the average hamburger at a sit-down restaurant is 2 servings of ground beef.  We buy ethical meat these days, so it's more expensive than the supermarket, but with a few meatless meals and the rest of them less meat, we work on a very frugal budget. 

Avoid prepared foods.  If it's got more than three ingredients on the label, it's not an ingredient.  It's a prepared food.  Prepared foods typically cost more for the convenience of not having to make something yourself.  They are also typically highly processed, and therefore nutritional wastelands.  Not gonna lie, there are a few prepared foods I use a lot (pasta, I'm looking at you), but they are far outnumbered by whole foods I prepare myself.

Honestly assess your family eating habits.  Know what things you like to eat, what things you like to cook, and what you don't enjoy.  Knowing your preferences lets you know what to have on hand.  Which leads to the next point...

Don't run out of your staples.  If you often cook rice, stock up when it's on sale, and always have some rice in your cupboard.  If you love peas, keep a few extra bag of frozen peas at all times. 

Then the weekly to-do list:

1) If you live in an area where there are lots of competing grocery stores, shop the sales fliers.  If you have all the time and energy in the world, you can go everywhere.  Otherwise, check out my post on how to decide which store to visit.

2) Buy whatever produce is on sale or perpetually cheap in quantities your family will eat.  As a general rule, I don't buy it if it costs more than $1.00 a pound.  But don't buy a lot of something just because it's cheap.  I never buy more than one bunch of lettuce or 5 radishes.  We just won't eat more than that.  Mushrooms or cauliflower, however, I will buy a metric ton.  Those we eat.

3) As you put your groceries away, make yourself a quick list of the produce you bought this week that you plan to use for dinner.  I currently don't plan breakfast, lunch, or snacks ahead of time.  Fruit generally gets eaten at those times, and some veggies go to those meals, so I don't put them on my list.

4) Assign every produce item a protein and a starch.  You can do this basically randomly if you stock a variety of starches as staples and keep your freezer full of meat.  Or you can do it based on some sensibility.  Say, cabbage is great for Asian, so add chicken and rice with the plan do do something Asian.

5) Use cookbooks, Internet searches, quizzing of your family members, or your brilliant creativity to make each veggie-protein-starch combination into a one-dish meal or main dish with side dishes.

6) Write your recipe plans down, lest you forget them.  Assign each one to a day of the week.

7) Done!  Treat yourself to some cucumber slices.  Or a cookie.

Shall we do a sample problem?  Deal!  Tune in tomorrow.


  1. Hmm... my food budget for the month is also "below thrifty".

  2. Apparently, I'm barely hitting a "low cost" meal plan, and that's only if you ignore the one or two meals I get at a restaurant per week.

    Mom would be so ashamed. :(

    - Your brother Steve