By nature, I’m a planner, a list-maker, a goal setter, a little type A, and possibly a little OCD. This is not to say that I always cross everything off my lists or follow through with all my plans––I’m much too right-brain for that––but if you need a list, honey I’m your girl.
Sometimes my attempts at organization fizzle like wet firewood, but one thing that has stuck is a routine of making a weekly meal plan, a shopping list from that plan, and then shopping only once a week (save any emergency trips to the store for essentials like… ice cream). I don’t plan out every single meal, but I do plan every dinner I mean to cook for the week and then buy accordingly. This helps us stick to a budget in terms of how much we spend on groceries and also how often we eat out.
I’ve been planning our meals this way for about a year now, but it’s a big change for me. My mother is a combination of a pantry cooker and an impulse cooker. She makes one ENORMOUS trip to the grocery store once or twice a month and stocks up on staples for some of her standard meals. Then, she goes to the store two or three times a week for the remainder of the month, either to pick up things she forgot, things that need to be fresh (like bread or specialty produce) or if she gets an idea to cook something different than her standard pantry meals.
I’m not saying that’s a bad way to go––it certainly kept my family fed for the 18 or so years I was living at home––but it’s a LOT of work. I tried shopping that way when I was first on my own and found that, cooking for only one or two people, a lot of food that I purchased on my big monthly trips spoiled before I could eat it. Plus, all those shopping trips can really bog you down.
I first got the idea to do weekly meal plans and shopping trips from Flylady––an online group that tries to help people organize their lives and get out from under all-consuming clutter. I eventually came to find the whole Flylady program (the daily emails, etc.) to be too much for me, but I still find a lot of her principles useful and smart.
Many diet programs, including Weight Watchers, also suggest planning out meals in advance, so you know exactly what you’re eating and when. Very helpful when counting calories.
And, if you’re anything like me, you may collect cookbooks and interesting recipes from magazines. Meal plans are a great way to make sure you try some new recipes or even some new foods that might not be on your comfort list yet.
Anyway, I love gadgets, so when I came across Meals Matter, a web site and group of web-based tools produced for FREE by the California Dairy Council, I was pretty excited. First of all, FREE is a term certain to perk up my little ears. The tools on the web site are the kinds of things you’d normally find at subscription-based web sites, and are very cool.
The menu planner lets you plan out breakfasts, lunches, and dinners including which will be cooked at home and which will be eaten out. You can even just put “no plan” if, like me, you prefer to only plan one or two meals a day. If you use a recipe from the site’s database, you can automatically add the ingredients to your shopping list––or you can manually enter any items you like. Finally, you can keep a list of what you have on hand in your pantry for those moments of desperation when you have to make dinner, but don’t know what you have on hand.
And here’s another tip: save the weekly ad flyer from your favorite grocery store. When you sit down to plan your weekly meals, go through the flyer and plan meals around what’s on sale. Major grocery chains’ specials are listed at the Coupon Mom website in conjunction with coupons from the newspaper circulars. If you’re shopping at a health food store like Wild Oats or Whole Foods, check their websites––many stores now publish their flyers online. This makes it easier to eat around what’s in season and what’s on sale at your grocery store.