Tuesday, June 28, 2011

How To: Meal Plan

Since I share our weekly menus almost every week here on the blog (lately I've been sharing them on the blog's Facebook page), I thought I'd give you a behind-the-scenes look at the process and my "system" that allows me to generate interesting and tasty meals for around 60-70 dollars a week.

Our meal plan begins at the Farmer's Market on Saturday mornings.  Farmer's Markets are a great way to support community farmers and purchase pesticide-free produce without spending a lot of money!  We usually spend between $10-12 dollars a week for four to five fruits and vegetables that we will incorporate into our meals that week.  For example, this week our haul included asparagus, cucumber, green onions and green beans all for $8.  The week before that was green peas, zucchini and yellow squash, radishes and beets for around $13.  We could spend WAY more at the Farmer's Market every week (and usually I really want to!) but with one income to speak of at the moment, we try to keep our costs as low as possible.

Produce from a few weeks ago: dill, strawberries, kale and local bacon
Once I get home, I pull out my new favorite cookbook which was my first anniversary (paper) present from J: Williams-Sonoma's Cooking from the Farmers' Market.  The cookbook is filled with gorgeous, art-quality photos of all types of produce in addition to delicious recipes, tips for buying the ripest produce and how to store almost any produce you could buy at the market.  Then I grab a blank piece of paper and start researching.

I begin by writing down the produce I've purchased that week as well as notes about storing it and how long it will last before it goes bad.  This week my produce section reads something like this (all of this information can be found in the cookbook):

Asparagus--cut 1 inch off stalks and store upright in refrigerator using a container with shallow layer of water for up to four days.  Asparagus is best if eaten soon after harvest however.
Cucumber--wrap in paper towel and store in plastic bag in fridge for up to 5 days
Green onions--store in plastic bag in fridge for up two weeks
Green beans--wrap in paper towel and store in plastic bag (open to prevent mold) for up to 3 days

Next I write out each day of the week for the menu (usually it's Saturday-Thursday with dinner out or pizza on Friday nights) and next to each day I write when produce will go bad/be at its peak.  For this week, that meant eating the asparagus as soon as possible (Sunday night) and the green beans soon after that (Monday).  I hate throwing away spoiled food, especially from the Farmer's Market, and this helps me make sure we use everything before it starts to turn.

Once I start looking for recipes, I pull out at least five cookbooks, sometimes more, and pull up my Pinterest "Recipes to Make" board for inspiration.  I also take a mental (and sometimes physical) inventory of what we have in the pantry, fridge and freezer before I start looking for recipes.  This week my inventory of must-use items included a whole chicken for roasting, corn tortillas from our Carne Asada dinner last week, and some frozen shrimp.

Often times, one recipe leads me to another, as was the case with Sunday and Tuesday nights' recipes.  Last week over lunch, I saw a delicious recipe for Lemon-stuffed Roast Chicken on Barefoot Contessa: Back to Basics.  I knew that would be how I would use up the whole chicken.  I also knew from experience there would be leftovers and thought chicken enchiladas might be a good way to use up the chicken and corn tortillas.  After comparing recipes in several cookbooks, I found a recipe that required minimal additional ingredients and looked tasty.  Enter Chicken Enchiladas with Pumpkin Sauce courtesy of Martha Stewart's Kitchen's Food Everyday Cookbook.  Once I find a recipe and add it to the menu, I use the other side of the paper (waste not, want not) for my shopping list.  I continue with my researching until all the days are filled, trying to reuse ingredients and leftovers in whatever way I can.  If I am going to make a substitution, for example using red onions and garlic instead of shallots or macaroni instead of cavatappi, I also note this next to the recipe along with the cookbook source and page number.  That way I'm not looking in indexes trying to find recipes when it comes time to cook!

This week the menu portion of our meal plan looks something like this:

I tend to write our menu in pencil so I can erase and move dinners around as necessary while I plan
It is a bit difficult to read the menu there, especially since I wrote it in pencil, so I have replicated the contents for you below for easier reading:

Saturday                                                                                    Sunday-asparagus
Beet Risotto                                                                               Lemon Roast Chicken (Ina)
                                                                                                   Roasted Asparagus with Balsamic-      
                                                                                                   Shallot Butter (Cooking Light pg.
                                                                                                   289)--use red onion to substitute shallot
                                                                                                   *save 1/2 chicken for Tuesday dinner*

Monday-green beans                                                                 Tuesday
Pasta with Peso, Potatoes & Green Beans--use macaroni       Enchiladas with Pumpkin Sauce
(p. 158 Food Everyday cookbook)                                            (Food Everyday p. 279)
                                                                                                   South American Garlic Rice
                                                                                                   (see recipe book)
Shrimp and Egg-Knot soup (Soup Bible pg. 241)

Once I've completed my shopping list, I head to the grocery store and Trader Joe's to buy groceries for the week.  Because J and I eat mostly leftovers and the occasional sandwich for lunch every day, I only need to buy ingredients for the recipes and a few staples like bread, yogurt and milk.  Here are our receipt totals for this week (including alcohol): $20.41 at Trader Joe's and $30.86 at Dierberg's (our local grocery store) plus the $8 I spent at the Farmer's Market on Saturday.

When I return home, our meal plan is then put on the fridge so that J and I can both see at a glance what we are having for dinner that week.

I wish our fridge looked like this.  So organized, clean and tidy!

We occasionally deviate from the meal plan (I've found that they have to be flexible or it just won't work long term) but usually we are pretty good about staying on track.   We also try to have at least one meatless meal a week to cut costs (and because it's tasty).  If we are having meat later in the week, I freeze it immediately and then thaw it the night before so that the food doesn't spoil by the time we go to eat it.  Some weeks I try to schedule our meat-free dinners on Wednesdays and Thursdays to avoid this step completely!

This system really works for us for the following reasons:
  1. We waste way less food
  2. We spend less money by avoiding nights where we would go out for dinner because we just don't feel like going to the grocery store and cooking
  3. We save gas money by not stopping by the store several times a week
  4. We really use all of our various cookbooks
  5. We have fun in the kitchen and never have to utter the words " What are we going to make for dinner" that is, unless one of us forgets and has to consult the fridge!
In looking at this list, I realized that our system is pretty green friendly if you think about it.  Less food waste = less garbage that ends up in a landfill.  Less gas consumption = less pollution.  Less going out = more money to spend on organic and local foods.  A win-win if you ask me!

Do you meal-plan?  Or perhaps you have a system of your own regarding laundry, cleaning, home repair scheduling or something else I haven't thought of and listed here?  I am loving systems that make life easier and would love to hear your ideas!


  1. This is similar to what I do. I cover pieces of paper with notes every weekend too!

    I'll usually spend $20 at the farmer's market and then $80 or so at the store. We aren't reliable about leftovers and with all the experimenting I've been doing, I don't want leftovers of something we didn't end up liking. I try really hard to only cook enough for two people, then buy some lunch supplies, which ups my budget.

    I keep a running list of recipes in a Google Doc so I can access it at work and home. I then use that to help meal plan. I'll plan 3-4 meals a week (we like to go out 1-2 times a week).

    The biggest plus is definitely NO WASTED FOOD!

  2. You're so organized! I love your system. I have been trying to get myself into making meal plans for a long time but I haven't quite gotten the hang of it yet. We live right above a grocery store, so we usually just decide what we want to eat that night and pick up the ingredients in the afternoon. I'd like to put more thought into it, though. Maybe I'll give it another shot!

  3. I am totally a meal planner by far, but my boyfriend loves to spontaneously go to dinner or whatever...so we end up wasting food some of the time. When I am alone it is way easier, except that I don't make very exciting meals due to portion sizes. I tend to eat one thing for dinner and then just eat leftovers for a couple of days.

  4. I should really try this. You are so organized. For now I'll blame my lack of planning on my boyfriend who won't east the same things as me...is that fair? :)

    Hope you're having a great day.

  5. I really, really, really want to meal plan but my hubby doesn't want to. I think once we have kids we will but for now we have staples that we have and have plenty that we ca make from those. We don't have very many processed foods in our house and we like it that way:)

  6. This is fantastic! I really need to figure out a system like this for our groceries...thanks for the inspiration!


  7. Wow!! You are so organized, love it! I feel like I am somewhat organized, but I think I could learn a lot from your planning system :) Thanks for sharing, KT!

  8. If I wasn't so lazy, I would do this! But I'm just being honest, I am...haha!

  9. i meal plan, but i try to be flexible too! i make a list of meals for the week and buy the ingredients for those meals, but then i cook whichever one i feel like on a given night!

    we eat leftovers for lunch too!

  10. We don't mealplan but I wish we did!

  11. This is utterly fascinating! How awesome that you have such quality foods for such a low amount of money spent. I really need to curb my grocery spending - we spend way too much. You've got some excellent tips here and I'm feelin' quite motivated to get more frugal!

  12. those are great tips girly. I try to make a meal schedule for an entire month, and then I get my weekly groceries based on that.
    I thought that was your fridge! I was going to say 'dang girl, you are way organized!" I wish my fridge looked that good.

  13. @ Hot Pink Manolos: I love your honesty! You get out to WAY more restaurants and food trucks than I do that look amazing so I think we are even :)

    @ sarahlearns: We move stuff around too! Tonight's impromptu date night is a perfect example haha

    @ Joi: It has made our life a lot easier, especially with J studying for the bar and not having much time to eat, let alone help me cook. Thank goodness the bar studying is almost over :)

  14. Holy organization!! Will you please come visit and do our meal plans? :) Maybe then we wouldnt eat so many frozen pizzas! LOL

  15. Wow, your fridge makes mine feel bad about itself! We need to get organized over here...

  16. Absolutely LOVE this post!!! I definitely needed it... I have been struggling with meal planning!


  17. Wow, you are so organized! You are my new role model! I have been wanting to get better at grocery shopping, because I feel like I buy a lot of produce but don't use them in recipes until later in the week when they aren't as good, or I'll go to the store with one or two meals in mind but forget ingredients for additional meals. I am bookmarking this post- you are one smart cookie!

  18. Clever idea/system you have going there!


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