Thursday, May 2, 2013

The Ups and Downs of Meal Planning

If you have ever at all been given to reading organizational blogs, or have read books on how to simplify your life, you'll likely have encountered at least a few pages of reasons why you should meal plan. Meal planning is a fantastic way to save time, money, and frustration. By planning a shopping list in advance that works along with your menu for the week, you can limit waste, by having a schedule made up you can begin meal prep earlier in the day and pull meat from your freezer the night before, and a little bit of thinking ahead will save you from staring at your Pinterest Recipes board at 4:30 on a weekday until you finally throw in the towel and order pizza. And while I know all of these wonderful advantages to meal planning, I must confess that I am a hot-and-cold meal planner myself. Some seasons it is an essential part of my household management and others it just seems like one more thing that would be thrown into my schedule, and something I just really don't have time for. In those latter seasons I invariable eat more fast food. But still I manage to convince myself for chunks of time that I don't really need to meal plan.
I think a large issue I have with meal planning is that repetition in your menu is glaringly obvious when it's written down on paper. I always love variety with my menus, and can't seem to bring myself to list the same menu item on a written schedule twice in one month. However, that mindset is ridiculous when I look at how many times in a month we resort to having spaghetti because I can't think of what else I should make. It's no wonder though that I should find meal planning to be a burden sometimes when I set such ridiculous standards for myself. To never repeat a meal in a month is fine, but not necessary. The reality is, if we enjoy it, why shouldn't we eat it every other week?
I started meal planning when I was living with a roommate in another city, just after high school. We had different schedules, her with school and myself with an office job, so when I cooked, I was cooking for one. I couldn't stand the thought of wasting large amounts of food, which would unquestionably happen if I weren't thoughtful about using up the produce I bought at the beginning of the week, so I started meal planning, often concocting new dishes just to use up what was already on my grocery list. When I sat down to make my meal plan, I'd pick three or four meals I wanted to have that week, and then I'd go over my ingredient list, anticipate what ingredients I'd have left in my fridge by Thursday, and dream up some way to use them. For example, I loved to make rice noodle bowls with marinated honey garlic pork and steamed peppers, but what would I do with the leftover red pepper after I'd had that meal once in the week? But since I always had canned peaches on hand, and I'd have some lychee nuts for snacking too, I'd plan to make Peach Pepper Chicken with sautéed lychee nuts. Peppers were gone, any lychee nuts that were getting old were gone, and the remaining canned peaches were taken for lunch the next day. Some ingredients were at a higher risk of sitting unused and eventually spoiling if I didn't plan in advance, like fresh ginger, or avocados. But as I learned that reusing ingredients didn't necessarily mean all my dishes would taste the same (Ginger Beef vs. Lime Ginger Pork) I felt like meal planning during that season was really an outlet of creativity, rather than an inhibitor.
But after I moved home to go to college, the next time I was the primary person responsible for grocery shopping and meal planning was as a newlywed. But there was no real advanced planning beyond the night before in that case. Running to a grocery store every night was a novelty - a way to enjoy the simple pleasures of being newly married - and since I was working I would decide the night before what we'd be eating the next day, but trying new, fancy recipes was far higher on my priority list than staying within a set grocery budget. For a few months a typical week's meals would look like this: Monday - T-bone steak with crab topping, Tuesday - homemade perogies and loaded nachos, Wednesday - pulled pork with a root beer sauce, Thursday - salmon steaks with stuffed potatoes, Friday - Deep dish pizzas with homemade sauce and fresh Italian sausage. Variety, experimentation and 'Wow factor' were my goal, and thanks to the addition of a KitchenAid mixer to our household, and the resulting fresh dessert baked every night, my poor husband gained 15 pounds in 6 weeks, and we were spending around $800/month on groceries, for two of us! And that's before we factored in dinner's out! Fortunately we couldn't carry on like that for long, and by the time I went on Mat leave with my first boy, I realized that we needed to have a real budget, and less rich food on such a regular basis. I recalled my old meal planning ways and set out in that direction again.
Now, as I mentioned before, I've since yo-yoed back and forth with my meal planning tendencies, but while reading a e-book on simplifying life the other day I was reminded of just how much pizza and spaghetti we've eaten in the last few months, and I decided I was fed up with it. Something had to give. I've maintained a tight grocery budget of $300 a month for the past 4 years, but just in the past two months my ravenous toddler has helped bump up that number. And while pasta is a cheap meal, I felt like if I meal planned I could manage to save money still, while increasing our variety.
The trick I'm faced with this time is 'how'. How long do I plan for? One week at a time? A month at a time? Do I keep it a rigid schedule? Do I dare repeat meals in a month?
Some tips I'd heard ranged from using Google Calendar to plan a rigid schedule that would email you reminders daily about what you were to prepare that day, and planning two weeks of meals and then just repeating the same two weeks until you decide to change the whole menu again.
Neither of those really rang true for me.
First off, part of the reason I'm so successful at being cheap with groceries (you may choose to call it 'cost conscious' but really, it's just cheap) is that I shop the flyers every Thursday. I can't bring myself to set foot in a grocery store without having first checked to see what's on sale, and where. So my maximum planning time will be one week at a time, and that way I can determine if we'll be having turkey meatloaf or not, depending on whether ground turkey's on sale.
Secondly, sometimes it just doesn't work to put in the time you had anticipated spending on making supper. Maybe the baby is super fussy and you just plain won't have a chance to stand over the stove making crepes for half an hour straight. Or maybe the kids made an epic mess and you just need to throw something in the oven so you can deal with the rest of the house before hubby gets home. One friend on Facebook offered up a brilliant suggestion: make your list, but don't be rigid with the days those meals will fall on necessarily. Write all of the menus on a chalkboard, maybe in a loose schedule, but if the day is crazy, take a glance at the chalkboard and choose the meal that will be most do-able that day. You'll already have all the ingredients on hand, so changing up the meal midday won't throw you through any serious loops.
Lastly, while I may be able to bring myself to occasionally repeating a meal in a month, I can't limit our household to 14 meals in one 30-day period. So as I plan week by week, I'll make sure I feel free to choose repeat meals, but I won't just hit the 'repeat' button en masse and play through the same meals we just had two weeks ago. That's not enough variety for me.

Once I had resolved to meal plan, it was already a couple days into the week and I had no intention of going grocery shopping until the end of the week, so I simply planned based on what I had in the house. And what did we eat? Balsamic Chicken the first night, then homemade chili and cornbread, tonight is Chicken Souvlaki Crepes and tomorrow will be Barbequed ribs. And while making crepes for supper might seem labour intensive, I had enough of a heads up that I prepped all the veggies and fixings while I was waiting for eggs to cook for the boys at lunch time, and the chicken is thawed, marinating, and waiting to go on the grill, so having to ONLY make crepes for my supper preparation at 4:30? Not a bad deal.

Meal planning is worth it - very much so. It makes complicated meals seem much more doable on a regular weekday, it makes for less waste, less frantic Pinterest searches at 4:30 in the afternoon, and will certainly make for less spaghetti in our household. And after the last few months, that last point is reason enough for me to recommit myself to meal planning.

Mrs. VanderLeek ;)

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