Meal planning has always seemed like drudgery to me. But once my kids arrived, I realized that if I didn’t have a plan, I would be missing key ingredients and wouldn’t have the energy to go back to the store. And as I studied other moms, I saw that the only ones who were actually cooking were the ones who had a game plan each week. If I wanted to create simple, healthy meals in a hurry, I knew I had to get serious about meal planning. Once I started, I couldn’t stop. It saved us a ton of money, and I was no longer throwing away food at the end of the week. Also, knowing that I can come home and have what I need to make dinner has created a sense of calm for me. Here’s what I do:
1. Make a chart that has a spot for every meal you’ll be cooking at home for the week.
2. Flip through the cookbook and find all the recipes you’d like to make for the week. I like to change it up a bit, choosing maybe a fish recipe, a few starch or vegetarian- based recipes, a chicken recipe, and usually a beef recipe. Then I look at which lunches and breakfasts we’ll need, and I add those to my menu plan. Tip: Look at your dinner recipes and see if any of them could provideleftoveringredientsforlunches or breakfasts. For example, take the leftovers from Simplest Roast Chicken Ever and toss them into your Crunchy Chinese Chicken Salad with Wonton Chips for lunch, or wrap them in the Chicken Soft Tacos.
3. Make your shopping list.
4. Check against your budget and adjust the recipes as needed.
The challenge I made to myself and all my friends in 2008 was this: that I could buy enough food for 20 meals a week, snacks, and a few moderately priced bottles of wine or decadent items for $200. The other kicker was that I had to be able to shop at my favorite Whole Foods Market because I wanted to buy organics as much as possible. No one believed I could do it, so the challenge was on! I learned that if I took 20 minutes to plan meals, make my list, and budget, I could save $50 to $100 a week in the store and consistently spend about $200 a week. (Believe me, when you have a website telling people this is how you live, they are watching over your shoulder at the grocery store. (I can literally get my bill within a buck or two of $200 every time.) Here’s how:
1. After I make my shopping list, I write in an approximate price next to each item. Yes,thisdoestakepractice,butifyou notice the prices of items the next time you go to the store, you can commit them to memory. First focus on the common things you buy: milk, eggs, cheese, produce, meat, chicken...you’ll be amazed.
2. Tally up your totals at the bottom of your shopping list. If it’s a lot more than you budgeted, change out a few of the recipes for ones that don’t require expensive cuts of meat, fish, or poultry. Fresh produce, beans, legumes, and pasta recipes always seem to bring down the cost. Also, seasonal produce is less expensive than out-of-season produce. (As you continue to plan menus, you’ll naturally get a better feel for balancing your weekly menus with recipes that are more expensive and less expensive.)
3. Practice makes perfect. The more you shop and pay attention to prices, the easier it will be. I know how much my favorite cuts of meat cost, so it’s easy to budget those recipes in advance. And if you always shop at the same store, it’s even easier.
Grocery Shopping List
I never used to go to the store with a list, and I’d walk out having spent a few hundred dollars with nothing to show for it. That all changed when the economy tanked, and I had to take a hard look at my spending. I realized I was throwing out $40 to $50 worth of food every week because I hadn’t planned how to use it. Once I started menu planning, I devised a little map of my grocery store and turned that into my list. Your store is, of course, different from mine, so you can make your list to match your store, but you get the gist. Here’s what I do:
1. I compile the recipes I’ve chosen for the week (or go to my site and do it).
2. I fill in my ingredients from the shopping list according to those recipes. If I’m not sure if I have something, I write it on my list and put a question mark next to it.
3. I fill in extras: wine, chocolate, household goods, etc.
4. I double-check to see if I already have any of the items in question. If so, I mark them off (things like olive oil, salt, pepper, and spices often get crossed off the list).
5. Go shop. I have two approaches: buy everything for my recipes, along with snacks and a big heap of fruits and veggies, at once and be done with it. Then I cook the recipes that call for perishable items first. The other option is to go twice a week: once for the main staples, and a second time for perishable things like fish or extra fruits and vegetables for snacking.
If your kids are used to eating frozen foods or calling the shots for dinner every night, the idea of getting them to eat what you eat probably sounds terrifying. It won’t happen overnight, but here are my tips to get your entire family to eat the same meal:
1. Start slowly. Click through these Family Cooking galleries and find five recipes you think they’ll try based on ingredients you know they’ll eat. Good ones to start with are recipes that allow them to have some control (i.e. they can make their own burritos, top their tacos, etc.). Giving them some control is half the challenge. Once you’ve found a few recipes they like, start to play off those.
2. Only offer great choices (remove the bad ones). If you’re offering sweet potatoes, chicken, and a crunchy romaine salad one night, it’s OK if they only eat one or two of them (they’re all good choices). This is a hard concept for some parents to grasp. “What if they don’t eat?” they ask. When you remove the bad choices, children tend to gravitate toward better ones. If you’re looking to change habits, keeping the old foods around will only make it more difficult. And if you’re really desperate, turn to chicken tenders, tacos, or pizza.
3. Don’t worry if they don’t eat everything on their plates. Again, if you’re only offering them good choices to start with, they’ll find a balance throughout the week. Given time, most hungry kids will pick one thing and eat it up. But if you throw the chicken nuggets back in as a choice the second they turn up their noses, watch out.
4. My dinner table is not a battleground. My son doesn’t want to eat his pesto tonight? Oh well. I am convinced that many children are simply trying to assert their independence when turning down foods, so I try not to panic when they reject them. It’s like paying attention to a tantrum—the more attention you give it, the bigger deal it becomes. If I’ve served them three nutritious items, I’m OK if they ignore one of them (with the exception of rule 5 below). And if they excuse themselves from the table and say they’re hungry an hour later, they get to choose from the same things.
5. Try the “no thanks” bite. Sometimes I like to try things I know my kids don’t care for because I want them. So I tell them they can have a “no thanks” bite. If they try one bite and don’t like it, they don’t have to eat any more. Here’s the interesting part—children might try something up to a dozen times before deciding whether they like it or not. By not making a big deal out of a rejection and reintroducing the food later, you increase the chance they’ll change their minds.
6. Eat real foods. If you’re cooking with fresh ingredients, your entire family will feel better.
7. Get cooking, and then get them cooking with you. Again, so many of our childrens’ food choices come down to their need to feel in control. Asking them to choose what they’d like to make for dinner, and then allowing them to help cook it is empowering. I always get much better buy-in when my children play a part in preparing the meal.
8. Commit to sitting down together a few nights a week. People hear that we do this nightly and think we’re crazy. It’s the one thing we’ve always committed to do as parents. Just like anything new, it takes practice to make it a priority. Once you do, you may be surprised at what a nice part of your day it becomes.
9. Try your best. If you’re a family who’s used to fast food or plain pasta, miracles won’t happen immediately. Finding even three or four meals that your whole family will agree on can make a world of differ- ence to your health. Good luck, and enjoy!