Friday, November 25, 2011

Meal Planning Basics -- Part One

Meal planning used to be my Mt Everest.  I always wanted to climb to the summit and see that beautiful view that everyone who has been there before me can’t stop talking about.  I planned and trained for the climb but every time I started the journey, I hit a slick patch that would send me crashing right back down.  I dusted myself off and started climbing back up too many times too count, but eventually the equipment and provisions were just too expensive to justify repeating the failure week after week.

That night I found my new attitude, I decided that tackling my Mt Everest was where I was going to start my quest to become a successful SAHM.  I was going to master meal planning once and for all.
But where to start?  Someone wise once told me: “Always start where you are right now.”  So I did two things
1)      I inventoried my pantry, fridge, and freezer.
2)      I compile a list of meals that I already know my family loves.

Next I decided how long I was going to meal plan and how much I had to spend.  I came up with two weeks and $150.  My goal was to spend about $100 of this on the first trip, leaving about $50 for fresh produce and anything else needed in the second week.

*Note: Ever household does this differently.  My budget is based on meals for myself, a preschooler, and a toddler with wiggle room for when my husband is home (1-2 days/week).  I do not plan breakfasts and lunches as we tend to eat leftovers and very basic “staple” items.  This food is included in the budget, just not the meal plan.  Also, we are WIC recipients.  If we weren’t, the cheese, bread and milk would cost us about $50/week more than what I already budget. 

Once you have your basics to work from, it’s time to sit down and start building your plan.  In my case I sit down with a pen and a piece of paper and consult two things:
1)      The calendar. – What things do we have coming up during these two weeks?  Are there nights we won’t be home or busy nights where something quick is a must?
2)      My family. – It’s important that those eating from the plan have at least a bit of say in what goes on it.  This saves you from a lot of last minute changes or flops.

The conclusions I came to after these consultations were that we only had one busy night, but Thanksgiving falls right at the end of these two weeks.  My munchkins are really too young to get much say but I do of course take into account general likes/dislikes and dietary needs.  My husband had a few suggestions but overall won’t be home much.  (I’ll admit, in this realm it makes me happy, he can be kind of picky!)

Now you make your plan!  On a plain piece of paper, write out about ten meal ideas and make sure to leave space in between them.  Ten meals for two weeks is a number that works for us.  It leaves four days for leftovers (we plan one night about every three days for this) and at worst we end up with one meal that doesn't get made and I just transfer it to the next meal plan. 
My next step is to go back and list the main ingredients under each meal and decide on sides I want to serve.  I don’t list spices I know I have and things like milk and butter unless it calls for a large amount.  Then it’s off to the kitchen where I check to see which of these ingredients I already have.  I also use this scan as a chance to note pantry items that are low and any other things that need to go on the list (like Oreos!).

List making time!  I found a handy-dandy template on Microsoft Word that I use to keep my list organized.  I keep it as a short cut on my desktop so that I can add things during the week as I run out.  Having everything lined out by aisle makes the actual grocery shopping so much less stressful.  As I add my items to the template I make sure to not quantity and size if necessary.  Ready for proof of how nerdy I am?  I actually put a price estimate at the top of each category.  While this may seem extreme, I strongly suggest at least coming up with an overall estimate to measure by.

So you have a plan and a list, now what?  Grocery shopping day!  Gather your supplies: list, pen, reusable shopping bags…and hit the road!  Did you notice something’s missing?  Coupons.  Yeah, I hardly use them.  I find that they don’t make them for the majority if items we use, and if they do, it’s still cheaper to buy the store brand.  We shop at a commissary, so my savings because of no sales tax and general pricing are quite comparable.  I do search for coupons if I’m going to be buying things like yogurt of coffee creamer and I know they should be easy to find. 

As you go around dropping things in your card and crossing them off your list, pay attention to the prices.  There is no reason to be surprised by your total at the checkout.  Compare the prices of like items and don’t overlook the helpful corner on the price tag that lists price per unit!  As you cross the item off your list, jot down how much it was.  (I round to the next dollar to account for sales tax when shopping off-base.)  When I finish each section of the list, I add them up and keep a running total.  Also, if you must pick up something not on your list make sure you write it down with the price.  This keeps you accountable and helps you determine if you are overspending because of this, or overlooking something when making your list.

You’ve got the plan and supplies; this is where you reach that slick patch that I was telling you about it.  We’ll go over that soon!

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