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The Frugal Olympics 3rd Event: Meal Planning - Live Like a Mensch
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Live Like a Mensch

The Frugal Olympics 3rd Event: Meal Planning

Of all the frugal Olympics events, I feel meal planning is the only one in which I could be considered a true contender for a medal. I have been doing meal planning for about five years, and I've gotten my technique down to a wonderfully imprecise art.

Basically, once a week I sit down with my meal planner, several of my favorite cookbooks, our iPad (for looking up other recipes), and my grocery shopping list:

Using whatever we already have in the fridge, freezer, and pantry as a guide, I start planning our dinners for the week. (While there are several frugal Olympians out there who also plan out breakfasts, lunches, and snacks, I find that a little too constricting.) Then, I simply plan out which days we will have what dinners, and highlight whatever ingredients we need that we don't already have. Then, with list in hand, I go to the grocery store (where I invariably forget at least one item, despite having the list).

Meal planning is deceptively simple. Yes, all you have to do is plan what you'll eat and buy the corresponding ingredients. But there are any number of pitfalls that are very easy to fall into. Here are several that I have learned from:

1. Don't forget to consult your weekly calendar when you make your meal plans! There have been weekdays when J has to work late or I have a late meeting and I've planned to make something out of the Moosewood Cookbook (Subtitled: Delicious Vegetarian Recipes That Take Longer Than a TransAtlantic Flight to Complete). So take the time to figure out which nights you'll be crunched and which nights you can take the time to make a leisurely meal--and PAY ATTENTION to the cooking time information provided on the recipes. 

(Side note: I'll never forget the first [and only] time I ever made a risotto. I didn't realize that this recipe was so labor-intensive, and the recipe didn't specifically tell you the full cooking time--I had to read through and add up the times listed. So, I got started making the risotto around 6 p.m. J got home about a half hour later and I was still stirring. He changed his clothes, played a video game, and wandered into the kitchen, wondering when dinner would be ready. I was still stirring. At about 7:30, I proudly told him to come get the mushroom risotto I'd made. He came and said, "All that work for gray mush?" I decided then and there never to make risotto again. It was tasty, though.)

2. Don't plan on more than one experimental recipe per week. Whenever I've decided to try something new, it's always taken a couple of days for me to work up the enthusiasm necessary to tackle it. Because dinner is often a rushed affair, it's a lot easier to know that you're making an old standby that you barely have to think about. That's not the time to tackle slicing up the pufferfish correctly to ensure that no one is poisoned.

3. Stay flexible. One common meal planning suggestion is to have a "theme" for each day: ground beef on Monday, crock pot on Tuesday, etc. This may work for other meal planners, but I find I can't stick to those sorts of themes/plans. So I simply plan out six meals for the week (I always assume there will be at least one night when our dinner plans change somehow--either I don't feel like cooking and make something out of the freezer or we get invited to a friend's house for supper or the like). My only hard-and-fast rules are that I need to make any meals with easily spoiled ingredients early in the week, and that I make something special for dinner on Friday night for Shabbat.

4. Check your meal plan first in the morning the day of. I used to keep my meal plan in my head (as well as written down, of course), and so I'd think I could remember to defrost chicken for dinner. And of course, I couldn't, and I'd find myself covered in minor flesh wounds as a consequence of attempting to cut up icy chicken. Just check your plan and save your skin!

Meal planning means I actually think about the food we have and what we need, and I get to try out new recipes all the time. I never get too deeply into a dinner rut because I can add new ideas every week and revist some old favorites that I'd otherwise forget about. Basically, meal planning is the cat's pajamas.

 

Readers, it's your turn to compete! Tell me in the comments about how you do your meal planning. One lucky Olympian who comments on any of the four frugal Olympics posts will be entered to win a signed and personalized copy of my new book, The Five Years Before You Retire.

You may enter up to four times (once per event), and I will pick a winner randomly on February 28 March 7. (Changed to reflect the fact that I am totally behind!)

Comments

 

Gary said:

Don't miss this opportunity to get Emily's book. It's so good that if you don't win a copy, you'll want to buy one!

February 25, 2014 7:35 AM
 

haverwench said:

Sorry, I just don't qualify to enter this event. In our house, meal "planning" is my husband coming home from work and asking, "What do you want to have for dinner tonight?" We used to plan out our weekly shopping trips with specific meals in mind, but we both had trouble figuring out a whole week ahead of time what we'd want to eat on a given night. So many factors can affect the decision—weather, available time, mood—and those can change with less than a week's notice. So now we just make sure to keep our pantry well stocked with the staples we use all the time, and then when we go to buy produce, we buy whatever looks good and/or cheap and let that steer the direction of our meals.

The only downside of this system is that we're less likely to try new recipes because when picking out produce, we tend to think of using it only in recipes we know. But if we happen to come across a new dish we want to try, we can just leave the recipe out on the table and add the ingredients for it to the shopping list, and we'll be sure to work it into the rotation some time during the week. My husband is the primary cook and he says that our current seat-of-the-pants system is a lot less stressful for him than having to plan out as a couple what we're going to eat for a whole week all at once, and the only real downside is that we occasionally come up blank and end up having scrambled eggs for dinner. Which I like, personally, so it doesn't bother me.

February 25, 2014 8:18 AM
 

Maggie Trudeau said:

I try to plan meals, but also generally end up with "things to make this week" like I said in the comment on the previous post.  Right now the list on my fridge says "eat up the chili and squash" because the chili and squash are getting past their prime.  I moved a few things to the freezer that weren't going to make the cut this week.  Hopefully they will show up in a soup on next week's meal plan.

February 25, 2014 11:59 AM
 

frugal_fun said:

I've tried and failed on the menu planning many times. I've become good at looking in the fridge about an hour and a half before meal times and coming up with something. Maybe someday before the kids are in college. :)

February 27, 2014 8:34 PM
 

cellomommy2 said:

I plan for a month in advance.  Definitely as low tech as you can get - I use a piece of notebook paper with the days of the week jotted down the side and what is the main course written next to each.   I have learned to do this in pencil.  To the left, I add any notes of side dishes that need to be used up or made in advance of the meal.  To the left I add any notes such as if it is a holiday or a birthday or having guests.  To the far right I add a note to defrost what is needed for the next day or during the week.  For instance, when I look at my plan, for today it says chicken curry.  Two days earlier was a note to defrost the chicken.  Yesterday I added to the plan to serve naan (freezer) and todayy I added strawberries (need to be eaten up).  I took rice out of the freezer this morning because I looked at the plan and knew I would need it tonight (leftover rice freezes and then defrost quite well in the microwave.   I always make a double batch.)

March 6, 2014 10:07 AM
 

Live Like a Mensch said:

Pictured: NOT Mr. Money Mustache, despite the facial hair The other day, I was perusing Mr. Money Mustache's

April 10, 2014 4:04 PM
 

Jenns4x4pu said:

We have a blended family of 6 (2 adults; 3 teens (plus a friend most nights); and a 7yo.  Husband is an on site general contractor and needs about 3000-3500 calories. Our budget for food, cleaning, hair & paper products is no more than $665/mo.  I make a menu so there is no whining about what's for dinner and make extra so the boys have snack after school. We have a large garden, can any produce we grow or get from family/friends, often people have an abundance of food from gardens  available for just harvesting or providing a small amount back processed, hunt birds/deer, and fish for trout & salmon. We buy fruit from the fruit stand. We both work full-time at our businesses but turn canning into a family project. Our 7yo daughter is almost as good at tending the garden as our 15yo son (he has been gardening with me since he was 5).  We make jams, salsa, vegetables, fruit syrups, pickles, apple sauce, and freeze wild blackberries, wild strawberries, wild blueberries, huckleberries, & salmon berries.

April 20, 2014 11:56 PM
 

Jenns4x4pu said:

We have a blended family of 6 (2 adults; 3 teens (plus a friend most nights); and a 7yo.  Husband is an on site general contractor and needs about 3000-3500 calories. Our budget for food, cleaning, hair & paper products is no more than $665/mo.  I make a menu so there is no whining about what's for dinner and make extra so the boys have snack after school. We have a large garden, can any produce we grow or get from family/friends, often people have an abundance of food from gardens  available for just harvesting or providing a small amount back processed, hunt birds/deer, and fish for trout & salmon. We buy fruit from the fruit stand. We both work full-time at our businesses but turn canning into a family project. Our 7yo daughter is almost as good at tending the garden as our 15yo son (he has been gardening with me since he was 5).  We make jams, salsa, vegetables, fruit syrups, pickles, apple sauce, and freeze wild blackberries, wild strawberries, wild blueberries, huckleberries, & salmon berries.

April 20, 2014 11:56 PM

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