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!)