Sunday, May 25, 2014

How To Create a Meal Plan in Five Simple Steps

MEALS SHOWN IN IMAGE: Ramen with Swordfish, Chickpea Power Salad, Vegetarian Curry, Roasted Brats and Squash
I have been meal planning for a few years now, and recently have had some great results in fulfilling my food philosophy. As the poster states on the left: Food; buy it with thought, cook it with care, use less wheat and meat, buy local foods, serve just enough, use what is left, don't waste it. Although this poster was created in the early 1900s to promote food rationing, I personally really like it for the modern person to be conscious about their personal food consumption. I would say this is my general food philosophy.
In line with those statements, I have been developing a way to create my meal plans effectively, without waste, while saving money. My previous posts (1 & 2) describe ideas that will help you save money. So if you haven't yet, read those first because they contain ideas that are more general with what to look for while shopping. This post is more specific. It demonstrates what I do when I actually sit down with a pen and notebook, how I choose the meals and how to keep it simple. After coming up with this method, I ran it by my spouse. I don't know about you but meal planning is a lot of work, and it's nice to get feedback from the people you're feeding or cooking alongside. Running the categories by him, allows me more freedom while making the menu so I don't feel like I have to explain why we're eating whatever meal on whatever particular evening. This might just be me and my social dynamic, and however you function in your family might be totally different. The point of mentioning it is because as well as food being important, to me it is also important to be on equal grounds with your spouse (or whoever you're cooking for and with). Some have said food equals love, but delving a little deeper into that concept I would think you would have to lay groundwork first to have a trusting, loving relationship. On top of that foundation, you can express that love through food. So get talking about your philosophy regarding food and then create your meal plan strategy.

First. What food groups/ethnicities/types of meals do you and your family like the most? Billy and I like Mexican, Asian, Vegetarian, Meat and Vegetable, Other Ethnicity. So after establishing those categories count up to five or seven. Depending on how many nights a week you cook. We cook at home about five to six nights a week and plan accordingly.
My categories are: Mexican/Spanish, Asian/Indian, Other ethnicity/American, Salad, Soup, Cheap/Easy option.

Second. What are your health goals? Ours are to to not eat meals with refined grains, or said easier, Gluten Free (aside from baking), about three meals a week are to be vegetarian (the reasons: health/financial/ethical), eat salad or a meal mainly composed of dark leafy greens. So after establishing #1 with your food groups, you can refine it further by deciding which one of the categories best translate into your #2 goals.
My goals are: Gluten Free, Three Vegetarian, Two or Three Meat dishes, One Salad or Green-Based

Third. Putting it all together. After examining your categories and your health goals you can pull out your cook books, pinterest food board, or wherever you get your sources for recipes.

I still create the layout on my page the same. One line down the center, and a line towards the bottom to separate the list of groceries from the meals planned for the week. I keep the sections on my page the same week after week. Produce upper left corner. Fridge section of the store upper right corner. Make your sections how you like to walk through the grocery store. Sometimes I like to shop at two different places, so circle the items you need to remember to pick up from the secondary store.
Go through your fridge and pantry. What staples do you need. What snacks/extras do you need. I like to keep my notebook in the kitchen during the week so if I run out of some staple, I write it down right away so I don't forget to pick it up at the store.

Fourth. Using up ingredients. For creating meals I start with my first category and work my way down the list. Look at your recipes and see what stands out to you. After deciding on your first meal, examine if you will use every ingredient in that meal or if any ingredient can be used again in a second meal. If so keep that ingredient in mind. Keep working your way down the list, the first two even first three meals you decide on probably won't have anything in common. And that's okay. When you work your way down the list and get to the last days of the week, go back and start examining what ingredients are left over, what you might have in your freezer or pantry to work with. This is where your creativity comes in and budget saving techniques. 

Fifth. One last technique. This step is completely optional. I like to stay on a budget so this is just one little trick I implement. I will leave a couple meals where the meat is interchangeable. Even title a meal just "meat and vegetable" so that I can choose at the meat counter what meat is on sale and go from there. I will pick out two or three cuts of meat, visually look at my meal plan and there on the spot decide what would fit well. 

Oh and I did mention in the first step that I have a category called Cheap/Easy. This is a budget saver. Usually it's a brown-rice pasta dish, GF grilled cheese, stir fry with leftover vegetables, or soup. This category is nice and flexible because some weeks we desperately need to fit in one more meal, or some weeks we get asked out to dinner or someone's house, and this meal can be disregarded without wasting fresh ingredients. It's usually items kept easily in the pantry or freezer.

Hope this helps. Happy planning!

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