Tuesday, April 24, 2012

To Meal Plan or Not To Meal Plan

Trying to figure out what to make for supper each evening actually keeps me lying awake in bed at night.  Really.  I lie there, thinking about what Craig will like, what we have already eaten recently, as he is a real stickler for not repeating meals too closely in succession, what Susannah will eat, and what our picky, stubborn, unwilling-to-try-anything-new-or-green James will possibly consume.  Flashes of what I have in the fridge and pantry and what various combinations they can work together to become dance in a whirlwind through my mind, and it takes me a while to figure it out.  This is why I really need to meal plan, and I like planning my meals.

When I recently read this post at Frugally Sustainable (a great blog!), it made me wonder about what exactly people do when they plan meals.  Her three reasons against meal planning included (1) it costs more, (2) more food is wasted, and (3) the inflexible nature of the meal planning can be stressful.  Her point was that rather than planning meals, we should keep stocked pantries and use what we have on hand for meal preparation.  I liked the post but it really made me blink; none of those points seemed to gel with my experience of meal planning at all, but it seemed to really resonate with other readers.  So I think I need to clarify why, while I agree with the pantry stocking, I disagree with the meal planning points.

1) It doesn't cost more.  Well, it shouldn't.  If you are randomly picking out fancy recipe ideas from within the pages of the newest Martha Stewart Living, and they require lemongrass and tandoori masala and cardamom pods and those three ingredients don't happen to be in your pantry at the precise moment (actually I have everything but the lemongrass so obviously my imagination isn't very far-reaching tonight!), then you're going to go out and spend more on groceries than if you were just buying your regular basics.  But that is not how I do things.  Instead, I:

  • pore over the flyers and write down the best deals on everything from meat to pasta to celery to cheese from all the local grocery stores
  • assess what I have in my pantry and fridge, which includes things I bought multiples of the last time they were on a good sale (such as whole wheat pastas, seeds, canned salmon, carrots,  onions, cheddar, etc.) and what I bought in bulk the last time we were at CostCo (e.g. 10 kg bags of flour, 6-pack cases of passata, 1 L jugs of maple syrup, 1 kg bags of nuts, dried herbs, etc.)
  • sit down and figure out what I can make from a combination of what I already have on hand and what is on sale. I try very hard not to buy things that aren't on sale.  And then I write out a tentative schedule of suppers for the next 7-10 days, based on what I came up with from these options.  The end result?  Our grocery bill goes way down.

2) Waste?  What waste?  OK, not absolutely everything that I prepare gets eaten to the last morsel with plates licked clean.  Just check under the high chair after supper is over.  But honestly, we really don't waste much food anymore.  If I make meals like casseroles or things that don't freeze well, Craig takes the majority of our leftovers to work for his lunch.  If I make a meal that does freeze well, then I try to make two (or more) meals at the same time, and eat one, and freeze the other.  That way, if we don't feel like having spaghetti again tomorrow, we have another quick-to-prepare meal waiting in the freezer.  Freezer stocking isn't just for pre-natal planning, you know!  Additionally, I try to turn whatever we had into something else.  Here is an example:

Tuesday, April 17th:  Rosalyn cooks a 3 1/2 pound chicken (about $6.57) in the slow cooker.  We have chicken dinner that night (with extra gravy thawed from the freezer where it was stored after a previous chicken dinner).

Note: this is not my photo, but my chicken DID look like this!
Wednesday, April 18th: Rosalyn (who put the bones, skin, and less choice bits back in the slow cooker with veggies and water and delicious herbs to simmer for 12 hours overnight to make a great chicken stock) makes homemade chicken soup for supper, served with toasted slices of homemade bread and pieces of cheddar.  Not fancy, but yummy.  It made enough to serve all of us one supper, put another supper's worth of soup in the freezer, and two small individual lunch-sized containers, one in the freezer and one in the fridge, for Craig to take to work the next day.  So two family suppers, and two one-person lunches.

Here's Craig's lunch.  OK, you can't really see the soup very well, but I took it after I made it because I wasn't planning on writing about this!
Thursday, April 19th: Rosalyn uses the very last of the cut up chicken meat to make quesadillas, served with Mexican rice on the side.  Side note: quesadilla technique needs work.  However, it was another quick, easy meal made with leftovers, and there were plenty of quesadillas so Craig took the last two "wedges" as an accompaniment to his lunch the next day.

Quesadilla and Mexican rice with sour cream, forgive the less than photogenic serving.
So first of all, I stretched a 3 1/2 pound chicken to cover four supper meals, plus a couple of lunches for Craig.  Obviously, it can go that far when the children are still very little and eat negligible amounts of it at this point, but still.  It's not impossible that a larger family (or one with larger children) couldn't make a larger chicken go just as far.  Second, not once, in the planning or preparation of those three meals did I have to run to the store to buy anything.  I used things in my pantry and fridge.  None of the chicken was wasted, and nothing extra needed to be purchased.  Expensive?  No.  Wasteful?  No.

3) Stressful? Not for me!  So this will totally depend on your personality.  I have always been a planner, so of course planning doesn't cause me any undue stress.  But even if that's not really your personality, if you are juggling children, housework, cooking, gardening, dog-walking, working outside the home, grocery shopping, studying, library-book returning, or any combination of various and sundry tasks, then I don't really think it matters if you are the strictest, most obsessive planner on the planet or a free-spirited whimsical fairy of spontaneity.  Meal planning will help you survive. 

You are not carving the meals in stone, like the ten commandments.  No one is going to criticize you if you switch Sunday and Thursday meals because you decided to do some shopping, or drive to the beach, or relax on the sofa with a chai latte while the house imploded around you.  I would wager that, if your household is anything like mine, no one even knows what you planned for the week's meals, if they know you meal plan at all.  It is one of those little details they don't have to worry about, because you take on that agony joyful task with a light heart and unbridled enthusiasm for the good of your family.  It's still flexible.  You can look at the list and mentally change the places of things.  What it gives you is the peace of mind that you know what you have in the house, you know what you're going to do with it, and you don't have to come up with anything at the last minute while your fourteen-month-old screams at you from her high chair because the potatoes haven't boiled yet.  In the case of the chicken, yes, I did plan ahead and I did stick to the schedule, because I didn't want to freeze any (this time.  Last time, I froze extras and then later mixed them, and broccoli, in with homemade mac and cheese. Yum.).  If you decide you don't want to deal with the leftovers now, freeze them!  You'll be glad later that you did.

The verdict?

So yes, by all means keep your pantry stocked with items that go on sale that you know that you will use (don't stock it with 59 cent cases of canned mushrooms when nobody in your family will eat them).  A stocked pantry means you have most of what you need, when you need it.  Flyer shopping will help you get the best deals and cut down on your grocery bills.  And meal planning will keep you sane, and save you money at the same time.


  1. I really need to start meal planning more, I think. Good tips Rosie!

  2. If I don't meal plan, our grocery bills are through the roof! I need a list when I grocery shop, and in order for my list to actually contain actual meal components, I NEED to meal plan. I tend to do mine 2 weeks at a time. It also works well for our family because I can schedule nights in that I won't be home to make supper because of a night shift. Those nights I either make sure there is something easy, like a frozen pizza, or leftovers from the day before for Bobby. Wyatt spends about half of the nights of the week at Mom and Dad's house because of early mornings and night shifts, so I also factor that stuff into the meal plan. On the nights we don't have Wyatt with us, we can have tacos or something else that he won't eat.

  3. Very interesting. I tend to not plan ahead very well. Of course our routine is different because Dan will be gone for 2 to 4 days at a time. Any leftovers get made up into frozen meals he can heat on the road. The main thing I seem to buy these days is meat. That and a lot of little items. Always plenty of grains and veggies in the pantry though. Plus we eat eggs daily!

    1. Yes, I hope that with an increase in garden production (hopefully) this year, most of our purchases will be meat, dairy and things that I don't really want to try to make at home, like Worcestershire sauce, for example. :) I can't wait until we get our chickens! We eat loads of eggs too, and I do a lot of baking with them.

  4. I agree with all of this. I like to try at last one new recipe every month or every 2 weeks. But besides that I have the basics for all of our favorites . I like to only go to the market once a month, and then supplement all of the fresh goodies from our garden for the rest. I find it gives me much more time at home to spend with my family instead of driving all the way into town once a week to shop.

    1. Thank you for your comment! Yes I also try to try a new recipe every month or so, just to keep things interesting. It's amazing that you can get through a whole month with just one trip to the store, hopefully one day I'll be in a similar position!

  5. IVisiting from the Barn Hope. I, too, read that post on Frugally Sustainable. I agree more with your idea. I keep a well stocked pantry of grains, pastas, spices, canned goods, and so on and just go to the store for meat, dairy, and (when it's not gardening season), produce.

    I also just plan 7-10 meals but don't go so far as to name a date for each. And you have to be flexible. Last night was supposed to be spaghetti with fresh tomato chunks. But darnit, when I came home from work, all I could think was "tacos, tacos, tacos".

    Since I keep a great spice cabinet, and I keep both taco shells and spaghetti pasta in my pantry, making a last minute switch to soothe a craving was no big thing - - and no waste/spoilage since the beef and fresh tomatoes were used either way.

    1. Thanks Jill! Yes, I absolutely agree about keeping it flexible. You never know when you'll get a taco craving! :)


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