Meal Planning and Preparation

by Judith Bettinger

I really enjoy cooking, and I prepare virtually every meal my family eats from scratch, both for economic and nutritional reasons. Nonetheless, the daily grind of coming up with meals can be tedious, even if I had all the time in the world. And it's virtually impossible to be creative if you have a 3-year-old clinging to your leg, begging for sustenance! So what follows are some tips for managing meal preparation and planning. Most of these tips are things that have evolved from my own experience; interestingly, they also coincide with some of the recommendations that Deneice Schofield makes in her books.

I hope these methods give you some new ideas; using them, I keep our grocery bill down to somewhere around $35.00/week for two adults and a child, without spending an inordinate amount of time.

1. Plan Plan Plan

The most important part of managing meal preparation is to plan ahead. Once every week, I sit down and plan the week's meals.

I consider:

  • any leftovers that need using up (I clean the fridge out weekly, so as to keep tabs on what may be "coming due")
  • what's in the freezer
  • what's in the garden
  • what's on sale this week
  • ny events that our family has coming up.

I try to shoot for a balance across the week; we generally eat one or two chicken meals, one with beef, and the rest are meatless. Friday is usually "smorgasbord (read "leftovers") night. Generally, I only plan main dishes; I can fill in vegetables and breads on the fly. I write the menu on a magnetic write-on/wipe- off board that I put on the refrigerator. For each day, I note:

  • the name of the entree
  • the cookbook and page number for the recipe, if applicable
  • any pre-preparation that needs to be done for the following day's meals, such as thawing meat or soaking beans.

Planning saves MUCH more time than it takes; I can plan a week's menus in 15 or 20 minutes. Moreover, it saves a ton of stress!

2. Shopping

I keep two grocery lists posted on the fridge: the regular weekly list, which is mostly for perishable items, and the Costco list, for bulk items and staples. I add to the perishable grocery list as I plan menus, including any items that I'll need for the week's entrees. Generally, these tend to be odds and ends like mushrooms, rather than the main ingredients, which I buy on sale and in bulk. As I start to get to the bottom of staples such as flour and brown rice, I'll add them to the Costco list. When that list gets long enough, I sigh deeply and head to Costco.

I do the weekly shopping early every Saturday morning. I'm a morning person, so I do mean EARLY; I'm usually walking into the store at around 7:00 am. There are several advantages to this. First, the store isn't crowded at that hour. (If I try to shop after work during the week, or later in the day on Saturday, our local store is often so crowded that I can't even find a place to park, so you can imagine what it's like inside!) Second, my daughter is still asleep, so I don't miss out on time with her while I'm shopping. Finally, the bargain meat and bakery bins seem to be filled sometime after midnight the night before, so the pickings there are really choice if I arrive early.

When I shop, I buy the odd perishables mentioned above. In addition, I stock up on loss leaders, both advertised and otherwise. Often, the supermarket sale prices beat Costco's price. An Amy-Dacyzyn- style price book helps me keep track of prices. The freezer is our friend; we have a large one down in the basement so I have room to store freezables as they go on sale, as well as the produce from our garden.

3. Other Time Savers

Taking lunches saves a lot of money, and also tends to be a healthier option. I keep a treasure trove of lunch-sized Rubbermaid containers that I fill with leftovers every night after dinner. Then, come morning, we just grab 'em, add a piece of fruit, and go. When I cook items that freeze well, like soup, chili, spaghetti sauce, and pizza dough, I'll usually make a double, or even a triple batch, then freeze a meal's worth. It comes in really handy on nights that we have an event to attend or if I don't feel like cooking; I put it in the fridge the night before, and then all we have to do is heat it up in the microwave.

4. Managing The Garden

Our biggest money saver is undoubtedly our garden; it pays for itself just in the cost of dill pickles. (My husband and daughter consider these to be a food group, and have you priced them lately? It's absurd, considering how easy they are to make!) Through trial and error, we've figured out what grows well in our garden, and when. To save space, we tend to stick with easy-to- grow basics like beans, tomatoes, squash, and the like. We don't grow things like onions that drop in price about the same time that our own crop would be coming in. We really get two harvests: one in the spring, for things like lettuce, radishes, and peas, and one in the fall, for the hot-weather crops. We grow almost everything by direct-seeding outdoors, although I do start tomatoes indoors in about March.

For the most part, I freeze what we grow, as that's the fastest way to deal with the vegetables as they come in. Plus, it can be done as things ripen or mature. I make our own jams from the strawberries, grapes and raspberries we grow; I freeze the berries, and then make jam sometime in February when our unairconditioned kitchen is bearable. I do can a few things like meatless spaghetti sauce, tomatoes, and pickles. I've scarcely had to buy any canning jars, because once word got out that I can, friends and relations gave me boatloads. The jars from Classico spaghetti sauce, for example, work beautifully.

Gardening has been a particularly satisfying way to reduce our food bill; it's something we can all do together, the results are far superior to purchased produce, and it really gives us a feeling of accomplishment. Even if you only have a little, space, give it a try!

Judith has provided a series of housecleaning tips. She features a 'common-sense' approach to getting the job done.

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