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Real Food, for Real People, on a Real Budget

This post is part of the Real Food, for Real People, on a Real Budget series.  You can read more about the series here.

Today, we’re going to talk about something that strikes fear in the heart of many a busy kitchen cook – meal planning.

Dun, dun, dun!

Meal planning used to intimidate the shit out of me.  Ack, I would dread trying to figure out what we were going to eat that week.  What inevitably happened is that I would run to the store at the last minute, grab a bunch of crap that was quick to throw together, and blow my grocery budget in a matter of days.

It was exhausting.  And stupid.  And unhealthy.  And stressful.  And stupid.

Did I mention stupid?

Cause it was.

So, I realized there had to be a better way.  And there was.  But it took me some time to figure out my own way.  Hopefully all my hiccups and speed bumps can alleviate some of your stress.

Make a list
Take stock of what you guys eat.  Like REALLY eat. Make a list.  And if you’re like me, write “make meal list” at the top of said list.  Then check it off and bask in the immediate satisfaction of accomplishing something.

So this list.  It should be stuff that you guys enjoy.  Not what you think you should be eating.  If you ever look at my meal plans, you’ll see that we pretty much have a rotating schedule of about 20-30 meals.  Nothing really glamorous, and all are things I can make in my sleep with barely a glance at a recipe.  A few times a month, I’ll throw in a new recipe, or a new side, and see if it makes the “rolodex” of recipes.

I am guessing if you take an introspective look at your own family, chances are you all eat the same things over and over too.

Now, sit down with your list and study it a bit.  Have you noticed any themes?  What kind of proteins, starches, and veggies do you see reappearing over and over again?  Are there any ingredients that could be used in multiple meals, thereby reducing your budget and prep time?  For example, if I am making a dish that requires chopped veggies, I’ll think about making another recipe that week that would require the same chopped veggies.  Making crockpot soup that requires diced carrots, onions, and celery?  Sounds like something I could easily double and turn the extras in to Cashew Chicken or fried rice.

With items that you use over and over, are any of them shelf stable, freeze able, or cannable (that is a word, and not like cannibal like Blogger is trying to force on me)?  If so, would it make sense for you to stock up on that item the next time it is on sale?  You may have noticed from last week’s meal plan post, that I spent a whopping $115 on pastured chicken breasts.  Oh yes I did!  Why?  Because I use a lot of chicken breasts, and it was a pain in my ass to run to our local butcher every few weeks to stock up, especially considering that they only have so many boobies that they get each month.

Do you find yourself using a ton of diced tomatoes in recipes?  Do you know how to can?  If so, perhaps consider planting a big garden next summer, and learn to can your own.  Or if that isn’t your cup of tea, check out Costco and their organic diced tomatoes, or your local grocery store, or Amazon.  Having a pantry full of staples makes it easy to “shop” your cupboards for the week, or should your plans go tits up, you have plenty of back ups in place.

Plot out your next week on paper; are there days you have to work late?  Are there sports games you have to attend, or practices that you have to sit through?  Is that going to impact what, where, and how you eat your dinner?  If so, can prior planning help keep you out of the drive thru?  Let’s say you’re going to be home late on Monday.  Would putting ingredients in a crockpot that morning save you a lot of grief when you get home?  Is there something in the freezer that needs to be defrosted for a quick way to get a meal on the table?  I’m guessing that with enough foresight, you can think creatively and still provide your family with a healthy and nourishing meal.

Planning is so freaking important for me, that on Thursday, I plan my meal for the next week.  Well, I start planning on Thursday…some times I don’t finish up until right before I go grocery shopping on Saturday.  Thursday, I start texting or emailing with two friends, and we discuss potential meal ideas for the next week.  Some times I get great ideas, but I always get a huge laugh out of their responses like, “I don’t feel like cooking next week.  Therefore, my family won’t be eating”.

Give up the idea of perfection
You don’t have to cook fancy food every day of the week.  Give yourself permission to not cook anything “high brow” AT ALL if you don’t want to.  One of my favorite meals is tomato soup, grilled cheese or quesadillas, and salad.  You know how long that takes to put together?  15 minutes tops.  Will you find that meal in a high-end restaurant?  Likely not.  Does it satisfy your idea of a delicious, nourishing, quick, and budget-friendly meal?  You bet your ass it does.

If you love to try new recipes (like I do), save them for a weekend night.  It will give you time to play with the ingredients, and the space you need to make mistakes and adjustments.  Have you ever tried to create a well-balanced new meal for your family while they are hungry and whiny?  Besides wanting to throat punch my four year old for asking “when is dinner going to be ready” AGAIN, the meal no longer becomes enjoyable for me.  Don’t throat punch anyone in your house; save the fancy stuff for a night when you have time to dedicate your energy to it.

Also, I serve my family popcorn once a week.  For dinner.  Legitimately.  You know how easy that is?  You know how happy it makes everyone?  Popcorn dinner = winning.

Use the F word a lot
That wold be flexibility! I typically plot out what meals to make for each night, but occasionally I will change things up should the spirit move me.  Don’t feel like salmon cakes on a Tuesday?  That’s ok, cause I already prepped for teriyaki chicken.  I got this!

Prep day
A typical weekend will find me in the kitchen prepping for the week.  I take a a few hours if I can find them, and do my chopping, dicing, defrosting, and seasoning all at once.  The night of the actual meal, all I really have to do is throw things together and cook them.

My friend Elaina cooks all of her meals on the weekends.  She loves that, and it works for her family.  I’m not a huge fan of eating food a few days after it has been cooked, and I truly do love to create a little each night in the kitchen, so that is why I simply prep.

Whore yourself out
Set up a standing weekly or monthly swap with a friend, neighbor, or family member.  Pick someone who doesn’t expect your house to be clean, or to be served a four-course meal.  Pick someone who makes you laugh, and you enjoy sharing a meal with.  And then switch week after week so that at some point, you’re just enjoying the meal, and some times you are the one cooking it.

Screw breakfast and lunch
I typically eat the same thing for breakfast each morning.  I’ll fixate on something for a few months, and then move on to something else that is “omg the best thing ever, I could eat this every day for the rest of my life”…until one day I can’t.

Lunches for Troy and I are always leftovers from dinner the night before.  Jack (the four year old) is like his momma, in that he doesn’t mind eating similar things over and over.  He’ll usually request a PB&J (what I ate every day until I was 8, and to this day cannot even think about consuming myself), apples, and a few slices of cheese.  During the weekends, we’ll have a “picnic” lunch in the living room with sliced cheeses, sometimes meat, crackers, sliced fruit, and call it a day.

Fall backs
Have two or three go to meals you can make with your eyes closed if something happens to your plans.  Maybe you thought you defrosted the meat for dinner in the fridge, only to come home and realize that it was sitting on the counter in the sun all day. That happened to me about four weeks ago.  Stupid waste of expensive wild caught Alaskan cod.  That one made my butt hole pucker a bit.

So…I made a quick frittata.  It took me about 20 minutes, and was so delicious that I was almost able to forget about the $10 worth of meat I had to throw away.  Almost.  Ahem.

Ok, so I’ve shared a few of my meal planning tips; now I want to hear from you guys!  What are your tricks for crafting a plan for you and your family?  Or, if you’re anti-meal plan, what keeps you from making one? 

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18 comments on “Real Food, for Real People, on a Real Budget”

  1. My meal planning usually goes in three week rotations: week 1–where I am on fire, know what we will eat, plan it perfectly, and stick to it; week 2–where I try to get creative, screw up at least one day, and realize that I forgot to account for my husband’s desire to throw wrenches in my carefully crafted plans by wanting to eat something ridiculously off menu; week 3–where I am totally off book again and despite having tons of food in the house husband thinks “we need to go grocery shopping…there’s no food in the house.” Argh.

    Happens. Every. Time.

  2. I am great with the good intentions, but suck at actually following through. And I HAVE the time….
    I may try again though. You make it sound so easy! Plus, I still have my old plans on paper. I may have abandoned the plans, but I kept the pages!
    My kids used to LOVE when I did what you call a picnic. We called it ” a platter” (because I used one!) and I would put cold cuts, buns, crackers fruit pieces and anything else I could find to use up. I wonder if they would still like that…….. not that the oldest is ever home, they are 15 and 20 and best friends. (hahaha. I missed the “r” there! Best fiends works too though!)

    • What about getting your kids involved (when they are home)? Let each of them pick a meal for the next week. You know they’ll be happy, and it will make things easier on you!

    • I think getting them involved would cause more problems than it would solve! LOL
      They constantly put in requests, and I try to accommodate. I think the younger one would live off chicken fingers but they are a PITA to make (from scratch, not boxed) I tell her that if she wants them, she has to make them! Guess what we have NOT had in a long time…..
      The oldest is too busy to help. She has two jobs right now, plus she mentors a young girl once a week and has a boyfriend. Mondays she stays home with us for “Family movie night” and I am not going to make her work on that day. The oldest used to cook once a week, years ago. I miss that. I convinced the younger one’s “Food and Nutrition” teacher to have my daughter make dinner as a make-up assignment for three days of classes she had to miss! That was a good day. And a good dinner! And clean-up was part of the assignment!
      One day I will get my act together. At least I keep groceries down. Not as well as you, but we average $400/month which I think is pretty good for the four of us.

  3. I used to plan for 15 days at a time, because I only get paid twice a month. I did really, really good for about 3 months. I would look at the calendar, see when we would be home and when and what I could make for nights we wouldn’t be home late and plan accordingly. I also made one new recipe a week and we rotated that in if we liked it, tweaked it and tried it again if we were meh about it, or scrapped it if we hated it. It kept me from getting bored because my boys would eat pasta, meat, and sauce every damn night if I let them.
    Then, I got the flu for 8 days in December. And somehow the meal planning got kicked to the curb in favor of everyone fend for yourselves, I’m not cooking! I need to go back to the meal planning because it totally worked! I could feed the three of us good, healthy meals on $150 or less for a 15 day period.

    • You poor thing. You really got the one two punch last month, didn’t you? Hopefully the rest of this winter will bring you good health.

      PS, I have read your email and need to respond, but it’s just been a tad hectic around here!

  4. Great tips! I used to meal plan but got so fed up with taking the (what felt like) hours to plan, only to hear complaints every night when I would cook- “I’m just going to have a bowl of cereal- I’m not in the mood for XYZ,” from the hubby, or “Can I have eggs, that sounds yucky” from the kiddo. I’m the type of cook that needs lots of praise in order to make my time in the kitchen worth it. Especially considering I spend HOURS in the kitchen.
    However, the multiple trips a week to the grocery store are getting out of hand, so I think it’s time to start up again. When I do plan, it’s not by day, but by meal. I try to pick 4 different animals to eat, then match up a couple sides to go with them. The meat gets cooked all on the same day, and the sides get cooked the day of.
    Thanks again for the tips!

  5. I actually plan out for about 3 months at a time (yeah, I may be a tad nuts). I try to buy foods in bulk, and save up money to buy meat from local farms for much, much less that at stores (hellooo half a pig!). To keep myself more sane, and to allow for creativity and last minutes changes, I often will mark down a large item (roast chicken, whole ham, use up all butternut squash etc.) ahead of time, and then just decide what to make with it depending on my grocery list that week or what is left in my fridge. That way, I have the main item planned, and know when I need to replenish the large things, without stressing about what exact dish I will make.

  6. Love, love. love my meal plan and I am a much happier person with it in place. I make my meal plan for the whole month. I try to take into account the people we have coming to visit and evening activities to pick the best day for different meals. When I do the month at a time, it gives me the chance to spread out some of the meals like pasta, chicken with pasta, chicken with rice and ground beef. It also helps me to group things together like enough meals to eat a whole head of lettuce before it goes bad and then have a few days where I don’t need lettuce before getting another one. I agree that the great thing is to be able to switch around days when things don’t go your way. I didn’t take out the chicken the other day to defrost so I made french dip sandwiches and took the chicken out to have the next night. There are a lot of arrows on my calendar when the month is over but at least we didn’t stare at each other for an hour and end up getting take out ๐Ÿ™‚ I can work it out earlier if I know that there is a problem and I plan on using leftovers when we have them. I wouldn’t be able to go without a plan ever again!!!! I am much calmer at dinner now ๐Ÿ™‚

  7. We just welcomed baby #2, so I need to get much better about meal planning in a hurry since getting our traveling circus out of the house is not what it used to be. We did a TON of freezer cooking before the babe arrived, though, so we have a small chest freezer in the garage *full* of bagged stuff ready for the crockpot, casseroles ready for oven and some things that just need to be thawed and heated up. Hopefully I can at least remember to get something out to thaw now… ๐Ÿ˜‰

  8. I plan my meals a month in advance. I keep an inventory of everything that is in my freezer & pantry so it’s relatively easy. It takes a bit of planning to make a menu that far in advance but I love not having to think about what I’m going to fix

  9. I was barely able to plan tonight’s dinner let alone a weeks worth of dinners, but I want to be this person!

    • That is exactly where I was about 3 years ago. It took a bit of time to get in to the swing of things with meal planning, but I swear it saves me so much time now. And it is almost stress-free.

  10. I’m going to try planning next month, but I’m not going to hold my breath on it working. We are three older adults with dietary restrictions (2 diabetics on meds) and one of them is a damn picky eater!! The DH won’t eat reruns on meat if it has to be reheated, unless I’m using roast for burritos. He will eat some meats cold, at least. We buy in bulk the first of the month so I’ve cut down on how much I repackage for our meals. I usually do a big roast if I’m planning on burritos, but otherwise it’s just enough meat for a meal for us and any little bits leftover are dog treats. (They love it!) I do male large pots of stew or soups because those can be frozen and reheated, pizza’s once a month will give us leftovers for lunch. If I can get hotdogs on sale we have them for a meal and a lunch (not very often), and hamburger is endlessly useful and can be combined with other meats. I can actually get one month’s meat shopping to last two if I’m really trying. Bacon is our big expense, we eat it for breakfast with eggs and toast. I am not a morning person so something I can fix on autopilot and not burn is all we are going to have! I do eat a big breakfast as it keeps me going pretty well, and not having to rush out the door to a job means I can take the time to fix it. DH is like you and gets on a food kick and will eat nothing else for awhile, drives me crazy! Right now it’s cream of chicken soup for dinner as it is pretty mild and he has stomach problems a lot of the time from his meds. Since I’m not doing anything fancy for meals, usually a meat (cooked or fried) and a veg or two, it’s going to take some serious planning to organize things. Personally, I hate cooking, but if it’s just throwing something in a pot in the morning, or a quick fry up at night, I’m happy. I leave the complicated meals for holidays! I’m going to try working in more variety and prechoped or prepped foods.

    • Momma, have you ever considered making a ton of bacon at once and then freezing it? I bake it at 385 for about 20-25ish minutes. Cool and put in a few papertowels in a Ziploc. You can reheat via microwave or in a warm cast iron skillet. I know your hubby doesn’t like reheated food, but it’s bacon! Everyone likes bacon.

    • Bacon is the one meat he will eat any way I fix it–me too! I will try that, it might make the mornings easier, and the occasional bacon sammy quicker. We eat a thicker bacon so that will probably be good that way.

    • The only problem with having bacon readily available, is that you have bacon readily available. ๐Ÿ˜€