Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Frugal Tips: Make a Meal Plan and Stick to it.

If you want to save money and save yourself a lot of stress make a meal plan for the week and try to stick to it.

I know. Too anal. Too restricting. Too much work. Too Boring!!

But believe me it will work.

This was my routine before making shopping lists and meal plans.

"OMG I'm out of cream and onions for the casserole that I just decided that I want to make tonight." Run to the store and "Oh...look they are having a sale on Cheeze-its, strawberry ice cream and oooooh don't those olives look good. Maybe I should pick up some of these pork chops" So, in addition to spending more money than I needed, I came home with a bunch of stuff that I didn't need and some pork chops for which I have no real plan. This means that I have to go back and get more ingredients later for the surprise pork chop meal. Rinse and repeat.

The result is wasted food. Wasted time. Wasted MONEY. The result of haphazard planning is meals that are boring, meals that are not creative and which are repetitive. It is too easy to go with the good old standards, until you and your family are sick of spaghetti, tacos or whatever your go-to standard is.

For me, part of the joy of cooking, to steal a phrase, is to make new meals. Different dishes. Experiment. Sometimes it works and you have what we call "a keeper". Other times it is a total failure....we won't do that again.

Over many years I have come up with a system that works for me. I ask myself these questions in no particular order.

What do I have on hand?
What is on sale in the store now?
What seasonal foods are available?
How long will these items last in the refrigerator or before they begin to 'turn'?
What does my family really like to eat?
When was the last time we had these particular meals?
What would I like to try to experiment on?
How can I make the best use of my time and money by using leftovers?
Can I combine ingredients to make different and exciting meals and save money by buying in bulk or using things I already own?

Then: I make a rough list of meals for the next week or for at least several days. Thinking of the main dish and side dishes that would go nicely. Also trying to create a variety of meals. After all.....even if chicken IS on sale, we don't want it every freaking night!! While Chinese or Mexican food is great....I don't want it all the time. Mix it up and create variety or your family might rise up in revolt against the same food all the time.

Consider the nutritional value of your meal plan as well. You need, throughout the week, a good mix of protein, fats, vegetables and grains. So, while I love Fettuccini Alfredo, every meal can't be carb loaded pasta. Indulge yourself: make a dessert or some sweet treat for the week.

I also leave myself some flexibility so that if we decide to go out for the evening or we just decide that we are really really not in the mood for Pastisto or Arroz con Pollo or Clam Chowder we can move that meal to another night or just do something else with the ingredients. A meal plan doesn't mean you are stuck, like in a straight jacket, and must adhere to the plan. Be flexible within your plan and realize that YES, you will have to go back to the store for some things, especially those items that you can't buy in bulk or that have short shelf lives......lettuce anyone?

So in this and in the next few posts I will cover a few of my questions at a time and give some examples of meal planning.