Meal Planning

Cooking can become burdensome to anyone — even those who love to cook. You have to eat, you have to cook. And especially if you are on a budget, planning ahead is vital to not blowing your grocery budget.

In my ideal world, I would shop for my cooking utensils at Williams and Sonoma, and all my groceries would come from Whole Foods or Trader Joe. But, since we are missionaries not millionaires I opt for Walmart and Aldi for grocers. I also rely on  birthdays and Christmas for new cooking utensils. But can I just say that if you’d rather spend one hour shopping in Williams and Sonoma perusing copper pots and cutting boards, than in any other mall store . . . we are kindred spirits.

Another reality that puts a crunch on cooking is time. It seems unrealistic to spend hours cooking what is consumed in minutes. I’d love to always cook gourmet and try several new recipes each week, but realistically my life is much less hectic and my kids a lot happier if I plan the majority with simple, familiar recipes.

I like to organize and I love lists, so planning and making shopping lists is enjoyable and relaxing for me. Once a month I take inventory of the food I have in my cupboards, fridge and freezer. The “Inventory List” helps me know what frozen meats, dried noodles and other ingredients I have to work with. I make categories for meats, noodles/rice, canned, vegetables, fruits and so on. I then look at list and see what meals can be made from these ingredients. At that point I start a shopping list so I can write down additional supplies I will need to complete these meals.

I start a third list called my “Meal List.” These are the foods I make for the evening meal. I try to have at least 15 meals on the meal list. With leftovers and nights where we’re not home, this seems to be a good number to last 3-4 weeks. If there is a few new recipes I’d like to try, I throw them in. I then add any dry or frozen ingredients to my shopping list and make note of additional fresh ingredients I’ll  need for each recipe. I don’t purchase the fresh ingredients until the week of making the recipe to prevent spoilage or wasting food.

Here’s examples of the top 10 meals I make:

  1. spaghetti and meatballs + salad + bread
  2. meatloaf + potato wedges + vegie
  3. pad thai
  4. chicken and rice casserole
  5. homemade pizza + salad
  6. chicken tortilla soup
  7. chicken or beef tacos + chips and salsa
  8. chicken parmesan + rice + vegie
  9. beef stroganoff (crock pot) on noodles + vegie
  10. chicken quesadillas

In the winter I make more soups – chili, chicken noodle, beef stew. And in summer I grill meals – chicken, burgers, brats. Each cook will have their own top 10 list of familiar, relatively easy recipes. I rely on this list and alternate in other recipes we like and new recipes.

The next step is shopping. I look over the grocery ads for great deals, but dragging the kids around town to all the grocery stores to save a few bucks isn’t my idea of fun. I try to stick to one or two stores with the overall best deals to get all my ingredients.

So that’s what I do. What do you do? I’d love helpful hints for shopping, listing or planning. What’s your top 10?