Last week, I detailed the idea of prepping meal components ahead of time, so meals come together easier all week long. If you’d like to read about a celebrity doing this very thing to help heal her food allergy-related ailments, plus get some insight on a nutritionist’s reasons for prepping ahead, read “The Stash Plan” by Laura Prepon. She’s preaching the same thing as me; what chefs have known for years, and she’s way more famous than me. ☺
A few years ago, I picked up a Mead product from Target, called Organizher. I loved it, and soon returned to buy every bit of the line, including their handy grocery shopping checklist. I used the entire pad over the course of a few months, for both catering and my personal shopping. After using their product as an example, I created my own, homemade draft to use from then on.
The first and most important step in beginning a meal planning routine is what I recommended doing in my last column, emptying the cabinets and taking stock of what you already have, and why. The why is just as important as the what. You had some reason for buying those items, and if you intended to use them and didn’t, try to now. Next, create a menu for the next seven days using every one of those items. For example, if you found a can of white beans, a box of lasagna noodles and some taco seasoning, there’s three nights’ worth of meal ideas right there. Remember to create meals that your family (not just you) will eat. With differing food allergies in your home, this may not be possible, but try your best. Try to empty the cabinets with your meal plan, using as many already-purchased items as possible. Don’t worry about cook time or prep time at this point. Just focus on using your supplies up and freeing space.
After you have a rough meal plan written down, including all meals during the next seven days, sides, drinks and snacks, you’re ready to make your shopping list. Create a sheet in your computer application of choice (I use Excel), listing all the items your family eats/uses on a daily basis. Think of them as foundational foods, ones your family would be hard-pressed to go without. My house’s include almond milk, margarine, whole wheat bagels, brown rice, canned tomatoes, fresh fruit (bananas and apples), and the seasonings I use daily. I know we sound hippy, but really, I just started choosing better options/whole grain foods a few months back, and now it’s become second nature. After listing all kitchen, bathroom, laundry and grocery supplies, save your document as your template. Print a copy and peruse the kitchen again, circling the essential items you do need more of. Also, below your foundation foods, list any meal-related items you still need, like taco shells, pasta shells, marinara and cheese. Put one, ONE, splurge item on your list for yourself, maybe ice cream or a salty snack you like that’s on sale.
Having a meal plan and grocery list is the single most important part of meal planning. Without a menu to prep from, a restaurant cook would be lost. Treat your kitchen like a commercial one, and prepare yourself for your supermarket trip. If you can, shop local and natural. Because many of us live in suburbia and have budgets, you may end up at a mass-market grocer. The marketing of every grocery chain and megastore is designed to compel you to compulsively buy the cheapest, lowest-cost items from their shelves, so before you go, consider these tactics:
- If possible, shop first thing in the morning. FIRST THING, right after breakfast, and ideally on your own. You will be less distracted, encounter fewer people, your fellow shoppers are less likely to be rushed or aggressive, and shelves are full because the overnight crew just finished stocking them.
- Shop the edges. This is a tactic I learned awhile back while I was attempting, fool heartedly, to low-carb. The “edges” are the produce, meat, seafood, dairy, fresh bakery and frozen sections in most retailers. The items you find there are naturally less artificially-manipulated and are more nutritious in general.
- When you’re in the “middle,” buy the cans, boxes and bags that you have on your list. Grocers love tempting you with snacks and sugar on end caps and with colorful displays. If you see a new product you want to try, put it on your next menu and buy it next time.
- Pick up your splurge and set it aside to reward yourself with later, once the groceries are put away and you’re safe at home.
- Double check your list before you go to the check-out. Go through your menu mentally and make sure you didn’t forget anything. No matter how well-planned, some things slip through.
- Check out using your own bags. If you don’t have reusable grocery bags, consider picking up a few. This serves two purposes. One, it saves the planet from all the plastic bag waste, and second, it helps you control the amount of bulk buying you do. If you’ve got three bags and you eye your purchases, thinking you have more than will fit, you make sure every item counts. Enjoy the cabinet space you save not having a billion plastic bags wedged in it.
At home with your groceries, prep your groceries before you even put them away. This means laying the bags on the floor at your feet, and grabbing your containers, cutting board and storage bags right away. This will add 20 or so minutes to this task but save way more in the future. Grab your prep cooks if they’re around. Trim and bag up meats by meal, adding marinade now if you like. I do this with pork, chicken and beef, then freeze the soaking and readied proteins until I need them. Cut and wash your fruits and veggies now, bagging them up in snack-sized containers or food prep containers. I chop my onions and cut my celery sticks and bag them in quart-sized bags for recipes all week. I put hummus, salad dressings and sauces in 2 oz. containers, stacked in the fridge, also. Cordon off your lasagna ingredients in the cabinet, the marinara, parmesan and noodles, with a circle of tape. Do the same with your pasta shells, white beans and canned tomatoes for your Wednesday night pot of pasta e fagioli soup. You can also take a marker and write the meal and use date on each item to keep yourself organized and keep prying fingers from eating it ahead of time. Every little bit helps and your fridge and cabinets will be so organized, it will make finding things so much easier.
Set your food items up in your fridge so the first things to get used are in the front, and put all related meal items together so they’re easier to grab. Take a second and educate your spouse/housemates to your new system, and hold them accountable. Let them know they’ll be helping you throughout the process, too, and hold them to it. You’re going to lean on your sous chef and prep cooks, so put the hammer down. If they eat, they cook. That’s the new house rule.
Good luck with your meal and grocery planning. If you need meal ideas, these are my favorite sites for quick, easy crowd-pleasers, and remember to “think outside the box” when creating menus. If you find yourself running out of ideas, shoot me an email!
MrFood.com (click Recipe Box)
Jill Marie is a classically-trained French chef, certified by Le Cordon Bleu and possessing both a Grand Diplôme in culinary arts and Pastry Certification. She’s been cooking professionally in hotel,restaurant and catering kitchens for fifteen years, and specializes in comfortable, everyday food. She also earned a Master’s degree in Human Resources and a Bachelor’s degree in Finance. In addition to running Delivery Dinners of Delaware, she works full-time in Human Resources. Jill is also a published author of women’s fiction/romance, and her current series, Second Saga, is in print. Visit her site jillmariedenton.com for book info and writing samples.