Saturday, June 27, 2009

Requests From Our Readers: Week 9

This week we are talking about meal planning. In the past we've talked about toddler snacking, organic Foods, and saving money on groceries, but one of our readers has offered an excellent question that expands our food topics even more. Check it out!

"Hi, this last post about coupons and grocery shopping has reminded me of a question I have forever had about meal plans and weekly/bimonthly shopping trips. I like to cook, but when it comes to planning full course meals on a regular basis, I am lacking. I can take a recipe and cook it up nice, but I haven't seemed to figure out how to do this on a constant basis. Besides simple and basic recipes which we are now very tired of, I feel like I don't even know where to begin. I think most of the problem is when I do plan a good meal, I go to the store to pick up the ingredients - just for that meal - and feel like I'm spending more than I would if we went out to dinner. Thus I feel like if I did this for multiple meals, I would be burning holes in my pockets. So my questions are:

How do you figure out your meal plans?
Do you always use recipes with similar ingredients close together so you can use those same ingredients over and over until they are done?
Do you have a basic meal plan that you use each week/month with slight variations? or is it always totally different?
What kind of recipes do you like to cook? Are they very simple and basic? or do you have more 'gourmet' recipes that you use?
How do you make it work that you aren't spending $100+ for one weeks worth of grocery? or is that what you spend?
Do you keep certain foods always on hand to throw into any recipe? if so, what are they?
What do you try to ALWAYS have in your cupboard or in your fridge?
Basically, what is your process of planning, preparing, and shopping for your meals?"

So help her out by answering the questions above! I think this is a wonderful topic and one that we've all had trouble with before.

Also - check out the post below on movie censorship with children. We haven't gotten very many responses and I think the topic is very pertinent. We need your responses to make the blog work!!

Thanks again for contributing and don't forget to e-mail us if you have a reader request!


Megan said...

I always have cream of mushroom, and cream of chicken on hand in my pantry. I also always have canned fruit and vegetables. In my fridge I keep green peppers, celery, tomatoes and at least one other veggie. I'm not great about planning meals ahead of time, but I do try to use recipes with like ingredients so things don't go bad in my fridge. With my husbands check coming twice a month, I do to main grocery trips and if I run out of fresh produce before my hubby's next check, I try to use my canned good from food storage to save money.

Chris and Laura said...

I have wondered about this very thing since I first got married, and I don't know that I've come up with any good solutions. But, we have a few things that we do that someone else may find helpful...

I always get hung up on what foods "go well" together. If trying to have a main dish, a fruit, and a vegetable with a meal, I always want to find the foods that will look nice and compliment each other best flavor-wise. Pretty much I've had to get over that. I can never make it work. For example: spaghetti for dinner. Ok, have green beans. What fruit goes well with green beans? Uh... I always get stuck there. I've decided that in planning nice meals, it's more important to have all the healthy components present, even if the colors aren't the most compatible.

Also, we have a list of probably thirty or forty different meals that we've accumulated from each of our respective families, recipes we've gotten from other people, and things we've created ourselves. My husband created an excel spreadsheet (he's a computer engineer...) with all of the meal options. Twice a month, we pull out the computer and make a menu using the meal options we have listed.

There are certain benefits we've found from this method:

1--we have "planned overs". On weekdays, I purposely plan dinners that will have leftovers my husband can take to work for lunch the next day, thus saving preparing another meal and using all the food. My husband also eats better lunches this way. :)

2--I make my grocery list based on the menu. I take into account what I have on hand, then make a list of only the things that I need for those particular meals that are on the menu. That way, I'm not spending any money on food that's not going to be used, and I won't need to make any additional trips to the store (except for maybe milk). Since I go shopping every two weeks, the produce still stays fresh in the fridge, so I just buy what I need for those two weeks and it all gets used before going bad. I generally end up spending around $100 each trip, so in the neighborhood of $200 a month on groceries.

3--Because we have the list of meals right in front of us every time we plan the menu (my husband and I do this together, by the way), we end up with more variety than we probably would if we were just thinking of things off the top of our heads. We cycle through more meals more often, alternating some of the more expensive ones with the cheaper ones. It's easier to balance the cost that way, and the variety is nice.

4--we don't ever have to wonder what's for dinner. We just look at the menu and cook what's there. It's nice to not have to decide every night.

Downside: Sometimes you don't want what's on the menu. If that's the case, we'll pick something from a future date and just swap the meals. That way, we don't have to eat something that we don't want right then, but we are still cooking every meal we bought groceries for.

As for what we have on hand...well, I always have some variety of fresh fruits and vegetables that can be added to a meal or eaten as a snack during the day. We also have a pantry well-supplied will canned fruits and vegetables (that I know we will eat) that can be pulled out anytime. And for those days when cooking just isn't an option (timewise or energy-wise), I do keep a few frozen somethings (pizzas, chicken dishes) on hand as backup. I also make sure I have plenty of hamburger and chicken (or whatever meats you prefer) in the freezer that can be thawed out for just about anything, as well as plenty of rice and potatoes that can be a side dish to about anything. Cream soups are handy, too, like Megan said.

We don't eat a lot of "gourmet" meals, but if we plan ahead, we do eat a lot more healthy meals that give us the nutrition that we need, even if it isn't pretty enough to be served at a restaurant. :)

Tannie Datwyler said...

I love this question!! I'll try to answer what you've asked the best I can.

My meal planning is REALLY similar to Laura's. She described what I do almost perfectly so I won't reiterate. The only difference is that I use a frigidator.... this is like a HUGE clear plastic calendar on the fridge. I then have 50 or so (I can't remember) tiny magnets with all the meals I make. I have all the magnets divided into categories (i.e. chicken dishes, pastas.... etc). I then just select the meals from the categories and try to get a variety of flavors and price ranges like Laura said. I also shop every two weeks - I think this cuts down on how much you spend.

I actually don't use the same ingredients over and over in the same recipes - though I know Delia does and that is a good tactic. We just end up eating all the leftovers for lunches like Laura mentioned.

As for what I like to cook - I have a variety of things. Some can be thrown together quickly and some are more "gourmet" meals if you will. I also try to give myself a break and make a frozen meal every couple of weeks. This is usually a pretty cheap skillet meal that has a lot of veggies in it so I don't feel too guilty about making it. I also try to make ONE new dish every month. If we like it we make a magnet for it, if we hate it then I never make it again. I like this too because I tell my husband that he can be TOTALLY honest on the first try and tell me if he hates it.

As for what we spend on groceries.... I'll just be honest. I am not the best at saving money. I am a GREAT meal planner, but I don't do coupons. I want to try this to be better and save more money so I'd direct you back to the money saving post if you still need help with that. Let me give you an idea of what I spend just so you know. We do a BIG shopping trip every 2 weeks and we budget to spend $100 (I try to keep to this price within $15 dollars). Then we also budget to spend $50 extra dollars on "food runs" (this is for when we run out of something or need more produce) - though we usually spend about $75, sometimes more. So totally grocery bills for a month for us are about $300.... that is for a family of 4 and includes diapers for the kids and jars of baby food (I still haven't been brave enough to try Erin's post on making your own) and some nonfood items. This does NOT include MOST of my nonfood items (I buy these at Walmart once a month - and I budget $50 for that). So total grocery bill including all nonfood items is anywhere from $300-$400 per month. Does that help at all?

I do keep certain foods on hand and they are again almost the same as Laura's. We also have a food storage stock of almost all the canned foods we use regularly so that if I forgot to get something at the store I can just pull it out of the pantry and restock it later.

It is true that if you plan to feed your family and cook good, healthy food, it is going to cost you more than if you eat frozen dinner or Mac and Cheese every night. So that is normal - the trick is just trying to eat healthy but not to spend a fortune!

I think that answers all your questions... I hope that wasn't too lengthy of an answer. :)

Jared and Delia said...

I really like what advice has been offered so I don't know that I can offer much more.

I will Tannie mentioned, that I like to use the same ingredients for different recipes. For example: I will buy sour cream for stroganoff, to top tacos with, and for creamy crock pot chicken. Usually...if you buy in bulk you save money. This will help the bulk bought items not go bad as they can easily do.

I think the biggest help in this area is that you MUST plan ahead. Those weeks that I just think...oh I will figure it out as I go and I go to the store. I end up buying stuff I didn't need and either I buy more than I needed or not enough. Then we eat weird mismatched meals the whole week.

Britta said...

I guess I'm weird. I don't have hardly any canned food in my pantry, my fridge is rarely full of anything and somehow I cook a full meal every night.

I generally shop once a week because I buy a LOT of fresh fruits and veggies (those serve as our snacks and our side dishes for dinner and sometimes even our desserts). Oh, and I generally spend 60-70$ a week for three but that does include diapers and other misc stuff from Walmart.

I should do what Laura and Chris do and write all my meals down and cycle throught them but we generally end up having very similar meals for about two weeks then wracking our brain to figure out what we 'used' to eat before we got into the current cycle (then there are those funny 'oh yeah! we used to eat that' moments).

If you are thinking 'gourmet' for dinner you may be tricking yourself. Typically if you go to a sit down resturant you get a main dish and two sides. If you actually serve dinner with a main dish and two sides, it suddenly feels gourmet.

I find it interesting how many meals you can have with one item before its all gone. Take Tortillas for example: have encheladas, burritos and fajitas and all your tortillas are gone. Pretty much the only similar ingredient is the tortillas so have those three meals over two weeks and you aren't wasting anything.

Great ideas from everyone else, by the way!