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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