Saturday, February 25, 2012

Weekend Cooking: Meal Planning


We've been talking a lot about organization and efficiency lately - preparing meals in advance, using a crock pot, and freezing. Last spring I wrote a post for Lakeside Kitchen outlining my meal planning strategy and I've decided to share it here today.

Lakeside Kitchen is a cooking blog my daughter and I started a couple of years ago. When she went off to college last summer, I realized that I did not want to maintain two blogs and quietly closed up shop. Life has changed a little since then. I'm routinely cooking for just three now, plus I no longer worry about practice or game schedules. My basic meal planning principles, however, remain the same.

From Lakeside Kitchen:

It's all about organization.... and flexibility. Every Sunday or Monday, I compose a "Master Meal-Planning Sheet" and select a few dishes to prepare early in the week. Family activities that impact the dinner hour (or my ability to cook) are listed on the left, the menu goes in the center, and a grocery list goes on the right. Here's what this week's sheet looks like, so far:



If we're out all day, I may choose a crock-pot meal that's ready when we get home. When there's little time to spare, a stir-fry is quick and easy. On the rare day when no activities are scheduled, I may experiment with something more elaborate.

My meal-planning sheet looks pretty simple now, but wait a few hours... meetings are added, games or lessons get changed, and the unexpected always arises. By starting with just three or four definite meals, I can make adjustments as needed during the week and, if I'm lucky, have some leftovers for lunches.

A trip to the grocery store is part of my Monday routine, but another stop on Thursday or Friday is inevitable. We always need more milk and produce and, if the beginning of the week has gone as planned, I'll buy fish or meat for a couple more dinners. Also, by later in the week, Margaret may have an idea for a weekend dessert and I can pick up those ingredients, too.

Do you have a meal-planning system, or do you keep a stocked refrigerator and decided day-by-day what's for dinner?


Weekend Cooking, hosted at Beth Fish Reads, is open to anyone who has any kind of food-related post to share: Book (novel, nonfiction) reviews, cookbook reviews, movie reviews, recipes, random thoughts, gadgets, fabulous quotations, photographs. If your post is even vaguely foodie, feel free to grab the button and link up over the weekend.



52 comments:

  1. I write out a menu on the weekend like you! Sometimes if I KNOW it will all be too much I just write pizza for the day and attach a coupon. But I try to do a bit better than that usually.

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    1. Libby - I've been known to write "take out" or "out to dinner" on my meal planning sheets, too!

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  2. I am not a planner. I have the great good advantage of working from home, so planning is not quite as critical. I'm my own boss, so if I need to take a half hour to run to the store at 3pm, I can do it.

    I always have big ideas of planning ahead, but then (1) I'm not in the mood for that meal on the planned day or (2) I don't like the look of the ingredients when I'm at the store.

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    1. Beth F - Glad that works our for you. I started planning because I hate that 4PM feeling of not knowing what to make for dinner.

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  3. I try to make a flexible plan for the week every Sunday, when grocery shopping gets done. Since my husband travels for work, this plan is always subject to change, so I've learned over the years to go with the flow. I don't like last minute trips to the grocery store, so I rely on my freezer a lot.

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    1. Jama - "Go with the flow" is definitely key in my planning, too!

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  4. I wish I was a better meal planner. I seem to do well for a couple of weeks, and then I fall off the wagon. Oftentimes I forget about leftovers and then after two weeks there are various containers of expired food in the frig.

    Now that it is just my husband and I at home, and he is typically out of town two nights a week, it it is difficult to motivate myself to cook a full meal. Silly...I know.

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    1. Molly - My husband rarely travels for work. I'd have a hard planning meals in advance if I knew I'd be the only one eating, too.

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  5. Since we are retired and have no time constraints, we pretty much cook on a regular basis and plan for the week around what's on sale and what's in the freezer. We ( I really mean TBG) do keep a freezer list of what's in there. It does help when I make my shopping list but I never would have done it on my own. Not that TBG is anal or anything. Really, he's not. Most of the times, anyway.

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    1. Kaye - I LOVE the idea of keeping a freezer list! Can't tell you number of times I've discovered forgotten items... tell TBG I think he' brilliant ;-)

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  6. wow, how organized...I usually just look in the frig and see what I might use.

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    1. Caite - This was an absolute necessity when the girls were younger... not as much now.

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  7. When I lived in central New York, and our sons were young, I would plan our meals for the week and make a trip to Wegmans. (Sigh- I miss Wegmans!) It was easy knowing everything was planned out, figuring in (like you) practice schedules, games, meetings, and because of that, I know we ate better as a family.
    Now that my sons are in college, living on their own in an apartment, they do the same thing. They plan their meals and shop on the weekend for the entire week. I feel good knowing they are cooking decent meals rather than eating fast food, and I think they learned that as young boys.
    My husband and I live in NYC now, and I don't plan as much for us. I try to go day by day because you really have go to the grocery store every day or two.

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    1. Diane - I LOVE Wegmans and would miss it so much if we ever moved! I'm impressed that your sons plan their meals in advance... you've taught them well.

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  8. You are so organized! I am not. I keep a stocked pantry and frig but fly by the seat of my pants. and so many times I'll tell everyone what's for dinner but then something catches my eye and I change the whole menu. And I never know how many we'll be for dinner. At least I keep them all on their toes. Your menu looks delicious so far this week.

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    1. Carol - It takes organization to keep a well-stocked pantry and fridge, too. You have to take credit for that!

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  9. I usually make out a weekly menu, but more times than not I don't stick to it. Depends on if the mood for something else hits me.
    Here's Mine

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    1. Vicki - Some weeks it's much easier to stick to the plan than others, I agree.

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  10. When I do meal planning I use a similar system to yours. Lately I've been doing some crock pot cooking on the weekend of soups and chilis and things that I can freeze for future meals too.

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    1. Kathleen - I try to make some kind of soup (usually in the crockpot) every weekend... mostly for lunches, but my daughter will often have some after classes, too.

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  11. I meal plan too - on Sunday evenings I write down all our meals for the week and order all the ingredients I will need for them online. I order food shopping online to prevent impulse purchases!

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    1. Sam - Online ordering? Now that is organization!!

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  12. I have found that in weeks when I plan meals, I feel much less stressed out. Before, I planned according to the contents of my CSA bag. Nowadays, I check out on Sunday whatever's on offer the coming week and plan a few meals accordingly. I've usually got my work lunches (green or grain salads) and weekend dinners (for S.'s bento) covered.
    Definitely worth the time spent on meal planning!

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    1. Chinoiseries - Meal planning definitely reduces my stress level, too!

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  13. Very interesting to read your plan as well as those of the commenters. My planning is very similar to yours. What I like about yours is the grocery list is right on the same paper with the meal plan and activities. Good idea.

    I also have a freezer list because I keep forgetting what's in there. I take the freezer list, the grocery ads along with the activity list and plan from there. Now that I'm retired I love the luxury of shopping on a Thursday or Friday morning. It's not crowded and the produce guy chats about what's good as well as the meat guy and the clerks. So much nicer than my past weekend shopping.

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    1. Margot - The freezer list is such a good idea... something I never even considered until Kaye mentioned it here. The grocery is definitely more pleasant on a weekday morning.

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  14. I also use a plan for meals and I don't know how people survive without it! My husband and I shop every other week, so we plan for two weeks. Things that need a lot of fresh produce are at the beginning (although we usually make a little trip in the middle to pick up milk, salad, etc). We split the cooking evenly, so he cooks on days when I am at the hospital and I cook on days when he has class late, etc. If I have a meeting or activity that night we do crockpot meals. It saves so much time and money!

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    1. Lorren Lemmons - Wow, two weeks of planning must REALLY take organization and discipline! I think it's great that you and your husband split the cooking.

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  15. I also try to make a list of meals before I shop so I can make a list. I do like how you make your list though it is much more organized than mine. Thanks for the tips! Here's mine

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    1. Peggy - If I didn't have some sort of plan, my grocery bill wold be unmanageable!

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  16. Hubby and I might decide in the morning about dinner that night (hubby loves to cook and does as much as I do). Mostly what we have is governed by what time he gets home from work since there is only the two of us.

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    1. Shelley Munro - I think it's easier to be spontaneous when just my husband and I will be around for dinner.

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  17. I try to make a menu for the week and get all that I need on Sat/Sun. I hate to grocery shop big time!!

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    1. Staci - Grocery shopping is generally a chore for me, too, but my husband actually enjoys it. The bill is much higher if I send him alone though!

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  18. I've never been a meal planner, but should be as we'd end up eating out less. It's just that since it is the 2 of us, sometimes eating out is just so much easier.

    I just purchased a programmable crock pot, so I am hoping to make some stews and and soups moving forward that will be ready when I get home from work.

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    1. Diane - I do love my crock pot, but there's nothing wrong with eating out more;-)

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  19. I plan meals for a week before I go to the grocery store -- but still end up at the grocery store a second time about 5 days later. I usually write a new plan at that time, altering the previous plan as needed. My list isn't nearly as pretty as yours, even at the beginning of the week!
    Joy's Book Blog

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    1. Joy - I'm almost always at the grocery store a second time, too. My list gets messier and more cluttered as the week progresses.

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  20. I do the same thing as you, JoAnn and plan my meals for the week ahead of time, or at least I try! I usually plan around the produce that comes in my co-op box every other Thursday, using the most perishable items first. Like you, I also plan around my family's schedule such as dance classes, sport practices and girl scouts that fall too close to the dinner hour. That has tamed down in the last year or two, which gives me a bit more flexibility with meal planning. I still end up at the grocery store at least twice a week, but for only a bag or two so I zip in and out.

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    1. Christine - Family life is much less stressful when I plan meals in advance. Now that two of the girls are away at college, there aren't as many schedules and activities to consider. Still, meal planning is still a habit I'll stick with!

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  21. I love the idea of planning and having the schedule for the day, the meals and the grocery list on one sheet. However, I am not a planner at all. I am a member of the "desperation cooking" group who often wonders what to cook 30 minutes before dinner time. Meal planning and sticking to it (which is crucial otherwise why plan?) is not my thing at all. But I admire everybody who does it.

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    1. Rikki - I still have my fair share of 'desperation cooking' days, too! Beth F's post last weekend was perfect for those times.

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  22. I love this idea! My meal planning could really use a lot more structure. I frequently find myself wanting to make something only to realize I do not have the ingredients.

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  23. Booksnyc - Meal planning is really a life saver for me. I had to make dinner decisions at the end of the day!

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  24. I need to do this. I'm always in the weeds! It's hard coming up with soemthing for us and then for Gage. Thanks for sharing how you do it, I may have to revise it a little for me!

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    1. Stacybuckeye - You'd be surprised how much planning helps me, but it was a LOT more difficult when the girls were Gage's age!

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  25. I rely on menu planning as well, otherwise some of our CSA veggies would never get eaten... :) If I still have to plan tonight's dinner in the afternoon I'm screwed - that doesn't work for me at all. Actually... I should be making my weekly menu right now! TG there are some yummy leftovers from last night's dinner for today: roasted eggplant & tahini soup, beet burgers and carrot-walnut salad. Just have to add some taters or grain. :)

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    1. Gnoegnoe - I'm the same way... nothing worse than planning a dinner just a couple of hours before serving! Your leftovers sound pretty good to me :-)

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  26. If all is well in the world and life is going as planned (bahahaha!) then I like to do this as well. My mom always did it and it just kind of rubbed off on me. I try to do two weeks out and since there's only two of us there are always "LO" (left over) days on the list.

    I do find that I don't always follow my lists exactly (see first statement of comment), but it is nice to look on the fridge and see an idea instead of having to come up with an idea from scratch.

    I do not however include ingredients that I need at the store on my list! I should try doing this. And I wondered about Lakeside Cooking and it's being rather quiet lately!

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    1. Trish - Don't think I could ever manage doing two weeks at a time! I'm pretty organized but that would definitely push my limits. We may bring Lakeside Kitchen back this summer if Margaret is still interested, but if not, I'll keep Weekend Cooking going here.

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  27. I used to just wing it from day to day, back when I worked 7-1, but since the beginning of the year I've sat down with my recipe books (my personal tried & true) as well as a cookbook and maybe a file folder of recipes I want to try. I plan for 7-10 days, including leftover nights, and put together my shopping list for the week. Rod has recently started joining me on my Sunday shopping trip (so nice to have someone help load and unload the groceries!) and I manage to get enough so I don't have to go back but maybe once or twice for the next two weeks! We always wind up with tons of leftovers! And, there's always the unanticipated night out. I don't know if we're saving any money, but it's so much more convenient to only go once every week or so!

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    1. Les - I may not be saving any money either, but planning sure takes some stress out of my week! Wonder if I cold get my husband to go if I switched the shopping day to Sunday...

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Thank you for taking the time to comment. These conversations are my favorite part of blogging. Please check back, I almost always respond to comments!

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