Thursday, January 28, 2010

Veggie Might: Meal Planning - An Experiment and Conversion

Written by the fabulous Leigh, Veggie Might is a weekly Thursday column about all things Vegetarian.

For years, I have been brown-bagging my lunch, cooking most meals at home, and living what I thought was a fairly frugal existence, especially when it comes to food. But I’ve been living a lie.

Okay. Maybe “lie” is too strong a word. I’ve been living a fib, though. My big weaknesses are the inability to get a handle on weekly meal planning, reign in my impulsive food shopping, and stop eating cookies for dinner when I’m too tired to cook.

I’ve read and reread Kris’s article on meal planning, but to no effect. I wander aimlessly through the grocery store trying to remember what’s in my kitchen and then buy what I already have. I waste food—particularly produce—because I buy what looks good instead of what I need and often can’t use it before it goes bad. And when I’m tired, I stare into the abyss of my fridge, then eat cookies instead of cooking something.

Well, a few weeks ago, a delightful convergence occurred. I woke one morning with the compulsion to clean all the clutter off my fridge: sticky old magnets, food-stained recipe clippings, out-dated coupons.

I took a quick scan of the cupboards, looking for oatmeal, and realized I had two huge containers of kasha. I’ve never used kasha before, and I’m not quite sure what to do with it. Direct evidence of shopping without a list.

So I went online to look up a kasha recipe. But first I checked my Google Reader. There I saw an online posting (by Kris’ Husband-Elect—cue Twilight Zone music) of this totally rad magnetic clipboard and pencil cup at Design Sponge via LifeHacker.

The Hypothesis
I was in love with the jazzed-up office supplies and clean, visually compelling, downloadable menu and shopping list templates. Kate from Design Sponge stole my heart.

This is the kind of thing I need to get me to plan my meals: it’s simple, allows my list-making flag to fly, and it’s pretty. I really just needed someone to SHOW me what to do. With pictures. And a craft project. Because I’m 4.

Overcome with enthusiasm, I decided to plan my meals for the week and set several goals for the project.

1. Weeklong success
2. Less food waste
3. Savings on the grocery bill
4. Lower rate of cookies-for-dinner consumption

The Preparation
With orange and red paper and recycled magnets, I had tricked out my old, graffitied, high school clipboard and converted an old Tootsie Roll bank into a pencil cup. Pretty!

Then, I got (really) busy: I pulled down a few of my favorite cookbooks for perusal, scoured my cabinets and fridge for main ingredients, and started list making. It only took about an hour to come up with a viable menu. I was stoked!

And I couldn’t believe how many groceries I Didn’t Need to Buy. My pantry was so well stocked, my weeklong grocery list only had about 10 items, including produce and fresh herbs for four recipes and several miscellaneous items like seltzer, dog treats, and, yes, cookies.

The Results
1. Weeklong success—achieved. To my great surprise, I stuck to the menu all week. I loved looking at my pretty clipboard and checking off the days when I ate the meals. Some of the leftovers from scheduled meals out pushed back a couple of recipes into the next week, but …

2. Less food waste—achieved. Nothing spoiled in my fridge! Nothing! I only bought what I needed (sorry beautiful cabbage…maybe next week), so nothing went to waste. I really turned a corner.

3. Savings on the grocery bill—achieved. My total food bill for the week was $23.57, a savings of at least $15.00. I’m such an impulse food shopper, having a list was a godsend. Plus, I finally started making a dent in my overflowing pantry.

4. Lower rate of cookies-for-dinner consumption—achieved. I ate a grand total of 0 cookies for dinner. Don’t get me wrong, I ate cookies, but at more appropriate between and after meal times. And they were so much better that way.

Bonus result: Conversion—achieved. I am a meal-planning convert. I haven’t been to the store without a plan or a list (except for seltzer) since. I’ve saved a considerable amount of cash and tossed out much less food. And this week, I haven’t even bought cookies.

If you dig this article, you might also like:
Photo from Design Sponge.

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kittiesx3 said...

If you like to do your planning online the way I do, you might check out springpad -- it's a free tool that allows you to import recipes either from a web site or type it in yourself and it has a couple of apps especially useful in planning: shopping list and meal planner. I don't work for them but I do love the application.

Liz Tee said...

Congrats! Awesome breakthrough.

For those of us who suffer from 'don't boss me' syndrome and can't/won't commit to a set weekly menu, I've had some success sitting down on Sunday and deciding on 5 or 6 meals to have available for the workweek. I make sure I have the components for all of them, then I can choose one from the list each night. And yes, Blue Box (mac & cheese) counts!

gfpumpkins said...

One thing that I've found extremely helpful in menu planning is to keep a running list of dinners that I like and can make easily (turkey chili, thai green curry, 6 layer bean dip, etc). This way when I'm feeling less than inspired to try new recipes, I already have a list of things I know I like and can make easily.

J. said...

Congrats on your meal-planning success!

If you want to cut down even more on trips to the store, you might want to consider buying a metal seltzer bottle--you know, the kind that clowns spray at each other in old movies. My husband drinks a lot of seltzer (spiked with a little fruit juice), and buying a bottle and charges and making our own bubbly water out the tap has cut down on trips to the market (and having to lug home heavy soda bottles), saved us money, and eliminated waste (no plastic bottles to recycle, plus the metal charge things are recyclable). We get our seltzer supplies online.

Kristen@TheFrugalGirl said...

Isn't it wonderful? I really hate planning my menu, but the results are AWESOME. Love, love, love it.

Shaun said...

I plan out my family's meals each week. If you have an iPhone, there's a nice free app call GroceryIQ that lets you make shopping lists and check the items from the list as you put them in the cart. A bonus is if I run out of anything during the week, I add it to the list right then (since I always have my phone on me). No more forgetting to pick stuff up at the store!

Lauren said...

Hi, I'm Lauren from Springpad. You should definitely check out Springpad's meal planning app, I think it would be right up your alley! Springpad is a free personal organizer to help you save and remember anything - recipes, restaurants you want to try, products you like, movies you want to watch, books you want to read, wines you like, articles, to-do lists, etc. Everything gets neatly organized within Springpad so you can find and use it later. You can also access everythign on your phone, so when you're at the store you can easily pull up your meal plans and shopping lists to see what you need! You can check it out Springpad at And please let me know if you have any questions!

wosnes said...

I don't like meal planning as in "Monday meatloaf, Tuesday pasta..." and so on. But I do much the same as Liz Tee. If I think of something else I want, it goes on the list for next week. Ideally.

wosnes said...

I don't do well with going to the grocery or farmer's market and seeing what's available and/or on sale. I always buy too much and at least part of it goes to waste. I need to have a plan before I go.