When I recently read this post at Frugally Sustainable (a great blog!), it made me wonder about what exactly people do when they plan meals. Her three reasons against meal planning included (1) it costs more, (2) more food is wasted, and (3) the inflexible nature of the meal planning can be stressful. Her point was that rather than planning meals, we should keep stocked pantries and use what we have on hand for meal preparation. I liked the post but it really made me blink; none of those points seemed to gel with my experience of meal planning at all, but it seemed to really resonate with other readers. So I think I need to clarify why, while I agree with the pantry stocking, I disagree with the meal planning points.
1) It doesn't cost more. Well, it shouldn't. If you are randomly picking out fancy recipe ideas from within the pages of the newest Martha Stewart Living, and they require lemongrass and tandoori masala and cardamom pods and those three ingredients don't happen to be in your pantry at the precise moment (actually I have everything but the lemongrass so obviously my imagination isn't very far-reaching tonight!), then you're going to go out and spend more on groceries than if you were just buying your regular basics. But that is not how I do things. Instead, I:
- pore over the flyers and write down the best deals on everything from meat to pasta to celery to cheese from all the local grocery stores
- assess what I have in my pantry and fridge, which includes things I bought multiples of the last time they were on a good sale (such as whole wheat pastas, seeds, canned salmon, carrots, onions, cheddar, etc.) and what I bought in bulk the last time we were at CostCo (e.g. 10 kg bags of flour, 6-pack cases of passata, 1 L jugs of maple syrup, 1 kg bags of nuts, dried herbs, etc.)
- sit down and figure out what I can make from a combination of what I already have on hand and what is on sale. I try very hard not to buy things that aren't on sale. And then I write out a tentative schedule of suppers for the next 7-10 days, based on what I came up with from these options. The end result? Our grocery bill goes way down.
2) Waste? What waste? OK, not absolutely everything that I prepare gets eaten to the last morsel with plates licked clean. Just check under the high chair after supper is over. But honestly, we really don't waste much food anymore. If I make meals like casseroles or things that don't freeze well, Craig takes the majority of our leftovers to work for his lunch. If I make a meal that does freeze well, then I try to make two (or more) meals at the same time, and eat one, and freeze the other. That way, if we don't feel like having spaghetti again tomorrow, we have another quick-to-prepare meal waiting in the freezer. Freezer stocking isn't just for pre-natal planning, you know! Additionally, I try to turn whatever we had into something else. Here is an example:
Tuesday, April 17th: Rosalyn cooks a 3 1/2 pound chicken (about $6.57) in the slow cooker. We have chicken dinner that night (with extra gravy thawed from the freezer where it was stored after a previous chicken dinner).
|Note: this is not my photo, but my chicken DID look like this!|
|Here's Craig's lunch. OK, you can't really see the soup very well, but I took it after I made it because I wasn't planning on writing about this!|
|Quesadilla and Mexican rice with sour cream, forgive the less than photogenic serving.|
So first of all, I stretched a 3 1/2 pound chicken to cover four supper meals, plus a couple of lunches for Craig. Obviously, it can go that far when the children are still very little and eat negligible amounts of it at this point, but still. It's not impossible that a larger family (or one with larger children) couldn't make a larger chicken go just as far. Second, not once, in the planning or preparation of those three meals did I have to run to the store to buy anything. I used things in my pantry and fridge. None of the chicken was wasted, and nothing extra needed to be purchased. Expensive? No. Wasteful? No.
3) Stressful? Not for me! So this will totally depend on your personality. I have always been a planner, so of course planning doesn't cause me any undue stress. But even if that's not really your personality, if you are juggling children, housework, cooking, gardening, dog-walking, working outside the home, grocery shopping, studying, library-book returning, or any combination of various and sundry tasks, then I don't really think it matters if you are the strictest, most obsessive planner on the planet or a free-spirited whimsical fairy of spontaneity. Meal planning will help you survive.
You are not carving the meals in stone, like the ten commandments. No one is going to criticize you if you switch Sunday and Thursday meals because you decided to do some shopping, or drive to the beach, or relax on the sofa with a chai latte while the house imploded around you. I would wager that, if your household is anything like mine, no one even knows what you planned for the week's meals, if they know you meal plan at all. It is one of those little details they don't have to worry about, because you take on that
agony joyful task with a light heart and unbridled enthusiasm for the good of your family. It's still flexible. You can look at the list and mentally change the places of things. What it gives you is the peace of mind that you know what you have in the house, you know what you're going to do with it, and you don't have to come up with anything at the last minute while your fourteen-month-old screams at you from her high chair because the potatoes haven't boiled yet. In the case of the chicken, yes, I did plan ahead and I did stick to the schedule, because I didn't want to freeze any (this time. Last time, I froze extras and then later mixed them, and broccoli, in with homemade mac and cheese. Yum.). If you decide you don't want to deal with the leftovers now, freeze them! You'll be glad later that you did.
So yes, by all means keep your pantry stocked with items that go on sale that you know that you will use (don't stock it with 59 cent cases of canned mushrooms when nobody in your family will eat them). A stocked pantry means you have most of what you need, when you need it. Flyer shopping will help you get the best deals and cut down on your grocery bills. And meal planning will keep you sane, and save you money at the same time.