Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Easy Meal Planning

I finally figured out a meal planning system that works for our family!

And I get to cross off one item on My Organizational Vision! I'm ecstatic! 

Okay, enough with the exclamation marks. But I'm seriously excited. I called all of my family members to tell them about it.

First, let me backtrack and explain why meal planning is for me (with the obvious caveat that it's not for everyone):
  • I do not particularly enjoy cooking. Although I wish I were more like this author who starts a pot of boiling water and then decides what to put in it, I have to be honest with myself and admit that I'm not. I also wish I were the kind of person who could trek to the farmers' market each Saturday or open a CSA delivery and base all of our meals around what's available. Again, if I'm honest with myself, I'm just not that person.
  • I'm the kind of person who thoroughly enjoys home-cooked meals and the process of coming together as a family each night, but I want the prep and the clean-up to be as efficient as possible. Matt and I work full-time and try to squeeze in time for exercise and relaxation. For some folks, cooking spontaneously is relaxing. Again, for us, it's not.
  • Meal planning helps us save money. Matt and I only buy what we will consume in the upcoming week. By the end of the weekend, our refrigerator and pantry are essentially empty. We waste very little food or money when we meal plan.
On the weekends, I want to spend my time reading, doing yoga, running, crafting, hanging out with friends, hiking, biking--the list goes on! (notice that meal planning and cooking are not on the list). Over the years, I've tried various systems for meal planning. I have a recipe binder that I've used to collect recipes over the years. If we like it, I clip it into the rings. If it's a recipe we want to try, I put it in the front pocket. I prefer to cook from a tangible recipe rather than my phone/computer, so this system has worked well for me. 

The trick has been translating these recipes into a weekly shopping list. I didn't enjoy how much time it took to flip through each recipe and hand-write the shopping list. I often wouldn't write the shopping list out, which meant I would waste a lot of mental energy at the store trying to remember our five meals for the week and remember all the ingredients. Inevitably, this strategy resulted in one or two missed items or multiple trips back to various parts of the grocery store while I was shopping. 

I was inspired by Meg at Sew Liberated to set up a seasonal menu that we rotate through each month. That's why I collaborated with others to create vegetarian Meals for a Year. It includes 12 different meal plans with corresponding shopping lists organized by meal and by section of the grocery store. 

But I realized that monthly or seasonal meal planning doesn't work for me either. I find that my tastes vary from week to week, and I don't like being locked into a particular meal plan. 

Back to square one. 

I finally, finally think I've solved my meal planning dilemma (I imagine you hoped I've solved this problem for our family so I can stop talking about it!). I spent Saturday morning entering 20 of our favorite meals and their ingredients (organized by section of the grocery store) into an Excel document. Matt set up a filtering system that allows me to sit down on Sunday, click on the column of meals, select five meals for the week, and print a sheet that includes the names of the five meals and the ingredients I need for each week (again, organized by section of the grocery store). I made one row for our weekly staples, so I'll always be sure to include that one.

 Master sheet with drop down menu

Final shopping list with the selected meals + standard list

 Printed shopping list

Twenty different meals allows us to eat a different meal five nights a week for nearly an entire month (we usually eat out on Fridays and Saturdays). However, we can also repeat meals easily if we're craving something more frequently. Also, I can save the sheets I print out each week, so if I'm in a hurry and don't want to open my computer, select five meals, and press print (yes, sometimes I am that lazy or that pressed for time), I can simply grab an old one and go.

I can also easily enter in new meals that we want to try. Further, as our bank of go-to meals grows, I can add additional columns (such as season or prep time) and filter the recipes in additional ways. 

I've only tried this process once, but I'm optimistic that it's the solution we've been searching for all these years!

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BB said...

I use a free app called BigOven that can do all this on the fly, with my favorite recipes, or with any recipes, plus it's all on my phone. Its meal planning and grocery lists are so simple, they are a life saver.

CCL said...

I probably fall more into the "enjoys cooking" category, but the struggle for me with being organized and saving time is that I also want to save money and capitalize on weekly sale items. So, I usually start on Sunday morning by scanning the new sale ad and making a list of staples that are on sale that we consume (pasta noodles and shredded cheese, for example go on sale every few weeks and is often 50% off or more at my store and can last in the pantry or freezer.) Then I use that list to fill in recipe for the week and build my grocery list from there. Extra steps and work, I know, but it kills me to pay full recipe for stuff that does go on sale. There may be some system for this, but I just haven't figured it out yet. Thanks for sharing your new system.

beneg said...

Wow Sara, this looks amazing!I too have struggled with meal planning, and I think this may also be the answer I've been looking for... I imagine it's a lot of work to input all the recipes though. How many have you started with?

-A said...

Is there anyway you could upload and make available your excel template? It looks AMAZING! I've been struggling with meal planning forever and as a result we eat out way more than we should.

Sara E. Cotner said...

Thanks for sharing your app, BB! I've tried using online stuff + my phone, but it just doesn't work for me. My phone turns off automatically to save power, and I hate having to turn it on over and over again as I walk through the store. I have the same problem if I try to cook from online recipes. It's so much easier for me to print the recipe and put it in a binder that opens up flat. To each his or her own!

Hi, Bene! I entered 22 of our tried-and-true meals. The recipes are already printed in our binder, so I just had to the ingredients to the Excel document. It honestly didn't take as much work as I thought it would!

@ A: Just e-mail me for the template at saracotner {@} yahoo . com. I will gladly e-mail it to you (and to anyone else, for that matter!)

freespiritfarm said...

I love this idea!!!! I am constantly struggling with the planning/grocery shopping part of meals! I'd also love to get a template and change it around for some of our favorites! Thanks, Sara!!

Montessor Karla said...

Love this idea! Thanks for sharing!

blogorelli said...

WOW! This (and the Vegetarian Meals for a Year, def sending that on to some friends) is impressive. We have the same problem with taking the time/prep to have meals ready for the week, plenty of cookbooks and good intentions, but no time or motivation.

I got a Groupon for something called The Fresh 20 and we've been using that, it's 3 meat/1 fish/1 veg meal a week (and there are vegetarian and vegan options) -- the deal was $24 for a year, so only $2/month and so far we like it. I've tried stuff like this before and it hasn't stuck, and this isn't any kind of sponsored endorsement or anything, I just think this plan seems well designed and presented.

They provide a shopping list and give a prep list for the week...you can customize ingredients to be organic, etc. We print we each week and I keep in a binder to make notes and also star/cross out recipes we particularly like/dislike. Whew, that was long, bu hopefully helpful to someone!

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