Do you plan out your meals?

If you think this is a post in which I berate encourage you to do a better job planning, it’s not.

I don’t plan.  Not really.  Well, sort of, I do.

But not like my friend Daja at the Provision Room.  She’s a pro.

A friend asked me yesterday, “Do you have a website that you use to plan meals or do you just wing it?”

Here was my response:

Somewhere in the middle. I don’t use a website. What I do is see what is on sale for the week, and plan my meals — roughly — around that. “OK. Pork roast is on sale. I can do a Crockpot with green chile pork.” And I know that I always have green chiles, onions, garlic, and the spices to make that happen. “OK. Boneless, skinless chicken breasts are on a smoking sale. I’ll buy four packages, put one in the freezer, do stirfry with one, grill two packages using one batch of grilled chicken for dinner that night and saving the other grilled chicken for chicken sandwiches on the night I have small group and I need a fast meal…” Like that. I also purposefully make LARGE dinners, both so that Martin can take leftovers for lunch at work (he prefers that, and it saves money) AND so that we can have at least one night during the week (usually Saturday) where we have a whole meal of just leftovers.

And then… if there isn’t a cut of meat on sale at a price I want to pay, or if there are other staple items that have taken a big chunk out of that week’s grocery budget, I pull stuff out of the freezer.

So… I don’t plan stuff out like with a website. But, I do make a rough plan in my head, based on what I know I keep on hand in the pantry, dishes I know our family likes, and dishes that will best use what’s on sale that week.

Hope that makes sense.

This does bring to mind a few things:

  1. I have quite a few standard pantry items.  When I run out of one thing (or come close to it), I always put it on my grocery shopping list.  I know my pantry well, and I ensure it stays stocked.
  2. When I make my grocery shopping lists, I combine both what I know I need with what is on sale that week, using the weekly ads, if the store has one.  With the sale ads, I can see what “occasional buy” type items might be found at a good price that week.  For instance, in my shopping trip last night to Sprouts, I had, among other things, arborio rice, chia seeds, and yogurt on the list.  When I looked at the sale ads*, I saw that Sprouts also had bulk quinoa at $2.49/lb, Mom’s Best cereal (not g.f., not organic, but all-natural and my older two boys can eat it) at $2/box, and Cascade Fresh 6 oz yogurt cups at 2/$1.00.  Those are all things that I can and will use, even if they weren’t initially on my list.  Yes, there was yogurt on my list, but I usually only buy plain.  Cascade Fresh is one of my favorite brands — all natural, fruit-juice-sweetened, and it was nice for a treat.  So, I purchased.  (I also purchased one soy-based yogurt at $0.99 for my son who can’t have dairy.  It was a brand that uses non-GMO, organic soybeans…  I’m not a huge fan of soy, but when he only has one soy yogurt every month or two, I think his body can weather it.)
  3. I have a mental file of what is a good price for pretty much everything.  For example, on my shopping list were dry beans and canned pumpkin.  However, this shopping trip, both were expensive – – not on sale.  So, I didn’t purchase.  I’ll wait until next week or another store to get a good price.  Can I wait for a few days or a week or even more to purchase those things?  Yes, I can.
  4. I cook exclusively from scratch and mostly without using recipes.  I know not everyone has this skill…  My mom taught me how to cook, starting at age seven.  I’m 39.  That’s 32 years of cooking.  I enjoy it, too!  So, while I often keep an eye out for a new recipe to try, I would hazard to say that nine out of ten dinnertime meals are made without a recipe.  This allows me to be more flexible.  I know what I can make, I know what our family likes, and I can make those items, sans a recipe.  I don’t have to pull out a recipe card, look at the 15 items, realize that I don’t have 13 of them, and then put all 13 things on my shopping list.  In other words, what’s on sale dictates the menu, not the other way around.
  5. If I have a hankerin’ for something or someone makes a special request — like homemade pizza or homemade Caesar salad — I’ll put mozzarella cheese, (nitrate-free!) pepperoni, and tinned anchovies on the list, and I’ll purchase them if I can find them at a good price, and make that special item.  Often, though, I will “plan” to make a special dish for two, three, or even four weeks before I find all the items needed to make that special dish at the right price.  If those items cost too much that week — or if they don’t otherwise fit within the budget — I will add the “special purchase” item back to the grocery list for next week.
  6. My flexible approach makes participating in a CSA, farm share, or other “random” produce plan work well:  It really doesn’t matter what kinds of produce I get that week.  Whatever comes in the basket, I can find multiple ways to make it work.

So, I guess that’s what it boils down to:  I prefer flexibility and saving the maximum amount of money OVER having all my ducks carefully lined up in a row and me knowing a week (or a month!) in advance what I will be making on any given day.  But, like I wrote to my friend above, that doesn’t mean I don’t plan at all;  I just don’t plan in what might be considered a traditional, menu-planning way.

So, how about you?  What tools do you use?  Any?  Are you looking to change your meal-planning habits any time in the future?  If so, why?  If not, why?  Inquiring minds want to know….


*As a bonus, Sprouts has double-ad Wednesdays.  Each sale ad starts on Wednesday and ends Thursday, eight days later.  So each Wednesday, two weeks’ worth of ads are valid.  So, when there is a screamin’ deal — like navel oranges at 4 lbs/$1.00, I know I can buy 10+ this Wednesday, and 10+ lbs next Wednesday, too.  I virtually always shop at Sprouts on Wednesdays to take advantage of double ads.

About Karen Joy

I'm a partially-homeschooling mother of six -- 3 boys ages 19, 17 and 15 years old, and three girls: 11, 8, and 3. I like birding, reading, writing, organic gardening, singing, playing guitar, hiking, the outdoors, and books. I very casually lead a very large group of homeschooling families in the Phoenix area. I have a dear hubby who designs homes for a local home builder and who is the worship pastor of our church. I live in the desert, which I used to hate, but now appreciate.

Posted on February 21, 2013, in Budget, Cooking/Baking/Food/Recipes, Get Organized!, Groceries, Housework, Shopping. Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. I love Daja too…. and her dear mother, Lady Dorothy as well. They’re both such dynamos. I admire them so.

    I never meal-plan… or shall I say I *seldom* meal plan. Sometimes I’ll be thinking about supper for the next night, as I’m washing dishes the previous. If I have to get out some meat from the deep freeze, for the most part. Otherwise I start thinking about supper somewhere between noon-2pm. We’re simple-meal-eaters… fried eggs & toast have always been well received, as have peanut butter & jelly sandwiches, if I’m just not up to making anything else. My family goes along with whatever is set down on the table in front of them… and don’t complain. The only time I’ve ever had a complaint was years ago when I tried a new recipe…. Lima Bean Casserole. It was not received well & has been the brunt of jokes from my now-adult children ever since. Oh… that & a tofu-something-or-another dish I made one time. That still generates the chuckles too. But I take it all in good stride. After almost 37 years of being a married woman who has always been in charge of the kitchen, a couple dishes that weren’t well received isn’t too bad of a record.

    Oh, I always make whatever I have on hand. I don’t go “ingredient shopping” for a night’s meal. I’m just not that ambitious. For holidays, yes…. or special gatherings, yes… I’ll ingredient shop. Otherwise I do not. I prepare whatever we have on hand & this has led to some mighty interesting combinations. *lol*


  2. It’s funny because I was just working on a meal plan then scrolling through facebook and saw your post, so I wanted to see what you had to say about it. 🙂 I wish I could do it your way, sounds fantastic, but actually not, just thinking about it and even reading about it stressed me out. I was reading someone else’s blog recently who said something similar and I’ve been intrigued by that type of meal planning but can’t do it….yet.

    If I don’t have a meal plan I get stressed about dinner because I haven’t been cooking since I was 7. I’m glad you brought that part up because when I thought about it I’ve only been cooking outside of a jar for a little over 2 years. And how long have I been married, how old are my kids…yeah. So I feel better knowing that yes, you’ve been doing this a while, and I haven’t. In all honesty, I am very happy with myself because I have grown so much in the cooking and baking department in the last 2 years.

    But ever since our most recent move in November my meal planning has been sporadic, so I’ve had some stress recently at the 3, 4, 5 o’clock hour. (I do start thinking about dinner in the morning, but sometimes I am still thinking about it by the time it reaches 3:00.) I do at least now have some go to family favorites that I know and keep food on hand for every month. Then I try to have something like nitrate free or organic hot dogs and frozen peas on hand for those oops nights. Those nights are usually the kids’ favorites! But I have to admit there have been a few times recently that I’ve asked Jason to make dinner…usually a weekend night, but one weeknight when he came home early. To my defense, he likes cooking and was the main cook of the family when we were first married and I had a harder job than he had. AND he is very good at being creative, looking at what we have and coming up with something original and yummy! It’s very fun when he cooks!

    But I’ve had a few close calls recently where we were very close to having nothing for dinner, since there were no more hot dogs, and the go-to meals were already made this week. And that’s when I pray, “Oh God help me figure something out…” AND, because His throne is one of grace, we’ve had some pretty good dinners those nights, either by just an idea floating into my brain, or by choosing something we have, like sweet potatoes and googling “sweet potato dinner recipes” and hoping there was a good one out there with other ingredients that I had on hand. It’s been working out, but I’ve known I’ve needed to crank out a meal plan. And tonight’s meal was a little on the sad side, don’t even ask what it was, because it was a combination of two smaller meals I happened to find in the freezer.

    Soooo, back to meal planning. It makes finding deals and using CSA food a little bit harder….BUT feeding my family a quality meal on time every night wins. And having a meal plan is the only way I feel confident that it will happen. I actually try to meal plan for a whole month. I can’t get to every store I buy from every week, but I can get there once a month. So my monthly food budget is truly monthly and not weekly, I spend more at the beginning of the month, making sure to save some money for milk, eggs, and fresh veggies/fruit for later weeks of the month. That way when deals come up on things I know we use in meals, I go ahead and buy a bunch if I can and freeze. Because I cook a lot from scratch now, the basics don’t change a lot. Every month, or whenever we are out, I buy chicken, salmon, ground beef, eggs, certain veggies, spices, evoo, coconut oil, cheese, beans, etc etc. The CSA veggies that I didn’t end up using last week I threw in the juicer with some carrots, cucumber, and lemon. So we enjoyed our romanesco as juice this morning! I actually threw in a little fennel too which added a very nice unique taste to it! Also, even though I meal plan for a month, I usually don’t mind changing a meal, like if I get something from the CSA that I want to use, or if another idea comes to mind. So it usually works out. I’ve been trying to find the best prices of certain things from a variety of different places so I base my budget around full-price items instead of deals. Then when I find the deals I try buy extra to save, if I can. BUT, I have to admit it has been super duper super squeezing tight lately, mostly because I’ve been stocking up on some bulk items from Azure which will save money in the long run, but expensive now, and paying for 6 weeks up front for the CSA etc. And of course, you know what kind of food I like to buy, not cheap! But, finding some good deals on Azure and at Costco has been helping a little.

    Sorry about the novel…I don’t have a blog because I just leave blog post sized comments on other people’s blogs! Also, I know you’re a fast reader… 🙂 Thanks for the post, I always find what you have to say very interesting and thoughtful!

  3. Ha, I read this right after making a menu and shopping list yesterday. 🙂 I normally don’t make a menu but keep a basic knowledge of what we have, need, eat in my head and work from there… I’m trying to get better at planning ahead, simplifying, making the most of what we have and of course getting a more natural diet that doesn’t make David frustrated that its to much work…. -_- we used to have a running pantry program that detailed what we kept on hand, but that stopped when we moved here and the program died with the cpu… Having a menu will give my family an opportunity help/start/make dinner if I’m not able for some reason. Having a fully stocked pantry and a plan makes it less likely that Dave will wreck 3 of my “planned meals” to make one substitute dinner. 🙂 not that I don’t appreciate his help.. 🙂

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