One of the keys to getting organized is not running out and buying more fancy baskets and boxes to store our stuff in. In fact, many’s the time when I thought I “needed” something only to find that if I just cleaned up the drawer, cupboard, or closet and unloaded some unwanted items, I found myself with less stuff that needed to be boxed or basketed. I also usually find a great box or basket along the way.
The same holds true for meal planning.
I’ve always been a lover of meal planning. When I was a young newlywed, I would sit down on Saturday afternoon with my growing stack of cookbooks and begin to choose things that sounded good to make for the week ahead. Then I would make a grocery list based on those recipes and go buy everything.
Inevitably, I would overbuy because I hadn’t checked the cupboards to see what we already had. Food would go to waste since I wasn’t using up prior purchases. I thought that to prepare a good meal, I’d “need” to run to the store and get all the ingredients in the recipe, sometimes going every day of the week because I forgot something.
Time and a little debt-fighting later, I’ve learned some better and more economical ways of meal planning.
Sure, I use the above method for special occasions. My kids and hubby each get to determine the menu on their birthdays. So, yes, for those special days, I just make a list from their menu and go shopping — after I check the cupboards to see what we actually need, of course.
But, nowadays, my menu planning follows a different pattern. I look to see what we have first, choose menus I can build from there, and then add in other purchases from the store, usually based on what’s on sale. In this way, I’m being a good steward of our resources, both money and the groceries I’ve already spent time and money procuring.
Twice a year, I take this a few steps further by Eating Down the Pantry. For the past few weeks I’ve been shopping from my pantry and freezer before I go shopping at the store. This pantry challenge means that I’m forcing myself to use those random purchases that I’m avoiding.
Why did I buy so many pork chops — when my husband doesn’t like pork chops?
Not only does this pantry challenge help me save money on groceries and clean up my cupboards, but it also helps me in my meal planning.
Here’s how it works:
1. Take an inventory. Go through your freezer, refrigerator, and pantry. Throw out what’s out of date or gone bad. Make a list of what you have. Take inventory so you can plan better.
2. Examine your list to see what proteins you have available. For instance, you might have canned tuna, dried beans, three packs of pork chops, a whole chicken, and several bags of pasta.
3. What other randomness did you find? Let’s say you also found a bag of potato chips, a jar of barbecue sauce, some sundried tomatoes, some rice papers, and a jar of salsa. Sounds like an episode of Chopped, doesn’t it?
4. Create a meal plan focusing on these items. With the above you can easily create a potato-chip topped tuna casserole, Jalapeno Chili, Skillet Pork Chops, a Roast Chicken, Summer Rolls, and Creamy Chicken Pasta with Spinach and Tomatoes.
Who knew you could make all that based on what you already had?!
Chances are you can glean quite a few meals out of your kitchen as it stands right now. It takes a little creative thinking and elbow grease, but it can save you money and help you get your food stores organized and ready to work better for you.
You can follow along with the Pantry Challenge, share your experiences, and get help on how you struggle to use items that you’ve purchased in the past.
What’s your approach to meal planning?
Jessica Fisher is a busy mom to six children, making her home in San Diego. She writes about life, laughter and the pursuit of a clean house at Life as Mom and shares delicious ways to act your wage at Good Cheap Eats. She is the author of several books, including Organizing Life as MOM and Not Your Mother’s Make-Ahead and Freeze Cookbook.
Note from Laura: see my review of Jessica’s new cookbook here.