Monday, February 25, 2008

Doing a Meal Planning Project

I am doing a project regarding planning meals, dinner to be exact. My husband is working at his new job and the family schedule and routine has changed as a result. Formerly my husband, who loves to cook, was making dinner for the family. Now it is back to being my responsibility. At the end of a full day with my children, doing the homeschooling, running around here and there, the last thing I want to do is plan a meal at the last minute and prepare it.

We hardly buy any processed and prepared foods. We do not eat prepared foods like prepared frozen chicken or fish meals, pre-sauced and pre-seasoned or fully prepared. We hardly use any boxed, processed food kits (i.e. rice mixes, coatings for meats and such). About the most processed we get is dried pasta or frozen cheese ravioli, or Luna bars or pretzels for a snack. Our veggies are made from fresh veggies or they are frozen organic, raw vegetables which we then steam or cook. We eat salads from fresh ingredients. We do not normally keep desserts on hand. My children do NOT eat desserts after lunch and seldom after dinner either. The snacks we eat are ‘normal food’ with the exception of sometimes air-popped organic popcorn or the pretzels or a healthy type granola bar (Clif, Luna). This is why meal planning for me is not as simple as taking a frozen chunk of something from the freezer and reheating it, or mixing up ingredients from a box on the stove top.

I hate making dinner. I hate planning dinner at the end of the day. Well I guess the problem is that I don’t plan it and then it nears dinner time, I don’t know what we will eat and everything is frozen or raw, as our stomachs are growling. I procrastinate about dinner meal planning as I just don’t like it and I feel I have other better things I’d rather be doing with my time. I know it sounds illogical to think that me spending time blogging this is more important than thinking about dinner but I am being honest.

The best ever time for me and dinner preparation was when my second son was born. We were given a free membership to get groceries delivered to the house. I’d order over the Internet by a certain date and time and then they’d be delivered. Voila. It was fantastic. I was forced to think ahead to what all the meals would be. I actually made a menu plan each week including breakfast, lunch and snack too. I then ordered everything I needed for those meals. I then had everything on hand and pulled out my menu each day and made the meal. The whole planning of meals and Internet grocery ordering took about two hours of my time.

It is not as simple right now as we don’t use a grocery delivery system. We could do that, but the reality is we buy most of our groceries not from the regular grocery store. A major source of our food is Costco (bulk foods at discount prices) and Trader Joe’s (a discount health food store with tons of organic foods not available at Costco or at the local grocery store). Right now we’re doing a once per week Costco run, going to Trader Joe’s about every 3-4 weeks and going to the grocery store once about every 4 weeks, sometimes it is longer.

We cook in bulk sometimes, usually homemade pasta sauces and soups. The meat purchased in bulk gets frozen. When I make homemade bread in bulk I freeze it. Other healthy breads with short shelf lives are purchased in bulk and frozen. Where do we put our food? We have an extra refrigerator and a full freezer in the basement. The dry goods are stored in our pantry or in an extra shelf in the basement stairwell.

Since we cook from scratch so often, keeping the base ingredients on hand is not hard. We have the basics that we use in numerous recipes.

Right now I am in the process of making a list of the dinner meals we eat. I am also compiling the ingredients listing for each recipe. I am getting reading to plot out our dinner meals on a calendar. I am starting by planning the meals that can use up the foods I already have on hand, such as the frozen soups already in the freezer. I then will get us into the shopping habit of having on hand what we need to make those meals which are plotted on the calendar.

If I found this more fun the task would have been done already. I expect that I’ll finish up this planning process today or tomorrow. I’ll let you know how it goes and if I am actually able to keep in place the schedule that I have planned. I am really more of a spontaneous person who rebels against rigid schedules so this goes against my grain. However I am sick of having a rumbling stomach at six in the evening and being forced to eat pasta with butter on it for the second or third time that week as everything else is frozen! (And my husband is sick of it too.)

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Christina said...

I agree, the planning wasn't as much fun as I thought and took me a good month to pull together in dribs and drabs. We are on a four-week menu cycle here that includes two bulk meals for freezing each week, two take-out meals each cycle (Chinese and pizza), and accommodates our "hot lunch" Wednesdays when we are out at dinnertime (so picnic dinner then).

Now that it's done, I love the simplicity of my shopping. Mine includes a regular Saturday AM run to the farmers' market, and a Tuesday grocery trip while my girls are in a class nearby. I want still to get the standard lists printed out; right now I handwrite them off the computer before I go and add in the necessaries we've run out of from the refrigerator list. But the freedom from planning is terrific; like you, we had buttered pasta too often, and take-out too. It's beautiful simply to consult the chart!

Esther said...

This is so funny because I could've said much of what you both said. I just blogged about it last night, in fact. (Or was that early this morning ... ? Anyway ... ) What is it about meal planning that seems to ... adverse?? I hate it. I'm not the cooking type and it has been a real struggle through the years to get over that and make a healthier plan for my family.

I can totally relate to the beauty of consulting the chart. My family appreciates that, too.

Mika said...

Meal planning is alternately drudgery or pleasurable for me. I use a similar system to the one you're in the process of setting up. I made 6 meal categories and have assigned 8-10 meals to each category -- tried and true things my family is always happy to eat.

Each month, when my Cooking Light subscription comes in, I begin by plugging in new recipes that look fun to try on my calendar. Then I go back and use the "tried and true" list to fill in holes.

We buy a fair amount of food in bulk and usually do a "big" trip to grocery/warehouse store about every 7-10 days. I'm not dogmatic about fixing a meal on the exact night it is planned, but with my shopping and planning habits in place, I find it is easy to keep a weeks' worth of meals fixable.

My biggest challenge is finding time to go grocery shopping. I dislike shopping with my children (they are so gregarious, and I can't think about shopping and juggle conversation at the same time) -- and finding time to ditch them with the dh is difficult.