Managing Groceries and Meal Planning

Over the years, I have come up with some strategies to keep organized in the kitchen so that grocery shopping and cooking can be enjoyable rather than stressful. This approach was born out of frustration from throwing away too many unused ingredients at the end of the week, and getting ready to start a meal only to realize that I was missing a crucial ingredient. It’s a 10 step process, and has proven to be a good fit for my family’s needs and lifestyle:

  1. Keep a “Restock” list
  2. Check your schedule for the week
  3. Check the weather (to grill, or not to grill…)
  4. Check the freezer for any leftovers or meats that can be used
  5. Take a quick spin through the fridge and pantry. Toss anything spoiled, move things that need to be used soon front and center, and add any items needing replenished to the list
  6. Make a meal list for the week
  7. Look up the ingredient list for each meal, add any needed ingredients to the list
  8. Head to the store, list in hand
  9. Cross off list items as you add them to the cart
  10. Hang onto the list, and cross of meals as they are cooked

So at this point, you might be thinking, c’mon…10 steps? It might seem like a lot of extra work, but I promise you there is a method to my madness, and that in the end I am saving both time and money by putting in a little extra effort on the front end. Let’s talk about each step in more detail, and the reasons why it’s on the list…

Step 1:

Keep a “Restock” list near the kitchen. Any time you run out of (or better yet, are running low on) something, add it to the list. This forms the basis of our weekly shopping list. Ours was originally stored in our kitchen island junk drawer, until my mother-in-law gave us this handy magnetic notepad and pen. Now it is attached to the side of the fridge. The key to this approach is that all family members (even Mischief and Mayhem) know that if it doesn’t get added to the list, it doesn’t get put in the grocery cart! This step is key to the whole system. It helps me keep a well-stocked pantry, and since I feel like my list is already well underway it motivates me to finish out the list with meal ingredients.

Restock List

Restock List and pen kept handy on fridge

Steps 2-6:

Rip the restock list off the pad, flip it over, and create a meal list for the week. I start by looking at the calendar, and trying to form a realistic plan based on our schedule. I figure out how many meals we will be having at home, and based on what activities we have each day, how much time I think I’ll have for meal prep and cooking. Before we had kids, The Hubs and I averaged about 5 meals out a week. When we became parents, and needed to reassess our budget, we tried to bring that number down significantly. I found that I was much more successful making small but steady progress toward our goal instead of trying to go from 2 to 7 home cooked meals overnight. Nowadays our aim is to have 6 meals at home, and either order in or go out no more than once a week. I’ve found over time that the key for me to achieving this goal is to save the fancier meals for the weekend and not be overly ambitious about what we cook during the week. I have several strategies for keeping it simple, including quick-cooking meals, doing some prep ahead, cooking entire meals ahead.

In my next post, I’ll share several of my go-to recipes for getting a home-cooked meal on the table on a weeknight that even my picky preschoolers will eat. For now, I want to focus on the process and share some of the things I consider when trying to plan a week of meals…

  • Is there an ingredient in the fridge that is still good, and do I have a recipe for it?
  • Is there a meat, or a full meal, in the freezer that would work this week?
  • Which nights will we be home, and how much time do I expect to have?
  • How busy is our weekend, and will I have time for prepping or cooking ahead?
  • Will the weather be nice enough to use the grill at all this week?
  • Any requests from the rest of the family?
  • Are there any meals I can double, to either freeze for another week or to gift to family and friends?
Meal Plan

Write out your plan for what to cook each day on the back of the list

Step 7:

This step is made far easier by my electronic recipe app, Paprika. I just search for the recipes I’ve chosen and then jot down the ingredients that aren’t already in the pantry or fridge. If you missed my post about how I use Paprika, check it out here. This is also the step that keeps me from having to run back to the grocery store mid-week because I’m missing an ingredient I need to finish a dish.

Finish the list

Finish out your list with the ingredients to make your planned meals

Steps 8-9:

There’s nothing worse than going through the trouble of making a list, then forgetting it and then discovering when you get home from the store that you’re missing half the items on it! I always make my list right before I head to the store and then tuck it straight into my purse or pocket along with a pen. Crossing items off as they do into the cart keeps me on track and focused on getting just what I need rather than being distracted by tempting displays or endcaps.

Cross off as you go

Cross items off the list as they go into the cart

Step 10:

I used to have a great memory…and then I had kids. The Hubs calls this “goldfish brain”, and I’m lucky some days that I can remember my name. For this reason, I have gotten in the habit of hanging onto the grocery list through the week for the meal list on the back. I use the plan more as a guideline, and frequently swap meals from different days depending on my mood or how the day went. I cross off as I go, so that I (and the Hubs, who is AWESOME at pitching in with evening meals) knows what is left to cook. Seriously, without that meal list, halfway through the week I find myself staring aimlessly into the open fridge perplexed as to how all those ingredients were supposed to turn into a meal 🙂

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