Wednesday, September 22, 2010

How to plan meals & grocery shop

Though it's a skill that's taken some time to hone, planning meals for the week is something that I couldn't imagine not doing now.  With or without a busy schedule, I'd recommend this to anyone -- it saves time, money, and gets food into my stomach much faster than the panicked scavenger hunt that would take place if I didn't have a game plan  After a long day at work and the gym, I'm usually starving when I get home.  I can't tell you how great it is to know that within 30-45 minutes of minimal work, I'll be sitting down to enjoy a delicious dinner.  You see, I'm pretty impatient and, if there isn't a hearty meal on the horizon, before I realize it, I'm shoveling eating spoonfuls of Nutella or handfuls of Kashi cereal... hey, gotta feed those tired muscles ASAP :)  I have a feeling I'm not alone in my frantic hunger-driven snacking attacks.

Anyway, last week, a friend/recent graduate/new professional asked me about planning meals.  She said that she and her boyfriend will get inspired to do it but lose motivation when they try to put pen to paper.  They become frustrated with a lack of ideas and doubts as to how they can possibly predict what they'll want to eat days from then.  I promised her that we'd have a nice long chat and I'd spill all of my secrets.  Since we haven't yet been able to have that conversation, here's hoping that she doesn't read this before then and I can use my "notes" when necessary :)

How to Plan a Week's Worth of Meals & Grocery Shop

Part 1: Planning

1. Start an organized list of what you need.  I divide a blank sheet of computer paper into six sections with the following labels: produce, meats, pantry, dairy, freezer, other.  This works well with the layout of my grocery store and helps to make me an efficient shopper.  On the other side of paper, I jot down the headings "Dinners," "Lunches," and "Desserts/Baking" as a cheat sheet to hang on my fridge for the week.  I try to plan 4-5 dinners and lunches usually consist of leftovers from the night before and maybe deli or tuna sandwiches with some fruits and veggies.

2. List all of the items that you use weekly and need (i.e. fruits, milk, bread, eggs) and any staples you are currently out of, such as olive oil, flour, etc.

3. Pick up a weekly sale flyer from your regular grocery store (mine comes in the mail around Wednesday).  Browse through it, paying special attention to the meats, poultry and seafood on special (since meat is typically the most expensive item), and circle items of interest.  Think if you can use any of them for a meal.  Great example -- BOGO beef roasts, one used for slow cooker beef with mushrooms and tomatoes, and the other for beer braised beef with carrots and onions.  You don't necessarily have to use all of a sale item that week, since meats and breads freeze well, but try not to buy beyond the week.

4. Take a look through your fridge, freezer, and pantry.  What items do you have that can be used for future meals?  Maybe frozen chicken from a big pack that I only used half of this week?  If I'm having cook's block, I'll do a quick interwebs search (Food Network and Martha Stewart are my go-to resources) using a few ingredients as keywords to get inspiration.  You might be surprised to find that you have the makings of a complete meal or maybe only need one ingredient, saving you lots of money and not wasting food.

5. Review your list of meals and add any ingredients you need that aren't listed and thinking if you can tweak any recipe to include a double-duty ingredient.  I love these!  Example: frozen broccoli.  I cooked the entire package: half of the package was a side dish for one dinner, while the other half was stored to be used two days later for the stromboli recipe coming on Friday.  Score!

6. Coupons.  I've been trying to become more savvy in this area, but the ads I get in the mail are rather limited.  If you get a good supply, review and clip items that you use regularly.  Coupons up to 99 cents are usually doubled at most stores and can really add up and save you big bucks on items like toilet paper, cereal, peanut butter, etc.

7. Finally, don't worry about thinking you might not be in the mood for a certain meal.  I have the cheat sheet up and usually can rotate meals to any night of the week.  Plus, I've noticed that I look forward to certain things and really enjoy them when their night rolls around.

 Part 2: Shopping (Tips)

1. Always take your list!  Not only do I suffer from shiny object syndrome, but I also love the grocery store.  My friend Natalie refers to it as my favorite place in the world.  So, you can imagine how easily distracted I can get.  My list keeps me focused and from splurging on too many impulse items.

2. Do not go hungry!  Holy cow, I make this mistake almost every time and find myself thinking things like, "Yes, I absolutely do need Oreo ice cream, string cheese, Wheat Thins, and Mint Milanos."  No, Katy, you don't.

3. Allow yourself one impulse buy.  This week it was the Rice Krispies Treats Cereal, which until this past Sunday I had believed to be extinct.  Mega awesome buy!  As for the rest of your list, say you decide that the stock of strawberries doesn't look very appealing so you skip them this week, allow yourself a substitute item.

4. Buy only what you need!  "It's not a bargain if you don't need it."  Strawberries may be BOGO but look closely -- most of the time, you don't need to buy two to receive the discount.  They'll most likely go bad before I can eat all of them.  Conversely, if bread is BOGO, thus being half of what it originally costs, I'll buy two loaves and freeze one until I need it.  That's $3 I won't have to spend on my next trip.

5. Read the price labels closely.  Most of the time, items will show a price per ounce in small font above the unit price.  It's small, but buying a block of cheddar cheese may save 10 cents per ounce over the pre-shredded variety.  Decide what's more important to you (it may differ from person to person), either money or time.

6.  Pay attention to the computer screen when you're checking out.  I was a cashier at Giant Eagle one summer, and I can say that it's not easy memorizing the codes for a billion kinds of produce.  I will also admit that we do not read the weekly ads and computers make mistakes, so if you see something fishy such as an incorrect price or an item scanned twice, speak up.  As long as you're polite, people will be willing to help you.

I hope you find this helpful when it comes to planning your weekly meals and groceries!  I've found that I spend less when I have a plan of attack, waste less food, and even enjoy the challenge each week :)  Do you plan your meals?  Are there any tips that you would share?


  1. Yaaaaay!!!!!! :) :) :) So nice and helpful...for this "friend," whomever she may be..

    LOVE IT!

  2. wow, katy - i'm impressed. this is hardcore! this is coming from someone who cooked their first dinner (using the oven not the george foreman) last week. it was rice, broccoli and chicken casserole (with melted cheese). it was a success! haha. enjoying your blog posts, was just taking a look!

  3. Thanks, Elizabeth! And congrats on the first oven meal! I'm sure it was delicious. Can't wait to hear what's next :) There are many ideas here... just sayin' ha ha