Wednesday, June 3, 2015

{Meal Planning} From the Frying Pan into the Fire into the Sink

I believe in the saying "If you fail to plan, you plan to fail."  Larger projects, things that I don't like doing or activities that require multiple working parts to be functioning all at once - I need to plan those things out.  I need to sit down, put pen to paper and hash stuff out.

This is how I approach meal planning and grocery shopping.

I do not enjoy doing either of those tasks, they are necessary evils in my mind.

Additionally, let me mention the beauty of choice.  I am planning on sharing meals that I plan for my family, food that I purchase for my family and places I shop for my family - these are all choices that I make that are right for my family, for today.  I'm all for evolving and changing and all that other good stuff, right now though, this is what's working.  With that being said, you may not like the meals that I'm about to share, you may not consume the foods we do or shop at the stores that I do, and you know what - it's okay.  Take what you like or what will work for you right now and run with it, leave everything else to the side.  I won't be offended.  Freedom of choice is a wonderful thing.

So, you may be asking yourself, "what's with the title, kind of weird?"

Yep, it is.  And here is why -

About seven years ago we were in a really tight financial situation.  I had to plan out meals and buy food for a family of four at $175 every two weeks, for years - 5 years.  I did it, I made it work.  It was stressful and insane and sucked, but it happened.  That's the "into the Fire" part of the title.

So, let's do a little math, shall we?  $175 for 15 days at 3 meals per day means that I was spending $3.88 per meal to feed 4 people.  How?  Sticking to serving size recommendations, buying exactly what I needed, no more, and planning meals around sales.  I did not coupon.  Though, if I came upon coupons that I could use, I'd utilize them, but I didn't invest time in the process.  The primary store I shopped at didn't accept coupons.

Those were lean times.  It was during that time that I learned some important planning skills that I still use to this day.  But, before I get into that, what is it like now?  Well, now I shop for a family of 5 (essentially 4 adult eaters and 1 child eater) every two weeks on $330.  So, that's $7.33 per meal for 5 people.

Here is how -

I purchase a calendar that looks like this every year from Dollar Tree (for $1) and use it to plan out my meals, two weeks at a time.  Why two weeks?  Because that's when my husband gets paid, and it's with his income that we purchase groceries with.

First, I look at what activities we have committed to in the evenings and write those out at the top of each day.  This two week snapshot really isn't a good representation of a normal two weeks for us. June is technically "summer", but I mean, you get the idea.  On days that it's crazy busy (two or more activities) I plan a crockpot meal.

"Hey wait, that's THREE weeks, not TWO."  You are right!  We are going on vacation at the end of June and it just seems easier to plan that last week out while I was planning anyways.

TIP - Write is out in pencil.  Give yourself some grace. 
TIP - Hang the calendar someplace you can access it easily, but not out in the open.  (I hang mine on the inside of my pantry door and when I make breakfast in the morning see what I have planned for that evening should I need to pull anything from the freezer to thaw or marinade something).

I made up a master list of dinner meal options a few years back when I noticed that we were eating the same exact thing every two week cycle.


I have since added to this list and make notes as necessary.  What I do is every time I sit down to plan out our meals I hit up All Recipe (you can use whatever site you want, I like this one) and look for two new recipes that I can add into the rotation.  I "pin" these recipes to my Pinterest board as well (which means it's accessible, say, if I'm on vacation and need to make dinner).  I don't add those "new" recipes to the master list until I get my family's okay on the meal.  Some are hits, some are drastic misses. I also note which meals are "new" on my calendar so when I allow myself a little more time in the kitchen for prep.

We plan meal time to be 6pm.  I'm in the kitchen at 5pm starting dinner.

"Okay, great - dinner.  What about breakfast and lunch?"  Great question!  This is where we are boring.  Breakfast consists of oatmeal with fresh fruit, eggs or sausage and milk (soy or almond) or kiefer (and in my case, coffee, too).  How do I get my 15 year old and 10 year old to eat OATMEAL?  I have slowly trained them.  We started off with getting boxes of flavored oatmeal packets and I would cut the contents of one packet with a serving of plain oatmeal (this was back in the "in the Fire" days), and ever so slowly I have cut back on how much of the flavored packet stuff I would add until they were eating plain oatmeal.

"So, YOU make their breakfast, like every day?" - Yep, because if I didn't they would try to sustain on white toast with jelly and that ain't happening in my house for two reasons - 1) My oldest son takes a slow release medication every morning that kills his appetite but he needs to eat something with it and I can't think of a more complete meal than a slow digesting carb with a protein, can you?  2) My middle son has crazy food sensitivities.  I have to monitor what he eats and when because we are slowly reintroducing one food at a time to his diet to see how he tolerates it.  How crazy?  This crazy

And, then, for lunch it's a sandwich with a fruit, raw veggie and water.

Snacks - eh, maybe?  It depends.  A yogurt, a cheese stick, maybe some keifer.  But, no, not on a consistent basis.

TIP - Funny food issues (allergies or sensitivities), keep a list posted in the kitchen where you can see it.  (Though my middle son is sensitive to tomatoes, I kept feeding them to him weeks after we got the results from his food allergy test back.  Why?  Because I had his list hidden because I didn't want visitors to think he was weird.  Guess what - I got over that concern real fast after he suffered a food induced headache that landed him in bed for 24 hours because he had tomatoes with three of four meals in a row.)
TIP - Slowly introduce food changes.  Switching from white bread to sourdough bread, make sandwiches with a slice of each for a few weeks before completely switching over.  Try 1/2 glasses of drinks instead of full glasses.  And explain why the changes are happening and talk about nutrition and how foods help (or not) our bodies and brains.  

How to Shop
So, this is what my pantry, freezers and fridge looked like yesterday prior to shopping

Top Shelf - sauces, vinegars, cooking wines and "extras"
(or items that will get used, just not up in rotation yet) and coffee
Middle shelves - canned veggies, fruits, sauces, soups, noodles, rice, etc.
Bottom shelf - currently in use (or will be used) oil, stock, croutons (crackers)
and marinades (packets of powder mixes)

Top shelf - baggies and wraps
Middle shelves - breakfast stuff, lunch stuff and "snack" foods
Bottom shelf - baking ingredients
Inside door - calendar of meals, index cards with food
restrictions for kids who frequent our home

Fridge - pretty much condiments, and a bag of carrots 

Freezer - ummm - top part is baggies with juiced veggies in ice
cube form, and bottom is left overs to be used for other meals

Deep freezer - don't let the ribs fool you, those are left from Memorial Day
we went to a party and didn't eat them.  They will be used during week #3 for a
pre-Father's day dinner.  Under the ribs are jars of fresh, raw apple juice
and bags of picked berries.  And then, bread.  

So, I let these get as low as possible.  This means that I am shopping to what I am preparing.  I don't just buy food and try to make it work.  I plan my meals, make my list according to what I have and then buy only what I need.  If I have excess items (like those hot dogs in the deep freezer (Costco buy) then I'll use them up.

I will plan out my meals on the calendar, then check what I have on hand, and then make up my list of items that I will need.  I break it down by store, and start the list with the very first meal on my calendar working my way over each day.  It'll look like this

"Woah!  I see body wash and pads on your list, and you shop at Costco?"  Yes, and yes.  The $330 for the 15 day period includes EVERYTHING we will need, not just food.  So, you will see toilet paper and dish soap, and body wash and panty liners. And yes, we do shop at Costco.  I usually get more than just the Muscle Milk that is listed (usually 1 2pk of 18 eggs and 3 cases of kiefer), but egg prices have skyrocketed and Costco has been out of kiefer the last three shopping trips I've done.  I'm erring on the side of caution and just purchasing the larger bottles from Mariano's this time around.  

That list - that's exactly what I get - nothing more.  How do I stick to my list?  I buy everything with cash.  I start with Aldi since that is the store we get the vast majority of our staples from, then move on to WalMart (which by me is right next to Aldi), from there I re-assess what money I have left and then go to Mariano's, any specialty shops (in this case, the Italian market for pizza set ups) and then to Costco.

Here is my breakdown for this shopping period (*I have NOT gone to Costco yet)

Aldi - $178.87
WalMart - $51.02
Mariano's - $49.18
Ambrosino's - $14.27
Total - $293.34
I have $36.66 left
(Muscle Milk at Coscto costs $29.99, less tax)

What am I going to do with the extra money?  Likely buy a dozen eggs.

TIP - Shop using a list
TIP - Shop using only cash (this will make you stick to your list)
TIP - Bring your own bags
(Aldi charges for bags and Mariano's gives me a credit for using my own bags)

"Bags, really?  Like, I always forget to bring them" Yeah, well, I remember one time having to spend $2 in bags at Aldi and then being $2 short to purchase lunch meat for 15 days, so, I kind of learned my lesson.  I also have a "problem" with reusable bags.

TIP - Wash your reusable shopping bags after every shopping tip.  They get gross.  

A time of desperation led me to plan and shop like this.  Believe me, we are eating WAY BETTER than we were a mere three years ago.  It's small steps.  Would I like to purchase all organic, farm fresh, GMO free foods - SURE.  Am I at a place where I can do that right now, nope.  But, that doesn't mean that I cannot make good choices with what I purchase.  Nor does that mean that I will always be shopping like this.  I won't!  As is proof in my title.  We went from the frying pan straight into the fire, and right now, I kind of think we jumped from the fire into the sink.  We are cooling off. Checking things out and making better food choices and eating better.  It's always about progression, and what can I do better today.  That's it.  Make small changes and let them compound.

Here is the link to my "Dinner" Pinterest Board if you'd like to check out some of the meals that we are eating.

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