Thursday, November 5, 2015

Meal Planning Makeovers

It was back in high school when I had my first go at meal planning. I was doing Running Start which, in Washington State, is a program where I could take classes at my local community college and obtain both high school and college credits simultaneously. It was there that I somehow found myself taking a nutrition course. Little did I know that this one class would capture my interest and quickly shape the trajectory of my future. I adored every part of that class and soon found myself reading the entire textbook "for fun," all while working out on my parents' stair climber of course. (Admittedly, I had some issues during that phase of my life).

But the point is, my interest in food and cooking and nutrition grew so much that I'm pretty sure I became the world's youngest subscriber to Cooking Light Magazine. I began stockpiling issues and read cookbooks for fun and soon asked my mom if I could please just take over the meal planning, grocery shopping AND cooking for our family of 6. My mom must have thought she'd died and gone to heaven. I was equally elated, unaware that I had a lifetime of meal planning ahead of me. But, what other seventeen year old gets handed one of her parents' signed, blank checks and gets to go out and buy whatever she wanted for a week's worth of dinners?

I vividly remember dinner #1. I thought I'd kick things off with a Curried Banana Soup (BECAUSE THAT'S WHAT EVERY NOVICE COOK STARTS OUT WITH, right!?) Who knows what I was thinking but I recall it being so spicy that we were all fighting back tears. Understandably, my dad grew slightly skeptical of this whole Letting Kelsie Cook Dinner plan.

Fourteen years of meal planning later, I'd like to think I've come quite a ways with my meals. I would probably also say to my 17 year old self: What the heck are you thinking!? For most people, meal planning is a chore. Don't burn through your enthusiasm too soon.

Let me assure you, even us food lovers find meal planning a TOTAL bore at times. Most times. Ok pretty much all the time. Yes, there are moments where I feel super inspired and have a back log of recipes I've been dying to try that make meal planning a breeze but my hours are so limited that more commonly I'm writing my grocery list for the week on the back of a receipt en route to the store with all three kiddos at 4:30 PM. But hey. What's a girl to do?

Well. Enter family of five living on a single income (which we have been trying and essentially failing at doing since July). Can we just talk for a second about food costs? I mean, HELLO!! Is it just me or has EVERYONE'S grocery bill gone up exponentially?? Maybe I should blame the fact that we have added three mouths to our table. And I mean, legitimate mouths, not just a couple of Cheerios here, a puree there sort of eaters. We're talking Give-Me-A-Chicken-Drum-AND-A-Thigh-Too sort of little people with appetites. So yeah, this eating thing has really put a cramp in our budget. Traditionally, I've always planned a week's worth of dinners which I'd shop for at a combination of about 3. sometimes 4 stores. It sounds like some sort of cruel joke, I know, but I have favorite spots I like to acquire specific items at what I've found to be the best prices. This whole "food foraging" at 3 different stores thing I'd been doing was working mostly great except that our food expenditures remained on a steady upward trajectory.

The hubs and I decided to do a little experimenting to see if making some intentional changes might curb the dollar signs we were seeing at the grocery store. Month 1 was last month and I gave up my most FAVORITE store in the whole world: Trader Joe's (I know, you'd think it was Lent or something). Even though we both loved the store, we knew shopping there meant an inevitable second stop elsewhere because there were always a few things on my list they didn't carry. Instead, I committed to shopping only at our local Fred Meyer for a 4 week period. You guys, it was torturous. I found myself experiencing insane cravings for chocolate chips that ONLY the Trader Joe's brand could alleviate. And their wine and their cheese - I missed it all something fierce.

Some interesting things came of this little experiment. My husband and I came to the realization that, though the one-stop shopping option was nice, the items I like to buy were actually more affordable at Trader Joe's. Yes, I could probably shop on the cheap at Freddy's and save some money, but not without sacrificing nutrition and settling on bread that contained 27 ingredients or "frozen dairy dessert" instead of ice cream. Which I just refuse to do. So our spending actually went UP last month because ingredients are important to me which meant I paid a pretty penny for some products.

Needless to say, we still have some work to do. We are now breaking into Month 2 of Operation Save Money on Groceriea and I decided to try something I've never done before. Last week, I sat down and mapped out an entire month's worth of dinners. I planned it very carefully based on the package sizes of meat I know to be available at Costco so that we would use it all and avoid waste. I made one huge Costco run yesterday for a month's worth of proteins, cheese, and other staples that we use a lot. Now, I only have to do a filler shopping trip each week for the remaining ingredients. For ease of planning, I essentially made each day of the week a different protein: Sunday is pork night, Monday I will cook something with boneless chicken thighs, Tuesday is ground beef night, Wednesday will be vegetarian (pasta or salads mostly), Thursday I will serve bone-in chicken thighs or Shrimp (because we can't afford shrimp 4 times a month!) and Friday and Saturday are kind of a mixed bag potpourri. I don't plan to actually serve everything exactly how I mapped out, but will pick and choose the recipes that make sense for us given the activities we have each week. By the end of the month, we should have worked our way through each and every dish. It probably took me about an hour to do all this but now I only have to spend 5-10 minutes every week looking up the recipes and writing down the ingredients that I didn't grab at Costco. I spent a pretty penny yesterday but I'm hoping it will be cost-saving overall as my weekly expenditures diminish. I might have to do this for a few months to actually get an accurate measure.

Fourteen years in and there is still much to learn about meal planning. How do YOU do it to feed your family well without breaking the bank? I am currently accepting any and all tips because this girl is really enjoying her stay-at-home-mama gig and is hoping to make it work.


  1. Love this Kelsie. I definitely only joined the meal-planning club three years ago in earnest. We do most of our shopping at Fred Meyer, Costco and Trader Joe's and it's really specific what we get where. I don't get to Trader Joe's as often so I tend to bulk purchase the stuff I buy there.

    We only meal plan a week in advance because we tend to have so much stuff come up that throws it off and then we have meat thawed in the fridge to use etc etc. Plus, I generally meal plan breakfast, lunch and dinner because otherwise it's breakfast and lunch that really throw us off. Do you always have a set plan for breakfasts and lunches - leftovers? It's overwhelming to do more than a week when you're planning all three meals.

    We definitely have the meat locker factor so in a good week, there will only be eggs to buy in the protein category. And we stay pretty basic with dairy. Once in awhile I splurge for all the flavored greek yogurts but the dairy is mostly for the boys anyway so we try to limit it to their needs.

    I like your idea of categorizing each night of the week. I've never gotten the hang of that. Since John does the cooking, my meal plan is often more of a suggestion anyway and we mix up the dinners most weeks. It would really help me though with checking what meat we have and know which slot to fill. I'll have to try that.

    Also - have you tried the Costco brand chocolate chips . . . :D

  2. I know what you mean! I am thankful to have kids who are good eaters but it's sure rough on the budget! I feel like I go through stages of being really good at meal planning and then something (like holidays or illness) throw us off and it goes out the window for a week or three. I also agree with you, Trader Joes is the best and I think it is cheaper if you only buy the things you know are best there. I just have to be careful to stick to the list and not give into impulse (so many yummy cheeses!).

    Some things we do that save money:

    We only eat meat half the time (ok that's more because I don't like it and don't know what to do with it). Probably chicken breast twice a week and ground turkey or fish/shrimp once a week. And when I do use meat it's more of an ingredient than a focus (chicken enchiladas, turkey stroganoff) so we use less per person.

    We do "breakfast for dinner" a lot because we are never home together in the mornings and it's fun to do whole wheat waffles or omelets.

    Mexican food at least once a week because it's yummy and beans and rice are cheap.

    I try to make most of my own dinner breads, tortillas, and biscuits. I also make sauces homemade (I'm sure you do to) because processed is gross and expensive.

    It also helps to have a house with zero food storage space so I can't waste money on ingredients that only work for one dish. I try to meal plan based on what I have already that needs to be used up so I can make space for more things later.

    Also, we save money by never going on dates. (Ha ha kidding - No you should not give that up! Good for you! Your date posts always inspire me that we should try to figure out how to do that too! Can you write about that secret next? Really, like do you do a child care exchange or something?)

    Interesting post! I love seeing other people's meal ideas!


posted by kelsie