Posted on November 23, 2016
Meal planning for non-planners
Mr. Tucker and I love cooking. There is nothing we enjoy more on Sundays than putting on a fire, turning up a little jazz, pouring a glass of red wine, and then cooking up a storm. Usually we will whip up a complicated dish for Sunday dinner but most of the time we are prepping ingredients to make our weeknight suppers healthy & easier to put together.
Since want to eat a varied and interesting diet, we also don’t want to spend two hours at 5pm on a Wednesday trying to get dinner on the table. We discovered that with a little planning on the weekend we can have a decent meal on the table in less than 45 minutes without resorting to heat-and-serve meals from the grocery store.
We do almost all our cooking and eating at home because if there is one way you can save a metric buttload of cash, it’s by eating at home. Food made at home also tends to taste better and be better for you without the addition of salt, fat, and sugar that many commercial products use to manipulate your taste buds. However, if you let it, cooking from home can be an arduous affair that just leaves you throwing up your hands and hitting the nearest drive-thru. If you are used to eating a lot of pre-packaged food or take-out moving towards cooking from home can be daunting, but it doesn’t have to be.
Soaking beans: not for everyone. Canned is totally fine
Firstly, this requires a system where you figure out what you and your family likes to eat. Don’t make this a pie-in-the-sky exercise where you pretend that all of a sudden your kids are going to love kale on rice cakes for dinner. Be reasonable about what your family enjoys and then write down about 10 meals your family eats on a regular basis. You can switch it up outside of these 10 but you want to have a list of things that you can concentrate on, become an expert in making, and nail out with minimal preparation. For example, almost everyone loves lasagna but it is labour intensive. You are better off learning how to whip up a quick pasta casserole with maybe a few greens chopped in for a weeknight dinner.
Here are some basic ideas (YMMV):
Baked macaroni topped with cheese*
Baked beans on toast*
Baked chicken with BBQ sauce
Beef and broccoli*
Curry* with rice
Soup with biscuits* (we like hearty soups like minestrone)
Pizza (our Friday night go-to)
There is nothing so good as freshly made tortillas
Figure out what dry staples you need for those 10 meals and make sure you always have them on hand. When you see pasta, beans or rice on sale, buy a ton of it. It will get eaten and having those base ingredients means you will always be able to whip something up.
Secondly, keep a pantry where you always have the staples on-hand to make one of your 10 meals and supplement with fresh and frozen vegetables. This is where I have really reined in our spending. I noticed that we would spend a lot in groceries but then a lot would also end up in the compost. I was also overspending at Costco (only a good deal if you stick to the good deals) so instead of going every two weeks, I now go every month and a half, on average. I still spend the same but I buy less extra stuff I don’t need. With just a little planning, we have greatly reduced the amount of food we throw out.
Why yes, coconut milk WAS on sale. How did you guess?
I plan our meals on Sunday around what fruits and vegetables we get in the Good Food Box supplemented by what is on sale at our local produce market (we are currently out of CSA season so this is my winter plan). The three-step process looks like this:
1 – Look in the fridge and see if there is anything that looks like it needs to be eaten quickly before it goes bad. Plan meals around this first. For example: we have some peppers that are on their last legs so I will make some tortillas and make breakfast burritos for tomorrow morning.
2 – Check out the sale flyer at our local produce store**, which is walking distance from our house. This week zucchini, sweet potatoes, green onions and green beans are on sale. So I will build on this and make our dinners focus on those. We also have fixings leftover from burgers we had for dinner on the weekend so those need to be used ASAP. Given these parameters our weeknight meals will look like this for the next five days:
Monday: Falafel with roasted sweet potato fries
Tuesday: Tomato-spinach macaroni bake with salad
Wednesday: Black bean and sweet potato enchiladas
Thursday: Minestrone with 20-minute cheesy green onion biscuits
Friday: Make-your-own pizza night (a staple at our house)
3 – Sunday afternoon Mr. Tucker and I take an hour and pre-prep things to make weeknight cooking easier. It depends on what we are making but I will soak and cook beans, chop vegetables, make tortillas***, and sometimes even cook up the filling – as we will do with the black bean and sweet potato enchiladas. That way we only have to roll them up and bake them on Wednesday night. If you are absolutely married to having lasagna, then now is the time to make it (although you should always make more than one and freeze the other) and stick it in the fridge until the night you want to eat it. We also bake various breads for the week for breakfasts and lunches, our staples are usually focaccia, tortillas, 100% whole wheat and a Ciabatta. If you hate baking, just buy it.
I make granola with instant oats because I am a heathen (and we don’t mind)
Three out of five of the above meals will also have enough leftovers for the kids to take to school for lunch. Pastas, chilies, curries, and soups should always do double duty as lunch the next day, so remember to make enough. On days where we don’t have enough leftovers, the kids may get a sandwich or if they are super-duper lucky: pasta (the favourite of children worldwide). Also think of creative leftover use: leftover rice becomes fried rice with some soy sauce and a handful of peas & protein thrown in, and the kids feel like they’ve won the lottery when that happens!
I know people get super excited over things like once-a-month cooking or dump dinners but these things always seem counter-intuitive to me, mostly because we get the CSA all summer, and our cold storage space it limited. To reduce waste I need to go through my fridge and see what may be going bad so I can use that stuff up asap. Our kitchen is original to our 1950s bungalow and the space where the fridge goes is small, therefore our fridge is small. I also like to shop sales and price match and often the ingredients I need to make a bunch of food all at the same time ends up being more expensive. Still, if one of these methods prevents you from eating out a night or two a month, you are still ahead, so feel free to explore those options if they appeal to you.
However, if I find a good deal on something I will often whip up a second dish and store it in the freezer, especially if it is complicated. Even with the best-laid plans chaos can happen and you may not have time to cook. Last Thursday we all came home utterly exhausted and I ended up working late due to a work emergency so Mr. Tucker just defrosted some tofu-vegetable curry we had and made a big pot of rice to go with it. It wasn’t fancy but it was delicious, nutritious, and prevented us from ordering take-out. Everyone should have a couple of meals frozen for nights like these because they do happen to all of us.
For us, this is the easiest way to manage our dinners during the week to keep a varied, healthy diet that is easy on the pocketbook. The above may seem pretty verbose and complicated but it isn’t. So to sum it up, these are the three steps:
1 – Choose 10 meals you eat regularly, become an expert in cooking them, and always have the staples on-hand to make them.
2 – Plan to use up anything fresh on hand that is going bad, supplemented by things from the store.
3 – Take an hour or so a week to pre-prep what you can to make cooking during the week easier.
Finally, I should mention that I have a friend who ABSOLUTELY HATES cooking (in fact, I have a few of these friends). Her solution to feeding her brood was to buy the healthiest pre-made meals in the frozen food section of the grocery store and supplement with pre-chopped and frozen veggies. Her logic was that even though these things cost 4x (and maybe more) than making these things from scratch, it prevents her from eating out all the time. So even though it is more expensive, it’s much cheaper and healthier than take out. I can’t fault her logic here so if you hate cooking maybe that should be your plan. Still, if you don’t mind a little planning and a little cooking, you can save exponentially on your grocery bill by just following a few simple steps.
So grab yourself a glass of wine, stick on your favourite music, and whip up a few things Sunday afternoon that will keep you and your family happy, healthy, and nourished all the week long.
* These are also things you can make in a slow cooker
** You can hit your closest grocery store. Frugal proponents will point out that shopping this often or relying too much on fresh stuff is expensive. We prefer fresh fruits and vegetables and my kids eat them so I consider them a healthy frugal luxury.
*** I don’t expect most people will make their own tortillas or cook dry beans but even if you buy these things you are still ahead financially.