Sunday, June 27, 2010

Meal Planning

I'm already a post behind, so I figured I'd play catch-up while I have the computer on and logged in.

One of the easiest ways to make the transition from eating "stuff" to eating food is meal planning. Meal planning takes the guess work out of dinner ("What's for dinner?" "I dunno. What are you in the mood for?" "I dunno. Let's just go to {insert fast food place here}.") because you already have it written out and have defrosted/ purchased any ingredients ahead of time.

Planning your meals will also save you money. The average "meal" at a burger chain is about $5. So for a family of 4 you can expect to spend $20 on ONE MEAL! If that's twice a week, that's $40 a week and $160 a month! What would you do with that extra $1920 a year? Pay down debt? Take a vacation? Save for retirement? Now, say you replace just one of those meals with a home-cooked meal. This past week, we had eggplant Parmesan, a side of pasta, garden salad, garlic bread (made, not defrosted). The whole meal will take about 30 minutes to prepare, start to finish. That's about the same amount of time to get a pizza delivered, but you'll get much more food and it's so much better for you!

Actual prices from recent shopping trip.:
Eggplant $1.76
Mozzarella cheese $2.49
Lettuce $2.50 (for 3 Romain heads)
Tomatoes $1.58 (2 pounds)
Green pepper $1.40 (1.5 pounds)
Carrots $2.50 (5 pound bag)
Celery $1.29
8-Pack of hamburger buns $.79 (Manager's special at our local bread store. Like I've said, we're not purists.)
Pasta $.65 (Buy one get one deal)
Parmesan cheese $1.99
Pasta sauce $.68 (Buy one get one deal)

Granted, there is some additional cost for running the stove and oven, and I'm not going to calculate the few cents that flour adds. I'm sure the price of the olive oil I'm going to use for cooking the eggplant and on the garlic bread cost less than $1.50. Keep in mind that I'm only going to use one pepper, a carrot or two, two stalks of celery, half a tomato, one head of lettuce, and half the mozzarella, and half the box of pasta (with leftovers), 2 hamburger buns (two pieces each), so the actual price for this meal will be less. That said, this meal (using the full price from the grocery trip) costs $19.62 and will give us leftovers for lunch the next day! Using the price of what I'd actually use, the price is around $10. That's $10 X 52 weeks = $520 a year. Most meals won't cost this much (tuna cakes with creamed peas or spaghetti and meatballs are both SUPER cheap options!), but I just wanted to show you that "fancy" meals are still cheaper than some (to quote Tim McGraw) "supper from a sack/ a ninety-nine cent heart attack" and so much better tasting! Even better, your family gets to eat together and have conversation. Study after study has shown that eating as a family is a huge help in keeping kids in school and out of trouble. *steps off soapbox*

So now that you know that meal planning is a good thing, the next thing to consider is "HOW?"

Step 1: Get a calendar.
~ The calendar will give you a place to write down your meals for the week (two weeks or month). We use a dry erase board type calendar.(The paper kind would work just as well. I hear they have them available online too, but I'm so not into technology.) It allows us to post upcoming events and keep us on the same page so we don't schedule something that takes a long time to prepare on a really busy night (like the week I have finals!). Days that I'll get home late from class/ study group/ meeting at church, hubby will either have something really nice/ special ready (he makes the best oven roast!) or something that will be really easy to heat up.

Step 2: What do you like to eat?
~ Hate potatoes? Then don't schedule mashed potatoes to go with your chicken for Thursday! Have a recipe for stuffed peppers you've been wanting to try? If you have everything, schedule it when you'll have time to try it out. If you need something, schedule it after your shopping trip (and a night you have time to take your time). The point of this is not to stress. Make it easy for yourself! If you don't have one, get a crock pot. For a family of 4, I'd recommend a 3 or 4 quart one. It's about $35, and it will pay for itself! Uses very little electricity (summer in Florida is no time to crank up an oven anyway); make your own frozen dinners for cheap and without the added salts, preservatives, etc; lets you buy cheaper cuts of meat because it will make ANYTHING tender; take 20 minutes in the morning to prep and dinner will be ready when you get home!

Step 3: Make it balanced
~ By writing down your meals (side dishes and all), you'll be able to make sure your meals are balanced. We try to have a (veggie-heavy) meatless meal once a week, but we can't eat just lettuce. We make sure we have a good combination of non-meat proteins (like beans and rice), carbs and veggies/fruits. Even if you eat meat every night, try to change it up by having different types of meat (chicken 2 nights, a night with beef, a night with pork, a night with some sort of seafood, like canned tuna) and keep the meats lean, if possible.

Step 4: Keep consistent
~ Set up a day/time to plan the week's meals. Our time is Sunday evening, after dinner. We plan Monday through Sunday, but whenever and however works for you is totally fine! Just make sure you do this EVERY week (every other week or every month, whenever it's your time)! Once you get into the habit, it gets to be so easy. I know there have been a few weeks that we "forgot" or were "too busy/tired/grouchy" and we didn't plan. It killed us for the week. (Read: went out to dinner 3-4 times!)

Remember: If you fail to plan, you plan to fail.

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