Helen Jane finishes her meal planning lesson

Guestpost by Helen Jane on Feb 17th

We already talked about my thought strategies and meal planning, now it's all about the listing.

Like I said, I list out all the foods that we have that I want to use up.

Then, I list out all the recipes I've seen that I want to make.

Then, I list the ingredients I need to get at the store.

The Listing of the Recipes

It's hard to come up with recipes.

New recipes are scary and daunting and not to mention all of the questions in my head:

  • Will my picky three-year-old eat it?
  • Will my meat-obsessed husband eat it?
  • Will it be good in leftovers?
  • Can I make twice as much ahead of time and freeze?

The only way I overcome my fear of new recipes is by challenging myself.

Self-challenges include:

  • No recycling a food-related magazine unless I've prepared at least one recipe from it.
  • Make at least five recipes from every cookbook.
  • Clean out my Epicurious recipe box every six months.

These help me consistently make new foods and try new techniques. And for reals, I am honest with my shortcomings. As aspirationally Vegan as I am, there's just no getting around that dinner for my family includes a starch, a veggie and a big chunk of protein, usually meat.

A great way I challenge myself is through making interesting side dishes. Side dishes are perfect for safe weekday dinner experimentation. I've made an amazing spinach and ricotta filled cannelloni slathered with marinara that I served with just plain roasted chicken breasts. (That's another dish that can be made ahead of time, frozen and tastes good in leftovers.)

The Listing of Meals, part one

I already have my list of foods in our cupboard and refrigerator.
With that list, I get some recipe ideas. Then I write down a sketchy, ugly list (list number two!). I list out a tentative first meal plan. On that meal plan, I make it scribbly. Then, I add dishes I want to make, ingredients be damned.

I look at when we're eating chicken and what dishes leftover chicken can go into.

I look at when it's a good time for something complicated.

I look at if I'll be home for dinner.

Then, I look through the recipes I want to make and list out what I need to buy.

On that same piece of paper as I've scribbled draft 1 of our meal plan, I write my shopping list.

This same piece of paper thing is important. When I have the meals I want to eat all on the same list as my ingredients, I'm constantly surprised about what I forget.
(e.g. Oh RIGHT, I forgot we're out of rice.)

The shopping list includes new ingredients as well as items copied from the big chalkboard in our house that holds notes and reminders and as we run out of supplies (contact solution! diaper wipes!) during the week.

The Listing of Groceries

The shopping list is also grouped in terms of grocery store layout. You know your grocery store as well as I do mine, so group it in the way you shop. It saves oodles of time.

(My grocery list is grouped: Vegetables, Meat, Pantry, Non-foods, Dairy, Bakery.)

Now I'm not going to pretend I always only go to the store once a week. We house a tiny almond milk addict as well as a handsome dairy milk addict. We eat roughly 89 eggs a week. We're going to run out sometimes.

But by making this effort, I keep my trips minimal. I do my best.

Meal planning, the details

I pick up groceries, I bring them home, I put them away.
You know how it is.

Shopping only once a week makes the unloadening quite a trial. (Though it always takes less time than I think it will.)

I still have my list, you know. It's the ugliest piece of paper you ever did see. By this time in the meal planning process it's a mess for sure — crunched, scratched off and pocketed.

It's not until the very end of my weekly meal planning project that I make the meal plan look nice. Copying it onto the piece of paper I post for the week, I tape it up on our calendar.

(We used to put it on the fridge, but now our fridge takes no magnets.)

Sometimes it takes me more than one try to make my meal plan look the way I want. This used to cause lots of internal friction. ("I'm being a perfectionist! I should just be happy with it the way it is!")

But then I made peace with my process. Heck, it's public in our home and I look at it several times a week (day!). If I want to avoid that familiar pang of disappointment, I'll take the time to make it look the way I want it.

(Pssst. Are you feeling a pang of disappointment about a trivial, visual something? Do something about it! Today! I promise it'll take less effort than you think and the payoff will be big.)

If it's Sunday, I get to cooking and preparing.

On the evening before I go to the city, I set up the coffee, make the lunches, know what the girls will be eating for breakfast, usually have my lunch ready and dinner for that night is either made or very close to made.

I know, I know, it seems like a lot.
But it's setting us up to make fewer choices when our brains are tired and overloaded.
It's setting us up to make healthier choices at those tricky times.
And best yet, it's setting us up to save a little money.

Now if only lunch were so easy — by the way, what are you eating for lunch these days? How do you feel about it?

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About Helen Jane

Helen Jane throws a lot of parties, and puts together ideas for people too busy to entertain.