meal planning and grocery shopping

When I talk to people who don’t cook at home as much as they’d like, grocery shopping and meal planning comes up pretty often. It can be time consuming, stressful, and expensive to go shop for food, and this is compounded if you work long hours or if you don’t live near a good grocery store. However, there are some tricks that will help save a lot of headaches when 4:00 rolls around and it’s time to start thinking about dinner.

First, plan your meals ahead of time.
This is the biggest one. At some point during each week, I sit down with a piece of paper, my computer, and sometimes a few cookbooks, and I figure out what we’re going to eat that week. I usually go for a mixture of old favorites and new recipes, but no one’s telling you you have to make new stuff every week. I know some people who use a card file with index cards of their favorite recipes, and they draw 7 cards each week to plan their meals. I usually spend about 30 minutes poking through my favorite food blogs, seeing if anything new looks good. If that doesn’t work, I’ll often turn to old meal planning sheets (I usually email them to Sarah every week, so it’s not too hard to do a quick Gmail search) or even poke around in the blog archives to remind myself what we’ve liked in the past.

Once I have some ideas about what to make, I write out a quick calendar for the week, leaving two lines in between each day, sort of like this:

Friday 7/8

Saturday 7/9

Sunday 7/10

If there’s something going that day that I need to remember when planning, I include it. For example:

Monday 7/18 – Daniel rehearsal 5-8

Tuesday 7/19 – Out to dinner with Dad

… you get the point. We usually go out for dinner 2 or 3 times each month, but if you prefer to go out more frequently, plan that as well. The idea here is to figure out quickly how many dinners you’ll be making, which ones need to be quick, which ones need to be able to be eaten cold and/or made ahead of time, etc.

One note: I only plan dinners. Since we’re just a 2 person household, I make recipes that usually serve 4, and we always take leftovers to work for lunch the next day. If we don’t have leftovers for whatever reason (maybe it was so good that we ate it all, or maybe it wasn’t so good and we don’t want to eat it again), we keep a few cans of soup and frozen lunches on hand. I know some people don’t like taking leftovers for lunch, but I’ve found that those people usually aren’t making very exciting dinners to start with. So if you up your dinner game, your lunch game will improve at the same time (for breakfast, we keep toast and eggs on hand, as well as potatoes (and sometimes bacon) for weekend breakfasts).

OK. As you’re planning your meals, keep track of what you’re going to need for that meal. For instance, let’s say you’re going to make pasta with tomato sauce. You’d go through each ingredient, and either make sure that you already have it (olive oil, garlic, canned tomatoes) or that it goes on your list (parsley, pasta, bread to serve with it, etc). You’ll probably find that as you plan meals like this for a few weeks, you’ll develop a pantry of stuff that you always have on hand.

As you make your grocery list, try to group like ingredients together. You don’t need to memorize the layout of the store or anything, but writing your lists like this will let you make one trip through the store, without any of that “oh crap I have to go back there and get the sour cream” nonsense. Since I’m a real nerd, I usually split it out by store as well, since I usually go to a few different stores and I know which things are a better deal where (for instance, I buy almost all of our produce at the big Asian market near our house, but lemons and limes are a better deal at Trader Joe’s). Try to minimize the number of trips you make each week. I usually make one big shopping trip at the beginning of the week and one or two smaller ones later on the in week for produce (since produce won’t always last a whole week).

Here is my meal planner and grocery list from this week, starting on Thursday:


So there’s a quick look at how I do our grocery shopping. Maybe later on I’ll post some thoughts on eating and cooking within your budget, and tips on getting good deals at grocery stores.


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