Many people said they would like a post about how I plan my meals and how I shop. I don’t have any amazing tricks or methods. You could sum up my system in three steps: Plan ahead, pay close attention, and be flexible. And everybody already knows that! But I said I would write it, so here we go.
(IT’S FREAKING LONG.)
The planning part is horrible and I hate it. I started planning my weekly menu back when we were flat broke, like we had $22 for the week and I was rationing apples and serving oatmeal onion soup, and I had to watch every penny. It turned out to be an incredibly useful habit, though. Making a detailed menu and shopping for exactly what I need is a weekly investment that makes life easier every single day.
The cost of food varies very widely by region, but I know you’re curious, so here you go: I spent about $360 on food this week. There are ten people (including five adults) living in our house full time, two working from home, and we currently do not get SNAP or WIC or free school lunch or anything, so that works out to $5.14 per person per day (and the adult kids do buy themselves lunch sometimes).
I do not cut our costs to the bone. I buy treats and convenience foods and lots of little things to make our meals nicer, because we can afford it right now, and it’s something we enjoy. But I have made adjustments to compensate for inflation, so I’m not spending much more than I was a few years ago.
I shop once a week, but I usually end up stopping at the store once or twice because I’ve forgotten something. I keep the house stocked with staples, and I replenish those even if I don’t expect to use them during the week. But I only shop for one week of perishables. I would love to stock up on meat when there’s a good deal, there is nowhere in the house that I could possibly fit an extra freezer. We also don’t have a Costco or any other bulk warehouse retailer in driving distance.
I do not mess around with coupons or rebates or points. I have found that coupons are rarely worth it, and I like knowing how much money I have to spend for the week, and when it’s gone, it’s gone.
I plan to go to at least two supermarkets, because Aldi is wonderful, except sometimes they’re like, “Oops, no bread”; and also some of their products are cheap but terrible, like their bananas that go from green to brown, or their Asian food that tastes like baked beans. So I always assume there will be a second stop.
I honestly don’t know if any of this will be useful or tedious or stupid or what, but people did ask, so here is how I do it.
The actual menu planning
On Saturday morning, I write out the days of the week along the left edge of my shopping list. I like to plan my menu right on my list so I can see what the hell is going on, and make adjustments and additions as I shop.
Next stop: Check my calendar and note down time and energy gobblers for the week. This includes things that will take me out of the house (dentist appointment or a kid’s concert) and also things that might exhaust me physically or mentally (intense telehealth therapy meeting), or even “Friday is the day before a party and I’m going to be stressed out and wanting to focus on cleaning.” I just take a look at what the day will actually look like for me, and be reasonable about what kind of cooking can happen on such a day. I write these things in on my menu to make it real for me.
I also note holidays and feast days that might warrant an extra dessert or a particular ethnicity of meal, but I’m not Little Miss Liturgical Living, and this either happens or it doesn’t. Also, if it’s a birthday, the person gets to choose what’s for dinner.
Then I write the names of the stores I plan to go to on the list, open the online flyers of those stores, and note down “anchor foods” that are an especially good price (mostly meat, but also cheese, fruits, and vegetables). I include the price to remind me of what the sale price actually is, in case they try and pull a fast one (yes, I will argue with the store), and so I can scoop up unexpected bargains they didn’t advertise. Sometimes the flyer in one store brags about blueberries for $2.50 a pint, and then the other store has them for $1.99 and doesn’t think to mention it. So it’s good to know that, if I happen to go to the $1.99 store first. I skim through the whole flyer, because sometimes I get ideas for meals from the photos, even if I don’t intend to buy the foods advertised. Like, “oh yeah, soup! I forgot people make soup” or “hey, we haven’t had a vegetable and dip platter for a while” or whatever.
I also check the preview for next week, and if there’s a great deal coming up, like chuck roast for $2.69 a pound, I’ll plan a meal around that, and plan to stop by after Mass. I put “buy roast” or whatever in my calendar right then so I don’t forget.
Then I check my bank account, to see how much money we actually have! I usually spend about the same amount of money, give or take $40 or so, but there are some weeks when I’m like, “oh crap, we need to reel this in.”
So now I have an idea in my mind if the overarching theme of this week is going to be “as easy as possible” or “as cheap as possible” or “I’m actually going to be home for once; let’s have some fun in the kitchen” (remember, I like cooking, so it’s fun for me when I have some time to mess around) or maybe “we have all been subsisting on brown things cooked in grease for several weeks, so maybe we can remember vegetables” or whatever. Or sometimes (I don’t think they realize I do this), when someone in the family is feeling low, I will plan a run of their favorite meals to give them a little lift.
No matter what the theme is, I have some basic rules that I follow, unless we’re really flat out.
Don’t make anything more than twice a month; ideally, no more than once a month. This is as much for my benefit as it is for the whole family’s, because if I make a popular meal too often, they’ll stop eating it, and then I’m screwed.
Shoot for one new recipe per week. This one gets overridden pretty often, but I do make a stab at it, because I get bored easily, and frankly, making public posts about what we ate is a big motivator to keep things interesting. (Things like substituting fresh squash for canned pumpkin in the muffins totally counts as “new.”) I subscribe to a number of food and cooking sites and social media groups (I’ll list those at the end), and I listen to a few food radio shows, and if something looks promising, I email it to myself with the heading “food blog” so it’s easy to find. Damien sometimes sends me recipes that sound good, too, either for him or for me to make. So all week long, I’m on the lookout for new ideas. Sometimes if something unusual is on sale or in season at the supermarket, I will grab it with the intention of finding a recipe when I get home. This week, I picked up some radishes that I didn’t have a specific plan for, other than to match the with one of the two Asian meals I was planning.
Shoot for variety of type of meal throughout the week. So pasta, soup, casserole, breakfast are all one-timers. Sandwiches or wraps, Mexican food, Asian food, and Middle Eastern food, I can probably get away with doing twice a week, but not three times.
Shoot for a variety of easy and hard meals throughout the week, so I can swap things around if unpredictable things happen. There is no penalty for leaving a planned meal in the freezer for another week and buying Aldi pizza on the way home from school, if we can afford it and that’s the way the day is shaping up.
Finally, I skim the entire week and see if I remembered to serve vegetables. Yes, I actually do this. I don’t really try to serve a balanced meal every day, but I do aim for a balanced week, if you squint, and I try to get some vegetables in there at least three or four times.
One more thing: While I’m meal planning, Damien sometimes comes by and takes a look, and either volunteers to make one or more of the meals I’ve planned, or else he volunteers to come up with a meal to fill in one or more blank spaces.
How an actual week got planned:
I wrote “dentist” and “S band” on Tuesday, and Sunday was Lunar New Year and I wanted to go to a festival, but those were the only unusual things. So I knew there would be at least two days I would want to have something easy.
There weren’t any very inspiring sales. Bone-in pork butt for I think $1.69 a pound, which is good, but I’m pretty tired of it, and the bone makes it hard to judge how much meat you’re getting; drumsticks for 99 cents, which I just made and people didn’t eat very much of; whole chicken for 99 cents, which I despise, and that’s about it. Boo. Nothing great next week, either.
The first thing I did was write in “pizza” on Friday. Pizza can be either a meatless Friday meal or a meat meal, but people have been a little grumpy about my Friday meals lately, and I wanted to make something I knew everyone would like. We’ve had a lot of pizza lately, but we’re still on the right side of that line. One meal.
I was getting a late start shopping because a lot of people needed rides, so I needed a quick, easy meal for Saturday; but we’ve had a lot of frozen chicken burgers and hot dogs lately. Also I knew Damien was taking the kids sledding while I was shopping, and the would work up a big appetite, so I figured they’d welcome pasta with sauce and sausage, which cooks up quick, is relatively cheap since not everybody likes sausage, and is great for cold, tired people. So that’s two meals.
Sunday was the Lunar New Year festival. They were going to have some food there, so maybe people would fill up and not be hungry for dinner, but hmm, I couldn’t count on the kids eating a lot of unfamiliar Asian food, so I figured hamburgers would be a safe choice. I could make them quickly when I got home, and everyone likes them, so if people are crabby after an outing, which sometimes happens: yay, hamburgers! Three meals.
Four spots left. I had to face the cheap meats. I really despise cooking whole chickens, but I’ve avoided it for months, and it’s a great price, so I bit the bullet and wrote that down for one day. I knew we had some potatoes in the house, and I wrote “veg,” figuring I’d see what there was that looked decent. If I had been home, I would have looked up a recipe, like that nice one with fennel, but I was making my list in the parking lot for various complicated reasons, so I didn’t have the chance to check my supplies, and ended up having to find a recipe that matched what I happened to have (half a head of garlic, some rather dejected lemons, and a bit of rosemary), rather than vice versa. That’s four meals.
The other really cheap meat was the bone-in pork butt. Good choices would be pulled pork or carnitas or chili verde, but we’ve had all of these a lot lately. So I did what I often do: I did an image search for “simcha fisher pork” and remembered about gochujang bulgoki. Yes! So that goes on the list. Too spicy for some kids, but I serve it with nori and rice and maybe a pineapple and they can eat that. (My original thought was actually that we’d have an Asian dinner on Lunar New Year, but I considered my audience and decided not to push my luck.) Five meals.
Pork is really cheap, though, so I try hard to think of a second thing. But I’m going to be busy on Tuesday, in the morning and in the evening. Aha! Bo ssam. All you have to do get it going with salt and sugar the night before, and pop it in the oven by noon, and it’s done by dinner. Six meals.
So this illustrates one of my big meal planning revelations: There are different kinds of quick and easy meals, and they all have drawbacks and advantages.
There is the kind where you open a box and throw the food on a pan and heat it up, which really is quick and easy, but it’s expensive for a big family. Sometimes that’s the right way to work the equation, though. My time is worth something! I don’t always have to immolate myself on the pyre of dinner.
Then there is the kind where you assemble it quickly and cook it right before dinner time, like a stir fry or breakfast for dinner or sandwiches. These are often quick if you have a few people to feed, because the individual portions come together quickly; but they can end up taking forever to fix for a big family, especially if all your burners don’t work, which they never all do.
Then there is the kind of quick meals that you do a moderate or large amount of prep work for, but it’s mostly just prep work, and by dinner time, it’s just a matter of opening the oven and enjoying it. This is what bo ssam is, and also many other favorites, like shawarma.
I am at a time in my life right now where the third variety of “easy” is by far the easiest on me, and it often ends up being a cheaper option, too, because a lot of stinko cuts of meat get tenderized with long cooking or marinating times. Spending a lot of money and eating mediocre food too often is stressful for me. It makes me feel bad, and doesn’t feel good; it just feels yucky. And my mental state is a big part of this equation.
So I’ve discovered that for me, figuring things out and doing things ahead of time gives me lots of peace of mind, which is energizing in its own way. I can do the prep work when I have time and strength, which is often in the morning or late at night, and I get a lot of satisfaction out of seeing a decent meal come together at the end of a busy day, because I planned it well.
This has a lot to do with the fact that I enjoy cooking, I’m home a lot during the day, and I don’t have little kids! None of this is a moral issue. It’s just where I’m at right now, and who I am. I’m just telling you this because people often say to me, “Oh, you make such elaborate meals. I don’t go to that much trouble for my family,” and I often feel like I’m giving people the wrong idea about what they should be doing. When I had a bunch of little kids and less time and money, we had a lot more hot dogs and blah chicken, believe me.
So I guess to “Plan ahead, pay close attention, and be flexible” I would add “know yourself.” Be realistic about your state in life and your actual strengths and your actual responsibilities, and work within that framework, not someone else’s framework. Not your mother’s, not your sister’s, not some blogger’s curated version of reality. If people you’re responsible for aren’t going hungry, you’re doing fine.
So, back to my menu! I had the weekend figured out (pasta and burgers), and also Friday (pizza), plus three weekdays (roast chicken, bulgoki, and bo ssam), including a busy day. That just left one day to fill in. I was still pouting about having to roast some chickens, so I decided to make soup, which is something I like. I thought back over all the soups we’ve had so far this winter, and the only one I could think of that we haven’t had yet is tomato bisque. I had noted that bacon is $3.99, so I could add that in pretty cheaply and maybe make the soup more attractive. Add some sandwiches and, boom, that’s dinner. Seven dinners! A whole week!
After I have written in the main courses, I cross out the good price items I decided not to use, and note that I will need two hunks of pork. Then I look at each meal and make sure I have all the ingredients I will need to make it, and if not, I write them down on the list under the correct store name. I visualize every bit of the meal, and I look up the recipes I don’t know by heart, because I often forget important ingredients.
Then I go through and see what can be the side dishes for everything. I write in “chips” with the hamburgers, “veg” with the chicken (to be determined; turns out to be squash, because I didn’t feel like dealing with sad old potatoes); rice for both the bulgoki and bo ssam, so I wrote in “rice” at the expensive supermarket, because Aldi rice cooks up chompy; sourdough bread and extra cheese for the sandwiches; make sure we have mayo to fry it in, and tomatoes and rosemary for the bisque; and I grabbed a pineapple and some radishes and lettuce and nori, which could go with either Asian meal.
Then (assuming I am home), I walk around the house and check to see what else we are out of or low on, and add in those items; then I look at my blackboard and see what unintelligible nonsense people have scratched onto it throughout the week, make my best guess, and add those items in. There are things I buy every week, like seltzer and milk and coffee, and I don’t bother writing those down.
I do the Walmart shopping (for non-food items) at the same time, so I also walk around and figure out what we need from there, and write that in its own column. And then it’s time to go!
But first I take a photo of my list! Because I lose it about 30% of the time! But I only lose my phone about 10% of the time, so it’s helpful to have a photo.
The actual shopping
I do the Walmart shopping first, so the perishable foods don’t sit in my car for long (yeah, it’s winter, but a habit’s a habit). We don’t have a Walmart grocery, so their food items are fairly limited; but I usually grab one or two school lunch items that I know are cheaper than they will be at the supermarket, like Valentine fruit snacks or little bags of Halloween pretzels, and also fancy cereal on clearance or whatever. Basically I know the price of everything at all times and am constantly comparing it in my head and making ten thousand decisions for three hours straight every Saturday. This is just a thing that happened to me, and I don’t know if it’s something you can learn if it doesn’t come naturally because of how your life is, but it’s the main component to my budgeting.
When I’m done with Walmart, I reward myself with a Wendy’s salad. This is my one weekly meal out, and it is not part of the food budget, so if you’re wondering how I itemize this kind of thing, it’s by fluttering my hands and saying “Oh no, I bought myself a salad, lock me up!”
Next is the Aldi shopping. I try to buy things in season, especially fruit, because they taste better, they’re cheaper, and it just makes life more piquant not to have all the things all the time. I also try to vary what I buy so the kids don’t get too bored. I will buy bananas three weeks in a row, then take two weeks off, to build up a little banana excitement. One week, pretzels rods; next week, pub style pretzels; next week, those weird flat pretzel cracker things. It’s a real whirlwind around here.
I noticed that Aldi bacon was an unadvertised $3.69 pound, which was better than the sale price I had noted down for the other store. Score! I know it’s only forty cents, but this is the game I play. It was the same with a three-pound bag of oranges. Forty cents here, sixty cents there. Like I said, I’m not spending more than I was a few years ago, so I guess it works.
If there is anything they unexpectedly didn’t have at Aldi, I transfer that to the other store column, and then shop there. The main reason I have settled on this supermarket as our secondary one is because our prescriptions are here. I sometimes go to a third food store if I’m looking for something unusual like oysters or some unusual spice, but my time is worth something. Sometimes I know very well that I’m paying extra for something, and if I feel bad about it, I think, “This meat that’s closer is costing me an extra three dollars. If someone offered to make the trip for a further-away, cheaper meat for me for three dollars, would I pay it? Yes, gladly. So I’ll pay myself three dollars, and not make the trip.” It’s possible you have to be crazy for this to make sense, but it makes sense to me.
Then I come home and collapse like a bunch of broccoli. All the kids lug the groceries inside, and we pay one kid $5 a week to toss out leftovers and put the new week’s groceries away.
The next day, when I can stand to think about food again, I write all the meals in on the menu blackboard. I make on last stab at variety, and don’t serve pork twice in a row, for instance. Everyone still asks me what’s for supper every day, and I tell them to look at the blackboard, but this is another game we play. Half the time someone has added “and cheese” to every meal, or else they’ve cleverly altered my letters so it says we’re having — well, I can’t think of anything funny right now, but my kids usually can. They’re very funny.
And now you know!
Oh, the other thing is that I have to have my list clutched in my paw while I shop, or else I won’t remember anything, but I never look at it, because the act of thinking it through and writing it down lodges it in my head. I wrote a poem about this one time, but it was pretty bad.
And yes, I had to pick up some milk on the way home from band last night because I forgot to buy milk. Right in the middle of hot chocolate season, too.
Sites I refer to often lately:
New York Times cooking (I get their emails, and usually end up googling around and finding a simplified version of their fancy pants recipes, but it’s not bad for inspiration)
My Korean Kitchen
Sip and Feast
But honestly, I usually start with the major ingredients and I have and then google that + [ethnicity] and just see where that takes me. And as I mentioned, I will very often do an image search for my name and “sandwich” or “soup” or whatever, just to jog my memory. I have no idea what people eat every week, and I have to start from scratch every time.