A very long time ago, I used to be able to go grocery shopping without a list. I could think of meals for my husband and I while I was at the store and gather the ingredients. Of course, this meant I didn’t have a set budget, never knew exactly what items I had on hand and lots of last-minute trips to the store for the “Oh, I forgot …” item.
Then the time came when we needed to stick to a budget with the arrival of our children. I needed a list to make sure I got everything necessary because I did not want to do any last-minute shopping trips. I wanted to make getting dinner on the table easier. So, here’s how I went from being a no-list shopper to a meal planning, list shopper.
1. Compile the recipes you use
If you are like most families, you have a big stack of rarely-used cookbooks. Pull them out and find some new favorites. Assuming you have, or can borrow or buy, kids cookbooks, even very little kids can help with meal planning, as long as they can either read or choose something based on the photos.
Pinterest, of course, is another great resource. If you can’t find something that looks yummy on Pinterest, then…well, I can’t even imagine what could cause that to happen. Doing a search on a specific ingredient or preparation, like “Zoodles” (zucchini noodles) can help you narrow down your choices.
I made a list of the meals we typically had for dinner. I organized the recipes in a binder with page protectors. Today, I have a Pinterest board specifically for recipes I have tried and used. Getting a list of meals with their ingredients is step one. You can consult this list every time you plan meals and then try a new recipe out each time and decide if it will be put on the permanent list or not. Avoiding food-boredom is important to most people.
The solution to the boring aspect is simple: make it a two week (or longer) rotation. Of course, that makes the second problem (a lot of work for Mom) even worse. So how to create a meal plan – something most of us know we should do – with minimal pain, and that has a solid chance of being stuck with, not having everyone fuss that they hate it all?
Involve the whole family, not just Mom. If you have two kids, one Mom, and one Dad, then you each need to come up with three days of meals – breakfast, lunch, dinner, snack – that there is a reasonable chance everyone will eat. Three days does not feel overwhelming.
Those three meals times four people mean we have 12 days with minimal work for any one person (Mom). That’s almost two weeks, and there should be enough leftovers to take care of the other days. Since everyone is involved, we all have meals we like, so there will be less grumbling. (It’ll probably never be none with kids, but less is good.)
2. Decide how many meals you need
Look at your calendar for the next week, 2 weeks or month – however long you will be shopping for. Are there any planned nights out? Don’t forget to check for school “spirit nights” and such that you plan to attend and days off school when you will need to feed the kids lunch. How many days will you need a slow-cooker recipe instead of a baking one? Figure out how many nights you will need to make meals for and what kind of meals you need.
I shop for a month at a time, but I usually only need about 20 meals or so, with about 7 of those being in the Crock-Pot, because several will give us leftovers or we use food in the freezer from the previous month.
3. List out your meals and ingredients
I write down the meals and whether they will feed us for one or two nights. Then, I list the ingredients I will need next to them. This is done on the back of my shopping list. I’ve made these files to help me.
Listing the ingredients may seem tedious, but it only takes a few minutes and serves two purposes – transferring to the shopping list so an item isn’t overlooked and knowing exactly what is in your pantry. I know what meal each jar of spaghetti sauce in my pantry is for because I can consult my ingredients list. I also write out what meal I am going to use on what day. A calendar clipped to the refrigerator is an easy what to do this step.
4. Know your store aisles/make your list
My shopping list is broken down into categories based on the aisles in the store I usually shop at. You may shop at more than one store and just want to use generic categories. If you mainly shop at one store, it can save you time to organize your list by the aisles. It keeps you from having to go back to a section.
Knowing how the aisles are broken down in your store can also help you if you coupon. I sort my coupons by aisle and can easily compare them to what is on my list for that aisle’s section. You can jot down the aisles on your next trip or see if the store lists its aisle breakdown on its Web site.
If you aren’t sure of the aisles or your store recently remodeled, did you know there’s an app for that? Seriously, grocery stores now apps to help you find the goods in their store quickly and easily.
5. Cross off/Add on
One last step that can save you money is to check your pantry for anything left that can be crossed off your list. Forgot to add the tomatoes into a casserole? You won’t need those next time. Do you have enough of your basic ingredients, like flour, sugar and seasonings? What breakfast items, snacks, and dairy products do you need? If you have food storage, also check if anything was “borrowed” from your supplies or rotated out and needs added to the list to restock.
6. Shop and cook
Check off your shopping list as you go. Check unit prices to be sure you are getting the best deal. Use coupons if you have them on hand. Organizing your pantry when you get home while putting things away helps you know what you have on hand. If you feel motivated, you can always cook up the meat you’ll use for the time period and then freeze it. I save a lot of time pulling pre-cooked meat out of my freezer for meals.
I keep all my lists clipped on to the refrigerator to stay organized. Once I got into the habit of doing this, I started really enjoying planning meals. I know what meals I have on hand for the month, when we’re going to have them and that all the ingredients needed for the meals are in the pantry. No last-minute trips. No figuring out what’s for dinner at 5 p.m. It means a lot more time enjoying my family and less time worrying how (and what) to feed them.