Planning For Success: How I Manage Our Meal Planning at the Test Kitchen

Have you ever noticed that proverbs are pretty much always right? I have one for today that is totally and completely right…and blunt.

“Failing to plan is planning to fail.”

Ouch. So true!

So, what does this have to do with food, recipes, or cooking? So. Much.

We recently wrapped up Project: Food Budget around these parts, and one thing I started doing when I started that project was planning a weekly menu. Not because I thought of this – because Emily did – and she asked participants to include their weekly menu in their posts.

Historically, I never really planned a weekly menu. And, historically, we ate dinner out too many nights a week. I am a complete menu-planning convert now because of so many reasons:

  • It saves time
  • It makes sure we eat at home instead of playing a game of “I don’t know, what do you want?” and ending up out to eat – we eat out for dinner maybe once a month now, tops, unless we’re travelling
  • It makes sure we get variety in our diet
  • It gives me an instant answer to a question I get every day, usually before lunch: “What’s for dinner?”
  • It helps me use up little bits of random things I may have in the fridge
  • It helps me get in my workout right after work because I already know what I’m going to cook

I don’t think my method for meal planning is the right way, nor do I think there is a right way. But, thanks to some gentle prodding from Caroline,  I thought I’d share a little behind the scenes of what goes on around here when I MP900177958[1]think about building the menu, as well as preparing what we need to fulfill the menu.

  • Throughout the week, I read food blogs and recipe sites, and I print out a few recipes that I want to try. These get 3-hole punched and stacked up on my desk, and saved for Thursday or Friday.
  • On Thursday or Friday, when I have time – I go through the recipes and see which one I want to try for Test Kitchen Tuesday, and if I want to try any others, and I make a list of ingredients we don’t have on hand – this is the base of my grocery list. The base list is nothing fancy, and is usually on the back of an envelope – our preferred notepad around here.
    • If arecipe gets a “I could eat this again,” from 2Chili, it gets filed in my recipe binder (see why the three hole punch??)
    • If it gets a “I don’t want this again,” it hits the recycle bin
  • Also on Thursday or Friday, I flip through my binder and see what else I want to make to fill out the rest of the week to fill out the days. I will survey what we have in the freezer imagethat needs to be defrosted for recipes to come together – things like rice, beans, hamburger buns, etc.
    • There are certain things I make once a week regardless, because they are so popular with my “audience.” 2Chili would eat a black bean quesadilla every day if I’d make it for him, so I know I am pretty much always making that one night.
  • Over the weekend, I go shopping. And,  I do a lot of cooking, but not how you might think. I use the weekend to make up big batches of base ingredients that freeze well, and I freeze them in either freezer bags or Ziploc containers. These cook-a-thons involve making:
    • Brown rice, quinoa, bulgur, steel cut oats, and other grains on a rotating schedule – whatever we’re out of gets made at 4X what we’d need for one serving, so I have four containers or baggies of whatever it is, already pre-portioned.
    • Dried beans – pintos, garbanzo, white, and lentils – also on a rotating schedule – usually I just make the whole bag of whatever it is.
    • Veggie broth, when we’re out
    • Veggie burgers, when we’re out
    • Soups in the winter
    • Bread – we can never eat a whole loaf of bread or batch of rolls/buns before they go moldy, so I have been freezing half. It works!
  • Over the weekend, and throughout the week, I pull things from the freezer that we’ll need to fulfill a recipe that’s on the menu. I usually pull out anything we’re going to need two days in advance, so it can defrost naturally in the fridge and not need microwave assistance.

And, that, in a very wordy nutshell, is a peek into the madness that goes on to plan and make meals around here. The freezer is my friend, and I always have beans, grains, and bread products at the ready – which saves a ton of time midweek.

What are your secrets for meal planning and time saving?

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