let’s talk about … dinner planning!

by Amy on 7 January 2011

if you follow me on twitter, you know that i’ve been discussing meal planning a lot lately. typically, honey + i sit down on sunday + plan the dinners for the upcoming week, + while this has worked out well, it does lead to a fair amount of wasted food, especially produce/perishables.

for example, my favorite meatball recipe calls for 1/4 cup of fresh parsley, which is normally sold in gigantic bunches. unforunately, unless i plan smartly ahead, i use about a fifth of the parsley, then the rest sits in the fridge until it gets thrown out a week or two later, because frankly, i don’t have a ton of recipes that call for large amounts of fresh parsley.

one of my blogger friends, stephanie (the brunette foodie), mentioned a few months ago that she changed from weekly meal planning to monthly, + discovered that this brought about less waste, more savings, + more efficiency. i asked her how i should get started + she generously wrote up a whole post to help me out. you should absolutely check it out if the idea of monthly meal planning is piquing your interest!

so, the goal in 2011 is for less wastefulness + some savings through monthly dinner planning in advance. i’ve finished inventorying the pantry, fridge + freezer, + i’m aiming to plan the dinners for january 10-28 as a test run. if that goes well, i’ll plan all of february’s dinners during the final week in january.

what do you do? plan your dinners a week at a time? a day? a month? i’d love to hear your ideas, tips + techniques, + i’ll be sharing mine (along with our monthly menus) as i go along. i’m really excited about doing this, + i’m grateful for any advice + help that i can get!

EmailTwitterFacebookStumbleUponGoogle BookmarksShare

{ 27 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Wendy (The Weekend Gourmet) January 7, 2011 at 9:12 am

I plan my dinners roughly two weeks at a time since I’m paid bi-weekly. I do grocery shopping every Saturday and buy what I need for the week. Sometimes inspiration strikes and I use the ingredients differently than I originally planned, but I’m not super-organized ;)! If I have a bunch of flat-leaf parsley? I chop it up and sprinkle it on dinner every night for a week. It’s colorful and tastes good.

2 amy January 7, 2011 at 10:55 am

two weeks at a time is pretty impressive, + it makes sense to due it that way due to your payday schedule — smart lady!
that is a great use of the parsley, although the bunches i get at my local store are so huge that i’d be garnishing dinners for the next month! =) i need to find some sort of great parsley-heavy recipe that can use up the rest after a batch of meatballs – i’m thinking there must be a parsley-based pesto recipe out there to try!

3 Stephanie @ The Brunette Foodie January 7, 2011 at 11:32 am

Thank you so much for the shout out!

Monthly menu planning is so incredibly efficient it almost hurts. & it is addicting. I’m going to try doing two months at once to save even more money {although I don’t know if this will work}.

My biggest tip is to use what you already have. Taking inventory of what is already in your kitchen is a huge money saver those first few months. I can’t even tell you how many pasta dishes we had that first month, because I used to be a pasta hoarder!

4 amy January 7, 2011 at 12:05 pm

taking inventory was literally the number one most effective thing for me so far. we only spent $13 on dinners this whole week, because once i took inventory, i realized all of the things we already had in the house.

for example, i found chicken + chorizo in the freezer plus rice in the pantry + made jamabalaya one night, then found some veggies (that i normally would’ve thrown out next week) + made pasta primavera with fresh veggies, white wine + parmesan another night. one night we did leftovers (that were delicious) + then we treated ourselves to greek takeout last night, our first dinner ‘spend’ of the week. literally, every other thing we ate for dinner this past week was already in the house – i was flooored!

thank you thank you thank you for the inspiration to do this!

5 rowena___. January 7, 2011 at 12:06 pm

amy, thank you for inviting me to comment on this post! how our situations differ is that i actually “plan” nearly a full year in advance, although not as detailed as others do. i start in the spring, planning what i will grow in my garden–and also noting what is on the schedule with our CSA. then i begin planning and preparing for food storage over the winter–canning, dehydrating, freezing mostly, although i do have a small root “cellar” that is really a cold pantry.

we buy our meat in bulk–by which i mean at least 1/4 of a cow, processed fresh from the pasture. this much meat will last us for about half a year.

we get our chicken order into the farmer in spring, and have fresh chickens delivered twice a month with our CSA. i cook and process them as they come in.

during spring, summer, and fall, my kitchen is busy every day. i usually have both dehydrators running at the same time, and i try to make sure i can at least two gallons-worth at a time because it is more efficient.

by the end of fall/beginning of winter, i have 75% of all the food we will eat until march already in long-term storage and ready for use.

i do buy staples and i always get whatever is the cheapest because once they are made up into bread, pasta, cake, cookies, etc, you can’t tell the difference between store-brand flour and king arthur. :) i make my own bread, i make my own butter, i make a lot of our ice cream in the summer. i make mixes like hot cocoa drinks, i even make some of my own teas.

all this work makes our food budget very small, and it also gives us a rich store of choices during the year. it is simple for me to pull out a roast, a handful of dehydrated potatoes, cut an onion off the braid, pull some dried herbs from the stems or fresh from the over-wintered plants, get a jar of fruit out of the pantry–we eat very well, i know what is in everything i put on our plates, and at this time of year we spend almost no money on food unless we eat out.

6 amy January 7, 2011 at 12:18 pm

all i can say is WOW. this is amazing! i knew i had to invite you to participate in this conversation because you’d have some great tips – i had no idea how extensively + smartly you planned out the year’s meals.

one of the things you mentioned that i have considered is buying meat in bulk. however, that would entail buying a chest freezer to put in the basement, so i’ve been hesitant to do so. it sounds like it might be worth it, though, + i love the idea of eating only fresh/local meat rather than origin-unknown meat from the grocery store.

thank you for the amazing feedback + tips – i know this is going to be super helpful to both my family + my readers!

7 Renee January 7, 2011 at 12:30 pm

Take the parsley and put it in a blender with a little water and liquify. Then strain using the finest sieve/strainer you have to get parsely juice. Get out a glass and fill it with ice. Pour in lemonade or sparkling lemon soda, vodka, and a teaspoon or so of the parsley juice. Stir. Garnish with lemon wedge. Fantastic refreshing cocktail.

8 amy January 7, 2011 at 12:49 pm

that sounds amazing! i actually still have parsley in the house (from my last batch of meatballs, of course!) plus some fresh lemons, awesome sparkling flavored waters + vodka. i am going to try making this tomorrow. thanks so much renee!

9 rowena___. January 7, 2011 at 1:30 pm

amy, you can dry your extra herbs so easily, just tie them together, put them in a paper bag with the stems sticking out, and hang them up someplace like a cabinet, pantry, or closet. the bag keeps the dust off and keeps them from shedding all over the place. then just use as needed.

some herbs freeze well but they should be used as ingredients, never garnish, as they tend to be very mushy and unattractive when thawed.

10 Heidi Alberti and Atticus Uncensored January 7, 2011 at 1:41 pm

Amy, I am impressed that you can plan so far ahead! I have actually begun to shop like my cousins in Italy, which is daily, and I find I have much less waste. and I buy in small quantities (just cooking for me & the pups – they eat real food too). Plus, I never know what I’ll want at the end of the week, so it’s hard to plan that far ahead :)

I take inventory daily and decide what sounds good; lots of fresh veggies in the fridge – maybe a salad, pasta, soup or stirfry. need a protein with that? check the freezer or buy some tofu or fish. extra parsley or other fresh herbs? add it to my famous “cream of green” soup or make a gremolata or pesto which can be frozen. The food processor and tupperware containers are my best friends!

I love that you have started this discussion, Amy. Very interesting to see how people shop and prepare their meals.

Happy eats!

Heidi (& Atticus)
“commentary to give you paws…”

11 amy January 7, 2011 at 2:03 pm

isn’t it an interesting discussion? glad you could join! i actually used to do a daily shopping trip, too, but as i’ve gotten busier with work/blogging, i’ve found that 5 PM rolls around, i still haven’t been to the store, + have no ambition to do so. it was leading to a lot of take-out evenings, which were getting both expensive + unhealthy (+ generating even *more* leftovers that weren’t getting eaten).

in the spring/summer it’s much easier for me to get inspired to take a daily trip to the farmer’s market just to see if there’s anything great to add in at the last minute or make into a salad/soup/smoothie. i can’t wait for the good weather to roll around so i can do a little more of that! =)

12 Renee January 7, 2011 at 2:21 pm

Oh, one other thing about the parsely/lemon drink. If you want to serve it pretty, then float the parsley juice on top of the lemonade/vodka mix. You & your guests can stir before drinking. The yellow of the lemonade with the bit of bright green on top is beautiful. And try sticking a sprig of the parsley with the lemon. Enjoy!

13 amy January 7, 2011 at 2:31 pm

wonderful tips – thanks! i actually just got samples of Ayala’s sparkling herbal waters (look for a giveaway soon…) + one of the flavors is ginger lemon peel – when you suggested your parsley/vodka/lemon cocktail, i thought about substituting the ginger lemon peel sparkling water for the lemonade. will let you know how it turns out!

14 julie January 7, 2011 at 4:04 pm

rowena, you’re brilliant! (but i knew that already. love to everybody!)

i’ve always wanted to be able to incorporate gardening, canning, and preserving food in the household time and energy budget. i can remember my grandmother canning fruit in the summers, and then how wonderful it would be to open a jar of strawberries that winter. it’s my goal that one of these days when i have my own space, i can begin investigations myself. (i’ll be sure to pester you when that day comes.)

in the meantime, i think the first step would be to plan a week or two in advance (rather than just going to the grocery store to get things that look good at the time, but don’t really fit into a meal plan, which is the current order of operations). my dad and i currently shop in heidi’s ‘daily bread’ style, but my mom has expressed concrete fears about the sight of an empty pantry, and has been known to go buy things just so that the shelves aren’t bare. perhaps a compromise between the two will be in order!

15 amy January 7, 2011 at 5:06 pm

canning/preserving is absolutely awesome. we tried it for the first time last summer + now we still have peach preserves that we can pop open mid-winter that taste delicious + summery. we also had homemade marinara for a few months, but that went faster than i expected (sooo delicious).

if the ‘daily bread’ style isn’t doing it for you, try a weekly dinner plan to start. it’s really a lot easier than i expected + it makes the days easier because you no longer have to take a frantic trip to the store + wander around trying to come up with an idea. if the weekly planning is a success, bump it up to 2 weeks, then a month. that’s what i’m doing + it’s definitely working for me so far!

16 Nashville Nosher January 7, 2011 at 5:07 pm

I do not meal plan at all but would really like to because I spend about $100 a week at the grocery! *gasp!* and I have soo much unused food in my freezer/fridge/pantry that I usually have to throw stuff out to make room :(

I love the idea of taking inventory and using what you have. This will be a great jumpstart to my new years budgeting and saving goal :) Then I hope to get into the month long meal planning game.

I hope you share the recipes you have decided on for your first month!

17 amy January 7, 2011 at 5:23 pm

we are the exact same way – we usually spent about $100/week on groceries + just by taking inventory this week, from Monday’s dinner all the way to tonight’s dinner, we will have only spent about $18! (we have so much $ left over that we’re going out for drinks tonight to celebrate!)

obviously it’s not always going to be like this, but the inventory made a big deal. i found really delicious meat (chicken, chorizo, ground beef) that we had frozen + tons of pasta/couscous/starch that i had forgotten about.

i will absolutely be sharing my month’s recipes, + you should definitely give this a try, too – we can all learn the ropes together!

18 Vivek Surti January 7, 2011 at 11:25 pm

My key is having an excellent and very large pantry.

I usually just go to the market and pick up what I like, what’s in season, and usually what’s relatively inexpensive. And then, I don’t go grocery shopping until all of those things are done. This forces me to stick to my budget, but more importantly, makes me more creative because I have to find a way to invent a dish, instead of going by prescribed recipes.

Also, if I am cooking from a recipe, I’ll substitute ingredients in a pinch. For example, if a recipe calls for cilantro, and I just have parsley, then parsley is going in. If it calls for lemon zest and I just have orange, then I’m using orange.

More importantly, I can utilize my pantry staples and the variety in my pantry to keep things fun and interesting.

Hope that helps!

19 amy January 8, 2011 at 10:19 am

Vivek, you cook such amazing things — i would love to get into that pantry of yours! i know you are also active in your CSA, which must help to give some structure to the produce in your meals.
I like your use of substitution – i do the same thing, although not nearly as much as i should. i need to get more in the habit of substituting rather than running out for the exact ingredient, as i’ve found that not only does that help use up ingredients, it also can lead to interesting new flavors + recipes!

20 heather January 8, 2011 at 10:20 am

All these amazing comments — and here I thought I was good at planning! I plan the menus only one week at a time. Even then I sometimes end up rearranging things or saving meals for the following week, due to my fiancé’s ever-changing flight schedule.

Let’s see, in terms of organization, our pantry is organized by type of food, many of which are in clear mason jars for easy identification and storage. We keep a running list of what’s in the freezer, updating as things come out and go in. I also have notepad magnet on the refrigerator, so when we run out of something, it gets jotted down before we forget. Another thing we’ve found quite helpful is to immediately portion out bulk packages of meat upon returning from the store — buy a pack of chicken thighs, place 2-3 (3 for the days he’s extra hungry) in each bag, and labeled/dated for use later. Very helpful.

I often end up back at the grocery store once a week other than our big shopping day, but that’s fine. You can’t plan for every instance, after all!

Cheers and great post Amy,


21 amy January 8, 2011 at 11:30 am

great feedback, heather! i really like the idea of storing thing in the pantry in clear mason jars – we have a gazillion different types of rice in the pantry, all in their original bags, that are constantly tipping over + generally just being a mess. we have lots of mason jars from our summer canning + i think those would be great for storing all those different types of rice – thank you for the idea! even honey just chimed in, ‘that would look really cool.’ =)

22 Scott January 8, 2011 at 12:13 pm

I am so impressed with all the planners here. There are times I wish I had that in me. Michelle tries to get me to plan and I rebel. She can plan and make lists all she wants. I steer the cart on those days trying not to run over people while I’m in a smart phone zombie walk.

Sometimes, my phone rings and its Michelle wondering what part of the store I am in. Of course, her ears are pinned back because she has two arm fulls of stuff. We really should just take separate carts. Have no idea why she puts up with that. I think she enjoys my enjoyment in providing her with this loving grief. Maybe we need counseling.

Every time I make a plan, I end up somewhere else anyway. It’s character flaw that I have.

We do typically hit the store on the weekend with a few things in mind. A long listed shopathon is almost unbearable. Especially during football season. But, I really do enjoy a quick stop at the grocery store and farmers markets during the week. We also have an amazing Asian market around the corner. So, I will stop in on my way home almost everyday. It’s a stress release for me.

The buzz in the store, the sights, sounds, and aroma are my kind of therapy. I will go into the market having no idea what I want for dinner, and find an inspiration from what the specials are that day. Then sometimes, I go in, come out with nothing, pick up Michelle, and go have sushi.

In complete seriousness, this post has been enlightening for me today. Thank you. You’ve given me something to think about and some ideas on how to plan better. Michelle will be impressed.

Just an offering from the dark side of planning. :-)

23 amy January 8, 2011 at 12:33 pm

‘smart phone zombie walk’ has gotten me extremely tickled. actually, your whole comment has me laughing. thanks for dropping by + sharing your style of meal-planning (or occasionally, it sounds like, lack thereof). frankly, i think it sounds like you have a pretty good thing going, especially with the asian market + sushi dinners out. =)

24 Lisa January 8, 2011 at 1:41 pm

We recently moved to Nashville to purchase a business so we were super strapped for cash for the first couple months. Usually we eat out constantly, so we are spoiled and picky when it comes to food. Luckily I’m pretty decent in the kitchen, but the trick was to be able to eat yummy meals on a ramen/college-esque budget. Not too mention we get ube bored with dishes easily, no matter how great. Since I’m still looking for a job out here, I absolutely had the time needed to plan out our meals well in advance, and with some recipe research and some creativity I’ve been able to plan weeks of new and tasty meals out of each $100 grocery trip! I base most plans around recipes that are different in flavor, but contain some of the same fresh herbs and fresh veggies. Anything that doesn’t hold longer than a couple weeks. I buy potted herb plants cheap from publix instead of the bunches if I need dashes of herbs over a longer period of time, and Costco has saved me with large bulk stuff. Even milk is cheaper there (and it’s actually local)! We’ve finally got the business up and running and have some breathing room, but I still can’t stop because the amount of money and waste saved is addicting!! I really get annoyed if I have to throw one single pepper away :)

25 amy January 8, 2011 at 5:39 pm

yes, i get annoyed when i have to throw anything away, too! i also agree that growing your own herbs saves a TON of money – we grow our own basil, rosemary, mint, + oregano, + that has saved a lot of money (i cringe every time i see those small $3.99 packs of basil at the store). next year i’m hoping to grow even more. =)

26 Velva January 9, 2011 at 10:24 am

We love to cook! We love to eat! However, weekdays at our house are spent eating leftovers from the weekend. Weekends is when our family focuses on food, front center. On Sundays, we typically bring family and friends together to enjoy a crowd pleasing meal. Always served up with plenty of good wine, and cocktails.
My advice for meal planning? Keep it simple.


27 amy January 10, 2011 at 10:39 am

weekends at your house sound amazing! how lucky your family + friends are to have a wonderful place to gather for great food, delicious drinks, + wonderful company. =)

{ 1 trackback }

leave a comment

Previous post:

Next post: