It took becoming a mom with zero personal time and a drastically reduced income to figure out how to make it work— the answer was meal planning. I had tried meal planning in the past, only to discard it because it was too hard, too structured, and didn’t allow for much spontaneity. Through virtue of the fact that we are an urban, one-car family and I stay home with the baby, I found that I was only able to make it to the market once a week-- and meal planning became a necessity.
So I made it work. And I discovered some hugely helpful tips along the way. Though I may not be guilt-free yet, I am much happier that I can check off most of these labels most of the time. That’s good enough for me.
This was the biggest factor in reducing my food waste and keeping our costs in line. I only come up with a handful of menus for the week, because experience has shown that I tend to make too much food and we get stuck with a fridge full of leftovers. I also account for the fact that sometimes, we crave pizza, or have an unexpected night out with friends. In the past, I would be left with extra ingredients that went bad before I could get to them. By only planning for 4 menus, I allowed us the ability to be spontaneous without the feelings of guilt. Win!
Sometimes, I have a Thai dish on the menu that sounded great last week, but when the day arrives, I find myself craving Italian. By having a meal plan with a variety of dishes, I am able to move Thursday’s menu to Tuesday if the mood strikes me. I allow myself this flexibility and am much happier for it.
Along with the tip above, moving dishes around is much easier when you’ve utilized the same produce throughout the week. Not only that, it’s far cheaper to buy a bunch of tomatoes in August and use them all up when you’ve got them assigned to several dishes. It also allows you to buy more produce for your dollar— if Whole Foods has a sale of $5 for three bunches of greens instead of $2.50 per bunch, I am going to want to make sure I use them all up in my different dishes throughout the week.
Food waste happened most often for me with fragrant summer stone fruit — I bought as many beautiful ripe peaches that I could get my hands on, put them on the counter, and a day later they’d turned moldy! Now I only buy what I know we will eat, and plan to eat the more perishable items like fresh salmon, peaches, and delicate greens in the early part of the week. What doesn’t get eaten goes into the fridge, or into a frittata, or chopped up and macerated with some sugar.
Whole Foods has a nifty new app that lets you see sales and coupons for the coming week. I always check this before I plan my menus. One week wild Alaskan salmon was $8.99/lb., marked down from $21.99/lb! We ate salmon twice that week— I grilled all of it up one night and served it with a summer corn and tomato salad. We enjoyed the leftovers the next night in a salmon corn chowder, with a sweet stock made from the leftover corn cobs. Also, if something is an exceptionally good deal, I buy extra to stock the freezer. Don’t discount the value of a chest freezer, if you are lucky enough to have space to put one!
At the end of the week, you will likely be left with some odds and ends of vegetables that didn’t get used up with your planned dishes. I frequently use these up in a frittata— just about the easiest and tastiest way to avoid food waste. I make mine with either six eggs and 1/4 cup of yogurt, or 12 eggs and 1/2 cup of yogurt, depending on how much produce I have on hand. I’ve also been known to sneak in extra ratatouille or summer succotash. I also keep some pantry staples on hand to help out my leftover produce if need be- artichoke hearts are inexpensive and excellent for cleansing the liver, and they pair nicely with the last of your greens and wrinkly cherry tomatoes. Also consider olives, frozen peas, canned beans, and roasted peppers to round out your ingredients.
Eat down the freezer and pantry
I sometimes forget what I’ve got saved in the back depths of my freezer. I recently went in and took stock, writing everything down, including quantity of each item. Now I consult with this list that I keep on my phone whenever I am planning the week’s menu. It saves me from having to buy what I don’t need, and also avoid items languishing and eventually expiring. If something it nearing its use-by-date, I make a point of including it or featuring it in the next menu I plan. Goodbye, food waste!
Hopefully some of these tips will resonate with you, and help you use meal planning to simplify your life and eat organic for less. I’d love to hear any additional tips you might have in the comments below!
I am a writer and photographer with a focus in marketing and public relations, with a particular interest in food, wine, and hospitality. I'm lucky enough to live in the Bay Area with my husband, baby son, and a rascally Jack Russell terrier named Rudy.