Saturday, March 6, 2010

decluttering the grocery shopping, 2010: menu planning

It's been a month since I first posted about the main clutterpunk household goal for 2010, 'decluttering the grocery shopping'. The brief: I want to move our household into a pattern of general food consumption that is low on waste, in line with the espoused social and environmental ethics of my family, and good for the family's health, wealth and use of time.

Easy, no?!

Well, there are lots of things I'd like to implement in our household. But in the spirit of eating the elephant one bite at a time, I've been trying to focus on better meal planning as the first thing to really work on. Many people who commented on my first post stressed the importance of planning their shops and menus in order to stick to a budget and cut back on waste and excess packaging. From the little I've done, I agree.

I can also see that planning the shopping in particular will help me to stick to certain ideals I have but don't always follow through on, such as
- buying only fairtrade coffee and chocolate products
- avoiding exploitative brands
- supporting Aussie-owned and made  
- Eating less meat
- (eventually) moving entirely to organic meat/poultry
to name a few.

But... I find that I have a big problem with meal planning. You have to, um, PLAN. Not only does it take me hours to decide on a balanced array of family meals (without including all my favourite expensive ingredients), but also hours to figure out quantities, make sure that ingredients are seasonal and available, account for left-over bits and pieces, remember the regular items AND try to fit it into a budget... yuk! It takes a mere mortal like me half a day. Or it would, if I didn't just chuck in the towel and resort to the default on-the-fly-5pm-shop-visit-with-two-screaming-children style of 'meal planning'.

So, instead, I'm trialling something which actually does all of that hard work for me:

Webiste HERE.

The Table Tucker meal planning and recipe book is quite something. The deal is that the author, Penina Petersen, decided to plan a full year of dinner menus, with the aim of reducing cooking to three nights per week whilst still enjoying varied, balanced, seasonally-appropriate and frugal dinners. The book includes menus for 6 dinners per week, 52 weeks in the year, as well as annual, seasonal, monthly and weekly shopping lists so that you can choose to buy in bulk and be prepared.

Now before you think this is some paid promotion, and before you head off and buy it, let me say that we're still in our early stages of trying out the Table Tucker system. Prior to our recent travels and illnesses, we decided to use it strictly for two weeks. We don't have any dietary restrictions in our house so we felt free to try each recipe as it came.

There were some amazing benefits. These included:
- Shopping purposefully and quickly for specific items (I definitely spent less than usual)
- The great sense of time and freedom I found in cooking only 3 nights (even though I cooked two meals on those nights)
- Far better mental space for my boys in the hours before dinner, as well as time for them (we went for adventure walks around the neighbourhood)
- Far less food waste.

That said, I do have some reservations:
- It is so planned that I didn't want to think about deviating, which felt a bit restrictive
- It only plans dinners, no other meals
- Some of the meals we've tried are a bit odd to my taste
- There is a reliance on certain prepackaged foods like 'quick rice' which I dislike for lots of reasons
- Some meals are for 4-6 people, others are for 2 people, which is confusing

However, I think that my reservations will probably be overcome if we keep working with the system but learn to play around with the ingredients and flavours a bit.

So, this week we're getting back into the swing of it! Tomorrow I'll be checking our supplies and stocking up on the month's non-perishables, then getting this week's fruit, veg, meat and dairy. Where I get all of these and how, I will leave for another post...

Do YOU meal plan? How does it work in your house?


  1. I must admit that I'm really loving these posts Gina. If only I would take your advice and do something about it!
    I cleaned out my fridge thismorning and threw out half a baked chicken fillet, four roast potatoes, half a bowl of pumpkin soup, half a bunch of spring onions, and a whole green capsicum. ... and I threw out a raw chicken fillet yesterday that I'd left in the fridge when I should have put it in the freezer. It's just money in the bin!

  2. i just have to say, all the frugal blogs are a-buzz with meal planning, and i feel like you, what a lot of extra work! i think it's just a matter of different strokes for different folks. i manage to cook efficiently, with very little waste, if i do say so myself, and i never plan more than a day in advance, and rarely more than a few hours in advance! it is possible to be noble and worthy without menu planning! i just open the fridge around 5 o'clock and see what needs using up, balanced against what i feel like eating, and dream it all up into a meal. i keep a stock of staples on hand, and then just do without the "oh, but some _____ would make this really taste good" needless to say, our diet is not hugely varied or epically exciting, but i think we eat pretty darn well, all things considered.
    more on this subject soon at my blog!

  3. I meal plan by sitting down once a week and looking at the local produce store's ad along with my book of recipes. I print a lot of recipes off the internet, so I look at the ones I want to try and look at what's on sale and try to match them up as much as possible. Then I grocery shop for the things that aren't in my freezer or pantry.
    Meals are usually planned for 5 of the 7 days for the next week. I don't mind cooking each day, and we usually eat out or have a quick 'convenience meal' like grilled cheese sandwiches or canned soup one day a week.
    When I meal plan, I find that I spend way less $$ on random stuff at the store + there's a lot less food waste. I also like knowing what is going to be for dinner each night- it takes the pressure off me to figure out what the meal will be.
    We don't eat a lot of leftovers as no one here really cares for them. So the idea of cooking three days a week doesn't appeal. I also cook mostly from scratch with almost no pre-packaged stuff, so I would have problems with the use of 'quick rice', for instance.
    One issue I have with a lot of meal-planning ideas I've seen on frugal blogs is their insistence on buying whatever is cheapest at the grocery. Since we purchase organic whenever possible, that doesn't work for us. I don't care that the ground beef is 59cents a pound...if it's not high quality (free range or grass fed, etc.), I'm not feeding it to my family.
    I've also tried a couple of meal-planning ideas (some of which I signed up for online), but honestly the way I do it now works great for us. I think you just need to ease into it, and then find a way to make it work with your lifestyle.

  4. sounds interesting, but unworkable in this vegetarian house. i plan weekly starting with a big sunday shop. but buying non-perishables for the month sounds smart. Right now i buy on a need basis. outta rice, buy it big. still learning, it's a big process, but worth it. good luck with the mag and keep us updated

  5. I've been meal planning for about the last 10 years, it gets much easier! I check the cupboard for all the things we have (sauces, spices etc) then try to plan as many meals out of that as I can without being repetitive. I also try once a fortnight to find a new dinner we haven't had before and give that a try. I really like the mag "super food ideas" it has some great family/budget/seasonal friendly meals in there, and they also have lunchbox ideas etc. Eventually you will get the hang of it all and you'll wonder how you ever coped before!

  6. Wow... I hope you feel empowered after this exercise. If anything you will come away with a better sense of time and management and effective meal planning even if you choose to go on your own path. Good on you Hun!!

    Carlos does the cooking and he pretty much plans weekly if not longer. We cook one meal and freeze dinner for another 2 maybe 3 nights. We mix our meals up with mash and vegies, rice and pasta. We finally got around to making a master shopping list because we now need to do massive shops once a week. Whereas in our old place we could walk down the shop at anytime for what ever we wanted...wasting more money of course.

    xo Steph

  7. I haven't quite got to meal planning - it does sound good but the thought of being that organised tires me out! I do have some faves that mean I just buy for these and mix it up a little. I have been cutting back on what I do buy though and thinking about what we will actually eat and I am saving about $100 a fortnight!

  8. I have been doing meal planning for a couple of weeks now and it doesn't take me anywhere near a half day, but it sounds like we usually eat more simple dinners. Generally we might have a meal like steak and salad. That makes it much easier to assemble a shopping list. Also, we currently have about 10 meals total that we rotate among. That makes it easier because I have already created ingredient lists for all the meals and separated them by staples (things we are unlikely to have to buy) and fresh ingredients. The only part that takes time is that we slowly increasing our meal selection by adding one new menu per week.

    I am interested in the idea of cooking two meals one night and not cooking the next... that I might have to try.

    Even if you don't stick with the year long plan in your book, it seems like it will be a great resource for general meal planning if you decide that the exact schedule is too restrictive. One thing that we do is to plan & shop for all the meals for the week, but we select among the meals we purchased for on the actual day (if that makes sense). Even though you are using the book, you would probably be able to do this within each week to make things less restrictive.

  9. Hey Gina,

    it's funny the traditions in each family, cos I think my mum always did at least a basic meal plan in our house, and just added regular stuff like margarine and bread to the categorised lists as needed...

    In my sharehouses, we've been fairly good at planning evening meals on a weekly basis because the cooking is shared out, however, shamefully, we still seem to end up with a lot of wastage when we, either, end up skipping the planned meal due to change of schedule or don't eat the left-overs (I'm the main culprit there!).

    Personally I find catering for lunches from left-overs hard as I find them really unappetising, and would prefer to have something different for lunch the next day. So that's what I'm planning for over the next little while.

    But I reckon everyone's right, you'll get used to it quickly and it won't take up as much time.

    I love the idea of cooking two meals in one night! V. efficient!


  10. I meal plan so that I fall within a bi-monthly budget but also so that I can plan healthy, low fat meals for my family. So I plan twice a month - planning 10 dinners, 4 breakfasts. Only 4 breakfasts since my daughter eats hers at school. For myself at lunch I make smoothies.

    Easiest way to pull off the planning - just set aside time to both meal plan and make a grocery list. I find it easiest to "walk the isles" in my mind. Doing it this way keeps you to your budget, health goals, and keeps you away from impulsive buying.

  11. I have the TT book too - my sister gave all of her family members a copy for Christmas '08. I tried sticking to it but find I need a bit more flexibility than that, so I started doing my own meal plans. That said, I still do use a number of recipes from it (particularly the ones which can be made ahead or frozen). I find they need a little extra spice and pep here and there, but in general, the recipes I've tried, the kids have enjoyed, which is good.
    Meal planning does feel a bit of a chore, I agree, but it is getting faster as I get into the habit and have a range of successful recipes under my belt. I would like to get back into the habit of having more in the freezer to choose from, or even just cooking *earlier* in the day to ease the stress of the dinner hours a bit. Am enjoying your posts about this :)

  12. I must admit, I'd really struggle to use a year long meal program. As you know, I don't really like being told what to do (ahem), so I'd get resentful after about 2 days I think. And I really wouldn't like the shortcut rice type options. But that's me.

    We've always meal planned to some extent, partly because when we first got married the budget was so tight we had no alternative, but also I don't shop at all well without a meal plan. We always had monthly meal plans when I was growing up, so I guess that's why I need to do it myself! In terms of finding seasonally appropriate meals, I tend to pull out my delicious magazines for the appropriate month or 2 and work from those. I also found that when I was getting the fruit & veg box from Farmers Direct, that helped to form the basis of seasonal meals.

    I suspect meal planning gets faster the longer you do it, but I still have weeks where it feels like a complete chore. So hang in there! It's definitely worth it in the end.

  13. I've been a bit slack on the meal planning thing lately but really need and want to get back on track with it. You've inspired me to get my act together!
    I usually plan for 1 week - sitting down on sunday afternoon / evening works best for me as I NEED to start a new week on Monday :) [insert something about control freak here] I have my shopping list with me and cook books (if I need inspiration)
    I try to keep it simple and a bit flexible - e.g. mon: pasta, tue: steak and veg/salad, wed: burritos [the girls favourite food], etc.
    I generally don't use a recipe but make it up as I go along to suit our family's tastes. I do gain inspiration from my cook books though - especially Mr Oliver! I always cook from scratch as I cannot handle the thought of eating convenience foods - I have to know what I am feeding my family [also sensitive stomach cannot handle it either]. Though in saying that, Saturday is our Fish & Chips night – the bake-in-the-oven variety – not from a deep fryer (yuk!) – but served with frozen peas and corn zapped in the m.wave – so a bit healthier ;)
    Things like pasta/lasagne/stews/soups I'll make a huge batch of and either have as leftovers later in the week or freeze.
    I also take into account what we do on each day. e.g. ballet on thursday afternoon means getting home late and having something super-quick-but-still-healthy to make or leftovers.
    The way that works best for me is keeping a stocked fridge/freezer/pantry with all the basics: pastas, rice, sauces, tinned stuff, spices, flours, sugars, spreads, cereals, cheese, butter, some frozen veg, etc. Donna Hay's Off The Shelf and Jamie Oliver’s Ministry of Food are a great help with this way of cooking. When I run out of any of the staples it goes on the shopping list. Each week I buy the dairy, fruit and veg I need for the week. I try to do the grocery shopping on the same day each week – I operate a whole lot better with days for things ;)
    I usually try to plan to have things like fish or roast chicken on the day or within couple of days of buying it. I do freeze mince/steak/chicken fillets etc, so I can buy it bulk/on special and know it's fresh when I eat it (and no waste throwing away dogdy meat). I also want to work towards organic/free range/locally produced meat – maybe growing our own!
    I don’t plan breakfast, lunch or snacks, but I suppose they are kinda planned as they are always the same. Brekky is always cereal. Sunday morning is eggs on toast with daddy. Lunch is usually sandwiches/rolls with cheese and something. For snacks we eat crackers, homemade [healthy] muffins/biscuits/slices and fruit.
    We also make Alannah's sandwiches for school for the week on Sunday afternoon [she helps].They go into individual sandwich boxes and into the freezer. Things like cheese, relish, ham, vegemite, choc spread, peanut butter [not allowed at her school] freeze really well. Lunch is perfectly defrosted and fresh by lunch time. I also bake and freeze things like muffins, slices, and loaf cakes [pre-sliced before freezing]. I change the recipes to use wholemeal flour instead of white, raw sugar/honey/fruit as sweetener instead of white sugar, adding oats to everything and also cutting back the amount of sugar - kid no.2 has sugar issues!
    Health, waste [along with unnecessary packaging] and time planning are the biggest issues for me. The budget thing is something I'm still working on. And where our food is coming from - we're getting there with that one.
    I also really love the idea of fair-trade choc [for me] and coffee [for Ed]. Also if it’s more expensive I just need to eat less!
    Whew! I think that's all - hope you find it helpful! xx
    mmmm... I think this looks like it might become a blog post!

  14. Hi Gina. It's so interesting to follow your progress in this decluttering 'program'. I think we can all learn from it.

    I don't plan all the meals in a week ahead, but i do have some sort of ' system'. Every week we do grocery shopping. In my head I know aproximately how much I need of vegetables, fruit, etc, for a week. So that's what I buy, from the products that are in season at that moment. I do think about the meal every day for the next day already, so I can prepare etc. I noticed that lots of times it really helps if I prepare the meal for as far as it's possible during the day, mostly during the littlest one's naptime. Then in the evening, when everything is hectic, I only have to do the last essential parts of the cooking and I don't have to stress anymore.

    I look forward to the next parts of your journey!

  15. We do in a very loose way as we eat mostly vegan stuff and need to have staples in the house. We do a coles online delivery about once a month with all the heavy stuff: potatoes, onions,tinned beans and pulses, tonic, ginger ale, wine etc etc which stops us buying expensive booze and is handy as we don't drive and hate lugging heavy items home.

    We also like to cook in bulk on occasion and freeze: dahl, soups, cake, pasta sauces, pasties.

    I've actually signed us up to the Simple Savings membership as we are hoping to reduce our working hours this year which means less money. they have a $21 challenge I'm tempted to try for a week :)

  16. Good for you doing all this planning. Er, can I come over for dinner?
    A trick I read this year that has really helped me is to pack a cooler full of snacks and meals (if you are on the go) EVERY SINGLE DAY. Take it with you and the kids everywhere you go. I am not religious about doing so, but the days I do we sure save on "stopping for a drink" and "I'm so hungry I could eat three chocolate bars".

  17. Great reading, your post & the comments so far.

    My version of meal planning has not been quite so organised to date. This is the way I have done it so far...

    I have a whiteboard that has the days of the week on it and at some stage over the weekend I write the meals for the week on each day. I've found it useful because I look at this whiteboard regularly & it also has other happenings for the week so I can make sure the meals match the amount of time I will have. I have so many recipes I want to try I've found the planning means I can try a new one each week (& have all the ingredients). My favourite part is not having the mad pre-dinner rush (blind panic at the prospect of hungry kids going psycho). I'm not sure why having it somewhere I can see it helps (because lets face it I KNOW I need to cook dinner each week night) but it does help (sometimes I get started on the preparation earlier as well, just because I was reminded of my planned meal). To date the majority of our meals are things I commonly cook so I only need to look up the ingredients of the 'new' recipes. I always try to cook enough so that there are left overs for lunch the next day.

    Looking forward to hearing more, hope some of the above makes sense (the baby just going back to sleep now....I must follow)

  18. wow, that seems like a very intense planning book. i think i would find it hard to follow (i am not very good with feeling like i am being told what to do - i am keen on choice). but i CAN really see how it would be helpful. personally, i have an abundance of luxuriously enjoyable kid-free time to pour over recipe books, write lists based on the recipes i have picked for the week, wander happily around the supermarket filling my trolley and then cooking happy delights each night. (i love to grocery shop as well as to cook). but to be honest, if i dont plan and write a list, i find i come home from the supermarket with a weird combination of ingredients that i can't actually make a meal from. and end up having to waste good vegetables that rot in the bottom of the fridge before i can make them into anything that resembles a meal.

    but speaking of supported meal planning and shopping - have you seen mealopedia? (its by a couple of tassie boys) and has a bit more flexibility than it sounds like your book does - check it out...

  19. Hey! I came across this, and while it looks fairly labour intensive to set up, it might be worth it in the long run?
    Good luck lady! I've tried to do the meal planning thing before, and we were going really well, but it all fell apart at some point and we never got back into it. We're just not organised people I'm afraid!

  20. We might very well be the most disorganised family on the planet - we struggle to have bread and milk in constant supply even though we know we consume them every day.
    H - O - P - E - L - E - S - S!!!!


“Three Rules of Work: Out of clutter find simplicity; From discord find harmony; In the middle of difficulty lies opportunity.”
~Albert Einstein