Thursday, January 28, 2010

Veggie Might: Meal Planning - An Experiment and Conversion

Written by the fabulous Leigh, Veggie Might is a weekly Thursday column about all things Vegetarian.

For years, I have been brown-bagging my lunch, cooking most meals at home, and living what I thought was a fairly frugal existence, especially when it comes to food. But I’ve been living a lie.

Okay. Maybe “lie” is too strong a word. I’ve been living a fib, though. My big weaknesses are the inability to get a handle on weekly meal planning, reign in my impulsive food shopping, and stop eating cookies for dinner when I’m too tired to cook.

I’ve read and reread Kris’s article on meal planning, but to no effect. I wander aimlessly through the grocery store trying to remember what’s in my kitchen and then buy what I already have. I waste food—particularly produce—because I buy what looks good instead of what I need and often can’t use it before it goes bad. And when I’m tired, I stare into the abyss of my fridge, then eat cookies instead of cooking something.

Well, a few weeks ago, a delightful convergence occurred. I woke one morning with the compulsion to clean all the clutter off my fridge: sticky old magnets, food-stained recipe clippings, out-dated coupons.

I took a quick scan of the cupboards, looking for oatmeal, and realized I had two huge containers of kasha. I’ve never used kasha before, and I’m not quite sure what to do with it. Direct evidence of shopping without a list.

So I went online to look up a kasha recipe. But first I checked my Google Reader. There I saw an online posting (by Kris’ Husband-Elect—cue Twilight Zone music) of this totally rad magnetic clipboard and pencil cup at Design Sponge via LifeHacker.

The Hypothesis
I was in love with the jazzed-up office supplies and clean, visually compelling, downloadable menu and shopping list templates. Kate from Design Sponge stole my heart.

This is the kind of thing I need to get me to plan my meals: it’s simple, allows my list-making flag to fly, and it’s pretty. I really just needed someone to SHOW me what to do. With pictures. And a craft project. Because I’m 4.

Overcome with enthusiasm, I decided to plan my meals for the week and set several goals for the project.

1. Weeklong success
2. Less food waste
3. Savings on the grocery bill
4. Lower rate of cookies-for-dinner consumption

The Preparation
With orange and red paper and recycled magnets, I had tricked out my old, graffitied, high school clipboard and converted an old Tootsie Roll bank into a pencil cup. Pretty!

Then, I got (really) busy: I pulled down a few of my favorite cookbooks for perusal, scoured my cabinets and fridge for main ingredients, and started list making. It only took about an hour to come up with a viable menu. I was stoked!

And I couldn’t believe how many groceries I Didn’t Need to Buy. My pantry was so well stocked, my weeklong grocery list only had about 10 items, including produce and fresh herbs for four recipes and several miscellaneous items like seltzer, dog treats, and, yes, cookies.

The Results
1. Weeklong success—achieved. To my great surprise, I stuck to the menu all week. I loved looking at my pretty clipboard and checking off the days when I ate the meals. Some of the leftovers from scheduled meals out pushed back a couple of recipes into the next week, but …

2. Less food waste—achieved. Nothing spoiled in my fridge! Nothing! I only bought what I needed (sorry beautiful cabbage…maybe next week), so nothing went to waste. I really turned a corner.

3. Savings on the grocery bill—achieved. My total food bill for the week was $23.57, a savings of at least $15.00. I’m such an impulse food shopper, having a list was a godsend. Plus, I finally started making a dent in my overflowing pantry.

4. Lower rate of cookies-for-dinner consumption—achieved. I ate a grand total of 0 cookies for dinner. Don’t get me wrong, I ate cookies, but at more appropriate between and after meal times. And they were so much better that way.

Bonus result: Conversion—achieved. I am a meal-planning convert. I haven’t been to the store without a plan or a list (except for seltzer) since. I’ve saved a considerable amount of cash and tossed out much less food. And this week, I haven’t even bought cookies.

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Photo from Design Sponge.

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