Thursday, May 11, 2017

How to Meal Plan for Two People

how to meal plan for two people

Last week, I mentioned meal planning was one of our major money-saving strategies. Today, I thought I'd go into a little more detail about how we plan our meals to save time and money.

First of all: what is meal planning? To put it simply, it's thinking about what you will eat ahead of time, and acting accordingly. (Nobody said this was rocket science.) Meal planning looks different for everyone and varies widely depending on all kinds of very personal factors. If, for example, you have a two-hour commute, or five small children, or only consume coconut water and bone broth - well, your weekly meal plan will probably not resemble mine. That's okay - you do you, I'll do me, and we'll all go to bed well-fed. 

Even though my commute is forgiving, I'm only feeding two people, and we're fairly standard vegetarians, meal planning is still a process. Over the years I've fine-tuned my system and now I can plan a week's worth of meals and make a shopping list in the time it takes to drink a cup of coffee. Thanks to meal planning, I only buy what I need for the upcoming week (which cuts down on food waste), I always know what's for dinner (very important for my mental health), and I very rarely order an emergency pizza because the cupboards are bare and I'm starving (key word here is "rarely" - nobody's perfect).

If you're new to meal planning or just curious about how other people do it, here are ten tips from my kitchen to get you started.

This week's menu. So far, so good!

1. Put your meal plan in writing. 

Years and years ago I bought a small dry erase board, glued magnets to the back of it, and stuck to the front my refrigerator. Since then, it has served as our weekly menu. Of all the lovely, interesting, handmade things in my home, this dry erase board gets the most comments. (Mostly along the lines of, "Ooh, I'm coming back on Friday for those burrito bowls!") It's a simple and easy way to keep track of our meal plan, and helps me remember to take the tofu out of the freezer in the morning. 

2. Take stock before you shop. 

Before you start planning your meals, figure out what you have on hand first. This is a great time to go through your cabinets, freezer, crisper, and garden, and see what you can use up before it expires or rots. It's also an excellent way to ensure you don't end up with four bottles of soy sauce. (True story.)

3. Check your calendar. 

We often have things going on in the evening. If I know I'm going to spin class after work, I'll plan a fast, easy dinner. (Spin makes me exhausted and ravenous.) If I know a friend is hosting a book launch party, leftovers might be on the table. If it's going to be 100 degrees and humid, I will choose a meal that doesn't require turning the oven to 475. If Nathan is working late and I'm flying solo, I'll just make a grilled cheese and eat it over the sink. Hey, it happens. And as long as you plan for it, it's fine. 

4. Don't be a slave to sales. 

This will probably be a controversial stance, but I have to be honest. I don't think coupons are worth the effort. I'll use them occasionally, especially if one falls into my lap, but I don't hunt them down, clip them from the circulars, or build my meal plan around them. In my limited experience, most coupons are for processed items I don't eat, or name brand products that are already marked up. Most of my meals consist of vegetables, grains, and vegetarian protein (beans, tofu, tempeh), so coupons don't usually apply. Instead, I've found sticking with seasonal produce, buying in bulk, and choosing generic brands is a better strategy for savings.

My two favorite cookbooks at the moment.

5. Keep a list of favorite recipes to fall back on. 

Despite my recipe page, I'm not a super creative chef. Most of my meals come from Google, cookbooks, blogs, Pinterest, and tried-and-true recipes, which I keep in a Google spreadsheet titled "Meals We Love." My favorite recipes satisfy the holy trifecta: fast, healthy, delicious. I've found that pretty much anything published by Isa Chandra or the Minimalist Baker are winners.

6. Limit yourself. 

Sometimes I like to think of my meal plan as a game of Tetris. If one recipe calls for, say, cilantro, I try to find another recipe that also uses this key ingredient. If our garden is overflowing with basil, we'll have pesto pizza and pesto pasta (and then freeze the extra pesto in an ice-cube tray). If I'm feeling really uncreative, I'll give each night a different theme - Mexican or Asian, crockpot or casserole. The plethora of choices available in the average grocery store can be paralyzing, but giving yourself artificial limits makes it easier to come up with a solid plan. 

7. Make your shopping list while you plan. 

A vital part of this whole process is the shopping list. I make mine while I meal plan, which means my kitchen table is covered with coffee, computer, cookbooks, dry erase board, pen, and paper. As meals make it into the plan, I write down all the ingredients they require - taking into account my well-stocked pantry, of course. This ensures I don't forget some vital element, rendering my beautiful meal plan powerless.

My haul for the week.

8. Embrace boring.  

Let's be real. You can plan elaborate, five-star meals every night of the week, but if you don't actually make them, this activity is pointless. Don't be afraid to be boring. Scroll back up to my dry erase board at the beginning of this post - you see where it says "leftovers?" A perfect example of boring. Or "tempeh pizza?" We eat this literally every single week - it's a great way to get rid of random veggies. Repeat favorite meals until you're sick of them, make double batches of recipes and eat them three days in a row, and for the love of god seek our recipes that can be on the table in 30 minutes or less. Your future hungry self will thank you for planning so well.

9. Be prepared for emergencies. 

As much as I like to pretend otherwise, you can't plan for everything. Shit happens, and when it does you're going to want to be ready with a frozen pizza, or a box of freezer-burned veggie burgers, or a microwavable burrito. Trust me. 

10. Splurge on special occasions. 

It might not be obvious from my passion for meal planning, but I love restaurants. Wilmington has a pretty good foodie scene, especially for vegetarians, and the experience of enjoying a meal without having to do any dishes is one of my favorite luxuries. The only thing that keeps me from going out to eat multiple times a week is knowing that a trip to a favorite restaurant is in my future. Birthdays, anniversaries, date nights, good news - they all warrant a celebration, and we incorporate them into our weekly meal plan. This means we have something look forward to, we don't squander fancy dinners out on a random Tuesday, and we can savor our celebrations guilt-free - drinks and dessert included.

Who knew I had so much to say about meal planning? (My husband, probably.) Now it's your turn: do you plan your meals, or leave dinner up to fate? How much do you spend on groceries each month? And what's your favorite vegetarian recipe? Let me know in the comments!