Tasty Trash: The $55 million Squawkfox Food Waste Challenge is a series aimed at helping your family save up to $1,500 this year by reducing food waste. The environment may also thank us. To start from the beginning, read the introduction.
At 3AM I knew something was wrong. Like usual, I was perched on my sofa stuffing a bottle into my baby’s mouth, trying my best to appease her hungry tummy. The problem was my stomach was starving too. Her cries for food matched my own. Waaaaaaaa! Gulp. Chug. Spit up. Wipe.
Somewhere between washing diapers and brewing formula I somehow managed to miss dinner. I recalled seeing Carl peel a hard-boiled egg around 9PM. I think I sliced an apple. But in our frazzled figuring-out-this-new-baby-thing state, our dinner plates went empty. Grumble.
What the heck happened? In our previous child-free existence, we made dinner together every other night, sometimes splitting a bottle of vino. Our meals wern’t fancy or complicated, but they were planned ahead of time, affordable, tasty, healthy, and ready before 7PM. We had lots of leftovers too.
These days I can’t remember the last time I ate anything cooked, let alone shopping with a meaningful grocery list.
At 3:25AM I had an epiphany (or so I’d like to call it in my sleep deprived state) — Carl and I had slipped in our weekly meal planning, and the results were miserable.
My bad. His bad. Frig, I’m pinning this one on the baby.
By 3:45AM I knew the solution and started to get to work, ’cause really, after soothing a baby to sleep and having random epiphanies, it’s impossible to get any shut-eye with all those endorphins floating about. Besides, my dog found a splat of baby spewage on the floor, and watching her lap it up grossed me out in a ‘gag me with a spoon’ sorta way. That’s likely the most unsexy, undelicious, and unfun thing I’ve ever shared. Sorry.
6 Reasons to make a meal plan
Families of all sizes and on all budgets can benefit from a simple menu plan. Here’s why:
1. Reduce food waste.
Since this series is about cutting food waste from your life, I’m putting this one in the numero uno position. If you plan meals and coordinate with your grocery shopping, you won’t have uneaten food go bad in your fridge. You will have an ingredient for every dish ready to go, and plans can include the about-to-expire items in need of a hungry stomach, or a mob of teenagers.
2. Save money.
Eating out costs a fortune. Eating at home costs less of a fortune. Scouting the sales in grocery flyers and planning meals around these bargain items can save you a fortune. Lather. Rinse. Repeat.
3. Avoid meltdowns and other melancholy.
What’s for dinner, Mom? How much longer for lunch, Dad? I’M HUNGRY! WAAAAAA! Yeah, children can be hungry little ducklings. Prevent your kids from doing the monster mash and having meal-time meltdowns by planning your meals a week in advance and serving in an instant. Magic.
Those without kiddlets can have dinner doldrums too. Avoid those home-late-from-work cases of the hungry stomach sads by having your meal prepped and ready to heat. Adults can be (hungry) ugly ducklings too, you know.
4. Save time.
Better meal planning can mean fewer grocery shopping trips (hello, save on gas anyone?), cut dinner prep time since you’ve got all the ingredients for dinner, and reduce time spent staring into an open fridge.
Do your food prep ahead of time — when you HAVE time — to cut back on time crunches (and soccer game nights) by making sure your veggies are chopped and ready to rumble and your chicken is thawed and ready for the BBQ.
Plan your meals large enough and reap the time saving (and sanity sparing) benefits of leftovers! Less time spent cooking means more time for other activities, like sleeping. Sigh.
5. Make healthier meals.
If you plan it, you’ll eat healthier frugalicious foods. No more takeout ’cause nothing’s ready for dinner. No more more highly processed, sodium stuffed, and fatty instant packaged dinners.
6. Get the family in on the fun.
Involve your family in the menu planning process — your kids will learn better eating habits and might eat all the food on their plates (yep, less food waste) if they’ve helped decide what’s for dinner.
According to Waste Free Lunches.org “[Kids are] more likely to eat a meal that they’ve helped prepare. Involvement in meal preparation also teaches them where their food comes from, and it provides them with the confidence and skills they will need to prepare food for themselves later in life.”
Bottom Line: Starving students can plan meals on a budget to save money, couples can save time by cooking only a few times per week (freezing the leftovers), and families can avoid kiddlet meltdowns by having food ready (and on hand) to fill empty stomachs before the big soccer game or music recital.
Two Meal Planning Tools
I’ve put together two types of meal planning tools: A blank meal planner download, and a DIY whiteboard project. Pick one, or both.
1. Blank Meal Planner Download
Ideal for sticking on the fridge or on a cork board near the family dinner table.
Free Download: Printable Blank Meal Planner (pdf)
2. DIY Meal Planner Whiteboard
This project is great for cutting back on paper, perfect for jotting down ideas, erasing dishes the family vetoes, and creating an on-the-go shopping list for your next grocery trip.
Stuff you’ll need:
- Dry-erase whiteboard
- Dry-erase markers
- Painter’s tape
- Ruler or tape measure
- Cookbooks, with your favorite recipes
- Brain magic
STEP ONE: Measure. Use a ruler to mark and measure a grid three or four columns across (days of week, breakfast, lunch, dinner) and eight rows down. Leave room at the bottom for a shopping list. The size of each row and column depend on the size of your whiteboard.
Note: Carl and I generally only plan our lunches and dinners since breakfasts often consist of just oatmeal, fruit, cereal, or toast.
STEP TWO: Tape. Painter’s tape is easy to remove and shouldn’t leave residue on your whiteboard, so it’s my choice for creating an attractive and durable 7-day menu grid. Cut tape to correct measurements and stick it to your whiteboard. If you love re-drawing a grid every week, feel free to skip this step.
STEP THREE: Label. Use different colored dry-erase markers to represent the days of the week, dinner, lunch, breakfast, and leftovers.
I draw red arrows to show when I’m planning to eat my lovely leftovers.
The space in the bottom serves as my on-to-go shopping list.
How to Make a Meal Plan
Menu planning is easy, people. I made mine at 4:15AM in the morning while watching a baby sleep. OK, the husband stepped in to make sure I was still alive (honestly, I think he missed me. Or maybe he needed another hard boiled egg for dinner. I dunno). But all it takes to devise a 7-day meal plan is a strong desire to eat, and a little brain magic. Don’t ask me what ‘brain magic’ means, it’s 4:15AM.
STEP ONE: Pick a day, any day. After asking the fine people who follow me on Twitter and like me Facebook about meal planning, most agree that Saturday or Sunday is the bestest day to plan weekly meals.
Tip: It’s a good idea to pick a day before your weekly grocery trip so you can create a grocery list that corresponds to your recipes.
STEP TWO: Hunt and gather. This step takes a little legwork.
- Peek into your pantry, fridge, and freezer and list the ingredients you have on hand. Note which foods are about to expire, and how many need to be consumed pronto.
- Check the weekly grocery flyers for sale items and deals on meat, produce, dairy etc., and try to use these bargains in your weekly meal plan.
- Use your noggin (BINGO — that’s brain magic) and think about all the dinner recipes and lunch ideas that tickle your tummy’s fancy using your stocked ingredients and a few grocery sale items. Make a list of seven dinners, lunches, breakfasts, and snacks.
Recipe Sleuthing Tip: Got a few odd leftover ingredients in need of a tasty recipe? Check out Allrecipes.com and search for the top rated meals based on your lowly food items. This is a great tool for finding new ways to use leftovers.
Rotate Your Recipes: Keep a list of all your family favorites and reuse your recipes the next month. Creating a stack of meals on recipe cards can help reduce your planning time in the future.
STEP THREE: Make the meal plan, man. Grab your whiteboard or download our Printable Blank Meal Planner and start scheduling your meals.
Place an ‘X’ through the days where you won’t need a home meal, such as dinners out or office lunch meetings.
Plan to eat easy meals like leftovers on busy days (hockey practice nights) and schedule meal preparation when you have more time (weekends).
Try not to be a bore by eating the same thing all week long, but don’t get too crazy either and introduce more than one new recipe per week — learning how to cook new things can be exhausting and time consuming, no matter how delicious.
STEP FOUR: Get listed. Go shopping. List all ingredients needed for each meal. Cross off any ingredients you have at home, and make note of what’s on sale.
Go grocery shopping. Avoid the impulse buys. Be strong.
STEP FIVE: Get cookin’, good lookin’. Cook your nightly meal and prepare your daily lunches. Store leftovers safely. Each evening, look through the next day’s plan and do any early prep. For example, if beans need soaking, start them now. If meat needs defrosting, pull it out of your freezer.
Next Steps: When things go very wrong
Pobody’s nerfect. Seriously. Perhaps your previous night’s chicken was smaller than you thought, leaving little for today’s leftovers. Maybe you got stuck in traffic and don’t have time to start dinner. Or maybe one of the kids decides to bring home a friend for dinner. Gotcha.
Tactics: When meal plans become problematic
- Swap: No, don’t swap your husband (wife or crying baby), but switch out a complicated meal for something easier.
- Emergency meals: Have a few easy ‘go-to’ emergency meals you can make on the back burner. Scrambled eggs with ham or an omelet can be made in a pinch for an easy dinner.
- Get frozen: On days where you have more leftovers than you had planned (or hoped for), freeze them for future emergency meals.
- Get back on track: Do you best to get back on schedule for the next meal — you don’t want all those fresh ingredients going to waste!
OK, it’s dawn. The birds are chirping and the sun is mocking my spontaneous all-nighter. Carl is making coffee and marvelling at my euphoria-driven insanity to plan meals over the next week. I totally rocked this meal plan, and now I need some serious sleep. Hmmm, but first — breakfast! Chow!