by Susan McCarthy
Growing up, family meals fell into a predictable pattern: steak for Sunday dinner, frozen pizza Sunday night, pasta and meat sauce on Monday, hamburgers on Tuesday, roast chicken or lasagna on Friday, leftovers on Saturday. And although Wednesdays and Thursdays didn’t have set meals, there was a short list of options.
So, of course, when I was on my own, I refused to fall into this pattern. But I didn’t want to run to the store every day to pick up the fixings for dinner. Instead, I made sure I had certain basics in the refrigerator, freezer, and pantry. I’d wake up in the morning, decide what to defrost for dinner and that was that.
When Mac and I moved in together, I kept to this spontaneous meal planning – unless we were having company. I never planned out meals for the week until I found myself adding into the rotation new recipes that included items that I didn’t keep on hand (like bean sprouts or a can of diced pineapple). I disliked running to the store for a single item (like that’s possible), so I learned to meal plan
Stock Up on Basic Pantry Items
When I was younger, I had no clue what to keep in my pantry or in the freezer. My parents tended to overbuy items that would sit in the freezer or pantry until the item was no longer edible. They couldn’t pass up “practical” items when they were on sale. At one point, I organized their pantry and found over 40 cans of tuna fish even though they didn’t eat that much tuna!
I knew I didn’t want to go that route. After a while, I realized that if I had a box of pasta, I was good; I’d buy a new box when that one was gone. I’m now more willing to keep a couple of boxes of rice or pasta on my shelf, but I don’t go crazy when things go on sale. I’ve decided that I don’t need a six-month supply of pasta on my shelves.
At first, I didn’t know what basic pantry items I needed, so I went online and looked at a bunch of lists suggesting “essentials” for meal planning. I bought a lot of items that I thought I should have but didn’t use until I forced myself to use them.
Over time I learned to look at the meals I served and then kept things like canned tomato sauce and diced tomatoes on hand. I’m thinking this is the case for you too and you rely on the same items over and again. Those are the items to keep on hand.
If I don’t have some of the ingredients on hand for a dish that I want to prepare I put the items on my shopping list and plan to serve that meal the following week.
I also keep the ingredients for scratch-made chocolate chip cookies, brownies, and yellow or chocolate cake on hand in case I forget to pick up stuff to make dessert. (Although, usually only for company or holidays.)
Easy Meal Planning Ideas
Chances are that you have go-to recipes that you and your family enjoy. Write them down. If you can’t remember what you cook, look through your recipe file or for the pages you have bookmarked in your favorite cookbook. This list contains the items you want to keep in your pantry and freezer.
How to Meal Plan Using Leftovers
When I find leftover proteins in the freezer, I incorporate them into one of these basic meals. The more leftovers that fit into a dish (potatoes, veggies, rice, whatever’s in food storage containers), the better the chance is that I’ll pick that recipe.
How to Do Your Own Meal Planning
To wrap up,
Prepare Easy Meals
These are my guidelines for everyday meal planning. I enjoy cooking but I tend to favor simpler meals with few ingredients and easy preparation. We go out to eat once, sometimes twice a week, and rarely do takeout, so easy meals guarantee that I'll actually cook the meals that I've planned.
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