Every year I used to buy a pocket calendar – the kind people used to look important jotting appointments and reminders in before the Blackberry. I excitedly wrote everyone’s birthdays in it, marked out vacations and holidays … then ditched it, oh, somewhere around January 4. I just never seemed to have a problem remembering where I was to be or whom I was to meet. Likewise, I avoided bouncing checks or overdrawing my bank account through most of my twenties without writing any purchases down or actually ever balancing my checkbook. (My mother, who reconciles her account to the penny on the same day of each month, is palpitating and sputtering for air about now.) I also somehow excelled in college without writing half of my assignments down. So yeah, I might have became a tad cocky in my disregard for organizational tools.
Then I had a baby.
Without actually recounting the disasters that have resulted from my lack of organization in the last several months, let’s just say, I’m more forgetful these days. It could be sleep deprivation, or just the sheer number of items on my to-do list. As it turns out, a three-person household is ten times harder to keep up than a two-person household, even with both spouses sharing the load nearly equally. Perhaps it’s because the additional person is hellbent on electrocuting himself, drowning, or licking the cat unless he’s under constant supervision; goes through a load of laundry every six minutes; and has more appointments and play dates than I had all through my twenties? In any case, organizational tools are my new allies. If they can’t save my family from the mountain range of laundry in the guest room, the cavernous refrigerator, or the Leaning Tower of bills on the junk table – nothing can.
The Art of Meal Planning
Of all the organizational tools my family’s adopted in the last few months, meal planning has been the most life-changing. It’s second only to a budget in must-dos to get your finances under control. (My mom will be relieved to hear that we’ve adhered to a budget for a few years now.) For most of us, shaving the grocery bill is the best way to cut back on spending – and let’s face it, most of us are pinching our pennies these days.
A good meal-planning system can cut your grocery bill by hundreds of dollars a month. And it can also help you eat healthier, incorporate more whole foods into your diet, enjoy cooking again, stop those last-minute “let’s just get a pizza” nights, and even help you get along better with your spouse. Are you sold yet?
Meal planning is simple
You can make fancy Excel spreadsheets or Word tables, or you can just draw a grid on a piece of paper. Plan your meals as often as you wish. Most people do it once-a-week or once-a-month. Right now, my husband and I are transitioning from weekly to monthly planning, so we can buy more things in bulk from a local natural foods mail-order supplier – something only made possible with our meal-planning system. But whichever you choose, the idea is to decide what you will make for dinner each night then write the ingredients you’ll need for each meal on your grocery list.
You’ll want to have a few things handy:
- the circulars from your grocery store (probably available online)
- coupons (if you clip them – we don’t)
- favorite cookbooks or recipes
- in the summer, a list of which veggies are ready to pick from the garden, or abundant at the farmer’s market.
One way to make the planning easier is to institute a “soup and bread night” or “a baked potato night”. I divide my grocery list into sections resembling where things are located in the store, but my husband (who actually does the shopping), assures me it’s unnecessary.
Eat healthier and cook with more whole foods
Meal-planning has enabled me to make more whole-grain, whole-foods meals from scratch almost effortlessly. If I know I’ll be making chili or black-bean tostados the next day, I put dried beans out to soak the night before. So I never buy canned beans anymore. If I know I’ll need bread for a meal, I make a loaf in the morning. Sure it’s a bit harder to soak and simmer beans or make a loaf of bread than it is to open a can of pintos or a bag of Oroweat, but we’re eating healthier for cheaper than ever. Plus, that desperate frustration I used to feel around five p.m., staring into the vacuous refrigerator with a fussy baby in my arms, has entirely evaporated – so it’s a good trade off. I never end up rushing to the store to grab convenience foods for dinner, or ordering take-out at the last minute – things that used to happen frequently.
Plan for domestic harmony
You get how a meal plan can help your finances and your health, but your marriage? Well, my husband and I don’t have exactly the same taste in food. He prefers tater-tots to quinoa, sloppy joes to salads, and bratwurst to rice and beans – and I am, well, the opposite. My husband likes the same predictable meals week after week, whereas I like to mix it up, find recipes in new cookbooks, sample a new whole grain or vegetable each week, and experiment with different herbs and spices. I hate cooking meat and am allergic to dairy, so my dishes are almost always vegan. My husband makes a mean pork roast.
So, we each plan and cook three meals a week, and order take-out the seventh night – and we’re both happy. We try to please each other’s palates to some degree. He hates lentils no matter how they’re seasoned, so I keep those off the menu, and in return, he’s nixed the sloppy joes and often makes me salmon or pasta, which I love.
So, what are you waiting for? Get out that paper and pen. Let’s meal-plan our way to world peace.