Meal planning for dummies?
June 8, 2008 6:15 PM   Subscribe

I need help learning to plan meals, both to improve nutrition and cut down on costs. I don't want general advice or strategies so much as specific guides and menus. What's out there?

My boyfriend and I eat rather crappily. We don't plan ahead very much, and so typically have very little on hand. We waste money on near-daily trips to the grocery store, we purchase too many pre-made meals, and we eat at restaurants way too often. We also frequently miss out on vegetables and grains, for lack of easy and tasty ways to incorporate them.

I'll admit a large part of this is due to laziness, but there's also a general lack of inspiration that comes into play. So, I'm looking for a source -- either web-based or print -- that'll give us pre-made menus for a week or so at a time.

I picked up a copy of Saving Dinner, which is an awesome concept -- a full menu for every week, complete with grocery lists! But the boyfriend doesn't eat fish, and there's at least one fish recipe every week -- which turns an easy pre-made grocery list into a chore of eliminating unnecessary ingredients -- made more difficult by the fact that some ingredients are shared between multiple recipes. This can be dealt with (I customized one of these lists once, it was a pain), but it'd be so much nicer to just grab a list and go shopping.

So what other resources are out there like that book? Something where I can pull up a full week worth of dinner ideas (a little customizability, like "no fish", wouldn't hurt) and just go shopping?
posted by CrayDrygu to Food & Drink (13 answers total) 56 users marked this as a favorite
e-Mealz does pretty much what you're asking for, including easy methods for *removing* a meal from the list.

Lots of diet-specific and grocery story specific, frugal menus.
posted by unixrat at 6:21 PM on June 8, 2008 [1 favorite]

Sounds like you're describing, to a t, Martha Stewart's Everyday Food magazine. It's pretty handy--a nice small size for the kitchen shelf, contains a week's worth of easy-to-prepare recipes with a good balance of fresh and frozen/canned/pantry goods, and maximizes the use of the fresh food (so that the ginger you use in, say, the pork stir-fry on Monday gets used again in the asian peanut pasta sauce on Thursday - rather than rotting in the fridge for the next 3 weeks). Has a lot of little extra features like "cooking for one," easy desserts, etc, but centers around prepping and shopping for the week. It's not gourmet, but it sounds like the next step that you're ready for. You might check out your local library to see if they carry copies (mine does). Or pick up a copy of the mag somewhere, I'm sure major bookstores carry it. I subscribed for a year back in 2004, and am left with a handy bunch of recipes that we've worked into our weekly repertoire.

One thing I would add: the magazine's recipes often produce small portions, like 2 portions, rather than 4. Remember that you can make more of a given recipe, say for soup, and throw it in the freezer for an easy meal next week. Good luck! And good idea for a post - looking forward to hearing others' recommendations. (Search the archives, too, I'm sure there are tons of good ideas there.)
posted by dreamphone at 6:29 PM on June 8, 2008

Aw, Dreamphone beat me to Martha Stewart's Everyday Food. Easy, simple recipes with mostly what you probably have on hand already.

Rachel Ray's first couple 30-minute books are big at our house; they are really delicious recipes that include both main course and a couple sides. And it only takes 30 minutes, more or less. The only downside is that she often uses ingredients that you have to shop for specifically, or uses up all of something so you have to make sure you have one on hand for that particular recipe (a whole jar of kalamata olives or a whole package of feta, for example). Good menus though, easy and sooo tasty.

I always like to double recipes that I know will keep, like casseroles (which you can freeze in smaller aluminum disposable trays) or soup, or pasta sauce... and then either freeze them (nothing with starch or cheese), or have nice leftover lunches with them.
posted by GardenGal at 7:56 PM on June 8, 2008

Nigella Lawson's "How To Eat" (cook)book really changed the way I think about food. It often reads more like chit-chat than like a cookbook, she uses mostly staple ingredients to make quick, simple meals, and then goes to more elaborate stuff for when you're feeling adventurous. It's by far my favourite cookbook.
posted by OLechat at 8:01 PM on June 8, 2008

I know you don't want strategies, but you gotta plan a little, that's all. Plus, we could all give you menu choices, but you might not like my spaghetti & meatballs (night 1), chicken wraps (night 2), tofu stir fry (night 3), and then curry spinach & garbonzos (night 4).

I can only shop for four days worth. If you do for a whole week, you're going to end up throwing food away. Plan four days worth of dinners, buy 2 lbs of rolled oats & fruit so you have something for breakfast, and do w/e you wanna do for lunch. If you want the recipes for the four meals above, let me know.

The thing w/ shopping for four meals, is that you still have one day of "just pick up a couple of burritoes on the way home, hon'", so there isn't so much pressure to cook every night.
posted by Lukenlogs at 10:46 PM on June 8, 2008 [1 favorite]

I think Lukenlogs basically got it. It's nice to have full menus and complete shopping lists up your sleeve, but they're restrictive and not always realistic. Most people have a couple of hours a week to think and plan ahead. You can't plan, shop for, cook, and clean up after a meal in the hours between work and sleep. However, if you've already done you planning and shopping earlier during the weekend, the universe is full of meals that can be cooked in 20-40 minutes.

On Friday night, I made salmon baked with dijon horseradish sauce, lemon and herbed new potatoes and green beans, and some marinated tomatoes in honestly under half and hour because I already knew what I was going to make and had everything on hand to make it.

I do my meal planning on Friday or Saturday and my major grocery shopping on Saturday or Sunday. I generally plan to cook 3-4 dinners during the work week. On Sunday, I often make something labor or time intensive (lasagna, bolognese sauce, chicken thighs or pork shoulder braised in chili or tomatillo sauce, soup, stew, beans, etc). I tend to double the recipe and put half of it in the freezer to take out for a virtually effortless dinner later.
posted by mostlymartha at 11:24 PM on June 8, 2008 [1 favorite]

Half and hour, not half and hour, obviously.
posted by mostlymartha at 11:27 PM on June 8, 2008

Jesus, what is my issue? Half AN hour. Bed time. Sheesh.
posted by mostlymartha at 11:27 PM on June 8, 2008

Woman's Day magazine might help;
posted by maloon at 1:36 AM on June 9, 2008

Try Cooking Light magazine. It offers many individual recipes as well as meal suggestions (e.g., what side dishes and desserts to add to the individual recipes to make a full meal), so it would be easy to put together a menu for a week. I like it because it's "light" due to moderation and common sense--*some* cheese/butter/cream rather than fat-free or weird substitutes--it has an emphasis on balance rather than on just cutting calories. And the recipes are honestly really tasty; after subscribing for 6+ years, a lot of my go-to recipes are from Cooking Light. The magazine also gives nutritional info for each recipe.
posted by Ms. Informed at 7:30 AM on June 9, 2008

I would have thought that this book could be quite helpful.
posted by jimbaud at 7:40 AM on June 9, 2008

Lukenlogs: "I know you don't want strategies, but you gotta plan a little, that's all."

mostlymartha "It's nice to have full menus and complete shopping lists up your sleeve, but they're restrictive and not always realistic. Most people have a couple of hours a week to think and plan ahead."

It's so great that this works for you. I wish it was that easy for me. I love having lists where the work is already done for me, because while I may have the time to plan ahead, I do not -- as I mentioned in my original post -- always have the inspiration. I will sit there and think about what to make for a week's worth of meals, or even a day's worth, and come up with nothing.

So a list is better than where I'm at now, especially since I find it easier to make substitutions than to start from scratch. I'll learn to make my own in time, but not without a place to start.

Now that that's out of the way...

unixrat: Not only does the e-mealz site fit my question to a T, but when I accidentally signed up for the wrong list, they fixed it for me within just a couple of hours -- at around midnight EST on a Sunday! How awesome is that?

dreamphone, GardenGal: Wow, two suggestions in a row for Martha Stewart's Everyday Food. Sounds like a trip to the book store is in order. Thanks!

maloon: There's some good ideas in there! I think I'll combine that with the e-mealz lists. Looks like there'll be plenty of ideas between the two.

Ms. Informed: Perhaps something for when I'm inspired enough to start creating my own meal plans. A good source of new recipes is definitely not a bad idea.

OLechat, jimbaud: I'll take a look for those books as well. Maybe a good use for my Amazon gift certificate.
posted by CrayDrygu at 4:26 PM on June 9, 2008

An update, three months in:

e-Mealz is great, and exactly what I was looking for. Thanks again, unixrat!
posted by CrayDrygu at 9:02 PM on October 15, 2008

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