I am excited about Part Two of How to Not Meal Plan!  If you haven’t read Part One, you can see it here.  This segment will build on the principles I outlined in Part One.  Again, this is just how I do it, and are not in any way a rulebook.  I hope this encourages anyone who struggles with meal planning!

Meal Plan Basics 101

The only way to be successful at not menu planning, is to have a store of “ready-made” ideas available.  These are different for everyone, and I recommend making a list (written or mental) broken down by category.

You can choose any categories you want: type of food (Italian, American, Mexican), level of cooking (easy, crock-pot, difficult, spur-of-the-moment) or health-level (high-cal, low-cal, low-carb).  I like categorizing my favorites based on types of meat, because, for me, that is the wildcard.  My meat options are limited, so I have to make dinner based on what meat is available.  These are my categories:

  • Chicken (shredded, pre-cooked)
  • Chicken (boneless, skinless breasts)
  • Ground beef
  • Fish
  • Meatless
  • Eggs/Breakfast
  • Other meat (stew meat, ham, etc)

I realize that this sounds like menu-planning.  But, because my list is mental and I just internalize my options each day as it comes, I don’t feel like anything is written in stone or planned for me.  I can cook anything, but at least I am working with my favorite 25 recipes, not tackling the million recipes on the web.

What are your Meal Plan Basics/Standards?

To find your basic recipes, ask yourself some questions:

  • What do I crave the most?
  • What do I order the most at restaurants?
  • What are my favorite types of food?
  • What ingredients do I always have on hand?
  • What do my spouse/children always request?
  • What seems easiest to make?

Also, use Google and Pinterest to your advantage.  But, most recipes I find on the web are not basics, just fancy things I will probably never make.  Here are some tips to help you find the basics.

Google:

  • Google ideas for recipes, not titles:  “easy chicken dinner with rice”, “pizza crust with no yeast”, “easy lasagna with no ricotta”
  • Learn Google boolean operators:
    • AND for including all keywords
    • OR for searching optional keywords
    • “ ” for searching whole phrase
    • – for excluding a keyword
    • + for including a keyword

Here is a search for a chicken casserole without a cream soup and with the ingredients for a white sauce:

“chicken casserole”  –cream soup +flour AND milk

Pinterest:

  • Pinterest pins are searchable based on their description, not their image, so search based on possible descriptions: “favorite meal for kids”, “best dinner ever”
  • A lot of pins include the actual recipes in the descriptions, so search for ingredients: “rice and beans”, “chocolate chips”
  • Create Pinterest boards for your categories (You can see mine here – I have boards for chicken, ground beef, meatless, breakfast, etc)
  • Be clever with your Pinterest board names:  “crock-pot”, “spur-of-the-moment”, “non-chocolate desserts”

Easy Recipe Retrieval

  • Bookmark recipes on your internet browser toolbar.
  • Pin recipes from the web onto your Pinterest boards.
  • Print most-used recipes and store (and organize!) in accessible binder (see mine here!).

Shopping for the Basics

If you don’t know your menu plan, how do you shop for ingredients?  Here are few things that influence my grocery shopping.

  • Know your numbers:  I know that I can make a week’s worth of meals with about 2-3 meats and 4-5 vegetables.  This helps me stay prepared for the whole week, come what may.
  • Shop the sales and stock up:  If ground beef is on sale, buy enough for the week and focus on ground beef recipes all week.  And, you can always buy more to freeze.
  • Go without:  This sounds minimalistic, but I go without a lot of ingredients.  A lot of recipes include ingredients that are really very optional.  Vanilla?  Often optional.  Onions or garlic?  Sometimes optional.  Nuts in cookies?  Optional.  I can still make a good meal without them if I need to.
  • Make your own:  I make my own baked goods and don’t buy mixes.  I often buy one whole chicken instead of several packages of boneless, skinless chicken breasts.  I make white sauces instead of cream soups.  I know this should be another whole post, but this helps me need fewer ingredients.
  • Stock back-up meals:  I always keep certain ingredients on hand for back-up meals. Here are a few:
    1. Salsa, tortillas, cheese, refried beans (for Mexican)
    2. Cheese and pepperoni (for pizza)
    3. Jambalaya rice mix
    4. Pasta and tomato sauce (for Italian)
    5. Rice and beans
    6. Canned soup

A few extras…

Shape your meals about what matters to you.  Are you concerned with efficiency and time?  Money?  Health?  Adventure and trying new things?  Let your priorities influence which meals become your favorites and how you menu (or not menu!) plan.

This is the same method I use for breakfast, lunch and snacks, in case you were wondering.  I have a few basics for each and alternate based on what’s in the cabinets.

Do some research!  Wondering how to cook five meals from one chicken?  Always wanted to make a homemade lasagna?  Interested in couponing and shopping sales?  Research leads to knowledge which leads to confidence in the kitchen, so start researching!  Seriously, it can be kind of addicting.

Have fun!  This is supposed to make food more enjoyable to you – so let loose!  Read cookbooks and spend time wandering through your grocery store.  The more you enjoy it, the easier it gets.

Next week I will try to write on my grocery budget.  Please let me know if you have any questions!