Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Fighting Foreclosure's Frugal Menu Planning

Angelica of Learning to Manage My Finances wrote a comment on yesterday's post that I wanted to respond to. She says:

It´s interesting you´ve written about grocery shopping when I was about to ask you to write something on the subject. Could you write some more on food planning and menus? I tried menu planning but it turned out to be a total failure: I plan what I should eat, buy everything, and then always want something else :) Maybe I should base on not what is needed and useful, but what I usually tend to eat. After scrupulous writing down all my expenses I discovered I live mostly on fried rice! I was really, really surprised that I eat rice that a lot. Sometimes I cook something else, but I have to kinda force myself. Maybe this month I should use my habits as the guide and buy more rice and some things to cook risotto, paella and the like (a chance to learn to cook them, too) :)

So, could you please dwell some more on your eating habits and menu making? If that´s not a secret you don´t want to tell :)
Angelica, I will be happy to, thanks so much for asking! In addition, you might want to check this post that I wrote awhile ago about how I choose what to cook. As I started to write today's post, I realized that this is a question that I want to explore in depth, so I am going to turn this into a series. Over the next few days I will write about my years of menu planning, shopping and cooking and the lessons I have learned from it. Today I am just going to hit some general ideas about planning a menu and talk about a few pitfalls I have encountered.

Menu Planning:

Awhile ago I read something that said that all the unread books on our bookshelves are there because we want to be the kind of people who read those books... but aren't. We want to be someone who has read Last of the Mochians, Naked Lunch or The Heart of Darkness, but what we really go back to, time and time again, is our dogeared copy of Agatha Christie's Miss Marple stories. I think we frequently get too ambitious with our menus too. We want to be the kind of person that bakes their own bread and makes pasta by hand, or we think it would be a great idea for our health to eat salads all week, but the reality is, by the time we get home from work the last thing we want to do is bake bread, and after the second salad of the week, we are speed dialing the local pizza place.

My first piece of advice on menu planning is to be honest with yourself and make menus that actually reflect how you eat. Know your schedule and how long you will have to cook each night. I like to have a variety of things on my menu - some slow cook dishes for the weekends, some 30 minute or less meals for weekdays and some items I can throw together in just a few minutes for those nights I have no time at all or am just plumb exhausted by the time I get home. For example, on my current menu I had a shrimp curry (cook time 1 hr. 15 min) for the weekend. It worked great because while it was cooking I was doing laundry and cleaning the kitchen. Last night I had salmon with ginger glaze and crunchy fennel salad (cook time under 30 min.). It worked because I got home at my usual time and had time to cook, but tonight, when I will be working the part time job until 10:00 p.m. I need something fast and easy, so I'm planning on tuna salad stuffed tomatoes (cook time 10 min. or less).

I am all for trying to improve your diet or be more frugal through your menu, but my strong suggestion is not to overdo it. Start changes like that in moderation. For example, I realized that I have not been getting a lot of fish in my diet, so I made an effort to have a couple fish based meals, but I made sure to pick things I know I like and counter it with other non-fish meals. (The rest of the week I have chicken and vegetarian dishes on the menu.) I have tried making menus based entirely on "what I thought I should eat" rather than "what I actually eat" and it was a recipe for failure. Slip one or two new dishes in, if you want, but also plan on old favorites. Creating a menu of food you won't eat is like making a budget you won't stick to - in the end it's just a waste of time and energy. I have done it, many times. Now I know that when it comes to making my menu, I need to be honest with myself.

Here's another tip: Punishing yourself is no way to eat...

It is easy to sit on high and tell yourself you will eat what's on the menu when your belly is full, but that changes dramatically when you're hungry. For example, I don't care for cooked carrots, but awhile back
I was given a large bag of frozen carrots. It came with other foods I did want so I didn't feel right about turning them down. Last month I found a recipe for a spiced carrot soup that sounded pretty good, and I really do want to get those carrots out of the freezer, so I put the recipe on the menu... however, it never sounded like something I wanted to eat - so I didn't make it. I moved it over to this month's menu, but if I don't make it, I'm going to scrap the recipe and maybe make the apple carrot muffin recipe I found instead. Know what you are really going to eat. Buying ingredients for food that doesn't get eaten is just a waste of money.

One other quick point about menu preparation - a menu is a guide, not a lawbook. Some people work really well with a weekly regimen like Monday meatloaf, Tuesday pasta, Wednesday chicken, etc. I don't. I don't know what I am going to be in the mood for and I hate being locked into having to have something - my inner rebel comes out. Instead, I prefer to make a much looser menu and then just pick off it what sounds good. Sure, by the end of the week the choices are a lot more limited, but as long as I have made sure there are things on it I like, that usually isn't a problem. I do always have a back-up though. Sometimes I don't feel like a meal, so I plan for that. I might make sure there are ingredients for grilled cheese or toast with peanut butter in the house. I might know that I have pasta, fresh basil and tomatoes at hand. I like those "third tier" options as backup plans - they are my defense against getting frustrated and eating out.

To summarize:

- Create a menu that has dishes on it that fit your busy schedule
- Make sure it has food on it you actually like and will eat
- It is okay to set goals with your menu, but do them in moderation or it will backfire
- Don't punish or try force yourself to eat something you don't want to eat by putting it on the menu. You either will regret it later or just never do it at all.
- Making a menu day by day is great for some people, but if you need flexibility then be sure and give yourself other options. Don't turn your menu into a straight jacket!

Over the next couple of days I will right about how and where I get my recipes, how I grocery shop and other meal planning techniques. Thanks again to Angelica for asking such a great question that has me inspired!

Photo by: cloth.paper.string
via flickr


Angelica said...

Thanks do you, Dawn, your post also has me inspired :) It´s all about me: I hate to have to do something as prescribed, my inner rebel wants options. Now I'll try to figure things out differently, this week I've shopped looking more at what I usually eat and what I would like to try.

I'm really looking forward to your further posts on the subject.

Frugalchick said...

I agree with a menu plan being more of a guide than anything else. I make sure I have a few meals I really like planned for the week, then I feel free to make them a different night if I'm craving something in particular. And you can always make something different then what you planned out of the same ingredients you bought, especially if you're like me and tend to buy basics rather than $$$ fancy ingredients (hey, not that I don't love me some $$$ food). Be flexible!

RTC said...

Great tips for menu planning. I especially like the one on being flexible. I can give my son the choice from two or three possible dinners and we are both happier. This probably wouldn't work as well for larger families--too many opinions, but it works for us.

Anonymous said...

I agree with the menu planning idea. we keep staples, past, couscous, potatoes on hand and then add in sale produce for that week. Occasionally, like tonight, I "have" to uses something because it is going to go bad. At one time I counted 5 meals that were based on beef, bell peppers, and cheese. That concept allows us to eat fresh food without being locked into a meal.

Dawn said...

Angelica - Again, thank you for asking a question that I enjoy writing about so much.

Frugalchick - I agree! I have used the same ingredients to make a different meal than planned many times. Some of my ingredients are pricey, (the salmon I bought for this week was on sale, but still... whew.) but I counter that with basic inexpensive items.

RTC - I agree with you. I have only ever done this with one other person. I have never tried to do it with a big family. However, I could picture things like letting other family chose dishes to go on the menu could work too.

Anonymous - Exactly! I love your multiple meals with beef, peppers and cheese. I've done the same with things like tomatoes, basil and garlic or chicken, cheese and onions. It is amazing how many different ways simple items can be combined - and how many different cultures have very different dishes with the same ingredients.

Frugal Dreamer said...

Great advice!

I have bought the book I thought I *should* be reading, and it sat unread on my bookshelf for years and years. How funny we do those kinds of things.