Menu Planning and Shopping

Mother and baby grocery shopping

Do you ever arrive home with hungry kids and no idea what you are going to feed them? Or, you have a great idea for a quick meal, but you end up missing ingredients you could have bought on your way home. This is how we end up eating boxed dinners and other foods we want to avoid.

If you have been building your Home HQ with your family binder, you have the ideal place to organize meals and shopping lists so you won’t get caught without a quick, nutritious meal to make.

Having a system for menu planning and shopping will also help you avoid wasting food that you don’t quite have a plan for. According to the UN Environment Programme, “[i]n the USA, 30-40% of the food supply is wasted, equaling more than 20 pounds [~9kg] of food per person per month.” Before you start thinking that’s just the U.S., Canadian researchers estimate that the average Canadian household wastes 15-23kg of food per month. Not all of the waste happens at home. Food leaves the system at every point in the chain. That’s wasted capacity in the food system and wasted money for us all as prices cover food that doesn’t even make it to us. For us as families, though, the food wasted at home costs us about $1,500 per year. Every day we are wasting about $4 of food.

We can stop wasting food and wasting money with better planning.

A Menu & Shopping System

Start by asking whether you will be better off jumping into a whole, new system or gradually adopting new methods into your current system. We’re all different, so choose your own path.

If you want a complete system, start with Plan to Eat. This software is a small, family business. You’ll love their eating philosophy and their business philosophy. You might blink at the price ($4/mo or $39/yr), but that cost will be worth it if you need a whole recipe-to-menu-to-list system.

If you want a system that involves paper or that you can customize, start by looking at what you are using now. What is working and what isn’t working? Change one thing at a time.

One of my favorite places to look for home organization ideas is Pinterest. So many parents are sharing their home organization systems as downloadable printouts that you will be able to find just the right structure, just the right design, and just the right size for your family. Start with “menu planning” and you will find yourself on a half-day adventure with a lot of new pins.

Menu Planning

My family has been using a post-it meal planner for the past year, Menu Planner from Homemade by Carmona, and I love it. My husband, the primary meal planner and shopper in our family, sat down and gave me a full review of this system. He loves it, too.

There are two parts to our menu system: WHEN is on a printed grid in our family binder and WHAT (the foods) is written on Post-it Page Markers, which are rectangular rather than square.

My husband likes that he can see at a glance one page with the family’s list of favorite foods. Once he pulls sticky notes from the master list to place them on the calendar, he can also find gaps in order to balance the overall eating. We color coded the sticky notes. For example, blue for Thai and red for Mexican. I added another layer by making dark blue “long prep time Thai” and light blue “quick Thai.” We can look at the weekly menu quickly and say, “Oh, no! No Thai this week. We’d better add Thai” or “Let’s switch out long-prep Thai for quick Thai on the night we get home late.” (Thai is an important food group in our household.)

Pros:

  • Easy to plan for one week, several weeks, or any period of time, as long as you have enough week sheets printed.
  • Easy to get input from other people, since they can write ideas on sticky notes and add them.
  • Two-page view means you can plan for two weeks and see if you are cooking the same meal too often.
  • Reusable. No printed pages to throw away at the end of the week.
  • Easy to add multiple dishes for one meal.

Con:

  • Post-its lose their stick after they are used week after week.

I like the Menu Planner because it simplifies the process so much that you just think about it ahead of time and don’t have to OVERthink or REthink a common process.

What this method doesn’t do is connect to our shopping list. If you want a simple grid that gives you space to write needed ingredients for your shopping list, this downloadable shopping list template from The Joy Cottage is nice looking.

Shopping Lists

To determine the best kind of shopping list for you, ask what you are optimizing for:

  • highest priority items, if you have limited cash and might have to leave low-priority items off them list
  • most efficient walk through the store, if you have limited time.

We optimize for the walk through the store. Change your list order or shape to fit the store you go to. Otherwise, you might end up walking back and forth. I even found (Pinterest again!) a multi-store shopping list template you can download from Ask Anna Moseley.

The shopping list that my husband uses is lifted directly from his Franklin-Covey Planner with nine zones, which he uses for nine categories of shopping: produce, meat, dairy, bottles & cans, frozen, dry goods, cleaning, bakery, and miscellaneous. He’s written out his list on a 3×3 grid for at least a decade.

Multiple stores can be difficult when you are working with one list. My husband crosses out as he goes then circles what he doesn’t have yet before he arrives at the next store. If you are shopping at a big-box store, like Costco, that is probably a once-a-month trip with a separate list. If it makes sense to include a second store on your list, you can add a code or color to mark stores.

If you have a random element in your shopping, such as an unpredictable CSA delivery or a trip to a grocery liquidation store when you don’t know what will be available until you get there, you will need to adjust your shopping list. If you watch the television show “Chopped” (3 random ingredients must be used in a meal), you can get inspiration to think outside of your usual categories of food. If you adopt the mindset of improvisation, you might find new and wonderful favorites.

Even Better, Let’s Combine

As I was planning this post, I asked my husband how we could improve our own system. We imagined a drag-and-drop app starting with a menu that looks like post-it notes (because we really do like what we already use). Once an item is dragging onto the menu for the week, a shopping list is populated. When the week’s list is complete, we check the pantry and the fridge and mark anything off that we already have. Then, we shop.

That might seem like a lot to ask, but we just found an app that does enough that we’re about to add it to our system: Our Groceries.

We read about Out of Milk as well, but we saw most comparison reviews between them came down on the side of Our Groceries. I love two things about this app to start: syncing across devices, so more than one person can shop at the same time, and recipes you can create so one tap populates the shopping list with all of the needed ingredients. Plus, if you have an Android and your spouse has an iPhone, you’re still safe with this app. My plan is to use the web interface to create “on your way home” shopping lists for my husband. If you are more likely to want to sync with your pantry, you might want to start with Out of Milk.

After a month with Our Groceries, I might just give in and try the 30-day trial of Plan to Eat. If I do, I’ll give you a review.

Image © Joshhhab | Dreamstime.com - Mother With Girl Shopping In Supermarket Photo

How I Learned to Cook Whole Foods

Undiet Book

It’s my favourite time of year! I love these months filled warm weather, swimming, biking, soaking up the sunshine, farmers markets, backyard vegetable gardens, camping, cottaging, and more. With the energy of the summer and the availability of fresh fruits and vegetables galore, I wanted to share with you something I’ve been very excited about.

Confession time – I did NOT know how to cook whole, real foods before taking a handful of live and in person cooking classes from Meghan Telpner, a Toronto-based nutritionist, a few years ago. Brought up on Chef Boyardee and Kraft Dinner, my family had a challenging few years when we learned of our children’s allergies from diary, gluten, soy, eggs, corn and more. We know many families are struggling with similar stories, and Meghan came along right when I needed her most. If you’re unable to join her in the kitchen for a live class, her online courses and now her recently released book, are the next best thing!

In her new book UnDiet, Meghan proves it’s possible to look and feel your absolute best while eating the most delicious food, and avoiding the trap of diet deprivation and calorie counting. Infused with her signature humor, enthusiasm, and accessibility, Meghan inspires readers to question paradigms and take ownership of their health, one small change at a time. Best of all, these are recommendations that fit your life. Nothing in here is too over the top. These are easy changes for any family to incorporate into their already hectic and busy lifestyles.

I strongly encourage you to add UnDiet: Eat Your Way to Vibrant Health to your summer reading list. You won’t regret it! As an added treat - order your copy of UnDiet from bynature.ca before the end of July and we’ll include a FREE Anointment Natural lip balm with your purchase! This is our favourtie handmade lip balm, and we’ve just received a new shipment of samples to share. Happy Summer!


Tamara Champion, Founder
Parenting By Nature

Freeze It! Ingredients in Small Portions

Spent Grain Frozen in Cubes

Do you ever just need a small amount of some ingredient that takes a long time to make (like homemade broth) or that you get in larger amounts than you can use before it spoils (like the annual zucchini harvest)? No problem. Make it now and freeze it in small portions so you can easily add a tablespoon here or a cup there when you are cooking later. You’re still cooking from scratch without doing all of the cooking at the same time.

What ingredients do you use for a lot of dishes? Stock, puree, and shredded vegetables freeze well. In my family, we save finished chickens and turkeys in our freezer until we have enough for our largest stock pot. Then, we make amazingly intense and tasty reduced stock in cubes for use in a lot of the other foods we make. We don’t need to buy those dried granules or cans of stock because our freezer is well stocked.

Growing up, there were a few weeks in late summer when it was just inevitable that everyone in the neighborhood would find giant zucchini on their doorstep. it was an adult version of the game “Dink Dong Ditch.” Everyone grew it, and no one could use it all. It was the local joke, but we really did reach our limits very quickly. When those overwhelming weeks of giant zucchini come along next summer, just shred them raw into 1-cup portions and freeze. The frozen texture doesn’t make a lot of difference for baking zucchini bread, cookies, or sauces.

Freeze in amounts appropriate for the particular ingredient. I freeze in an ice cube tray then transfer to my regular freezer containers. If you freeze in cubes, you can drop multiple different vegetable puree cubes into sauce for spaghetti or lasagna, and no child need ever know how many vegetables they are eating. Cubes are perfect for smoothies, baby food, or toddler snacks.

Start Small. Try a small amount at first. You might not like the taste or texture of certain foods when they have been frozen. If you freeze a gallon of banana mush only to find that you don’t like the texture of frozen banana mush, you’re just stuck. I have never managed to freeze strawberries in a way that they were the least bit appealing to me afterward. Just go slowly since your tastes for frozen foods might not match your tastes for fresh foods.

Buy in Bulk. Once you know you do like an ingredient, you might be able to save money when you buy it in bulk. Any food that you love, that freezes well, and that you can also get less expensive in bulk is a perfect candidate for freezing.


My Special Case: Spent Grain

Spent Grain

My husband has been making his own beer for the past year. Every few weeks, he ends up with a giant bag of spent grain. The grain is still usable and it smells nice (usually), but I don’t have any recipes that call for 50 cups of wet grain. The first few times, I just couldn’t let him discard any grain. I made granola. It turns out that the spent grain is really not the best primary ingredient in anything. After a couple of bowls of that granola, I was finished. As I’ve tried various recipes, I’ve learned that a small amount of spent grain adds a nice chewy texture to cookies and bread, but I never need more than a cup at a time.

Most spent grain recipes (yes, surprise! There are many great collections of spent grain recipes) recommend drying the grain, and I have done that. I’ve also frozen a lot in cubes. Now, when I know I’ll be making any recipe that will work well with rough, chewy grain, I get out a few frozen cubes to thaw in advance.

There is no chance I will ever be able to use all of the spent grain, so a lot of it goes to feed the deer—to encourage them not to snack on my bushes. But, I am really glad that I’ve finally figured out how to use a lot of the grain in recipes that are improved by it. Freezing is a perfect way for me to keep it moist and fresh until I need it. Now that I have a mostly empty chest freezer, I have room to freeze as much grain as I can use.

Look at the way your family eats, and figure out what you need only in small amounts. It’s a big time and money saver to freeze ingredients that you can use in cooking later.

Surprise Your Guests with Holiday Theme Dinners

Family Christmas dinner

Holiday dinners don’t have to be exactly the same from year to year. By adding a theme to your big holiday meal, you can add even more excitement for your children and your guests.

Building family traditions doesn’t have to mean repeating exactly the same decorations, activities, and meals every year. We all look forward to some of our favorites, but the anticipation of seeing what will be new can be fun.

If everyone really craves a big turkey, you could keep the food the same and change the colors and decorations. If the family likes to travel—or wishes they could travel—you might want to eat holiday foods from elsewhere in the world.

In my family, we always have Christmas crackers because that is what my children love about Christmas with their grandparents in England. We always make the Swiss cookies that my grandmother used to make and all of my cousins still make. We generally use the nice china and silverware as well. But, that is all that is consistent. We like to eat foods from other places in the world.

The year of Hurricane Katrina, we had a Louisiana meal in solidarity with all of those who were still recovering. We had gumbo, which fits well with the green and red decorations, dirty rice, and other Cajun favorites then pecan desserts. One year, we couldn’t decide on turkey or goose, so we decided on a theme of Christmas is for the Birds. We started one night with Cornish game hens, the next with duck and goose in a kind of homemade Peking duck, then finally the more traditional turkey dinner. My English husband has a Finnish name, so we played on that another year with the theme I’m Finnish with Christmas. We had traditional Finnish soups and breads that we had not made before. I probably wouldn’t do any of them twice, but we love the brainstorming and planning as well as the meal itself. This year, I’m pushing for a medieval Viking meal with the theme Deck the Valhalls.

If you are looking for a way to add fun to your holiday traditions, consider what you want to stay the consistent year to year and what you might play with to surprise your children or guests at your big holiday meal. Did you travel recently? Do you remember what your grandmother used to make for holidays when you were young? Would you like to see if you really can have an entirely blue meal for a Blue Christmas? (You can! We have.) Look through the ideas that intrigue you, and include your children in the planning. Pulling together the big meal is one of the activities we enjoy the most about the holidays.

Happy Holidays, and eat well!

Image © Monkey Business Images | Dreamstime.com

Dinner on a Budget

Young family making dinner on a budget

When you are making a healthy dinner on a budget, you balance two needs: keep the quality high and keep the grocery bill low. The more work you are willing to put in and the more you plan in advance, the less you will end up spending and the easier it will be to keep this balance.


Grow It Yourself

Can you plan dinner a year in advance? Sure, sort of. It’s not too early to plan your garden for the year.

It’s nice to eat fresh vegetables, and you may also want to preserve your own food to save money. My mother always made pickles and salsa. We seldom bought these at the store. I guarantee we won’t need to buy mint tea for a long time, but there is nothing else we grew this past season that will cover our needs for the whole year. I aspire to grow enough of one food that I can make it worth the time and effort to preserve a year’s worth from our own garden. I have two ideas for foods I think I could cover out of my garden if I focus our efforts for the year: berry preserves or pickles.

Even if you don’t grow your own food, you can buy foods when they are abundant and prices are low then preserve them yourself. Some farmers markets are in their last few weeks right now.


Buy Ahead

One way to cut costs is to buy food as it is discounted. If you want to take advantage of daily specials (“Must be sold today!”), you will need somewhere to store the food. You don’t even really need to plan in advance, as long as you are willing to do a bit of improvisation once the moment of recipe decision comes.

A small, energy efficient chest freezer costs only a few hundred dollars. Chest freezers run more efficiently than upright freezers, and they freeze most efficiently if they are kept full.


Cook It Yourself

When you’re tired and hungry, you are much less likely to make the less expensive choice for dinner. Just to for comparison, and to encourage you to plan ahead, this is what my family of four pays for a chicken dinner.

  • Eat out chicken dinner, restaurant, $40-50 (if you are lucky)
  • Buy chicken dinner, fast food, $20-30
  • Buy chicken dinner, grocery store, $15-20
  • Buy a cooked chicken, grocery store, $6-8 + another $10 for side dishes for $16-18
  • Buy a raw chicken and cook at home, $5 for 2 chickens (on special) + $5 for tortillas, avocado, cheese, and lettuce for a total of about $10 (and, it lasts for a couple of meals)

I base this on the two chickens I bought this weekend (“Today’s Special”), which provided a great Sunday lunch and dinner for about $10. We didn’t really plan ahead, but we improvised around the best deal available.

Even if you only eat take out food once a week, that can add $100 a month to your food budget. If you actually eat out in a restaurant, you add closer to $200 a month. It doesn’t seem like much at the time, but it all adds up quickly

What you need on those evenings when you are tired and hungry is something you can pull from your freezer and heat up.


Divide Meals

If you need quick, easy to heat and eat meals, make them yourself. Before I was married, I could make a huge pot of soup on the weekend and eat it for a week when I got home late. With four people to feed, we can sometimes get three meals out of one pot of soup or chili or two meals out of a dish of lasagna.

Look at your family’s favorite foods and figure out which are most easily scalable. Then, make a lot, divide it into enough for tonight and later. Freeze the rest in the right amounts for a whole dinner, and you have a very easy meal for another night. It’s your own two-for-one meal deal.

It is possible to be frugal by buying the cheapest foods, but don’t fall into that trap. Eating processed and prepared foods costs you more in health and wellness in the long run. Stick with whole foods, single ingredients that you put together yourself.

Eat well and inexpensively!

Image © Arne9001 | Dreamstime.com