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With planning, dinner is a snap

POSTED: January 13, 2013 1:00 p.m.
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Making — and sticking to — a grocery list is important when planning the week’s meals. It also will help make trips to the store speedy and manageable.

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An often-cited line of a Robert Burns poem asserts that “the best-laid plans of mice and men often go awry.”
This mouse is here to attest that, unfortunately, Burns was right. Perhaps that’s why his line was adapted by literary great John Steinbeck.
Despite all of my pre-planning and advance registrations, I did not run the Cooler in Pooler 15K last weekend, and I am losing certainty that I will be prepared for the Hilton Head Half-Marathon that’s just one month away.
I have three weeks of my own disregard to blame and one week of a sinus infection, but before I make a determination about my ability to perform, I’ll need to consult with some experts — especially before I share preparation advice.
But I imagine that now, in the second week of January, many people probably feel this way. We have goals and resolutions, but we’re feeling a bit too behind to begin moving forward.
The truth is, we never advance without taking the necessary steps. So whether I run 13.1 miles in a month or not, I’m logging a long, slow run tomorrow, if for nothing more than to reacquaint myself with the idea.
Speaking of ideas, I’ve recently learned that many of my family members and coworkers share a common habit of not planning meals in advance.
Instead, they make frantic trips to the grocery store, fumbling to remember off-hand which staples they’re out of and what to make for dinner. I observed it firsthand with my parents over the holidays and was surprised to find it’s also common among my colleagues.
While many of our exercise plans can go awry with kinks like cold weather, exhaustion or hunger, I’ve found that as long as I stick to my routine, my meal plan seldom goes out the window. Well, that is, as long as co-workers don’t talk me into visiting downtown destinations where coffee, cake and brownies run rampant — but those occasional treats are important.
For me, choosing broccoli over macaroni and cheese has always been the harder part. That’s where my meal planning comes in.
I know, I know, meal planning sounds like a lot of work and it requires you to know roughly what time you’ll be home each night, and maybe you don’t feel creative enough to find recipes and always default to roasted chicken.
But I find planning meals to be liberating — it takes all of the guess-work out of my days because I know what I can look forward to throughout the week. It also makes grocery shopping a breeze.
So instead of wallowing in the bad things we have been doing or in the instances we’ve failed, let’s take a look at a positive change that’s easily attainable. Let’s all take a step toward proper planning — I’ll even share the habits that have taken me more than a year to perfect.

Tips to planning meals in advance

Find a good source for recipes. One of the beauties of the Internet is that recipes always are at our fingertips, and they’re free. My favorite sites include CookingLight.com, SkinnyTaste.com, MyRecipes.com and AllRecipes.com. The first two typically provide healthy ideas off-hand, but I always mind the ingredients or provided nutritional information when visiting the latter sites.
Set a goal to plan, say, five nights’ worth of meals. That gives you two nights for flexibility — that means a meal out, leftovers, pizza, whatever. You can always plan for more next week. Now, think about fulfilling several categories to avoid that roasted-chicken rut.
Let’s say you want one of each: chicken, pork, fish, vegetarian and pasta. Think about options that fit each category and sound appetizing. Better for you if you can think of things that are easily prepared in advance (think marinades you can whip together the night before) or that have little prep-work. I find that the less effort I have to put forth to make dinner, the less likely I am to deviate from my plan.
Example
Our meals this week:
• Monday: Lemon-pepper chicken with salad and green beans
• Tuesday: Pork tenderloin with a marinade, green beans and roasted potatoes
• Wednesday: Baked salmon with quinoa and asparagus
• Thursday: Black-bean burritos with salad
• Friday: Spaghetti with ground turkey meat sauce and salad
Now that you have your meals down, consider whether you’ll make enough for leftovers, which make a great meal the next day. If you still need to add meals for lunch, think of easy things to prepare, such as tuna salad, sandwiches or quesadillas (we sometimes make a batch of sautéed onions, peppers and chicken strips on a Sunday afternoon and draw from it a couple times for lunch during the week, pre-making the quesadillas the night before).

Making the most out of your list
Another common trap is jotting down grocery needs by hand on the back of scrap paper. That’s how I grew up, and I think it’s also closely related to the time I spent eating fast food as a child. Now, I’ve adopted a fool-proof method.
Begin a Microsoft Word document and separate it by items by what part of the store they’re in: deli, bakery, dairy, frozen, produce. If you’re very acquainted with your store, you can even break things down by the aisle that they’re on. For example, we know that beans and canned tomatoes are together in the same aisle with rice and pasta at our store, so we cluster those items together. It’s also good to remember where weird little things are, like that croutons are with the salad dressing and coffee filters are with the coffee, not with paper goods. This prevents us from circling the store or missing items on our list — other obstacles that can set us back. This eliminates the guess work, which is key for people like one of my coworkers, who said she doesn’t have time to plan and shop.
First, add the items you get on a frequent basis, like milk, eggs, bread and bananas. Then go through the recipes you’ve selected and compare the ingredients list to what you’ve got in stock, and add to your list things that you don’t have. Finally, add extras that stand on their own, like fruits and vegetables that you plan to eat between meals or as sides.
Print the list and recipes and be sure to save your nightly meal ideas in a place they’ll be visible to everyone; we keep ours on a monthly calendar on the side of our fridge. Next week, when it’s time to update the list, you can work from the foundation you’ve already laid. An even more organized step: Type the one-time only items in a different color in your document, because even if you print it in black and white, it will help you cut out the items you don’t need to purchase again.


 

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