Meal Planning Made Easy

Pupusas with black beans and zuchinni, one my favorite budget friendly meals
Pupusas with black beans and zucchini, one my favorite budget friendly meals

Meal planning is my least favorite activity in the kitchen. Scrub the pots? Sure! Clean out the microwave? Heck yeah! Write a list before going to the grocery store? Never!

I recently participated in an experiential learning assignment that forced me to plan my meals. For five days, I had to plan for, cook and eat on the budget of someone receiving Food Stamps ($4.25 per person per day). This project enlightened me in many ways that I address here, and it also reminded me of the merits of meal planning.

Meal planning help you saves money, eat healthy, reduce waste and save time.  It is absolutely necessary for someone living on $4.25/day.

The Food Stamp Challenge forced me to confront my current food habits. I could blame the summer heat or the busyness of getting married in July but the truth is I’d gotten lazy in the kitchen. I was shocked by the magnitude to which my habits foster food waste—especially as someone with the knowledge, skills and time to make every food dollar count.

This compelled me to reorganize my kitchen activities around the central principle of reducing waste and excess. I knew the first step in this process was finding a meal planning system that works for me. I needed to find a method that would allow me to follow my creativity in the kitchen but would also reduce waste and maintain my healthy eating patterns.

I enacted an inventory control system that I’m familiar with from my work in the food industry. Essentially, the chef or purchasing manager sets a level of product (known as the par) that should always be on hand to meet the needs of the customer. Once the par goes under a certain level, a purchase is made to resupply the item to its proper par. I thought about all the areas of my kitchen and devised the below Grocery Par List.



Each week, I look at my Par list and then look in my fridge. Do I have nuts? Do I have a lemon? If not, they go on my grocery list (which I usually email to myself). You’ll notice that I’ve allowed myself room for creativity and seasonal cooking; especially when it comes to produce, by specifying a variety of colors–not the specific vegetables. I also like to have some veggies on hand that require cooking (like swiss chard) and some veggies that can be eaten raw for salad (like baby spinach). This way, I can still have fun wandering around my produce market while minimizing waste because I’m not impulse buying.

I should note that there are a few things missing from the Par list–soy sauce, fish sauce, sugar, olive oil, fresh ginger, my favorite spices, instant yeast, corn starch, etc are absolute essentials but I don’t go through them quickly enough for a weekly check. If I have the time at some point, I will make a monthly Par list.

There is no one size fits all strategy. I’d love to hear what works in your kitchen, so feel free to leave a comment below!

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