Foodies can skip this article. This is for those of us who need to keep our family well fed on a regular basis and within a real budget. I’ve been doing this for years, but it doesn’t come naturally to everyone. Here are my five steps for staying organized enough so that you never have to order out…unless you want to.
First, talk to your family. Even if it’s just you and your honey, ask them what their favorite meals are. Get an idea for 7-10 meals that you know everyone will eat. You might want to have two different sets of go-to meals, for spring/summer and fall/winter. My family tends to grill everything in the summer, and we eat tons of soups in the winter.
Next, designate a storage spot for your recipes. This doesn’t have to be anything fancy, but you need a spot for your favorites, especially if you aren’t a natural chef. Subdivide your storage in to one for family favorites and one for recipes you haven’t tried that look interesting. There are lots of fancy kitchen tools out there, but before you spend anything, I recommend using things you already have, like a classic recipe box or a simple 3-ring binder with clear plastic page protectors. Make sure that you have your family’s favorites from step one above written down and stored in your custom recipe box or binder. Store recipes that you clip from magazines and the internet for only one month. Every month toss the recipes you haven’t tried, so you really do try the ones you want, and you don’t end up with several versions of the same recipe or, worse, decades of recipes you’ve never tried.
Step three is to make your list. Even if you aren’t a list person, this is easy. When you get ready to shop, pull out five to seven recipes for dinner next week. These can be from your favorite meals and one or two new ones to try. Take stock of what’s already in your pantry, and buy the stuff you don’t have for your recipes choices, and maybe a couple of extras of your favorite recipes. That’s it. It takes about five minutes. My girls like mac and cheese (the original, not from the box), so I almost always pickup an extra cans of evaporated milk, package of shredded cheddar cheese, and box of wheat pasta*. Add in a bag of frozen peas, I always have the fixin’s on hand for a healthy family favorite that I can prepare in about 15 minutes. And while you are at it, make three-ingredients salads a habit on your shopping trips. If you always have lettuce, carrots, and tomatoes (or whatever your three favorites are) on hand, you can round out any meal in a flash.
Here’s two more tips about your list to make it easier to shop and cook. Hang your paper list somewhere in your kitchen where other people and you can add to it throughout the week so you don’t have to remember on market day. Also, try to write out your list roughly in the order that your favorite grocery store is laid out. Now, I don’t mean memorize the order and content of all the aisles. But if your store shelves produce, then dry goods, then meats, write out your list in roughly that order so you don’t backtrack once your are in the store.
Step four, think about tomorrow’s dinner today, or at least by breakfast. If you are like many families and you stock the freezer to save money, pull out the chicken breasts the night before to thaw in the refrigerator for grilling tomorrow. I forget this step more often than I’d like to admit, but refrigerator-thawed meat tastes better and takes less time to prep than something you defrost in the microwave. Check to make sure you have all ingredients. Maybe even re-read the recipe to see if anything requires preparation a day ahead, like marinating.
Step five, learn some shortcuts. My favorites are the crock-pot (aka slow cooker) and the grill. I love the grill because my husband does the grilling (that’s called delegation), but it also takes next to no time to grill fish and chicken. If you have a slow cooker in storage, this is another time saver that you should rescue from the basement and learn how to use. This is the one time that “dump and run” is a good thing. My favorite cookbook is Fix-It and Forget-It Cookbook: Feasting with Your Slow Cooker by Dawn J. Ranck and Phyllis Pellman Good, but you can convert almost any recipe to crock-pot cooking by reducing the amount of liquid and remembering to stop lifting the lid while cooking! The sequel of this book, 5 Ingredient Favorites, is a smart way to keep things even easier. I do soups and roasts in the crock-pot, but I also make lasagna, chicken and wine dishes, and veggie side dishes. Remember that crock-pots cook dishes in anywhere from 3-9 hours, so you can put dinner in before work, arriving home to a wonderful smell and food for the family. Add a salad and you usually have a complete meal.
That’s it. Five simple steps that you don’t need a food degree or special organizing tools for. Ask your family for favorites, store new and favorite recipes, make a weekly shopping list, prep meals a day ahead, and use cooking shortcuts like slow cookers and grilling whenever possible. Then repeat. Now, what’s for dinner tomorrow?