Much like the Cylons, when it comes to enslaving humanity or getting dinner on the table, you need a plan. Not having a strategy for how you're going to feed the galloping hoards is a lot like searching for a mythical planet with dwindling food, oxygen and patience. Yet that is exactly what most people do. According to Progressive Grocer almost 60% of decisions about what to serve are made within an hour of a meal. 26% are determined the same day. In short only 24% of meals are completely planned before a shopping trip. This last minute, fly by the seat of your capri pants costs you not only time but money. Here's my strategy for taking back your time, preserving your sanity and not feeding your family at the drive through. And you can do it in about 15 minutes a week.
1) Plan meals around Weekly Specials
Start by quickly scanning your grocery store flyers or briefly survey what the weekly specials are online. Stores like Safeway, Vons, Piggly Wiggly, Lucky, Hannaford, and Whole Foods will have the weekly ad for a store near you. Simply type in your zip code and see what's available. Grocery stores use their ads to promote their loss leaders. These are items that the store is willing to sell to you below their cost (meaning they lose money on each item sold) in order to get you and your stylish, yet affordable handbag through their doors. The hope is that while you're there, you'll buy enough items with a bigger margin (meaning items they mark up and make a profit on.) You can save money by planning the majority of your meals around these loss leaders. Let's say that chicken thighs are on sale. For me that means that I'm going to plan at least one meal around this bargain.
2) Shop Seasonally
Don't buy tomatoes in December and don't look for butternut squash in June. Even if you can find these items, they'll be outrageously expensive and they won't taste anything like their in season doppelgangers.
3) Be realistic about the amount of time you have
If you've got a husband running late and three kids who have to be at three different activities don't plan a multi-course made from scratch extravaganza. Throw some pasta in a pot, add some veggies and slap it on the table. What I'm saying is choose a recipe that is quick, easy and can get you back on the road in a timely yet well fed manner.
3) Stop obsessing over recipes
Find a few recipes sites you like and stick to them. I know lots of people who get so caught up in searching for the "perfect" recipe that they never actually prepare anything. I like Martha Stewart's Everyday Food site and also FoodNetwork. Both these sites allow you to search for quick recipes, so you don't end sorting through recipes that take three days to prepare.
4) Don't cater to special requests
You are not a short order cook. If you have a child or husband with a legitimate food allergy or gluten intolerance then yes, of course plan meals around those genuine needs. But if dear daughter #1 just doesn't like broccoli or dear son #2 picks the raisins out of everything or your husband has an aversion to salad that's just too bad. They need to suck it up and eat what you've put on the table. If you start giving into every whine and gripe about food you will never get out of the kitchen. Make recipes you like, try to make reasonably balanced meal most nights and get on with your life. They won't die of malnutrition and children especially (and some adults) need to be exposed to a wide variety of foods.
5) Double up on recipes when you have the time
For instance, the tomato sauce I use for most pasta has three or four ingredients tops. Canned tomatoes, garlic, olive oil and oregano. I simmer it down, hit it with an immersion blender and I'm done. Some nights I do two batches and one goes in the freezer to be pulled out and defrosted at a latter date. The more opportunities you can take to stock your freezer, the better you'll be prepared to make a meal another day.
So here's how this breaks down in practice. I make a grid chart with the days of the week. They have some meal planning charts online here, here and here but I just write mine down in a small notebook. Most weeks I plan on doing one chicken dish, one meat dish and at least one meatless meal (see Meatless Mondays for more details.) I print out the recipes I'd like to use that week and make my grocery list standing in the kitchen checking the pantry and fridge as I go. When I'm done the list goes into the planner for my weekly shopping trip. This is quick and easy method that will save you tons of time over the long haul. So give it a try!