New Normal Pantry: Meal Planning Tips

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The COVID pandemic has changed so many aspects of our lives. From how (and where) we work, to how we socialize, and even the way we eat. More than ever, people are choosing to stay safe by cooking and eating at home. And, searching for more meal planning tips. How can we have a well-stocked COVID pantry and fridge? I can tell you how I approach it, and my goals for meal planning are simple. Our meals and preparation should be frugal, enjoyable, and maximize safety

Here are my new normal meal planning tips that can help you save money and minimize trips to the store:

Planning Tips

Pre-COVID, I went to the grocery store at least once a week. I’d do big shopping on Saturday and then run through mid-week for a couple things I forgot. To minimize outings, I do our local version of “curbside” once every 2-3 weeks. It means I plan a bit more and make some difference choices, but gratefully none are terribly difficult changes.

  • I keep a magnetized pad of paper on the side of the fridge for meal ideas and grocery list. Whenever my family says something they’d really like me to cook in the next couple weeks, I write it down. I can’t trust my brain to remember everything when I fill up the virtual cart.
  • If I grocery shop for 2+ weeks, I need to be realistic.
    • I tend to cook about 4 nights a week. (Leftovers two nights, carry out one night.) This means I need 10-12 meals. But don’t feel overwhelmed. Realistically, I only choose about 3 meals with targeted ingredients. Meaning, if I make lasagna or finally try homemade empanadas, I need specific ingredients that better get on the list.
    • The other 8 or so cooking nights are what I call pull-together nights. I just think: protein, starch, veg. I buy a few meats that look appealing and are decently priced – whether fresh or frozen. Similarly I grab pasta, boxed mac and cheese, rice, and/or a bag of potatoes depending on what I’m low on. For vegetation, get whatever fresh you’ll use before it goes bad then fill in the gaps with frozen.
    • This mix-and-match option is particularly helpful because the store is invariably out of at least one item I wanted.  I usually order one extra protein, starch, and vegetable just in case.  If I wind up with everything, the excess goes into the freezer/pantry for next month.
  • I have yet to find a meal delivery service that I thought was worth the cost, but I love to flip through their meal plans for ideas. The cheaper ones use 5-10 ingredients max and can you brainstorm new menu combos. (Think Hello Fresh, Dinnerly, or EveryPlate.)

Purchasing Tips

  • Most bread freezes super well. If you miss having a loaf of bread by week 3, buy two and freeze one. (Or if you have a bread machine or sturdy KitchenAid, try making homemade. It’s so worth it.)
  • Milk in opaque boxes stays fresh longer. I tend to buy a half gallon of regular for immediate use and a half gallon of the more expensive boxed organic one since it will keep longer.
  • If you like to cook and want more fresh vegetables than a once or twice monthly supermarket trip, check out local Community Supported Agriculture options. We’ve been doing it for about 5 years and the one we currently use is able to drop off the produce on your doorstep if you live within city limits. To search for options near you, check out Local Harvest.

Pantry Tips

  • If you’re not using the meat in the next couple days, put it in the freezer until the day you want to thaw and cook. It’s easy to mix and match whatever’s in the pantry and freezer. (This is so common with our family, that on nights I have 2 vegetables instead they look at me with suspicion and ask “Where’s the starch???”)
  • Keep staples on hand – flour, sugar, eggs, milk, baking soda and powder.  It’s amazing what you can make with just these ingredients – from omelettes, crepes, and casseroles for breakfast (or dinner!) to cakes and puddings for dessert.  I’ve even done a Walgreens online order and drive-through pick-up for eggs and milk when that’s all I needed.  Not the cheapest option, but it’s amazing how you adapt when you really decide to minimize running into stores every other day.
  • Check your freezer and pantry regularly. As I head toward grocery run time, I review what’s left and I can almost always eke out another few days on the tidbits I forgot I bought. It’s like getting an extra paycheck in a month – except tastier.

For other grocery and meal planning tips in the new normal, check out:

Grocery Shopping Tips That’ll Help Maintain Your Budget

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