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May 24 / suzanne

Brenda Thompson: Meal Planning Master


Every Monday Brenda Thompson posts her meal plan for the whole week!

Salon has been running a series of essays called Mortifying Disclosures, so in the spirit of confession, here goes:

When my boys were born, our local multiples club delivered seven frozen meals to our home — elaborate frozen meals like Chicken Marsala and Blackened Catfish — and those meals sat in our garage freezer for more than two years, at which point I conceded and gave the packages the heave-ho.

Wasting your own money is bad enough. Wasting other people’s money is downright shameful.

This is no excuse, but every time I’d pull a meal out of the freezer — always at the last minute, when I was famished and our fridge was bare — I’d see instructions like, “Defrost for 4 hours.” So I’d put the package back in the freezer and order Baja Fresh takeout. This scenario repeated itself month after month.

When it comes to meals, I’m a terrible planner. I’m a non-planner. In fact, I’m writing this at 3:48 p.m. and I still have no idea what I am going to feed my family for dinner tonight.

Let’s contrast me to Brenda Thompson, who blogs at Meal Planning Magic. Brenda, a wife and mom of two in Houston, Texas, not only knows what her family will be eating for dinner tonight (Beef Tips in Wine Sauce served over noodles with a garden salad), but also, more or less, for the next month.

“I plan our meals on Sunday nights while I’m watching ‘Desperate Housewives,’ ” Brenda told me. “I sit there with a printout of a blank calendar and with my phone calendar, which has all the stuff going on, like soccer practice, swim team, Girl Scout meetings, and PTO.”

Brenda manages, with ease, to do what I’m serially unable to do: cook for my family and for others. On the very same day. Whenever my husband wanders by while I’m cooking, he’ll say, “So what injured mom of triplets are you cooking that for? What time should I call Baja?”

Here’s how organized Brenda is: She maintains a color-coded Freezer Inventory Chart, tracking every loaf of bread, bag of veggies and prepared meal that enters her freezer, along with the date it was frozen. I think it’s safe to say no food has ever stayed in Brenda’s freezer for two years.

A freezer inventory chart is too advanced for me at this point, but Brenda has inspired me to attempt some basic meal planning. Here’s what Brenda suggests for beginners

•Start small. Don’t try to plan a whole month or even a week at a time. Start with one meal a week. And know that planning a week’s worth of meals doesn’t mean you need to cook every day. I actually cook three days a week and build in leftovers.

•Schedule a regular shopping day and bring a list. I shop once a week, on Mondays. Try to go at non-peak times, not Sunday afternoons. I have a computerized grocery list that’s specific to my store. It hangs in my pantry and is organized by aisle number, so I’m not dragging myself and the kids from one end of the store to the other to pick up forgotten items. Here’s an example. There are apps that do this, but I haven’t had time to play around with them.

•Write down all your meals on a meal planning chart and put it on your fridge. I printed my chart out and laminated it so I could just wipe it off and reuse it each week.

•Develop a repertoire of go-to recipes. I have my standard list of easy recipes, like homemade chicken tenders, baked pecan-crusted salmon or tilapia and grilled meats.

•Double or triple recipes you’re making for your own family. One of the dads at our school had a stroke, and we set up a meal train. I doubled a rigatoni casserole – the recipe makes a crazy amount — and I got 8-x-8 pans out of it. I gave the family two — one to eat fresh and one to freeze — and did the same for my family.

•Pretend you’re a TV chef. Before you start, have everything pulled out on the counter — the spices, the ingredients, even the pots and pans. That helps you realize if you’re missing something. Also, break down the cooking into steps. Sometimes I make the sauce for a dish the night before.

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