Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Pen and Pantry

One of my Facebook pals posted what appeared to be a simple request:  "OK, does anyone have any suggestions for how to make Doing The Grocery List and Meal Planning go a little bit more easily?"  Turns out the answers is a tad more complicated than I thought.

Like me she is challenged with chronic illness so memory, cognition and ease of use all come in to play here.

I have been cooking for roughly 40 years and grocery shopping for 35 years so I've been through several iterations of organization. I've used card files and binders and preprinted lists.  So after 35 years and lots   of trial and error the system I use now while not perfect, works for me.   Everyone is different so use this as a starting point and rearrange as you see fit.  

The first step is getting organized.  This takes a bit of work but it pays off in the long run since it makes taking weekly inventory much much easier.

  1. Put like items next to each other in the pantry and the fridge.  Cans of soup on one shelf and bags of rice and pasta on another.
  2. Pick out your favorite cookbooks and put sticky markers on the recipes that you like or want to try or print out the recipes from the internet for the week.  I've started keeping my internet printouts in a three ring binder.
  3. I often borrow cookbooks from the library.  If I like lots of recipes from it then I buy my own copy from Amazon.  The first thing I do when I receive them is put sticky markers in it.  I've also traded cookbooks I no longer use with my foodie friends and I get a free "new" cookbook in exchange.
  4. Once a year remove items from your pantry that haven't been used and donate them to the food pantry.  This keeps stuff from expiring and slows down food hording.  I kid you not, when I cleaned out my MIL kitchen, I found jello packets from the 1970s and cans of vegetables that were ready to explode (the ends of the tins were pushed out). 
  5. Once a month remove the bio experiments from the fridge.  When I was well I used to do this weekly but now it occurs every other month or so and yes sometimes a hazmat suit is required.

Okay.  Now you are somewhat organized.  You have cookbooks and recipes you like.  Your food is organized now you are all set to start a routine of some sort.  In my case (when I'm well enough) I sit down once a week and come up with three meals to cook from "scratch" and a couple of emergency backups.

What do I mean?  The from scratch meals are the ones from the recipes and cookbooks.  The emergency meals are wicked easy meals that I don't need a recipe for and that can sit on a fridge shelf for several weeks without going bad, such as hermetically sealed ham for a ham and bean dinner or hermetically sealed pulled pork for pulled pork sandwiches.  Cans of soup and chili are other good emergency foods.

Here are the steps for the once a week sit down:
  1. Decide on the meals and make an ingredient list from the recipes.
  2. Write down on a separate list the meal name, cookbook name and page number if applicable.  (this is because my memory is now so bad and I have so many cookbooks I often can't remember where the damn recipe is that I want to cook)
  3. Here is where the pantry organization comes in
    1. Take inventory of what you have.
    2. Compare it to the ingredient list.
    3. Make a grocery list of what is missing.
  4. Then go through the other meals:  What is missing for breakfast, lunch, snacks, cats, household items?
  5. One of the weirdo things I do with my shopping list is divide it up into six boxes representing the different departments: produce, meats, dairy, canned goods, frozen, other.  This stops me from finding something at the bottom of my list that sits next to the market entrance where I came in an hour ago.  At least when I skip an item I don't make it out of the isle before figuring out I have to turn around and go back.
Once you do this for a while you'll figure out which recipes you make frequently and what you go through often.  I keep certain items stocked on the shelves that I know I'll use sometime in the next few weeks.  This allows me to adjust for company; give my kid free range to cook for himself and be spontaneous if I feel like it.  Keeping stocked up on staples also allows you to pick these up in bulk or on sale.

Here is a partial list of my pantry staples:
  • Rice: brown, white, basmati, wild rice mix, risotto mixes and Lundberg rice mixes.
  • Pastas: GF and regular elbows, ziti and spaghetti
  • Cooking oils: olive, grape, coconut and special fancy dipping oil for bread
  • Cooking wines and vinegars: white, sherry, Marsala, Bragg's apple cider
  • Canned veg: pasta sauce, toms, tomato paste, beets, black beans, northern white beans, lentils, jalapenos
  • Canned fruit: pears, peaches, cranberry sauce
  • Other cans: soups, evaporated milk (for a specific recipe that I make often)
  • Aseptic packages: chicken stock, soups and gravies
  • Freezer: diced onion, sliced carrots, green beans, corn, peas, broccoli, Brussel sprouts, garlic cubes
  • Baking shelf: sugars, flours, corn starch, etc
Remember any new habit takes about a month to take hold so keep at it for 30 days and then rearrange to suit yourself.

And now for some shortcuts.  

Hang a white board near the fridge or pantry and write down stuff as you use it up. I've found this to be a fantastic memory aid.


If you shop through an online delivery service such as Peapod they will keep your grocery lists for you.  You can use this as a memory aid to check your invenotry and see if you need to restock.

Make extra and either freeze it or eat it for lunch the next day.  If you make a roast buy a large one and then use the extra for a different meal the next day such as tacos or stew.

Also, while doing research for this blog post I found The Ultimate Grocery List here courtesy of grocerylists.org  Love the sense of humor.  Check out the 'carcinogens" list.  If you Google grocery lists under images there are tons to choose from or you can go high tech and use your crackberry.

Remember if something isn't working for you, sit back and think about how it isn't working and then change it to suit you.  Play with things.  I came up with the emergency meals for those unexpected days when I don't have the energy to make even a simple meal.  I use the meal list with references because of my crappy memory."

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