In the past, everything in our freezer, fridge, and pantry would have had a specific purpose. These days it will all get used, but there’s no rigid plan for much of the food we buy.
I have been a menu planner for a long, long time. I was never a natural at menu planning and it was was a task I got better at over a long period of time. Menu planning has saved us a lot of money over the years, but my way of doing it has changed and adapted to my/our needs through the years.
Prior to joining the navy and meeting Brett, I worked as a waitress (food and then cocktail). I made good money for the times, and my menu planning during those days consisted of deciding what I wanted to eat that day and then stopping by the store to pick it up using some of my tips from the day. If I felt like having a steak, I bought steak. If I felt like having a sandwich, I bought a sandwich or all the fixings, and so forth. I was young and had few financial responsibilities, and the idea of planning a daily menu and stocking a pantry never crossed my mind.
When Brett and I got together, we were both in the navy and had very little money left over for food once our monthly obligations were met (military pay was pitifully low then). Our dates consisted of long walks, occasionally stopping at the bowling alley on base to share a 90-cent grilled cheese sandwich and seeing a movie once a month at the base theater for $1 each. We otherwise dined together at the chow hall for free. After I left the navy and our son was born, we had $36 every two weeks in our budget for food, and I menu planned using the pantry method out of necessity. After buying formula, the rest of our groceries routinely consisted of a big box of Bisquik, a couple of smoked ham hocks, a package of chicken breasts, dried beans, pasta, a few produce items, a quart of milk, a dozen eggs, a pound of cheese, flour, and yeast. I baked bread, made soups and quiches and everything else from scratch, and we ate a lot of pancakes. Menu planning consisted of rotating through the meals we could make with what we had on hand.
As our income eased up over the years I segued into planning a more structured and varied menu. We still shopped every two weeks (based on military paydays), but I learned to go with a shopping list based on two weeks of planned (affordable) meals that offered variety. I enjoyed creating a meal plan and fitting in new recipes as well as fixing favorite dishes. I used this style of planning for the next 40 years, whether we had one child or three at home. Menus were made for two week periods, although for a while I tried making a monthly plan and shopping just once a month. I thought I would spend less that way, but eventually realized that instead of saving I was actually spending more, and stopping at the store more frequently for odds and ends I had forgotten. The two-week planning worked best for us.
Before we began traveling I told Brett I was tired of and done with planning and cooking, and I wanted to use more prepared foods, and eat more soup and sandwiches and Brett said it was fine with him. This turned out to be a great solution for life on the road because there were so many new and interesting foods to try in the countries we visited, and many prepared foods were in a different league all together than what’s available in the U.S. and were more affordable too. We often never knew what we’d find when we walked into a supermarket, and were grateful we could add items that looked delicious and were affordable. We kept to a budget, but we shopped with a very short list and chose items more randomly. The smaller refrigerators in Europe proved to be a bit of a challenge at times, but we somehow made it work.
The new normal in menu planning these days somewhat combines our initial “pantry planning” method with the more structured “menu planning” method. I create our meals these days out of what we have on hand along with adding in more prepared foods we know we will enjoy, but it’s far more random than before. I continue to do the shopping, but Brett and I work together ahead of time to make sure I purchase things he needs or would like to have or try. This new way still keeps our budget in line, but we’re buying and eating less meat than we thought we would and our meals are frankly more interesting and fun. Best of all, I’m no longer worn out, frustrated, or bored when it comes to meal planning and preparation. I have an idea at the beginning of each week of what I can and would like to fix for us based on what we have on hand, and then decide each day what that will be depending on how I feel.
Our current retirement menu planning would never have worked for us back in the day when we were raising our kids, but it’s a great fit for our lifestyle now. However, old skills are being put back into use again as I start to think about meals for when the whole family will be here for the holidays. Three are lactose intolerant, one is glucose intolerant, and one is vegan, so meals will have to be planned around those needs but not break the bank as well. It’s definitely a challenge but sort of fun too. However, I remain thankful this will only be a temporary assignment and afterwards Brett and I can return to our new normal.