As any employees at the Ralph's in Westwood can confirm, in college I had my fair share of clueless shopping trips that looked something like this: wander through the store for 45 minutes, spend $75, and get home with some Pirate's Booty, ice cream bars, yogurt, and wine. And no ingredients for an actual meal. Sound familiar? Here are some tips to avoid getting sucked into the grocery store vortex:
1. What are you doing this week? Look at your schedule for the week, and let it dictate the kinds of meals you'll cook. I find that I always end up having meetings and activities on Tuesday and Wednesday nights, so I use those evenings for crock pot dinners, make-ahead casseroles, and quick paninis. Fancier or more labor-intensive meals are saved for evenings when I know I'm coming straight home from work.
2. Do a pantry check. Save some big cash by doing a quick inventory of food that you already have. At one point, I had seven different boxes of pasta because I kept buying new boxes and then only using half the noodles. Sometimes I'll make a list and realize that I have the components for a whole meal, and won't need to buy a thing. This is also a great way to ensure that you use all of your fresh produce before it goes bad.
3. Get inspired. For a lot of us, cooking dinner is one more thing that has to get done before you can put on your pajamas and watch Mad Men. But take a moment and ask yourself this: if someone else was cooking your meal, what would you want to eat? Try and work those dishes into your repertoire. I get bored easily, so I'm constantly reading cookbooks, food blogs and magazines. Another great source of inspiration is restaurant food. Think about your favorite restaurant meal, and look for recipes that use similar ingredients, flavors, and cooking techniques.
5. Don't shop hungry. Ask me about my cooking philosophy, and I'll tell you that I'm all about baked goods from scratch and healthy vegetable-forward main courses. Ask me that same question when I haven't eaten in four hours, and I'll tell you that Golden Oreos are a perfectly suitable and delicious dinner. Eat a snack before you go to the store, and then stick to your list.
6. Leftovers rule. I generally don't menu plan my lunches, because we have a household of two and most recipes serve four. Invest in a set of tupperware, and stretch your dinner into tomorrow's lunch. You can also make your main courses do double duty. Tonight I roasted a chicken, and the leftovers will be great in a Greek salad later on in the week.
7. Show me the menu. Write your menu plan in a visible location. I use a wall chalkboard from Pottery Barn, but a piece of paper on the fridge works just as well. Having the menu visible keeps me on track during busy weeks, and makes it easier to stick to when I feel like ordering pizza. It's also a convenient place to jot down items to buy on your next shopping trip.
Happy shopping! Please share your menu planning tips in the comments!