Planning for Success

by Laura on August 30, 2009

in Food

I remember the days when I was living the single life in Miami. I’d get home from work, open the fridge and take a gander at what I had inside. Unless I had the forethought to pull something out of the freezer before going to work, I rarely had something waiting for me to cook when I got home in the evening. If I had the itch,  I would stop by Publix on the way home, wander around the store looking for inspiration, then pick up some chicken breast and head home.

When I got married, and even after I had kids, I continued to plan for meals the same way. Sure, I’m pretty good at opening the fridge and cupboards, finding what foods I have, then creating a meal from what I discovered. But that method certainly does not work on a day-to-day basis, especially when you’re preparing foods for someone other than yourself.

Anyone who has had children knows of the dreaded late afternoon, early evening hours, when you and the kids are tired after a long day of work and school. The kids are fighting each other, whining for a snack, and you’re not really sure what you’ll end up putting on the table.

Adding to the tension I felt every evening around 4 p.m., was the amount of money we were spending at the grocery. At the time, we were spending between $300 and $350 per week, a mixture of shopping at Safeway and (mostly) Whole Foods. NOTE: We’re in the Bay Area (and we have four kids), so our costs for weekly shopping may be significantly higher than those in other parts of the country).

My unhappiness about our food bill was compounded by lots of waste. Leftovers hidden behind cartons of milk, bunches of cilantro turning to mush, heavy cream turning clumpy, you name it, we threw away a boatload of food, all the while grumbling about how wasteful and costly it was.

Then, one day, not sure why, I finally had the epiphany. I would take the time to plan meals and create a shopping list with the ingredients needed for the week.

My transformation took a few months, but, today, I wouldn’t dare set foot into the store  without a list in my hand. I think I would be lost, and I would have a gnawing feeling of “Will I really use this food this week?” Today, my average shopping bill is around $250 for our family of six, and lately I’ve been getting it down even more – doing all my shopping at Whole Foods.

I recently saw a post from the local mom’s group about asking how much families spent at the grocery. The concern of this mom was that she was spending way too much at the store, and wondered how to get costs down. I followed up with that mom and several others, and what I found out was the overwhelming need for help in lowering shopping bills and deciding what to cook.

This particular mom told me that for a family of three, including two working parents and a child aged one, they spent $400 or more on food. I was floored. I was shopping for six, and coming in $150 less than she and her husband were.

The culprit: both parents worked, and often thought about what to have for dinner while in the car on the way home from work. One of them would swing by the local market to pick up some prepared foods and head home for dinner.

By shopping multiple times throughout the week, she said they spent on average between $60 and $80 each visit. Add to the cost, she felt that they didn’t have much variety in what they ate, and that was proving to be a problem because the variety may have been affecting her daughter’s finicky-ness with food.

In the past few months, thanks to the struggling economy, there have been lots of article written about how to save money in the supermarket. At the top of the list is “don’t go without a shopping list.” Sounds elementary enough, but it wasn’t something I was doing. It certainly wasn’t something those I spoke with were doing. (Check out our shopping list included with each weekly menu).

I think that the shopping experience has taken on the same characteristics as our eating patterns. Our busy lifestyles have driven us to consume on the go – when we’re hungry, we find a place that can fill that void, and then fill up. It isn’t always a forethought. “Hmm, where should we go for lunch today? Wendy’s, Subway, you fill in the blank.” On the way home, “Hmm, what are we going to have tonight? I’ll just stop by the grocery store and pick something up.”

The process of shopping for food needs to about the experience. “I need four tomatoes to make the salsa for our enchiladas. Oh, peaches are in season, let’s make a cobbler.”

It requires a bit of forethought, but I can tell you from experience, that forethought makes a world of difference. By having a bit of forethought, I have cut back on the late afternoon stress of deciding what’s for dinner while the kids tug at my shirt, I have cut down on food waste, and I have cut down our food bill. It has also had a positive affect on the kids. Now, when they ask for dinner, they know that they will get a definite answer. It builds their anticipation. “Nicole, it’s your favorite meatloaf, with mashed potatoes for Grayson, and green beans for all.” (Oh, the power of meatloaf).

In the next six months, Family Eats will be following several families as they try to change the way they plan and shop for food.

We’ll follow them through a 6-month period as they implement the Planning, Purchasing, Preparing and Consuming strategies in attempt to change the way their family thinks about food – and each other! On a regular basis, we’ll give Family Eats readers updates on their struggles and successes.

With that in mind, Are you struggling with what to make, challenged to feed finicky children, or find yourself wondering how do I cook for two, when you and your spouse don’t like the same foods? Then, you might be a great candidate for our 6-month project.

Specifically, we are in search of the following family units who are looking to change the way they Plan, Purchase, Prepare and Consume food:

* Single person who is struggling with how to prepare meals for one.

* Newly Married Couple who may not know many recipes, how to plan meals, but want to start the tradition.

* Married with young children (both parents working) looking to instill good eating habits, but struggles with finicky eaters or short mealtime attention spans.

* Married, working with ‘tweens or teenagers who are struggling to reconnect for dinner, cut down on fast food or food on the go, and reconnect through the family meal.

* Empty Nesters who have fallen into habit of eating out, spouses may have different food preferences, and haven’t been in the kitchen for a while.

Whether you’re part of the planning experiment or not, we hope you’ll be inspired to plan your meals and shop with a list in your hand. Let us know how you do, leave your comments below.

And, for those interested in participating in our 6-month planning project, please email Laura ( for more information.

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