The Pantry Principle vs. Menu Planning

by Katy on May 10, 2010 · 42 comments

Unlike many bloggers, I am not a meal planner. I usually plan dinner at some point during the day based on what’s in my “pantry,” (loose term here, as I have no actual pantry) what we’ve eaten recently, who’s going to be home for dinner and frankly, what I feel like eating. Sometimes I feel like I should be more organized, but this non-method actually works really well for my me.

I was rereading Amy Dacycyn’s The Complete Tightwad Gazette last night and came across her article on “The Pantry Principle,” which is pretty similar to my non-method.

“Typical is the admonition to plan meal menus 30 days in advance and shop accordingly, never daring to veer from this carved-in-stone schedule. At the very least, we’ve been told, you should plan meals seven days in advance, working with what’s on sale that week.

The basic premise (of “The Pantry Principal”) is that you stockpile your pantry (and/or kitchen, freezer, basement, closet and/or the space under your bed) with food purchased at the lowest possible price. The sole purpose of grocery shopping becomes replenishing your pantry, not buying ingredients to prepare specific meals.”

The downside to my, (okay, okay . . . Amy’s) method of meal planning is that it works great for me, but not for my husband. I look at a cupboard full of ingredients and see meals, complete with side dishes and the like. My husband, on the other hand looks at a cupboard full of ingredients and sees cans, jars and dry goods. However, I do most of the cooking for the family, (I work part-time, and he works full time) so this is mostly a non-issue.

I do see the appeal of menu planning, and really, the idea of knowing what’s for dinner ahead of time is completely logical. But my personality somehow balks at this method, even though I have actually tried in the past to force this particular square peg into the round hole of meal planning.

I believe there is no absolute of right or wrong with meal planning, as long as what you do works for you. Kristen, over at The Frugal Girl takes her meal planning very seriously, and that’s great. But she and I live very different lives and are hard wired in different universes, and we’ve both figured out methods that fit each of our unique lives. I kind of liken it to the principal that it’s better to do something rather than wait for the perfect method to present itself.

Are you a meal planner, or have you figured out your own method to get a daily dinner on the table without taking out a second mortgage? Please share your thoughts in the comments section below.

Katy Wolk-Stanley

“Use it up, wear it out, make it do or do without”

{ 41 comments… read them below or add one }

Karen May 10, 2010 at 10:05 am

As much as I’ve tried, I just cannot do the weekly meal planning. I can’t. I have HUGE stockpiled pantry, plus a refrigerator/freezer and a stand alone freezer in the garage. I buy things when they are on sale. I buy tons of frozen veggies, because at least I know these won’t go bad, when my intention for Monday’s meal, still hasn’t come to fruition on Friday and the fresh veggies are starting to go. I buy lots of Morning Star products which are also in the freezer. Sometimes we don’t even decide what we are having for dinner until it’s dinnertime…usually not the best time with two little kids, but since we’re both working, it’s all we’ve got.

We went shopping yesterday, brought home 4 Costco sized bags full of food for very little money, but still nothing specific “for dinner”. I get frustrated at myself, but whatever. I can’t do everything.

When I do make a meal, especially a well planned one, I make enough for at least three meals, and some to freeze. Then, I don’t have to think about it again for a few days.

I really need to figure out the crock-pot thing. I know people swear by it. I tried it last week and I think my crock-pot must have super heating powers because the food was way overdone. Good thing I was home during the trial, or I might have come home to some nasty burning teryaki.

There you go…I guess I’m on your page of meal planning.

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Cate May 10, 2010 at 10:17 am

I’m a diehard menu planner! I shop for a week’s worth of food at a time and have a week’s worth of menus planned at one time; however, I don’t plan them out by day. I usually have a general idea of when we’re going to have each meal, but there’s room for improvisation. I used to plan our meals by day, but occasionally we just didn’t “feel” like eating that meal.

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Grace May 10, 2010 at 10:28 am

I’m with ya on this one. No menu planning for me, either. I can put something together (that the family will probably eat) as long as we have bread, cheese, fruit and veggies on hand. 🙂

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Laura May 10, 2010 at 10:39 am

I’m maybe somewhere between you and more rigid menu planner. I’ve been a planner for as long as I can remember (even before I cared whether I was being frugal or not), but I plan for two weeks and don’t assign a particular day to a menu item for maximum flexibility. I found doing that to be very frustrating as something would come up, or I would be too tired or whatever and I wouldn’t want to or couldn’t fix what was on the menu for that day. I always “shop the pantry” before I make my menu to make good use of what I already have on hand, and try to pick up extra whenever I see a good deal. I can always come up with something when I don’t feel like fixing anything on the menu, but that doesn’t happen too often.

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Jinger May 10, 2010 at 10:46 am

Although I do plan meals, they are all from scratch…I am like you, looking into the cupboard and fridge, but my college student will open doors and wail that there is nothing to eat, when in reality there is plenty for home cooked meals.

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Lisa May 10, 2010 at 10:50 am

I’m a Pantry Principle devotee. Using what is available lends itself well to creativity…especially for a cook everything from scratch person like me.

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Mary May 10, 2010 at 10:58 am

We’re members of a local farmers buying club so it all depends on what they offer for the week plus what we have in our freezer, pantry or garden. We don’t plan for specific days and some days we don’t plan until we’re both home and realize it’s almost dinner time! So, I’m not a menu planner but I have a general idea for the week.

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Glenn English May 10, 2010 at 11:02 am

I think you are definitely right that different personality types are successful with different approaches. For some people, pre-planning definitely helps them, and it certainly helps control costs, but I could never, ever cook that way. Half the time, I don’t even know what I am making till I’m done. For me, cooking is very improvisational, based on the ingredients on hand.

I often don’t even plan the menu for a dinner party. For example, last week we had a work party, where a bunch of Ashley’s friends came out for a few hours to help with various projects on the property, and their reward was a nice dinner. I decided that I would make several Indian dishes, so I just bought a bunch of ingredients that would be well suited for the meal. I didn’t even know how many dishes that I would be making, and I consulted no cookbooks, but I used all of the produce, the paneer, some shrimp, and some staples from the pantry like rice, lentils, and Ashley’s rhubarb-amaretto chutney. It all turned out nicely; ended up making five entrees.

If you aren’t cooking from a recipe, and I almost never do, the planning method would be virtually impossible, so I am definitely one for a well stocked, versatile pantry that allows me creative freedom. I also think there is something to be said for cooking what we are actually in the mood for on any particular day, but of course, that gets to be next to impossible with a large family.

Because Ashley wrote a book on canning, and tests lots of canning recipes, we always have a lot of canned vegetables, and that helps to keep the pantry full of options. This year we want to can some nice soups to have on hand in the colder months made from veggies from our garden, which cost just pennies to produce, and the flavor can’t be beat.

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WilliamB May 11, 2010 at 5:05 am

Just popping in to say that the Planning Method doesn’t require written recipes; a mental recipe or idea can work, too.

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Kristia@Family Balance Sheet May 10, 2010 at 11:03 am

I plan meals for the week, but I don’t assign them for specific days. I look at what I have on hand first and then I check the store flyer for any sales on veg, fruit and meat. I find that if I at least come up with some plan at the beginning of the week, I am less likely to order out.

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Kat May 10, 2010 at 11:11 am

I would consider myself a flexible planner… that is, somewhere between the two extremes. We share our cooking and my (unofficial) husband does not plan at all. I usually plan 3-4 meals for one week, which are typically eaten within a two week time frame. We have most of our meat in the freezer (ie. we buy a side of beef, sometimes frozen chicken, sometimes stuff from Costco, or what was on sale), and then I aim to pick up the stuff we need for the planned meals (fresh vegetables usually) plus whatever we have used up from our supplies. It’s not very systematic, but it works well for us.

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Jacquelyn May 10, 2010 at 11:33 am

I’ve never been a meal planner. There’ve been times when it would be nice to have a meal + ingredients planned ahead of time, but my solution for crunch nights like that is having a few easy things in the freezer at all times. Sometimes it’s spaghetti sauce or a pan of enchiladas from a night when I made a big batch for dinner. Having a well-stocked pantry and freezer makes it super easy to just put things together at any time. I blogged about mine here: http://broadbrains.blogspot.com/2010/05/breaking-up-with-grocery-store-part-one.html

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Ruthie May 10, 2010 at 12:04 pm

I am a pantry-principler. I shop to restock the pantry. We eat what I decide I want, what’s in the garden, what we need to make from leftovers, etc.

I keep a loose menu plan for when I am stumped, it’s just an outline though, of the meals we always have ingredients for and are always up for eating (spaghetti, chili, burritos). 🙂

I love your blog, yay!!

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kaylen May 10, 2010 at 12:25 pm

Pantry principler. I’m vegetarian (which is only relevant in that the proteins I have to choose from are TVP, soy curls, homemade seitan and cooked dried beans in the freezer, tofu, eggs, etc.) I shop for fruits and vegetables once a week at the farmer’s market, so the only planning ahead I do is to buy enough vegetables for the number of meals I’ll want to make that week, but that can be pretty inexact since I’m happy with pantry items such as onions (I can happily eat enough fried onions for it to count as a veg), sauerkraut, pickled beets, frozen corn or peas, or pickles as a vegetable dish some of the time. So last night’s dinner was noodles and asparagus in a mushroom broth with eggs stirred in at the end.

> I look at a cupboard full of ingredients and see meals, complete
> with side dishes and the like. My husband, on the other hand looks
> at a cupboard full of ingredients and sees cans, jars and dry goods.

I’ve definitely lived with people like your husband, although I never thought of it like that.

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Katy May 10, 2010 at 7:31 pm

My husband can make two different dinners. Teriyaki chicken and spaghetti and meatballs. Because he’s made these so often, he has perfected the recipes and they are delicious. He tends to turn the simple into the complicated, (in the kitchen) so his meals take hours to clean up from.

We also try to keep a few insta-meals in the freezer, like frozen potstickers. This keeps us from eating out when we’re stressed or under a time constraint.

-Katy

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fairydust May 11, 2010 at 9:12 am

LOL! My husband apparently feels that if he hasn’t used every pot and bowl to create a dinner, there must be something wrong with the meal 🙂 Me, I’m a one-pot gal if at all possible. I do tend to plan a couple meals in my head then wing the rest of the week based on what we have. Not the best method, but it seems to work out okay most of the time.

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Judy May 10, 2010 at 1:39 pm

I’m also a “pantry person.” I have tried and struggled with menu planning and it may work for a week or so, but then back to my loosely organized ways. I have staples, fresh & frozen veg, meat, and fish. I shop the weekly Ads, but we mostly eat according to my taste buds, and I cannot figure out what I want to eat 2-3 wks in advance.
I’m glad to know there are others who cook this way. But there is still a piece of me who is awed by the serious, stick to it, menu planners and coupon queens.

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Shannon May 10, 2010 at 2:18 pm

I’m a pantry person. My husband is not. He stares at ingredients like a deer in headlights (unless it’s the weekend and he’s feeling creative.) I basically keep us stocked with things we all like, plus I always have the ingredients for a couple of automatic go-to meals that are quick and easy for when we are both staring at the pantry like deer in headlights. I am currently trying to be a better planner because we are eating more whole grains and dry beans and such, and that stuff really leaves the husband scratching his head, lol.

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Shannon May 10, 2010 at 2:21 pm

Also, I make sure there is either a frozen dinner or can of hearty soup for the last minute lunch for the husband. He usually will pack a sandwich or leftovers, but sometimes if he’s running a bit late he’ll say “I don’t have time to pack; I’ll just pick up…” to which I reply by handing him the “emergency meal.”

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Alissa May 10, 2010 at 2:21 pm

Perhaps an answer that would satisfy both your husband and you is to have a few meals that it’s easy to always have the ingredients for. Then your husband can easily make a known meal from the pantry stash. I almost always have on hand the ingredients for turkey chili and chicken curry. Both meals are also my fast meals and can be flexible for what else I have on hand, but I always have the base ingredients.

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Karen @ Abundance on a Dime May 10, 2010 at 3:38 pm

I’m a hardcore Pantry Principle kinda gal, and have been for years 🙂 I have a set monthly grocery budget, but I don’t divide it up into weekly amounts as I shop solely based on the sales and on what needs to be replenished in the fridge/freezer/pantry, not based on what we’re going to eat that week. I may spend $125 one week if there are a lot of great sales, then only $25 the following week to pick up sale-priced produce and not much else. As much as possible, I buy items when they are not merely on sale, but at their rock-bottom sale price. For example, peanut butter goes on sale here routinely for $3.99/kg, however once every 2-3 months it will go on sale for $1.99/kg, and when it does I buy enough to last us until the next time it will be on at the rock-bottom price. By doing this (as well as cooking everything from scratch, growing my own veggies, etc), I’m able to feed our family of four (plus a large dog and a cat) very well for $300/month.

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Magdalena May 10, 2010 at 4:05 pm

Menus, every two weeks. I keep better track of using leftovers and freezer food that way. I’m pretty flexible about it, because we have that kind of household right now. But there have been times in the past where I had to be really, really locked in, because of financial restrictions or a family that needed some food discipline! I used to keep my menus and shopping lists in a notebook where I also wrote the recipes I was using, making notes of any substitutions or problems I encountered. I also would write in how the meal was received – liked, disliked, who ate what, whether I should ditch it. Now, everyone likes everything.

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Lisa May 10, 2010 at 6:30 pm

This doesn’t sound very frugal right up front, but I ask my kids (boys 1o & 12) one meal that they would like to eat that week. Pick another two that I know they will eat without question – and make those 4 things for sure. Then improvise the rest. The boys might pick something that is a little more expensive, but if they are going to eat it without complaining…. well, that made my day a little simpler, and that somehow ties in with the whole happiness thing too!

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Kristin May 10, 2010 at 7:18 pm

Brilliant! I don’t have kids so I personally don’t have to worry about this (the pickiness factor), but I think it’s such a great idea, one that I don’t think I’ve heard before. I am a nutritionist (RD) and I’ll pass this wisdom on to any parents of children that I might be working with (or even an adult who lives with and cooks for another adult “picky eater”). Thanks for sharing it!

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Alison May 10, 2010 at 6:34 pm

Katy – someone once referred to you as a “confident cook” in another blog post on a related topic and I think about that often. I try to plan our meals for the week too – but with two young-ish kids who are a little bit picky – my options are always about the same so I vacillate between being a meal planner and cooking from regular meals that I can stock in the pantry. (There are at 6 markets very near our house though so I can also stop by a store on my way to or from anywhere to pick up provisions for a meal.) I think I’m most confident when I go with the method that suits my mood that day of the week-LOL!

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Barb from Iowa May 10, 2010 at 7:06 pm

When we lived in a rather remote area of South Dakota, we got used to stocking our pantry during the once a month shopping trip. We knew the basics of our favorite meals and have since always kept them on hand. However, we still try to sketch out a weekly plan so we don’t both come home tired and say, “Let’s just go pick something up.” My husband has two or three meals he is comfortable making, so we always have those ingredients on hand.
I aways have few ideas to go to with the pantry supplies. Some times I shop for specific menus but not often.

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Kristen@TheFrugalGirl May 11, 2010 at 2:17 am

As you already pointed out (hee.) I’m a menu planning kind of gal. When I don’t plan, I buy too much food, waste food, and end up succumbing to take-out temptation.

I just am not cut out for the pantry principle!

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Andrea May 11, 2010 at 2:18 am

I buy stuff in bulk from our co-op/buying club, then pick up whatever vegetables are in season from the store or farmer’s market and hope that meals materialize from that. We tried meal planning once or twice, and it worked great, but I don’t always have an hour on the weekend to devote to reading cookbooks and writing lists… and since my husband does most of the weeknight cooking (he works from home), I think HE should do the meal planning and list-making, but that hasn’t happed yet.

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terilyn May 11, 2010 at 3:35 am

I loosely plan, and keep a pantry so that I can cook whatever I need to cook. I know that I try to have Tuesday as noodle day. I have a pantry with spaghetti, macaroni, noodles, flour (to make homemade pasta), home canned chicken, beef, alfredo, spaghetti sauce, etc. So on Tuesday, I have a choice of what to make from pasta. My freezers have various meats and veggies, so I can make any sort of a casserole I want to on Wed Casserole Day. Thursday is bean day, and from the pantry I can choose ingredients for baked beans, bean burritos, ham/beans, etc. I do keep a pantry of items purchased at sale prices or home canned, so I don’t have to break the bank buying food each week. I just shop sales for the pantry, then use whatever I need to from the pantry.

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Sara May 11, 2010 at 4:43 am

I work full time and my husband is (still) a student and by the time we bot hget home from the gym and shower is is about 6 or 6:30, and I am STARVING. So, what we do is cook a giant batch of something that will last all week on Sunday, and then eat it as leftovers for pretty much the whole week. I work from home on Thursdays so about the half the time I make something different for Thurs and/or Friday just using whatever we have on hand. I don’t mind leftovers all week but the hubby isn’t wild about it, however we both much prefer leftovers to hanving to cook and clean up (my husband turns the kitchen into a war zone and is a much better cook than me but a much slower one) until 8PM every night.

That is all about to change though, we are moving to Oregon in Septemeber and my husband will be working full time and I won’t be working, at least not right away. I think I might try the pantry principle – I am a natural stock up on sales kind of grocery shopper so we always have enough ingredients, plus we are moving to a place with lots of farmers markets and local fresh produce so I like the idea of stopping at the market or using CSA produce along with my pantry to make whatever we feel like eating that night. As long as I’m not retricted by work to getting home past dinnertime I think it will be fun!

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WilliamB May 11, 2010 at 5:18 am

Pantry stocker all the way.

My goal in learning how to cook was to be able to walk into a strange kitchen and make a meal from whatever I found. This came straight from an experience hiking when our food ration was mixed up and we had to do a lot of improvising from what we were literally carrying on our backs. I was impressed by the hiker who made a white sauce for our random pasta bits!

When I was broke and learning to cook, I planned to a large extent – it took work to match recipes to learn on with cheap food. ($.39/lb chicken leg quarters featured heavily in the menu.) But my improvisational goal remained the same. I focused on that so thoroughly that I’ve lost all ability to make and stick to a meal plan. The only time I plan then list is when i want to try a new recipe.

This is not always ideal. Too often in the past few months I have come home to a fridge with a ton of food but nothing I can plan and make within the hour. As a result I’m too likely to eat “a bag o’ dinner” (such as Contessa frozen meals, which are good for frozen food) or snack the evening away. If I had a couple mealsprepped for over the weekend, I wouldn’t be in that bind. But not this month – I don’t have a free day till June 12.

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Rebecca May 11, 2010 at 6:43 am

I do a bit of both. I can definitely walk to my pantry and make a meal, but I also do some meal planning, so I have ideas of what we have to make in the house, but I leave what we have each day a bit in the air. Depends on what I feel like making and what the produce looks like, if I think it will last a few days, or does it need to be eaten asap.

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Marianne May 11, 2010 at 8:05 am

im the same as terilyn. Monday =chicken, Tuesday=pasta, Wednesday=Meat, Thursday=Seafood, Friday=pizza. this way i know i have a foundation of what to make and can go from there based on whats in my pantry. this past week lobster was on sale at the store so i called ahead to have them steam 6 lobsters for the 2 of us. we had lobsters for dinner friday night, and i made lobster ravioli on saturday with free time and the extra lobster. I think its funny to see that everyone else here is married to my husband who opens the pantry or fridge and says “theres no food in the house!”.

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Tracy Balazy May 11, 2010 at 8:54 am

We don’t generally plan our meals. We usually decide that day what we’ll have, unless it calls for soaking beans overnight, like for the chili we made last night. My husband and I (no kids) make a lot of quick trips to the farm market three blocks away for produce and bakery bread. We don’t buy frozen vegetables or many processed foods, nor do we eat meat. We always have various types of rice on hand and can usually whip something up from that, beans, spices and vegetables. The things I try always to have in the house are fresh spinach, avocadoes, potatoes, onions and grains. We go from there.

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Sarah May 11, 2010 at 9:38 am

I don’t exactly plan meals, but I make a conscious effort at the grocery story. I grocery shop once every 2 weeks and make sure I have enough meat (or non-meat meals such as pasta or pizza) for 13 days (1 dinner is eaten provided by the in-laws). I’ve tried meal planning, but some days I’m just in the mood for something not on the plan, so I make what I want. Thankfully, my husband and I are masters at making up recipes using items before they go bad and/or substituting ingredients, so this method works for us.

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Marie-Josée May 11, 2010 at 6:18 pm

Ugh! One of my children was an extremely picky eater and would not eat anything with ground meat in it, or basically any recipe with cooked veggies mixed in, so forget casseroles, stews and the like. As a result, I have been serving veggies, meat or fish and a carb, (served separately, not mixed in any way) for dinner for the past 20 years. Thankfully, our son has become less fussy as time has passed and will now eat ground meat and cooked veggies. I buy fish, poultry, pork and good quality frozen pizza for our Monday to Thursday dinners. I make a big pot of soup every Sunday, and that is the source of our cooked green veggies during the week. Sunday dinner is a simple meal of soup, bread and cheese. Friday’s we go out to dinner, and Saturday lunch too. Saturday’s dinner depends on whether we are entertaining or not, and if not, leftovers get gobbled up them. I have a lot of food intolerance’s and allergies, so between those and our picky son, preparing meals is a real drag. I am bored by our dinners, but both my husband and I are zonked after work and both dislike to cook to boot. I so wish one of us would magically start enjoying cooking. So meals are planned from Sunday dinner to Friday lunch, and after that it’s party time.

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Clare May 11, 2010 at 7:16 pm

Weekly meal planner all the way. Totally respect the pantry principle practitioners but find that spending 45 min on Saturday morning planning out the week’s meals makes my M-F life a lot easier. I try to make at least one or two meals that yield leftovers for a second meal, but try never to eat the same meal twice in a row. I also feel lucky to have the least picky husband and children in the developed world. They eat anything and everything. Since I went back to work, my husband and I alternate weeks. Whoever doesn’t cook does the dishes.

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Linda May 13, 2010 at 9:19 am

I am definately a pantry person. The times when I tried to stick to a menu, Tuesday came and I did not feel like having chicken or we had a last minute game etc. that stopped us from making what I had planned. Or I would make chicken and had more leftovers than I had planned, so I needed to make some thing with the leftovers that was not in my menu plan. It’s much easier for me to have my pantry stocked and make meals based on what’s in my pantry.

Today I went to a local fruit market and purchased a double bag of cut romaine lettuce for $1 and a large bag (about 3 lbs) of sliced red peppers for $1. I plan on using the red peppers to eat raw with some dip and then freeze them for use in cooking. I never know what the fruit market has, so I would miss deals if I was doing a menu plan.

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Sharon August 29, 2012 at 2:57 pm

I’ve thought about starting to meal plan a million times, but I prefer a method like yours. I have a stocked pantry/fridge and I make whatever I feel like that day. Though, truth be told, I do not cook nightly. We eat a lot of leftovers or just make a sandwich.

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Elspeth @ paper armour August 30, 2012 at 10:40 am

My husband and I are the opposite of you and yours. He looks in the fridge and sees meals. I look in and see an egg carton, milk, and various containers and jars. Fortunately he does most of the cooking but unfortunately he often asks for my input and I usually feel useless about that.

We’ve been using the pantry principle because I ran out of steam with menu planning. (menu planning works GREAT for me but I felt purposeless doing it when he was cooking almost every night) We recently had a conversation about this and he confessed that the menu planning helped him a lot, but that he isn’t the type who could make one by himself. He just liked the structure-with-flexibility it provided. I think I’m going to get back in that habit. It helped us try new recipes more often!

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deborah August 30, 2012 at 6:03 pm

I’m somewhat the pantry planner type. I’ve tried the menu planning before and somehow it never “fit”. We have our own beef in the freezer and I do some canning. It works better for me to come up with a couple ideas for the next time I need to cook. We are a family of 4 and most meals supply us with leftovers for another time or two. I shop by the stock-up when it’s on sale principle too.

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