It's commonly advised to make a menu plan every week and stick to it, if you want to stay organized in the kitchen. For a few years I forced myself to make a weekly meal plan (most of the time) but even when that plan was in place it was a rare week that we actually stuck to it every day. Life happens and on any given week there are some unexpected events that throw a wrench into the best laid plans.
Over time, I developed a new strategy that's worked much better for me - the Pantry Principle. Instead of shopping every week for items to make specific dishes, I have determined all the food items I need to have around to make all the meals we like to eat. I simply make sure our pantry always contains these items, and I'm good to go to make whatever we like whenever we want it!
I use the word "pantry" loosely here, as I'm referring not only to what's in my cupboards, but what's in my fridge and freezer as well.
I've found this works a lot better than menu planning for a number of reasons:
1. Flexibility: I can change my mind more easily about our dinner plans when I know I've always got the ingredients to make a wide variety of meals on hand.
2. Makes shopping the sales easier: Because I have a standard list of items I keep on hand, it's easy to see when I'm running low on a particular item and need to stock up. It also saves me from buying so-called "bargain" items that will end up going to waste because we either didn't like them, or they didn't fit in with our usual eating habits.
3. Allows me to focus when evaluating new recipes: If I read a recipe in a magazine or cookbook that uses a lot of items I don't normally keep on hand, I just skip right on by it. I know it's not too likely I'll ever make it if it requires a special trip to the store.
4. Minimizes food wastage: By keeping only "high turnover" foods that we frequently use in the house, there is little chance that any particular item will hang around long enough to spoil.
5. Makes ALL food prep easier, not just dinner time: Traditional meal planning usually focuses only on what's for dinner, leaving you wondering what to do about all those breakfasts, lunches and snacks. The Pantry Principle is more inclusive, making sure you have everything you need to meet your family's food needs all day long, every day!
I should note that it doesn't take a lot of space to have a well-stocked pantry. I have a modest amount of cupboard space, a regular size fridge with freezer, plus an apartment size (7 cubic foot) freezer that easily holds everything we need. Once you root out all the stuff that's just taking up space (but never getting used), you'll probably find you have plenty of space to store the items you actually need.
If you'd like to get started organizing your own pantry, you can find my standard pantry list here.
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