Monday, June 18, 2012

Google Calendar Meal Planning Part 1

I've said over and over that I do not really meal plan.  Since I'm only cooking for one, I can usually go on autopilot and it works out ok.  Those of you who are cooking for multiple people and really do need a meal plan, take heart!  I recruited my frugal friend Kara to lay it all out for you.

You know those days when the planets align to give you a long and terrible day at work, and then when you get home your partner/kid/hamster/alter ego meets you at the door whining for dinner, but there's nothing decent in the cupboard or the freezer so you just order take-out? Yeah, me neither. But if I had you until "take-out", you're my kind of person. I can't imagine dropping $30 on dinner unless it's somebody's birthday or another major celebration. Around here, bad days or busy days equal sandwiches or scrambled eggs for supper. My kitchen doesn't have a Michelin star, so there's no need to build up my gourmet cred. We just need food to be healthy, inexpensive, and usually tasty, but most importantly, it needs to be ON THE SHELF WHEN I OPEN THAT CUPBOARD DOOR AT 5:30. That's right, all my great plans for cheap and delicious brown rice with veggies instead of expensive drive through deep fried salt are meaningless if the food isn't in the house when I need it to be.  

Now, the internet (and especially Pinterest) is full of meal plan organizing ideas. Unfortunately, they generally require you to buy a bunch of items like binders, wipe-off calendars, color coded tags or magnets or some such madness. So... I've got to spend money to save money? And bringing more stuff into my house is somehow going to make me more organized? This is where my eyes glaze over.  Also, most of these systems are heavy on the meal planning, and say nothing about grocery shopping. For me, this is a deal breaker. Meal planning and grocery shopping belong together. Some people try to separate them, but they are like an atom of hydrogen and that is a bad, bad thing to do.  Right now I'm going to separate them into different paragraphs, but this is only theoretical and not in real life. DO NOT TRY THIS AT HOME. 

For most of us, meal planning has to be quick and dirty or it isn't going to get done at all. I used to just write it on the calendar (yes, an actual paper one. I'm so 1992). But then you have to look at the calendar to find out what's for dinner. A can of tomatoes isn't just going to smack you on the head and say, "Cook me for dinner!" And if you don't know what you were *supposed* to make, so you just make some other random thing, you may have used up crucial ingredients that you needed for when your neighbors are coming over on Friday, or for that work event you signed up to bring cupcakes for next week. Then you'll have to run back to the store, which will imbalance your incredibly awesome grocery shopping zen which I shall explain tomorrow. And what if you can't find the calendar because your kid cut it up so she could use the 7s, or your hamster chewed it up because they do that, or your alter ego sabotaged you on purpose? What you really need is a meal plan calendar that 1) can't get lost and 2) will stalk you with reminders and 3) can be taken everywhere even though it is 4) weightless and takes up no space in your pocket while being 5) awesomely free. 

If you're thinking, "Toto, we're not in 1992 anymore", you are right. And forget those stupid Android apps. They are one hit wonders. You want something a lot more versatile. Enter Google Calendar. With a gmail address, I can access all Google's other apps and features. Like Google Calendar. Lovely little Google Calendar, so proper, yet so flexible... Brace yourself, because I'm about to sing its praises like Whitney Houston performing I Will Always Love You, but without the crazy. Actually I will probably get a little crazy about this. If you don't use Google Calendar (hereafter referred to as GC), you need to start right now. If you have an outlook calender at work, there is an app that can synchronize the two. After having a gmail address and GC for about a week, you will be like the people in prescription drug commercials, running through a field of daisies with the wind blowing in your hair while you shout to the universe, "Why did I wait so long?!" 

Now, about GC. She is not a summer fling. She is a long term relationship even though you don't deserve her. First of all, you set her up for a day, week or month at a glance, just as you'd expect. Then you click on a date/time and add an event, again just as you'd expect from, you know, a calendar. Here's where the awesomeness begins. You can set up multiple calenders, and the event items from each calendar will be listed in their own color. So looking at your month-at-a-glance, you know that blue is your work events, yellow is social events, green is for kids' events, and purple is for meals (or whatever). The different calenders that you have set up are listed in the left sidebar, so you can click to view them all at once, or only one at a time, or only a certain two, etc. And if your partner also has gmail, you and s/he can share your calenders with each other. This way I also see what my partner is doing on certain days, so I don't need to call him when I'm planning meals or inviting people over, I can just look at the calender to see what he has going on. This way it's also easier to plan a crock pot meal for a busy day, or a more time-consuming recipe for your day off.  You also know which days you won't be home for dinner, so you don't have to buy for those days, and you are reminded of any food-related obligations you need to buy for. I strongly suggest creating a separate meal plan calendar instead of throwing meals into your work one. That way you can hide the meal plan one when you're trying to concentrate on planning your work tasks for the next couple weeks, so you don't keep getting distracted by the rockstar minestrone that is coming up on Wednesday.

Awesomeness 2.0: GC will notify you via gmail about an upcoming event in one of your calendars (pay attention though; you have to check a box when setting up/modifying said calendar). So when it's 3 pm and you're sitting at work wondering what's for supper, just check your gmail. Or even better, when you make entries in your meal plan calendar, don't assign them a time (e.g. 6 pm, chicken caesar salad). Just make it an all day event (e.g. Monday June 18, chicken caesar salad). Then you'll get the reminder the night before, so you can take meat out of the freezer to defrost, get the crock pot set up, soak the beans, or whatever else you need to do in advance to avoid a rush the next morning. Let me point out that this increases your frugality by allowing you to use those cheaper ingredients that require an extra know, the step you always forget and then you end up eating sandwiches for supper. Again.

Awesomeness 3.0: This is the moment where you look into her eyes and know that she's the one. You know how it becomes a pain to re-enter your weekly work meeting or tae kwon do class in GC, so you just set it as a repeating event that repeats every Tues/Thurs 7 pm? (When you create the event, click on it again and go to edit event. It's like hacking into the mainframe of the Matrix and changing the fabric of the universe, except easy). Okay, so we like to have pizza on Fridays. Livin' on the edge, I know. So in my meal plan calendar, I can set "pepperoni mushroom pizza" as an event which repeats the first Friday of every month. "Chicago style deep dish" repeats the second Friday of every month. "Four cheese spinach pizza" repeats the third Friday of every month, and so on. You can set up your menu plan to repeat monthly, weekly, bimonthly, or for only certain days to repeat. I only have Fridays repeat, and each Friday repeats monthly. (Side note: I do make the pizzas myself. They are tasty and healthy, yet way cheaper than any store bought frozen pizza available here that could actually manage to be tasty and healthy. And now that I've done it a lot, it doesn't take very long either.) 

As a bonus, if things get crazy one day and you just end up having sandwiches, next time you go to GC you can just drag and drop that meal entry to a later date. Drag and drop, people! You can put that dry erase marker away. In case repeating meal entries gets boring and you need, if you are using GC, you are connected to the internet. Go nuts. You don't need recipe books. Just google a couple ingredient words + "recipe", or hit up a recipe site. By doing this online, you are taking all those color coded binders and the big dry erase calendar and letting them live in the computer screen that you already use anyway. Now, in order to keep track of your new recipe ideas or your go-to meals, GC has an ace in her garter belt... I mean, she has a Tasks function. Hit that and you get a tasks checklist in the right hand column. You can have multiple task lists that you flip between, like tabs in your browser. I keep one called "meal ideas". I just pull that one up when I'm entering meals into the meal plan calendar, and use ideas from there. It sits on the screen right beside the month-at-a-glance meal calendar. If I come across a new recipe when I'm not meal planning, I just enter the title into the list. Fabulous. 

Tomorrow--Part 2!

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