I meal plan almost every week. This means if all goes well, I sit down with my recipes or computer, calendar, and if I am feeling really with-it, the grocery store circular (to check for sales) and come up with a plan of the meals for each week. I check the calendar to see what the coming week has in store for our family...any meal time conflicts, plans or activities that will affect our family's dinner time.
For instance, if R has an after-school activity that will take me out of the home when I normally would be cooking dinner, I plan a slow cooker meal. If I need something that can cook early and be kept warm, I might do something like a lasagna or chicken tetrazini. And if SPH is going to be working late or has a work dinner, I keep it simple and so something easy and kid-friendly, like spaghetti and sauce or grilled cheese and soup.
Another tip I use to reduce the amount of food waste in our kitchen is to try and maximize unusual ingredients in more than one dish, so I completely use each item I buy. If I am doing a Mexican dish that uses a bit of fresh cilantro, I am more apt to pair it with perhaps an Asian meal that will use that same cilantro.
Even with the best laid plans, however, there are times when my grocery shopping becomes more of a fly-by-the-seat-of-my-pants experience. Times when the week gets away from me and I *have* to go to the grocery and I find myself in the store without a meal plan or grocery list in hand.
Here's a tip that a friend shared with me, that has really helped: have a mental list of 3-4 dishes you can make without having to look up the ingredient list. This may be something as simple as tacos, and knowing that you need tortillas, ground meat, seasoning, shredded cheese, lettuce and tomatoes to complete this meal. Or simply making an omelet, serving it with toast and fruit.
You get the idea. Taking the small amount of time to create a short list of meals you can pull off almost without thinking, can help you have a mental resource when you are seriously busy and have to run to the grocery. A simple idea, but one that has helped this busy mom get out of having to order out on more than one occasion.