Many of us are finding ourselves cooking at home a lot more than usual these days. That makes menu planning even more important if you want to avoid the 5 p.m. “what’s for dinner?” frenzy. With a little planning we can make this part of homemaking much easier.
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Menu Planning: Why and How?
Let’s explore why menu planning is a good idea and then we’ll delve into the nuts and bolts of actually creating a weekly meal plan.
Why plan menus?
1. It saves money. Eating at home is generally cheaper than eating out. Knowing what you’ll be eating in the week ahead also allows you to purchase the groceries you need and avoid unnecessary extra trips to the store. And we all know that stopping by for “just one thing”, especially at the last moment when you’re hungry, usually leads to impulse purchases.
2. It can be healthier. It’s a good idea to eat a wide variety of foods and by planning a week at a time (or longer, if that works for you) you can make sure that you are incorporating a good selection of foods with varying nutritional profiles.
3. It’s happened to us all. It’s 5 or 5:30 p.m. You’re busy working on something and time has gotten away from you. Then you hear a little voice, “Mom, I’m hungry!” and you have no plan for dinner. Or maybe it’s a spouse. In any case, you look at the clock and panic. You didn’t thaw anything and now you have to figure out how to get dinner on the table before there’s mutiny in the ranks. This is when people often opt for fast food. But it doesn’t have to be that way.
4. If you take the extra step and post the week’s menu somewhere in the kitchen, the rest of the family (if they are old enough to read) will know in advance what is for dinner. If your husband eats lunch out sometimes, he’ll know not to order spaghetti if that’s what you have planned for dinner than night. And hungry teenagers seem to be comforted by knowing what their next meal is going to be.
5. It provides the homemaker with a sense of having at least something under control. When the two-year old is having a cranky day, the dog threw up on the carpet and your bank account is overdrawn, you can at least find comfort in the knowledge that dinner is planned.
Now that I’ve convinced you to try menu planning, here is how to do it.
How to create a menu
1. Pull out your calendar. It’s really important to know what is on everyone’s schedule before planning meals. If you have a late afternoon meeting or appointment that’s a good day for a slow cooker meal. Do you have a regular date night? Plan something simple for the kids. It can also be a good idea to look at the weather. You don’t want to plan an outdoor barbecue when thunderstorms are predicted. But the first chilly day of autumn might be the perfect time for a nice stew to simmer away on the stove all afternoon.
2. Check your current food stock. Look through the refrigerator to see what you have that needs to be used soon. Include those ingredients in your menu plan. Also look in your pantry and freezer. You may discover package of ground beef in the deep freeze that you forgot about or a special sauce you bought to try hidden behind the cans of tuna in the pantry. Start with what you already have on hand and plan meals that use those ingredients.
3. Now comes the fun part – choosing the main dishes you want to cook. If you’ve been cooking awhile you probably have a repertoire of family favorites. By all means, include some of those. But it’s also fun to try something new once in awhile. Pull out a cookbook or two or search online. If you have a recipe file, thumb through it for ideas.
4. Once you have a main dish for each night, add the side dishes, salads and desserts (if your family regularly eats dessert). This is where you can elevate an ordinary meal to something a bit more special, as well as improving the nutritional content. Over the course of the week, try to include a variety of vegetables of all colors. A green, leafy salad is a good addition to many meals and adds lots of vitamins and minerals. I also like to vary the starches over the course of the week, as well. Potatoes, rice, pasta, and various grains can be included in meals and it’s a good plan to vary these over the course of the week rather than serving rice or pasta every night. Unless that’s your thing. I do realize certain cultures focus on just one of these and that’s fine. I would recommend using brown rice or whole grain pasta, though.
5. Consider how a meal will look on a plate. A baked chicken breast, mashed potatoes, and cauliflower may be okay nutritionally but that meal is going to look pretty boring on a plate. Try broccoli instead of cauliflower and maybe add some homemade cranberry sauce. Much better!
6. Post the menu. You can hand write it on a piece of paper, print it out on your computer, or write it on a chalkboard or white board in the kitchen. You can make it as plain or fancy as you like but just put it somewhere everyone in the family can easily see it…including you! Even though I’m the one who created the menu I still have to refer to it often throughout the week to recall just what I planned.
Make a grocery list
Now that you have your menu all figured out, it’s time to make a grocery list. Go through the meals one-by-one and write down the needed ingredients. If you did Step 2 above you likely already have some of the items because you’ll have purposely included them.
Check other regularly used items to see what you are out of or running low on. Don’t forget staples such as cooking oil, flour, sugar, spices, etc. It’s a good idea to keep a running list somewhere so you can add these things as you think of them or notice that you are running low.
For many years I wrote my shopping lists on a piece of paper and tried to write them in the general order of my grocery store’s layout. This extra step can save time and backtracking in the store.
The past few years I’ve used an app on my phone that automatically puts each entered item in a category, thus making shopping easier. It’s also handy because I can easily add items throughout the week as I think of them. I use the free version of AnyList but there are lots of other choices. One handy aspect is that you can easily share a list with a spouse or teenager who might be doing the grocery shopping for you. Lucky you!
1. Be flexible. Just because you wrote it on a piece of paper on your fridge doesn’t mean it’s set in stone. You can most certainly switch the days you had planned for certain meals. Maybe you had an easier meal planned for Thursday but Wednesday is looking busier. Swap those dinners. And sometimes you’re just going to say, “Screw it…let’s get take out”. As long as that doesn’t happen every night there’s no harm in it. We’ve all had those days.
2. Save your menus. I have a three-ring binder for mine but a file folder works, too. You don’t have to reinvent the wheel every week. Pull out your old menus and use them for inspiration. Or, if it’s been awhile, repeat the entire week. Your family will never know and likely wouldn’t care anyway. This is why a written or printed copy is a good idea. If you normally write yours on a white board or chalkboard you might also want to jot them down on a piece of paper to save for this purpose.
You can even get all fancy with something like this:
I must admit, my notebook-loving self is rather tempted by this. It just might go on my birthday wishlist. But in the meantime I will just keep my printed menus in a binder. You could also include them in your homemaking binder. (Update: My darling husband bought this for me. It’s fun to create my menus here and the nice thing is that I’ll have a record of our menus.)
Do you plan your menus? Any tips you’d like to add?
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If you’re new to menu planning or just want some help, consider a menu planning service. One that I’m really excited about is Eat at Home. Your membership gives you access to four different meal plans: Traditional, Wholesome Traditional, Slow Cooker and No Flour, No Sugar. You get printable menus, recipes, grocery lists, 15 minute meal options, and a 1-hour freezer stash. A menu planning service such as this can save you hours every month!