I have wanted to write about menu planning for awhile, but have mixed feelings about it. On the one hand, it seems sort of silly. I have friends who make fun of my weekly “menu” on my dry erase board. I am sure that many people are saying, “Well…how nice that you have time to sit down with a cup of coffee and PLAN what you are going to serve each night for dinner.” And still others who are thinking, “Why are you wasting our time telling us things that are basic, common sense?” So I have hesitated to write this post. But…if you talk to people about making dinner or you pick up any “women’s” magazine (I realize that there are many men who handle the “making of the dinner” task) or you read parenting blogs…you quickly realize that almost everyone seems to struggle with the constant, never ending challenge of figuring out what to make for dinner. There is something about the relentlessness of it (is “relentlessness” even a word??). There is no “season” of making dinner, like lawn mowing during the summer or changing diapers during the baby/toddler years. Yes, there are occasional “days off” when you go out to dinner or pick up take out. But, once you hit young adulthood, “Making Dinner” is something that you (or someone in your household) are going to be doing for the rest of your life…at least until you check into the nursing home! So I am going to write about it. Mock me if you must…but hopefully you will take away something helpful…whether you have all of the time in the world to think about dinner or your kids think that dinner always comes with a toy.
Why I Menu Plan…
1. It saves time. Although it does take time to sit down and do the planning, once the meals have been chosen and the shopping has been done, I don’t usually have to go back to the store again that week. And I don’t have to spend any more time thinking about what to make or looking up recipes. The shopping trips themselves are also quicker because I have a pretty precise list of what I’m buying.
2. It saves money. I’m using up what I have and am less likely to waste food when I have planned out the meals for the week. And because of the shopping list, I am less likely to impulse buy. (Only “less likely to” certainly not “definitely won’t” as I know from past experience!)
3. It keeps my family’s eating more nutritionally balanced. Maybe I would be perfectly happy eating pasta every night, but that’s probably not the best thing for our health. Menu planning ensures that we’ll have fish one night, red meat another, and an occasional vegetarian meal.
4. It fits dinner into our reality and makes it more likely to happen. Our life doesn’t look like the life of my childhood, where we sat down to dinner at 5:30 every single night. But when I plan around the carpool to karate and when I schedule leftovers for the night I have to go to a meeting…I’m not so tempted to pull into the drive through.
Before You Start Menu Planning…
1. Make a master list of the things that you usually buy at the grocery store in the general order that you shop. I picked up a copy of my store’s directory and made my list according to the aisle numbers…I know that sounds over the top, but it has saved me a lot of time in the store.
2. Make a list of “Keeper Recipes” for each category of types of meals (Seafood, Chicken, Vegetarian, etc.). These are meals that you’ve made before that were easy enough and that the majority of your family liked. So if you need a chicken recipe for Tuesday, you have a list of 5 or 6 chicken ideas and where to find the recipe (or have hard copies of the recipes attached).
3. Bookmark the recipe indexes of 2 or 3 of your favorite food blogs so that you can easily refer to them for ideas. (My favorites are I’m an Organizing Junkie, Dinner, A Love Story and Simple Bites).
How I Menu Plan…
1. I sit down, in the kitchen, with my calendar, cookbooks/recipes (or whatever online recipe resources you might use) and two pieces of paper.
2. On the first piece of paper, I write down the days of the upcoming week and notes about what is going on with our schedule for the week that might affect dinner.
3. Then I take a look in my fridge/freezer to see what I already have that can be used for any meals this week.
4. Next, I start jotting down (in pencil) possible meals next to each day of the week, making sure not to plan anything time consuming for busy nights. I usually only plan about 5 meals each week since there are usually at least two nights that we get take out/eat out or have leftovers. If we are having fish, I try to plan that for the day that I am purchasing it. I don’t have a set type of meal for each night (e.g. Soup on Mondays, Fish on Fridays) but I make sure to keep things balanced out each week.
5. This next point addresses my menu planning weakness…try not to plan more than one “new” recipe per week. I tend to get lost in looking at different recipes, especially when I’m online. What was supposed to be a relatively quick planning session can turn into an hour of wandering from site to site trying to decide what new recipes to try. I love making new things and could easily spend all day perusing cookbooks and food blogs! Instead, I use my lists of “Keeper Recipes” (see “Before You Menu Plan” above) for most of the meals.
6. Once I’ve decided what I’m making for the week, I write down where to find the recipe next to each item (I bookmark any online recipes or save them in my Evernote app) or if I have an actual hard copy of a recipe, I pull it out. Then I take the paper with the Days of the Week/Meals/Recipe Locations and any hard copies of recipes and put them on a magnetic clip hanging on the side of my fridge.
7. On the second sheet of paper, using the recipes, I make up my grocery list. Don’t forget to include items you need for breakfasts/lunches/snacks. I don’t “menu plan” for meals other than dinners…some people do, but dinners are enough planning for me!
8. Finally, I write out the weekly dinner menu on a “white board” decal that is on my refrigerator, so the rest of the family can see what we’re having (and as a reminder to myself, so I remember if things need to be taken out of the freezer or prepped ahead of time, etc.).
Things don’t always go exactly according to the plan each week…sometimes “Chipotle Takeout” was never on the Menu Plan, but it mysteriously shows up on our dinner table, nonetheless. And sometimes the side of acorn squash that was supposed to accompany the chicken is MIA…but luckily my family is pretty flexible…and will gladly accept a raspberry pop tart as a substitute!