Menu Planning Basics

Menu planningFeeding a family… it’s part of the territory, but sometimes it feels like painting the Golden Gate Bridge (a huge job that truly never ends). We gather recipe ideas, make a list of meals, check the kitchen for ingredients, make a list, check sales and coupons (maybe), go buy groceries, bring them home and put them away (or at least the cold stuff…), and there’s still nothing to eat because we haven’t even started with the cooking part. At that point, we want to just order pizza or something else that takes almost no effort, but even if we manage to cook supper, we’re really wiped out by the time we need to the kitchen. Does this sound familiar?

I would love to use the wonderful preplanned menus with accompanying shopping guides planned around this week’s sales at our local store, but between food allergies, sensitivities, and picky eaters, they just haven’t work for us. I’ve attempted to use some and just adjust the ingredients and recipes, but my family longs for their favorite dishes repeatedly instead. Also, I’ve probably spent hours walking through the grocery store checking labels in case any ingredients have changed, and I frequently find myself walking all over the grocery store gathering ingredients for an alternative meal because something was no longer possible to make with what’s available. I have, however, learned a few things from buying preplanned menus that could put our meals on the closest thing to autopilot.

There are two different ways I’ve done this.  The first way I will describe works best if you’re making a menu around ingredients, which works particularly well when you’re shopping sales or trying to use up what you have, and it comes in really handy when you’re working with a tight grocery budget for the month.  The second way I will describe is a little more ideal, putting together enough meal ideas to make a lot of this process close to being on autopilot.

Let’s start with the frugal, busted budget, clean-out-the-pantries method. First, take an inventory of everything you have in the kitchen.  It helps to group the ingredients in some way that makes sense to you.  Maybe that’s how it’s stored (freezer, refrigerator, pantry) or something else that makes sense to you.  Personally, I group proteins and other foods that are typically part of entrees, veggies that are typically sides, pastas and rice (because they could be either an entrée or a side), and basic ingredients that could be used for just about anything (flours, oils, herbs, vinegar, cheese, sauces, etc.). Next, I look over the inventory and “find” as many complete or nearly complete meals as I can, and I cross off ingredients as I assign them to a meal. Because I have such picky eaters (including myself), I’m mostly listing favorite dishes and I rarely need to look up recipes, but sometimes I do searches to find ways to use the last few ingredients in new ways. This method also works if you’re trying to plan around what’s on sale or what you can use really good coupons to buy. In my experience, I will always spend a little more time when saving money or a little more money when saving time, so I often “shop at home” (aka using what we already have), then look for sales to fill in the missing ingredients.

If you decide to start with recipes instead, you pull a month’s worth of recipes, allowing for a few favorites to be repeated.  You’ll make a reusable list of ingredients, and just print off a copy each month.  You can choose to divide the whole list into weekly or bi-weekly shopping lists if that’s best for your budget, or you can just put the perishables on a separate part of the list for weekly grocery runs. If you’re really determined to cut back on time, you can even make your monthly bulk purchases through a shopping subscription program like Amazon, truly limiting your time shopping after the first month. This is my ideal method, the one I aim to use the most.  I get a little closer to this each time I shop, but it seems there are always at least a few meals we didn’t cook from the previous plan, because I’m all starry-eyed when planning and lazy when cooking or because there are always a few more nights than I’d planned that the only solution to fit our crazy schedule is the dreaded drive-thru.

Most meal planning charts I’ve seen have a nice neat calendar format, assigning a meal to a day. If assigning a day works best for you, then by all means, put a date down! I’m a bit of a rebel, though; I don’t really like anyone “telling” me what to cook each day (even me!), so I make notes about times required for preparing and cooking the food, and I have special codes to help me see if it’s hours in a crock-pot or minutes on a stove top or shove-it-in-an-oven… I choose a meal each day and check it off as no longer being an option. Obviously, I cannot choose a slow cooker meal at 4 pm, nor can I choose something that takes an hour to bake if we have an afternoon activity that puts all of us away from home when it needs cooked. Conversely, if there’s no exact time we’re all home that evening, keeping a meal warm in a slow cooker is perfect for serving people whenever they can eat. Part of the benefit I’ve found in planning this way is that my husband or teens will volunteer to cook, partly because they like to help, but also because the cook chooses what we eat for supper.  It’s amazing how often they’ll help in exchange for eating what they want that day!

Also, when you’re planning all this out, you can even assign who has what meal-related duties each day. There’s preparing the ingredients, cooking the meal, setting and clearing the table, putting the food away, and washing the dishes or loading the dishwasher. It won’t be the same as if you did it all, but that’s okay; an important part of raising our children is teaching them the skills they will need as adults, and many teens leave home unable to even cook ramen. Even if you cannot bring yourself to let go of the cooking, they can learn from assisting you and watching what you do.

If you have any additional tips from experience or recipes you’d love to share, feel free to list them in the comments!