Recovering Sanity with Menu Planning

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I mentioned in my last post that we do menu planning, and quite a few people were interested in how it works. I really can’t sing the praises of this enough. While menu planning is a huge thing on the web, my husband and I were doing it before we even got married to help cut expenses as we were planning for our wedding and move to Texas. Now that we’re busy with a preschooler, it’s even more important to have dinner squared away ahead of time. While we don’t do it every week, the weeks we don’t are quite a bit more frazzled than the weeks we do.

Steps for Success

1. Pick a day to plan, and stick with that day. I like to plan on Sundays for Monday through Sunday. This way I can incorporate my farmer’s market purchases into the menu, take stock of the weekend leftovers, and get a good look at our busy schedules. I don’t use coupons, but Sunday is the perfect planning day for those who do. Another good choice is the day your grocery store circulars arrive, or when you pick up your CSA share.

2. Know what’s in your pantry. When I say “pantry” I also mean freezer, refrigerator, and anywhere else you keep food. Americans tend to buy far more food than they need, and we all have stuffed freezers and cupboards to prove it. Make sure you don’t have an extra bag of pasta lingering in the back or three pounds of ground beef under the frozen veggies before you run out and buy more. We have check-off lists on the fridge, so when we run out of something it gets checked off. When it comes time to menu plan and grocery shop, I take the list and check for hidden foods. My husband often puts jam, ketchup, pasta sauce, and salsa on the list, even though we have quite the stash from my canning efforts. He just doesn’t know where to look for them.

3. Plan your big meals for the weekend. Or the day that is your most relaxed, depending on your schedule. Obviously one of the benefits is not having to do a lot of prepwork and cooking after a long day when everyone is clamoring for dinner. Another benefit, at least in our house, is that you can then use the leftovers from your big meal as lunches for the following week. When the weather is cooler, we like to do soup, chili, or stew every Sunday.

4. Think about multi-meal foods. This may be as simple as saving half a can of tomato sauce and small amounts of chopped veggies for pizza, or cooking a big roast and crafting meals from it all week. Think of Thanksgiving – almost no one has leftovers, and you need to repurpose that turkey! The same goes for other meals. With one beef roast we are able to have barbecue beef sandwiches, pizzas, empanadas, fried rice, baked pasta, and maybe even more. Stretching out proteins in this way is also really great for reducing costs.

5. Consider theme nights. We’re transitioning to Soup Sundays, take part in Meatless Mondays, and already do pizza almost every Friday. You can choose whatever theme you like. Some ideas are pasta nights, breakfast for dinner, and a fend-for-yourself night where dinner is cobbled together from leftovers or small bits of this and that.

6. Try to limit new recipes. I’m guilty of trying something new every single week, because I don’t like eating the same thing over and over again. However, experimenting multiple nights a week can result in excess of odd ingredients and burning out on cooking. You want it to still be fun, right? Plus it can sometimes be exhausting for the others you’re feeding to try a new thing every night. Rotate new recipes with family favorites and everyone will be happy. I try to have my computer or a few inspirational cookbooks at hand when I’m planning so I can easily look up that fun new dish I saw earlier in the week.

Menu planning can seem daunting, but it really can help you rethink your approach to dinner. Just like budgeting with your money, you’ll need to make tweaks here and there. But it’s worth finding what works for you.

Do you meal plan? What are your tricks for a winning week?


About Megan

I focus on fresh ingredients and easy methods, with spins that keep meals interesting. Dinnertime shouldn’t be stressful or complicated, and I’m here to help you enjoy the time spent in the kitchen. Read more…

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  1. Yes, I get this in theory but how do you know what is going to look good. It is hard for me to plan unless I know what is coming in a CSA basket or I’ve visited the produce section. I might have a hankering for something and I’ll plan for that but produce is such a finicky thing. That is what is the most frustrating thing for me with meal planning.

    1. It is hard. I’ve been doing some variation of this for 5 years and I still have weeks where it all goes to pot.
      When we were getting a CSA share we got e-mails in advance that would let us know what would be in the boxes. It didn’t change too terribly much week to week so after we had gotten used to having so many fresh veggies around it got easier.
      One thing that helps when it comes to veggies is to plan your other items first – like, you know you’ll make a grain, or a meat. Then you can fill in with veggies. Granted I don’t know how well this would work for vegetarians – but I know it must, because I read blogs of others who are vegetarian and make menu planning work.

  2. My husband and I have been creating weekly menu plans for the last five years. We started keeping the menus on a wiki, and later a google document. Now I can go back and look at what we ate in the same season a year (or two or three) ago and it’s so much easier to plan, especially when the farmer’s market is open.

  3. *i* don’t meal plan, but our meals are fully informed by what is in the weekly ad and what we have around the house. one thing we do is after dinner (or even during sometimes), we decide what we’re going to do the next night for dinner. even knowing a day ahead can help A LOT–especially for people with finicky kids and produce. we also do a lot of protein re-purposing and meals that can work for lunch, so that’s sort of a given during the week.

  4. Hi Megan,
    I’m Tim Stewart’s friend, and I’m VERY impressed with your blog and your food and your photography! 🙂 Keep up the good work.

  5. Do I meal plan…hm. Well, I used to. These days I’m sort of flying by the seat of my pants. I go to the farmer’s market, I make sure I have enough proteins to last me through the week, plenty of veg, dairy of some sort. I make sure I have the staples (wheat, yeast, rice, tomato sauce, wine) and plenty of canned/frozen fruit for when the market doesn’t have it fresh. And then I just sort of make whatever comes into my head with the ingredients I have. It’s like one of those games where you’re given a block of letters and you see how many words you can make with it. 🙂

  6. I meal plan and have for many years. We eat better and we spend way less when I do. I have 2 very finicky kids and it makes it much easier to feed them also. By meal planning, I can make sure that there is something that everyone will eat at each meal.
    I also try to cook our big meals on weekends and plan for leftovers.
    I am also not rigid about meal planning. If something comes up and I am inspired to make or do something else, so be it. I find the meal planning is a life saver on the days where everyone is tired and hungry and just wants supper, because then there is a plan and we don’t have to stand around asking what everyone wants or feels like and make any decisions.

  7. Like Angela, I’ve been weekly meal planning for years and have everything in an excel spreadsheet so one week I’m not feeling inspired, I can look back and see what I had that works seasonally for years in the past. I’ve also subscribed to many cooking mags in the past as well as having too many cookbooks. I keep my cooking mags in a separate magazine box for each month. I am careful to mark in the recipe index things that did and did not work in the past. Each month I switch the box of magazines and one or two recipe books sitting in my kitchen, and use them as inspiration, along with googling the web, reading blogs, and looking back at what has worked before. There’s a lot more to it, but enough. time to cook!

  8. Yup,

    I plan two weeks in advance but since I only consider Sun – Thur with Thursdays being my moms night to cook, its pretty simple. I go grocery shopping every two weeks so I plan every two weeks. I do all of the cooking for the week on Sunday after services. Ideally, I cook Sundays meal in the morning before services, that way we can eat as soon as we get home. I usually stay on track because I know that if I do not, I will pay for it all week long.

  9. Yes its absolutely necessary to plan ahead of time..More so because we all have packed weekdays..I plan the weeks menu on Sundays,thats when I have the time to do so…

  10. Megan:
    This is very helpful!!! I have been daunting by the idea. I tried it a few times and i was surprised how much I save weekly but then I dropped it, partially because of lazyness and partially because of my ADD-ness (LOL). I would like to start picking up in the new year. My husband and I talked about putting aside a certain budget in cash for the weekly grocery expenses, to keep it reasonable and predictable. I do have a question: how do you overcome sudden cravings? how do you re-adjust your menu if on the night you planned a meal you really are not craving that meal anymore? (e.g do you freeze the planned ingredients? do you shift around your menu?)
    Thank you!!!

    1. @Amelia,
      I try to plan for cravings in advance. Honestly! I know that sounds weird but aside from sweets I almost never have a “I have to have that!” moment. If I crave for something I put it down as something to have in the next week. (After all I likely don’t have the ingredients on hand anyway.)
      If it does happen I just shift everything down one day or move it to the next week depending on what the vegetable situation is.
      With meal planning you need to be both firm and flexible. You may not always be eating what you really want that day but at least you didn’t have to fuss about what to make for an hour!

  11. ohh mmm gee, i love this idea!
    i love all your menus and if we decide to adopt this philosophy, you know i’ll be passing some link loving back your way!
    i do some planing ahead…but only about 2-3 meals out…i’m impressed with you doing a weekly plan, honestly!
    AWESOME! Morgan @

  12. Yes, I am married with no kids, 30-something and plan meals for the week. I do a poor job of journaling my personal recipes and marking recipes used from my cookbook collection. Hoping to improve in 2011!

  13. The biggest hurdle for me to overcome is cooking on weeknights. I like to cook at a pretty relaxed pace and think nothing of spending three hours on a Sat./Sun. to prepare a meal. SInce I won’t have that luxury on weekdays, I’m going to start very simply. My plan for next week includes heating a Bola frozen pizza and making a salad and cracking open an Old El Paso taco kit and browning hamburger meat. But hey, you’ve got to start somewhere, right? Thanks for sending your links!

    1. I’m the same way – I hate to do “busy” recipes during the week. Even planning a simple meal is planning, and keeping things simple is sometimes the best way to ensure you’ll keep going on it. I would love to hear your thoughts on planning in about a month!