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Okay. It’s confession time.
I really don’t enjoy menu planning.
There. I said it.
Before I start talking all about menu planning (and acting like I’m a menu-planning-rock-star), I thought you should know that it isn’t something I like. It’s something I do because I need to. It’s a “must-do” not a “want-to-do” for me.
Sometimes I feel the same way about cooking dinner. I love to cook, but not so much at the end of the day. Or after a baseball game when I really wish the kids were in bed instead of circling the kitchen like vultures. Much of the time, I’d rather order a pizza.
I just don’t want you to think that menu planning is something only perfect people do. The fact that I do it sort of shoots down that theory. Planning meals ahead of time actually helps cover up some of my imperfections. It makes me look a little more put-together than I really am.
I’ve been menu planning for a long time. A really long time. Like, since baggy jeans were in style.
(And, yes, there really was a time long ago when baggy jeans were in style. And we wore them around our waist. With our shirts tucked in. I shall not speak of it any more.)
But at the beginning of my marriage, I didn’t do any meal planning.
I also didn’t go much cooking.
Or dusting and vacuuming.
Ahhh….those were the days….
I suppose it was after we had a kid and started spending more time at home that I began to plan our meals each week. We didn’t have any extra money to spare, and I needed to know the exact items to buy at the store so I didn’t waste a single penny.
Well, it’s eighty-three years later (give or take a few years), and I’m still planning. There are lots of reasons why I menu plan, and it has become one of the most valuable tasks I do.
Here are some very good reasons to menu plan….
– It saves money.
It saves money by keeping us from buying unnecessary groceries, and it helps us not step foot inside the store mid-week. Because what self-respecting woman can walk into a grocery store and leave with just the one item she went in for?!?
– It makes us more efficient, which also saves money.
We can plan on using what we already own, which means fewer items on the shopping list and less food being purchased or wasted.
– It saves us from thinking.
We don’t have to trudge into the kitchen every single day and try to come up with some brilliant meal idea for that evening. Hey, anything that rescues me from thinking gets a thumbs-up from me.
– It allows us to plan around crazy schedules.
It gives us a chance to glance at what’s going on for the week and write in meals that will fit the time (and energy) we’ll have for cooking.
– It keeps us away from fast food or take-out (another money saver).
As tempting as it is to grab dinner out, our menu calls us back home empty-handed. I can’t count how many times I’ve begged myself to just order a pizza (or throw a frozen one in the oven), only to see my demanding menu hanging on the side of the fridge. Basically, it keeps me out of trouble.
– It makes us healthier.
I feel guilty if I don’t plan some sort of vegetable into our meals. That guilt means my kids often eat peas on the nights I fix pancakes for dinner. Peas with pancakes might sound gross, but it’s on the plan. Don’t argue with the plan, man.
– It opens the door to variety.
I say it “opens the door” because it doesn’t guarantee variety, but it certainly encourages it. The whole guilt-thing that forces me to add in some veggies also limits how many times I can serve pasta in a week. Without my menu plan, I would likely serve it every couple of days. Because it’s easy and I’m lazy.
– It tells us what we need to do.
Since we know what’s for dinner, we know what we should do ahead of time to be prepared. We can thaw out meat, make chicken stock, or mix up bread while we’re finishing up our morning routine. We don’t have to wait until the last minute, only to discover that we’ve run out of time.
– It gives us an easy answer when the kids say, “What’s for dinner?”
Am I the only one whose kids ask that question several times every day? I think they have a scheduled rotation so they can take turns asking (and re-asking) once every hour.
HOW TO MAKE A MENU PLAN:
My “system” for menu planning is pretty basic. This isn’t a long, drawn out process of jumping through the right hoops every week. It only takes a few minutes each time, and the more you do it, the easier it will become.
Also, it doesn’t matter if you plan for one week (what I usually do), one month (what I wish I did), an entire season, or something in between. The basic steps are still the same.
Of course, if you’ve never done much menu planning, you should probably stick to doing one or two weeks at a time until you get comfortable with the process.
This is my process for planning our dinner meals. At this stage in our family life, I simply have a basic list of breakfast and lunch suggestions, unless I expect us to all be home on a particular day. If you will benefit from planning specific items for the other meal in the week, just follow these same steps for each category.
1. Make a list of possible meals.
On a scrap piece of paper, jot down at least seven meals (or however many you need to fill your menu, plus a couple more when possible). My thought process flows like this:
- Meals that weren’t used from last week’s menu.
- Requests or special occasions. (This is rare for us.)
- Meals that can be made mostly by “shopping” the refrigerator, freezer, or pantry.
- Inexpensive staple meals (pasta dishes, beans and rice, homemade pizza, soups made with homemade stock, etc.).
- Meals using what’s on sale in the grocery ads or by using coupons.
2. Schedule the meals to specific days.
Some people might be happy to keep the above list posted and casually choose what’s for dinner each morning. That’s what I do when we’re on a staycation, but on a normal week I schedule the meals to the days they will fit best. Things always get switched around, but it helps me to have a plan to follow.
For scheduling the menu, you can use an actual calendar, a phone app, or even a piece of paper with the days listed down the side. I usually opt for the paper or an app.
- Plug in any meals that are needed on a particular day or for a special occasion (birthdays, husband’s day off, company coming, etc.).
- Assign easy meals to busy days.
- Fill in the blanks with the rest of the meals, keeping that week’s scheduled activities in mind.
- Tweak or rearrange, as needed. Be sure it makes sense (ie. the meatball subs are scheduled two days after spaghetti-and-meatballs).
- List extra meals, when possible. It can be helpful to have a couple of ideas for back-up meals, just in case a day falls apart. These extra meals can be put on the plan next week if they aren’t used.
3. Follow the plan, but don’t be too rigid.
Remember that this is just a plan. It’s a tool. Use it however it best serves your family.
I rarely ever follow my menu plan exactly. If we have unexpected leftovers, the plan changes. If we get home really late after a ball game or I’m especially tired, the plan changes. If my husband orders pizza so I don’t have to cook, the plan changes (and I do a happy dance). And that’s alright because any meals that get bumped off this week will be moved to the next, and the cycle will begin again.
4. Get help.
If you want a little extra help with planning your meals and saving money in the kitchen, try a menu planning service like Plan to Eat. Plan to Eat is an online menu planner that uses your recipes, scheduled for the days you want them, and it automatically makes your grocery list for you! How cool is that?!? Check it out HERE!
Even though making a menu plan isn’t a task I really enjoy, I also don’t enjoy coming to the end of the day and having to come up with something to feed my family. Taking a few minutes to jot down a menu saves untold brain cells and quite a few dollars every week. It’s totally worth it!