As we kick off another new year it gives everyone a chance to pause and reflect. Consider what went well last year and what we might want to work on going forward. I hear from a lot of moms who want to incorporate more organic food into their family’s diet. They say they just don’t know how or are too overwhelmed by the choices available. One way to keep your budget in check with the ability to branch out into new food options is by menu planning.
Give yourself a little time every week to think through what you are going to be putting on the table each night (and morning and afternoon if you want!). It not only eliminates the 5:00 panic that often leads to drive thru or carry out, but you can consciously use ingredients to their maximum benefit. This gives you more bang for your buck overall and helps justify what might be higher prices for organic ingredients.
Menu planning can seem overwhelming to some. It can feel overwhelming at first too. These are the tools I use each and every week. You can take what works for your life and apply it in a positive way. Don’t give up if it takes more time than you expected. Don’t just throw in the towel if something unexpected happens to throw off your schedule. Life happens, it is OK. You can always push a meal back a day if need be. You can figure this out.
First, gather your supplies and set aside a quiet time. I know, quiet time is hard to come by, but find an hour or so alone. I like to sit down on Sunday afternoon when my husband is there to occupy the kids. You will need a list and your favorite recipe source. As you get more comfortable there are quite a few more levels to raise your menu planning game by, but start with the basics.
I started with paper lists. Currently I use my phone more because I know I will always have it with me. Do what works for you and adjust as you go. I love the app Cozi. It is free and easy to customize. There is a calendar feature and a tab for lists which is further broken into shopping and to-do lists. You can make as many lists as you need. I personally shop at multiple stores every week looking for the best deals. I know that certain items will be a better value at certain stores so I maintain 6 different grocery store lists and a few more for other types of shopping! But I have eliminated the feeling of ‘what was it I needed to run in there for?’ that drove me crazy.
If you are at the type that likes pretty, organized sheets, there are lots of menu planning templates online. Find one that works for you. Pinterest is a great start, try here. They do vary so you may find your needs change as time goes on.
Next, look through your recipes and simply assign one to each night. You can just mentally do this or have a designated place to write down what your plans are. A dry erase weekly calendar board (below) works well for me. I use one like this but there are even some designed specifically for menu planning here. I am able to place it discretely in my kitchen and use it for quick reference. Plus with dry erase it is easy to adjust when things come up. If I am using a recipe from a cookbook I also note the page so I can quickly get back to it. If it is an online recipe I sometimes note the source so I don’t get lost down a rabbit hole trying to bring it back up later in the week. I also have found it beneficial to keep track of the planned side dishes to go along with the meals. The less I have to think about mid-week the better.
After you have decided what you are going to make and when, you can go back through the recipes and figure out what you need to buy. I can tell you with about 85% confidence what is in my pantry but I always have a few things to double check. Trust me you don’t want to assume you have diced tomatoes on hand and then get halfway through a recipe calling for them before realizing you were wrong!
Another factor to consider is meal prep. Think about your schedule and be sure to note any pre prep that needs to be done. If I am making a chicken dish but all of my chicken is in the freezer I make a note to defrost chicken on the night before. Anything that you can do ahead of time will be beneficial. Also be sure to include nights to use up leftovers if your family tends to have them. My family of four almost always has a little something left over. I will have 1 night a week where we just reheat everything and try to finish it all up.
That is it really. Use your list for a trip to the store then do your best to stick to your plan.
After you get the hang of basic menu planning, there are a few elements I use to take it up a notch. Even well planned meals can get boring. I always like to try new meals but it can be hard to come up with ideas. It is easy to get stuck in a rut. Here are a few tips to make menu planning more effective and keep meals interesting.
Plan around the weather. You don’t want to grill chicken during a thunderstorm, and beef stew isn’t too appealing on 90 degree days. Use your weather app during meal planning to make sure your food makes sense on the days you plan for it. Otherwise weather can become an easy excuse to abandon your plans if you let it.
Plan around your calendar. This might seem like a no-brainer but you can’t just randomly assign meals to days if you want to be successful. My kids both have an after school activity on Wednesday’s. We don’t walk through the door until 6:30 so I know I have to have a meal ready to go on the table immediately. Wednesday is almost always Instant Pot day for us. And when I am selecting recipes on Sunday it can be easy to forget that we have a dinner out scheduled for Friday. Of course I can always move meals around but why buy ingredients for a meal that I don’t have to cook that week? When I have my calendar in front of me I can account for all the conflicts we may have.
Plan around what you have on hand. Start spring cleaning early with your pantry and freezer to take inventory. Then commit to making meals that use up the ingredients which have been in there the longest. I feel super deflated when I have to toss out food that I just never got around to using. Now, every six months or so I do a deep dive into my freezers to see what is about to go bad (it is about every 3 months for my pantry). Not only does this help you save money but it can help inspire your menu choices as well. The less waste the better!
In that same vein, if you happen buy a special ingredient for a meal – find more recipes to use it up. It is easy to forget that you have something out of the ordinary on hand. Before you know it you may be throwing away what you didn’t use the first time and feeling wasteful. Something like leeks I don’t usually buy but I have a few soups that I love to use them in. Should I find them on sale I might buy 5 or 6 with good intentions of making mega batches of my favorite soups. It rarely works out that way though, I usually get through one planned meal and never feel like making more soup. Knowing I have leeks on hand, I can search for other (non-soup) recipes and plan those for later in the week so they don’t just go bad in my produce drawer.
Plan around sales. Have the sales flyer or app from your favorite store(s) handy when you are developing your menu for the week. Take advantage of what is being discounted. This is especially important for meat. Natural pork is hard to find so you can bet when Whole Foods has pork chops on sale, it is going to be on my table that week. Stores generally feature sales on items that are seasonally appropriate making it easy to find recipes. You should note the sales cycle of the stores you are monitoring though. Sales start on different days of the week. Whole Foods and Kroger start new sales on Wednesday’s, Meijer on Sunday’s, Costco varies monthly, etc.
Plan around holidays. This is similar to using your calendar, but holidays are great excuses to try new things. Pinterest is the best source for anything you can think of really. There are recipes out there for holidays big and small. I like to find new ideas and try them out around whatever holiday is coming up next. Most holidays probably already have a specific food connotation in your mind. So go ahead and make corned beef on St. Patrick’s Day or enchiladas on Cinco De Mayo, but give shepherds pie and taco soup a shot a few days before or after the main event.
I am sure you occasionally hear about odd-ball holidays. I’m not sure where these originate from, but when there is a food related one it can be a fun way to add some excitement to the dinner plan. Here is a great list of unique holidays to celebrate with kids from Stacey at The Soccer Mom Blog. Most of them are not food based but any of them might spark an idea for you.
Plan around protein. This is one of the hardest for me. I try really hard not to serve my family red meat more than once a week. But chicken can get boring fast, good quality pork is rare, and I don’t cook seafood (my own issue entirely, but still a factor). I try to keep in mind alternate versions of protein like bacon and smoked or Italian sausage. We also make sure to do at least one vegetarian night a week, which leads me to the next point.
Plan themed days. Having a set theme to each day works for a lot of people. You can make it whatever you want, and follow as closely as you need to. Some examples are Meatless Monday’s, Taco Tuesday’s, Pasta or Italian Night, Pizza Night, Breakfast for Dinner Night, Slow Cooker (or Instant Pot) Night. You get the idea. These are just to give you a starting point, it can really help you focus your recipe search. And some families really love knowing what to expect every week or even one day a week.
My last piece of menu planning advice is to save what works so you can go back to it. I try to remember to grade or rate my recipes. Then 6 months from now when I want to try it again I can easily recall if it was a hit with my family or not. I usually ask my husband and kids to give me a letter grade. I combine our scores then either write it on the actual page of the cookbook or save it in a special folder I have on Pinterest with the comments updated to include our grade. When you need a quick idea it is easy to go straight to an “A” rated recipe and know it is a safe bet.
Another way of saving successful dishes is to keep a list of your most popular meals categorized by cuisine or main protein. This can also easily be done with boards on Pinterest but I recommend only saving recipes you have tried and liked. I think almost everyone has a board called “Chicken” and inevitably we just start saving any chicken recipe that looks good in there. Before you know it there are hundreds of pins and they won’t all be winners. We will probably never get to most of them to even find out. That is fine for inspiration, but it is beneficial to have tried and true lists divided by style (Italian/Mexican/Breakfast) or main ingredient (chicken/beef/vegetarian) as a go-to when you struggle for ideas.
Everyone has a different style that works. If you have tried menu planning in the past I would love to hear your tips on what works for you! Let me know in the comments. I hope your new year is off to a great start!