Friday, January 7, 2011

Menu Planning 101

Several people have asked me lately about menu planning and how I make it work with three busy teenagers and a constantly changing schedule.  We all know that planning our menus in advance can save us time and money in the kitchen, but how do we make it work with our lifestyle?

There are many ways to plan your menu.  Some people plan a whole month at a time, some only a week at a time.  Some plan every meal, some only one meal (usually dinner). You have to look at your lifestyle and schedule and decide what works for you.  If you have read my book Shortcut Cooking, then you know that I am a big advocate of freezer cooking.  Freezer cooking allows us to take advantage of sales and put healthy meals in our freezers that are quick and easy to prepare.  Having a stockpile of freezer meals can make menu planning  quicker and easier, but even if you don’t freezer cook you can still save yourself time and stress by planning your meals ahead of time.

One of my favorite ways of planning my menus is to write on 3 x 5 cards some of my family’s favorite meals.  You can make them complete meals with all the sides or just the main dishes.  I make each person choose 4-5 of their favorite meals, that way when I am planning I know that everyone is getting something that they like to eat at least once in a while.  I fill out more with cards with any freezer meals that we may have on hand, crockpot recipes for busy nights and even recipes I want to try out. Also on  separate color cards I write down meals that are used more for special occasions, either because they are more costly or time-consuming to prepare or not as healthy and need to be a treat. You can put cooking directions and preparation times right on the card.  You could also use different colored cards for different protein types (yellow-chicken, blue-meatless, etc….) or preparations (yellow-crockpot, blue-oven, etc…).

 Next, I grab my calendar and I look for any days where I know we might not be eating at home or will need something fast to get us out the door in a timely manner.  I plan those meals first!
Then, keeping in mind what ingredients I have on hand and what is on sale, I fill in the gaps of my menu, trying to alternate by protein type and preferences. I usually do this by using my 3×5 cards on the table, but you could also just fill in a blank calendar or special menu planning page.

Finally, I organize the cards in a 3×5 file box in order, and make a grocery list.  Everyday I just open the box, pull out the card for the day and place it on the fridge.  No one has to ask, “What’s for dinner?”.  When we are done with the card, I file it in the back of the box to be re-used.  If something comes up and we don’t eat the meal or change what we eat, I can just put the card back in the box to use the next day or file it for later use.  The nice thing about this system is that when you make changes, you are not trying to cross out or write over something already written on a page.

Other Menu Planning Ideas:

*Use a dry erase calendar for your menu planning

*Make up 2-3 weekly menu plans with a grocery list and then rotate them.  (By re-using a menu plan you can keep a printed grocery list of everything needed and then just cross out what you may already have on hand)

*Buy a calendar just for menu planning and write your menus in it. (It is nice to go back and look at previous menus, especially if you feel like you are eating the same meals over and over again).

*Try one new meal a month, it is nice to have variety.

*If you are feeling overwhelmed or busy, look online for prepared weekly menu plans.  They can be a great source of inspiration.  There are also several subscription sites that will send you weekly or monthly menu plans with grocery lists for a small fee.  These can be real time savers for people who are super busy.  The down-side to having other people making your menu plan is it does not take into account your preferences or dietary restrictions, so you may still have to make adjustments to the menu.


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