Menu planning

I’ve tried different methods for deciding what to cook:

  • Single-hood college years: No plan. Run out and buy what I decide to make on the spur of the moment or eat what I already had around. Result: Lots of trips to the store and rather unhealthy choices like ramen and boxed mac-n-cheese. (I’m a chicken-flavored ramen addict.)
  • Majority of married years: Weekly plan. Once a week, look at grocery store ads (to catch sales) and recipe books and work out what to cook for the week. Result: Worked nicely, but ended up spending quite a lot of time picking out recipes that resulted in a balanced diet — probably spent about 1.5 to 2 hours a week planning the menu. Would end up getting a lot of food on sale that wouldn’t get used.
  • Currently trying out: Monthly/weekly plan. More below…

The Monthly Plan

Once a month, I map out the main and side dishes that I’ll cook for the month, leaving room for days I don’t cook (eating leftovers or eating out) and keeping track of when we’ll be out of town or have planned events.

I used to map this out on normal lined notebook paper, but in line with my form-making craze lately, I recently put together a new form for myself in Illustrator:

Click to view larger version in new window:

Menu planning form

I tried the form without the weekday/date in the left margin and thought my handwriting looked too messy, so went ahead and added them into Illustrator. The numbers will just stay there month after month, but I’ll move the weekday initials around within a clipping mask.

As you can see in this detailed picture below, I fill out the form with the main dish and side dishes for optimal balanced-diet goodness. The extra column under the name of the month is for notes — for example, every Tuesday we have our weekly small group meeting where we bring a potluck dish. I’ve signed up for “main dish” on April 3 and will be bringing chicken divan (a yummy chicken/broccoli casserole).

Menu plan close-up

On April 13 and 14, we’ll be visiting my mom, so there’s no need for me to plan to cook. On the contrary, we will be very well fed by my mom, and probably have extra food to bring home with us.

Menu plan close-up

When I want to try a new recipe, I’ll note down the page number (and sometimes the cookbook title) so that I can quickly look it up later.

Menu plan close-up

Filling out my monthly menu plan is what takes the longest, usually taking up about 2 hours. Fortunately, as I’ve done this for several months in a row, I can also look back and reference previous meal plans and copy them, so I’m not always having to reinvent the menu wheel.

At this point, I would also make note of any items that would be good to buy in bulk so that I can be thrifty. For example, if I happen to be making a dish one week that uses chicken breasts, another dish that uses chicken legs/thighs, and a soup that uses chicken broth, I can just buy a whole chicken and cut it up for all those dishes. Very cost-effective! Or, if I am using a lot of ground beef, I can get the extra big value pack and proportion it out into half-pound quantities and freeze them for the next month’s menus.

This month’s menu plan is rather chicken-heavy, because I happened to already have bought TONS of clearance chicken thighs and legs and froze them in small ziplock bags (for easier defrosting later on).

The Weekly Plan

After I have my monthly plan worked out, I can then fly through the weekly planning session and grocery shopping, using my Efficient Grocery Shopping spreadsheet.

Click for larger image.

Grocery list

I copy down my monthly menu plan for that week in the wide margin of my grocery list. As I do that, I look up the recipes (if I need to) to get specific amounts and fill out the grocery checklist. I also mark any normal grocery items (bread, milk eggs) that we need. This just takes a few minutes, and then I can go to the store.

How it’s working for us so far…

I like:

  • Not being stressed out every week about what to cook
  • Being able to save money by buying in bulk
  • Not spending as much time (overall) trying to plan what to eat
  • Getting the details worked out week-by-week allows me to flex with unexpected stuff; I can cut out meals or add another one as I need to.

It’s been challenging:

  • To figure out what to eat for lunch when there aren’t enough leftovers. Currently we’ve been having almost the same kind of lunch — quesadillas and fresh veggies/fruits. For a while we had a salad streak going, too.
  • When the plan gets derailed — one too many fun nights out on the town, or a super-long day at work that makes me too exhausted to cook. I’ve been trying to remedy this by only planning 3-4 meals a week (allowing leftovers/eating out to fill up any extra days) and just being flexible in general.

As with any good system, the key to this one working for us is to stay on top of it and not be lazy. Unfortunately the end of this month has been on the lazy side for me (we’ve hardly eaten ANY vegetables the past few days), but at least I’m all inspired with my new form to get back on track for April!

So, there’s my menu plan for the month. Now you know when to invite yourself over for dinner if you happen to be in town!


2 thoughts on “Menu planning

  1. i love your monthly map out of your meals! i was wondering how you planned and kept track of it all… and now i know. (and i thought i was organized) i might need to glean from your very well documented idea :), as i have been very tired and a little frustrated with always doing the 6 pm “what are we gonna eat-that we have in the house-that is fast because i’m hungry now” dialogue with ian.

  2. Gilda – glad you found it helpful! I’m STILL trying to stay on top of this system; when I do keep on top of it, it works really well for us, but it’s easy to get lazy…

    I’ve definitely found that it’s good to have some staples for quick meals for those times when you want food NOW or for lunches. Maybe I’ll write another post about my typical stand-by’s!

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