Would you be jealous if you knew that I have a magic half hour? It magically makes my food and gas bills shrink, my family healthier, and my life less stressful. Don’t you wish you had that magic half hour, too?
The good news is that you do. All you have to do is use it.
That magic half hour is for menu planning. By planning ahead for the week I reduce the number of trips to the grocery store, avoid last-minute fast food dinners, and totally skip over the hour of doom (you know, the hour before dinner is due on the table and you stand looking in the refrigerator hoping to be able to produce something edible in 40 minutes from slimy lettuce, cottage cheese, and spicy barbecue sauce).
Here’s how it’s done in my home:
- For menu planning to be done most effectively, you need to set aside a regular time to do it. Sunday afternoon while your husband watches a football game, Thursday afternoon while the baby naps – whenever works for you. Begin by collecting:
- a pad of paper and pen
- your grocery list, if you have one started
- any cookbooks or magazines you’ll need
- your laptop to access Simple Bites, or your other favorite food sites, for menu planning tips and dinner ideas!
- Write Monday through Sunday down the side of the paper, leaving space enough between them to write the meal plus comments. The most daunting thing about menu planning is the blank piece of paper. For me it is helpful to have a bit of routine built into my menu planning. Saturday is always pizza night at our house, so once I write that down my paper’s no longer blank and I only have 6 days to go.
- Note on the paper any things in the upcoming week that affect your day. If you have a busy day of errand running, that’s not the day to plan an elaborate meal. Note any commitment that will impact how long you have to prepare, serve, or eat the meal.
- Decide what to prepare. I find it helpful to think in terms of categories, for example:
- Soup or Salad
- Quick & Easy.
Or you could divide it into cooking styles -
If I pick one from each category, there’s sufficient variety that my family won’t complain, and by putting the Quick & Easy meals (tacos, hamburgers, spaghetti) on harried days, dinner will get done on time.
- Save one day a week for a new dish from a cookbook or a food blog if you like to try new things. If it’s from a blog, make sure you print out the recipe and keep it with your menu plan or in a notebook just for that purpose.
- Make a note of where the recipe is as you write down the menu for each day. Even if you know it by heart, it could be that you’ll be delayed and need to call home and say, “Honey, could you get dinner started?” Or, if you’re like me and have an embarrassing proliferation of cookbooks, remembering which book a certain recipe is in can be challenging, so the notation is helpful.
- Have your shopping list next to your menu planning sheet. As you write down a menu item, look at the recipe and review it, writing down what you need to get from the store. If you’re unsure about how much of a spice you have, or whether or not you have frozen chicken breasts in the freezer, now’s the time to check. There’s nothing more frustrating than starting to cook and finding out you really don’t have an ingredient after all.
- If you tend to have a lot of leftovers from your meals, plan one day as LO (leftover) day. In my house that means I take all the leftover containers out of the refrigerator and line them up on the counter and the family gets to pick what they want. It’s a buffet on the cheap that cleans out the refrigerator and reduces the amount of food you waste. And as a bonus, it’s a no-cook night for you!
- Lastly, look for twofer opportunities. What’s a twofer? It’s getting two meals from the effort of one. You can do that by using the leftovers from one meal in the next meal (roast chicken today is chicken chimichangas tomorrow), or doubling the recipe and freezing half for another dinner on a day when you absolutely don’t have time to cook.
Photo by Lynn Craig
I can’t give you a template to follow or do the menu planning for you, because what a family eats is so individual. The size of your family, the time you have for cooking, your family’s food preferences, and whether or not you have picky eaters ALL affect what you cook.
The best person for the job is you, and the best time to do it is now! And once you’ve done it and have realized the benefits, you’ll never want to return to the stress and expense of not knowing what’s for dinner.
So, the only question left is….what’s for dinner?