A New Way to Menu Plan

Chances are if you’re considering integrating a menu plan into your life, it’s because you’re looking to simplify cooking. Let’s face it, we’re all busier than we’ve ever been, yet we don’t want to compromise on bringing the family around the table for good, wholesome food.

We’ve covered the basics of successful menu planing here on Simple Bites already, but I often get asked exactly HOW I decide what to make. It’s a very valid question.

Sure menu planning starts off easily enough with a sheet of paper labeled ‘M-F’, but it is after that we often tend to get stuck; chewing on the end of a pencil, waiting for inspiration to hit, while we flipping mindlessly through cookbooks or surf cooking sites.

It’s too easy to waste time trying to deciding what to make.

Today I’m excited to share with you a quick way to plan out the weekly meals by implementing a menu plan that takes into account YOUR unique schedule and helps outline an appropriate meal for each unique day.

A New Way to Menu Plan

I plan my meals around a THEME, rather than a cuisine type, or a food category. These are realistic themes that I know categorize a typical week in my home and with those in place, I simply fill in a meal that would be a good match.

By keeping to the theme, the dinner options are narrowed down, making it easier to decide what to make when. This approach to menu planning is slightly different than most, but is has proved to be very functional for our crazy household, and it’s a lot of fun!

Sound complicated? Not so much. Let me explain.

Menu plan by theme

I begin, not by numbering a page from 1-7, or listing the days of the week, but with my seven ‘themes’ for the week. (Bear in mind that your themes may be different, but more on that thought later.)

Assume that adjectives such as ‘affordable’, ‘healthy’ and ‘seasonal’ apply for each theme as much as possible.

The themes are:

  • Kids

  • Special

  • Freeze

  • Blog

  • Comfort

  • Fast

  • Pantry/Garden

Assigning Themes to Days

Once I have my themes, I then fill in the blanks. With my agenda at hand, I pencil in possible days for each theme. For example:

  • I’ll assign Friday to ‘Special’ if I know my in-laws are dropping by.
  • A less hectic day will get a ‘Freeze’, as I will go into production mode and make 2 or 3 times the recipe to stash away.
  • ‘Fast’ is one of those day I can see we have afternoon plans.
  • ‘Kids’ can be pretty much any day I feel I’ll have enough time to cook with (and clean up after) the boys.

Once each day of the week has a theme, it’s easy to run through it and fill in an appropriate recipe.

Let’s take a closer look at my themes and how they end up practically dictating what I should cook, thus eliminating the head scratching.

Kids

Typically a meal that the boys can be involved in the preparation. Not-so-coincidentally, these meals are always something I know the kids enjoy eating.

Menu Ideas: pizza, wraps, spaghetti & meatballs, Peach & Ginger Glazed Salmon.

Special

A dinner planned with company in mind. We entertain a lot, and since we do, I can’t afford to go all out each time, but these meals are slightly more special and there is usually a dessert penciled into the margins.

Menu Ideas: Seafood Pasta, Roast Beef dinner, your tried & true ‘company’ dinner.

Freezer

Batch cooking 101! I’ll prepare 2-3x a recipe and freeze some. A day is assigned to this theme in which I know I’ll have a solid chunk of time to execute.

Menu ideas Lasagna, Chicken & Leek Pot Pies, Chocolate Chip Chili.

Blog

Since I write two happenin’ food blogs, yes, often I’ll plan a meal specifically to blog about. This is when I’ll experiment with a new recipe–and occasionally attempt to expand the children’s palate. (Note: not always a success.)

Menu Ideas: Ossobuco, anything in my ‘to try’ bookmarks.

Comfort

Ah, I’m all about the comfort food. It varies with the seasons, fluctuates with our budget, but it never fails to bring a smile.

Menu Ideas: Salt-Roasted Chicken, Shepherd’s Pie, Baked Ham.

Fast

Every family has to have it, the just-walked-in-the-door-and-everyone-is-starving lifesaver. I’m fortunate that everyone in my family loves eggs and hubby considers ‘breakfast for dinner’ perfectly acceptable. Fast can also be a pre-prepared meal from the freezer.

Menu Ideas: Frittata, Sesame Beef Lettuce Wraps, Steak & Cheese Sandwiches.

Pantry/Garden

if I don’t plan to use up those garbanzo beans or that whole wheat couscous in the back of the pantry, they may slide by unnoticed while I’m reaching for a third slice of pizza. Not only are most pantry staples budget-friendly, but a good choice for the health-conscious. “Garden” is my summer option. A reminder that, yes, I need yet another zucchini-based meal or they will rot!

Menu Ideas Pantry: Bean & Cheese Burritos, Risotto. Menu Ideas Garden: Pasta Primavera, Cobb Salad,

Your Themes

Now, not everyone has a food blog or kids and so your home may have different themes. Whether they are ‘Beach Day’ or ‘Daddy cooks’ or ‘Soccer’, they should reflect what your family embraces (Comfort, Kids) as well as considering your weekly schedule (Fast, Special)

I encourage to you try this method for yourself. It may take some getting used to and you’ll find your themes may even change from season to season. Around here it’s pretty much a given that ‘Barbecue’ replaces ‘Comfort’ in the summer and ‘Fast’ becomes the theme several nights a week, as I put longer hours in the garden.

Keep track of what you’ve made in each category, and what were the biggest hits & misses.

What are a few words that define your week? Care to share potential menu themes?

About Aimee

Cooking has always been Aimée's preferred recreational activity, creative outlet, and source of relaxation. After nearly ten years in the professional cooking industry, she went from restaurant to RSS by trading her tongs and clogs for cookie cutters and a laptop, serving as editor here at Simple Bites.

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Comments

  1. Alison @ Hospitality Haven says:

    This is great! I’ve been trying to do more of this lately. It helps when I write down what happens each evening as well so that I can keep in mind how long I have to prep dinner, and what nights need to be super fast! :)

  2. I have a similar approach, but mix it up a bit with “traditional” menu planning approach. My typical plan is as follows:
    Monday: Red Meat
    Tuesday: Reheatable meal (My husband works late on Tuesday, and he feels bad enough when he gets home, that I try to make the meal something that reheats well) eg Pasta, rissotto, soup
    Wednesday: Chicken
    Thursday: Vegetarian or Fish
    Friday: Fun (Homemade pizza, nachos, tasting platter)
    Saturday: New Recipe
    Sunday: Roast (in winter) or BBQ (in summer)

    Like you, I find it much easier to have that skeleton, and then set up a recipe index for each theme to make picking the recipes even easier.

  3. Awesome themes. I do the same thing but my themes are more along the lines of what’s going in at home ” hockey”, “mom works” etc. I always consider trying to turn one meal into a blog post and I try once a week to turn one of meals into batch cooking so I’m stocking the feezer as I cook.
    .-= Jan (Family Bites)’s last blog: Ten Ways to Enjoy Roasted Garlic at the Family Table =-.

  4. I do this too – my favorite is the “Freeze” category – when I stash a couple extra meals in the freezer. I also have a homemade pizza/calzone category which always seems to fall on a Friday night.
    Great post – I love your categories!

  5. Christina says:

    I’m a bit shaky in this area. Mostly it’s a mental set of themes (vegetarian, something new, something easy), which actually get me pretty far, but not far enough sometimes. Maybe it’s because it’s Lent, but I had to do a double-take when I read over your “Fast” meal! I suppose fasting would be a quick and easy meal plan!

  6. I have been struggling with new menu ideas in a new country with different foods available and in-laws visiting and the toddler beginning to properly toddle and DERN I sure am glad I’ve just found your website! I’ve been doing the M,T,W,Th,F,S,S menu, and when I work on it on Sunday night, I can’t tell you how many things I would rather be doing. Including cleaning toilets. Thanks for the theme ideas, and the associated recipes! I’m going to starting searching now, but have you done a post on what can freeze or not freeze? I don’t like not know what works, and would love suggestions for better stocking the three and a half wee drawers I have at my disposal! :)
    .-= Caroline@carolinecollie’s last blog: Travelling Tuesday: Strand, South Africa =-.

  7. I really like your idea! I tend to plan around proteins – I don’t eat meat but my husband and son like to so I plan for beans, tofu, fish, beef, etc. Also, after buying a crockpot I had added one ‘crockpot meal’ to each week but have not been consistent. I think I’ll give some thought to the way you’ve planned things out and see if that could work for me.

  8. I never thought of organizing things this way. But in taking a step back while reading this post, I’m not sure ours are much different. One difference is that our “special” I would call Sunday dinner, even if it takes place on Friday or Saturday.
    I do plan by what I got at the market on the weekend. And without being able to visit my deep freeze these days because of my crutches I’ve really had to think about meat and what’s in the freezer!
    .-= Cheryl Arkison’s last blog: Bean Burgers Yum! =-.

  9. What a fantastic article! Even though I do not have kids it sometimes can be hard to plan meals just for our house of two. I need to put more thought into it that way I have everything on hand at the beginning of the week.
    .-= Nutmeg Nanny’s last blog: Chocolate Guinness Sauce =-.

  10. We have just entered a new “season” in our house this week, and I can already see last “season’s” menu isn’t cutting it anymore! This post came at the perfect time for me as I’m going to need to redo my master menu plan this weekend. Thanks for providing a different way of looking at menu planning to get me thinking!

  11. I love this. Such a simple and smart idea. I’m going to put it to good use tomorrow!
    .-= Cheri’s last blog: Black Monday =-.

  12. Since I work 3 days/week, that dictates that those nights meals must fall under the themes of Freezer, Make Ahead, and FAST. Eggs is another theme – I am eating left over egg strata with spinach, gorgonzola, and pesto right now!

    However, my menu planning is more based on re-using ingredients. So, if it’s “Bacon Week” then we have pasta carbonera (bacon/eggs), Ultimate BLTs (bacon/tomato/blue cheese), chop salad (bacon/chicken/blue cheese/tomatoes), and frittata (eggs). All the meals are totally different, but use up the same ingredients. It started when I shopped one week and bought blue cheese, pepperjack, parmesean, gouda, and cheddar. Too expensive! So we made the rule – “Only one special cheese per week.” Now, if we need pepperjack for spicy mac&cheese, we’re also eating tacos, and SW chicken sandwiches in the same week.
    .-= Alissa’s last blog: Things that bring us joy =-.

  13. Michelle says:

    I love this idea. I just wrote about some meal planning tips, but what to make it part of my struggle. By keeping track of past meals, it is easier for me to come up with meals. I like the “freeze” category as I just made a double batch of minestrone soup today. I really need to do this more often once we get a new refrigerator.
    .-= Michelle’s last blog: Miessence Monday: Organic Hair Products =-.

  14. Thanks for the ideas! I’ve starting menu planning and realize I really only cook 8 different meals 90% of the time….ugh!

  15. I like your ideas.

    I recently completed a meal-planning series on my site. I have themes on certain days like Monday is Mexican and Friday is Fish (Good Friday for us). I work Wed and Thus so Wed is slow cooker day and Thursday is potlock or lefovers. Tuesday is open.

    I also consider nutrition by aiming to have fish twice a week (that’s a hard one), beans twice a week (entree or side) and try to include one vitamin-A rich veggie and vitamin-C rich fruit daily.
    .-= Maryann @ Raise Healthy Eaters’s last blog: Eating Disorder Prevention (Part 2): How to Raise Kids Who Love Their Bodies (and Don’t Diet) =-.

  16. I am doing a Spring CSA share and will start a new menu planning scheme around what we get for those weeks and then into my summer CSA share…
    We are huge fish fans around here so that often gets in once or twice a week.
    Inspired by your other blog- we are seriously considering getting a beef share and taking up fishing for our new freezer :)
    I also do the one special ingredient per week idea- like this week it is all about the corn beef and some weeks it is about asian foods due to a trip to the asian market which sadly I don’t go to every week.

    • How very cool, Mab! We have our order in for a second side of beef; it’s been one of the best decisions I’ve ever made!

      Question, will you know in advance what you will receive in your CSA box? How can you plan ahead for the menu plan? I grow my own vegetables, but have heard that with the CSA you never know what you’re going to get.
      .-= Aimee’s last blog: Balanced Meals for Kids: Not Until You Eat Your Vegetables =-.

  17. This is a great idea. I use something similar when making my menu too.
    .-= Rana’s last blog: It’s inventory time! =-.

  18. Sharon Halcro says:

    Such a great site, Aimee!! I am ashamed to admit I haven’t checked it out until now!! I will from now on for sure!!

  19. This is a fantastic idea. I’ll definitely set it up that way this time! Our meal plan goes from Wednesday to Tuesday the next week, since Wednesday’s my shopping week. It’s just my husband and I, though, so if we don’t have leftover night just about every other day, we end up throwing away half the food we make. I should wise up and just start halving every recipe I make!

  20. What a fabulous idea to plan with themes in mind instead of just staring blankly at the week ahead and hoping for revelations! p.s. We always have a “breakfast for supper” night :)
    .-= Amber’s last blog: 15 Years Ago Today =-.

  21. I LOVE this idea! I work outside of the home, and we decided this week that we HAVE to get the finances under control. I’ve been learning how to cook, and I do some couponing but now I need to fully commit to cooking at home. I’ve never made a meal plan before, but I think that I’ll try to do one today at work. I am going to figure out my categories, and just make a list of our basic meals for now.

    Thanks for the inspiration to finally do this!
    .-= Shannon’s last blog: We’ve Started! =-.

  22. Danielle says:

    Great post! I also use categories (meatless Monday, Italian Tuesday, Crockpot Wednesday, etc)…and what makes it the easiest is having a list of “acceptable” meals from each category. (I have a very picky husband). I put a piece of paper on the frig for each category and had him write some of his favorites as he thought of them. Now I don’t have to think too hard each week when I sit down to plan. AND I know he’ll like what I’m making!

  23. living my dream says:

    Awesome! SO SO helpful. Thanks and a BIG HUG to you.

  24. This was a great post to inspire a dedicated meal planner!

    At the moment I tend to revert to the old fashioned way of planning nights around
    red meat/vegetarian/chicken/pork/mince

    This is much more fun and I will definitely be trying it out

  25. Sounds like a great way to simplify the meal-planning process. Anything that will simplify my life is worthwhile. Thanks for a very well thought out post.
    Wayne Baker’s last post: Weight Loss For New Moms- Does SENSA® Provide an Opportunity

  26. Menu planning keeps families together at the dinner table.
    Melissa’s last post: Kitchen Memories

  27. Soup or Salad Sunday
    Meatless Monday
    Test Kitchen Tuesday
    Wacky Wednesday (breakfast for dinner, or unique presentations…see epic meal time meathouse for example)
    Traveling Thursday (I try to match up with kids Geography or Social Studies lessons but sometimes just go with Tacos!)
    Frugal Friday -$5 meals
    Snack Bar Saturday (pizza, burgers, hot dogs…hey we all need one splurge day right?)

  28. I’ve been doing a similar thing, and it really has made menu planning much easier. I changed jobs last year and it was a simple task to change my meal plans to fit in with my busier schedule.

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