Menu Planning 101

The greatest thing about menu planning is that it takes the guesswork out of an already busy week. No one wants to be looking in the refrigerator at 5 o’clock at night, peering over every occupant, wondering what to make for dinner, again.

Planning your meals out allows you to know exactly what is coming. Having a big roast on Monday? Maybe take it out of the freezer on Sunday evening, allowing it to defrost in the refrigerator overnight. Not coming home until later in the evening on Tuesday? No-cook prawn salad will be waiting when you get there.

Get Started

You don’t need any fancy gizmos, gadgets, online tools or daily e-mails to get started with menu planning. The easiest first step is to locate a white board with attached corkboard and some erasable markers.

You could also use a laminated calendar-the kind you write kids’ chores on-, sticky notes, a pad of paper, or even just your regular old wall calendar. The important part to remember it that it needs to be located where everyone in the family can see it.

This board will allow you to create your menu for the upcoming week, write it out in a simple way for anyone in the family to read, and can also be a place to keep up on the grocery list.

Photo by Elizabeth Nyland

Decide what to make

In this age of a million and one food blogs, recipe and food websites, countless recipe books and TV shows, etc., the hardest part of menu planning is deciding what you want to eat and when.

For my family, this means several days of vegetarian and seafood meals, sprinkled lightly with a couple of hard-core meat eating days. This saves us money, helps us feel more “carbon” conscious and also adds a healthy twist.

For you it could be any combination that keeps you motivated in the kitchen:

• Monday: a large slow-cooked roast, (which can then be used as leftovers in Tuesday’s lunches).
• Tuesday: a simple salad with prawns.
• Wednesday: a pasta casserole.
• Thursday: baked enchiladas using pantry ingredients.
• Friday: a whole roasted chicken.

Write it down

Menu planning is as easy as you want it to be. The key is: writing it down. If you find yourself strolling downtown one day and pass a tiny bistro with Eggplant Parmesan on special and it becomes all you can think about, write it down. The kids are begging you for chicken strips and your husband wants steak? Write it down.

If you keep a tally of all your favorites written down somewhere, you will always have somewhere to go for ideas on what’s coming up the following week. This also gets the rest of your family involved with choosing dinner too, so it’s not always one person’s job.

Make a list

Now for the slightly more complicated part of menu planning, the grocery list.

  • First, plan out your meals including breakfast, lunch, snacks and dinner.
  • Then, go over all of them, figuring out which ingredients you will need.

Item by item, your grocery list will begin to take hold, and when you get to the grocery store you can power through it. No more walking down every aisle wondering what interesting meals you can make out of this and that. You buy what you need and nothing more.

Food spoilage will go down considerably in your house, as well as the grocery bill.

Photo by Elizabeth Nyland

So try it out for a week and then share some feedback. We’d love to hear back from you!

Could your daily schedule benefit from the help of menu planning? Does it already?

About Elizabeth

On her blog, Guilty Kitchen, Elizabeth writes about the joys of local food, buying sustainable and feeling much too guilty after indulging in too many rich desserts.

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Comments

  1. I’ve been following this sort of system for about a year and it has really helped streamline our family meals. I’m a nicer mummy as a result! The other thing I’ve done is to construct a pro-forma shopping list of basics under headings such as fruit and veg, chill, frozen, store cupboard. I have it on the inside of a kitchen cupboard door, and mark it up during the week as we run out of things, then when I want to go shopping I can whizz round the kitchen to double-check what’s running low. This has also saved me money as I don’t buy more of stuff I already have.

  2. We are definitely meal planners. I sit down every Sunday morning with a stack of cookbooks and a cup of tea and peruse for one or two new recipes to try. I fit those onto days that we aren’t so busy, and fill up the remaining evenings with simple, familiar items. I leave Saturday and Sunday open for some flexibility. Great post!

  3. Stephanie Proffitt says:

    When I first read about this concept a year ago I’m pretty sure I laughed. Newly married with no kids meant I should have plenty of time and money to be frivolous, right? Wrong.

    No planning = eating out for us. This meant more $$ and more pounds! Now that I’m planning it saves us so much time and money and headaches and I feel like I’ve learned a skill that will definitely come in handy when the kiddos arrive!

    • I agree! My husband and I had the same thing happen as newly marrieds. Many diets and resolutions later, only yo-yo weights and lots of eating out still!

      Fast forward to now- my hubby’s in law school and we have to plan meals. No eating out on this budget! The happy consequence is 15 lbs effortlessly dropping off and more time to spend together.

      • What a cool testimony to menu planning, Rhiannon! I especially like the part about more time together. That will become especially dear once the little ones start coming.

  4. Toni Turbeville says:

    I started using meal plans a few months ago, and our world has been revolutionized!!! It makes it soooooo much easier to survive the week. We eat healthier, don’t waste food, don’t waste money eating out… Yay for meal plans!

  5. Trudy Garvey says:

    Been doing this for years. It makes thing so much easier to know what you are having so if you need to thaw something you can get it out. It is definitely no fun staring at the fridge saying ‘what are we going to eat…’ Your suggestion to write down ideas for meals is a good one. I mostly do that when my husband says about not having a certain meal in a while.

    I’m not perfect and every now and then I slip up on the planning – makes life difficult that week and we end up eating a lot more processed foods then we would otherwise – bad for budget and bad for waistline!

  6. i love meal planning! I list two weeks worth of dinners on the refrigerator and I no longer get the “what’s for dinner?” yell 5 times a day.
    I also found that thinking in food categories helps me plan easier. Pasta on Tuesday, Sandwiches Thursday, Pizza Friday, Soup (or salad in the warmer seasons) Saturday. Breakfasts Monday, Wednesday Rice dish and Sunday usually roast (meat or chicken). Sometimes I get (or feel like I am) in a rut but sticking to those categories helps me create something within them.

  7. I only plan dinner and keep enough supplies on hand for our regular breakfasts, lunches & snacks. I especially enjoy grocery shopping, with three girls under 4 years old I couldn’t imagine going without a well organized list and a plan.

  8. I make a weekly menu plan based on the grocery sales papers & what’s already in the pantry/freezer. This helps me use all my items, instead of having wasted food.

    One of my “go to” meals has become quiche. Fill a pie shell with eggs, milk, cheese & whatever else you’re trying to get rid of (bacon, fresh spinach, ham, etc.) It’s a great way to clean out the fridge and it’s fairly inexpensive.

  9. I love planning a menu! My two oldest kids each have a day they cook with me, so they plan that night’s meal. I plan 3 or 4 others. I always leave at least one meal to chance…leftovers or eating from the freezer/cupboards. This works really well for us.

  10. Okay, I’m not afraid to admit that my family has been served cereal for dinner more than once in recent weeks – eeek! :-)

    We are in a hectic season of life and lack of meal planning has been my dinner downfall!
    Thank you for breaking the process down into a non-intimidating list that makes it seem attainable for someone like me who easily gets overwhelmed in the kitchen.

  11. Thank you for this post!! I have been trying for a while to get a handle on this. I have a wonderful standard grocery list in Excel which makes my grocery shopping a piece of cake and keeps me from forgetting staples, but when it comes to choosing specific meals and creating my list based on what I need for those I fail miserably.

    The weekly category menu list is great – we always have homemade pizza on Fridays, but I should expand that idea into the rest of my meal planning. You have inspired me to buckle down and get this all straightened out. I am sooooo tired of standing in front of the fridge and pantry with random items that fall short of being enough to make a satisfying meal, and then having to make random trips to the store (or sending hubby) because I’m missing some key ingredient. Ugh.

  12. Michelle Wobbe says:

    I have a simple blank monthly calendar on my refrigerator door. I try to start the month with the first two weeks filled in and then add as I go. I find that with just two of us in my house (myself and my somewhat picky 4 year old) I can easily stretch one dinner into another meal in a few weeks. So….taco night during the first week of the month gets replicated a few weeks later with the leftover taco meat that I stashed in the freezer. Thankfully….tacos are something Ms. Picky will eat!

  13. It is a great way to keep your sanity esp if you are a working mom.. I took weekly calendar print outs for the entire year and then every weekend sit with hubby and discuss what needs to be cooked for the week. I can see that I am utilizing what is in my pantry and thereby reducing my weekly grocery. It is both time and money-saving, if you ask me.. a great idea which I will recommend all.

  14. It is amazing how much smoother my evening is when I have a menu planned. I was menu planning before the holidays, I need to start up again. Thank you for the inspiration.

  15. I love menu planning. As a newly wed on a tight budget I sit down every Sunday morning and plan dinners for the next week as I look at our schedules and events. I only plan dinners, lunches are usually left overs and we eat a standard daily breakfast of Cream of Wheat or cereal. It has cut down on wasted food and money and allows me to get creative with what we already have in the pantry/fridge and try out some new recipes. My husband also thinks I am a great cook – with a little planning anyone can cook!

  16. Thanks for the great post! I have been meal planning off and on for many years, and just recently have incorporated some tweaks that have made it easier to keep up with it. I have an “original” list that I use to remember all of the family favorites. At the beginning of each month, I pull out our activity schedule and this original list and start plugging in meals on the calendar, easier or crock-pot meals on the days when we will be busy or getting home late, more time consuming meals on the weekends. Some weekends I will leave open so that I can try a new recipe or something that my family has requested. Planning a month in advance really works for us and it is understood that we use this as a guide so if chicken is on the menu tonight but I feel like making the salad listed on Thursday, no sweat I will have all the ingredients for both meals so I can interchange them as our moods and schedules allow.

    Benifits of having meals planned are tremendous. We save money and our health by not eating out as much. I can make sure and incorporate more fruits and vegetables in our diet. It has eliminated the question from family members about what is for dinner, and even my husband will look to the calendar to see what is for dinner and be able to start preparing it if he happens to get home first. We save waste and more money on our grocery bill. It is much less stressful for me to know what is planned for dinner, instead of floundering right before dinner time.

  17. Jenni @ My Web of Life says:

    I find everything runs more smoothly when I plan menus for the week. I used to use a calendar on the fridge for this, but have recently grown to love plantoeat.com. Mostly because it makes that dreaded shopping list for you! I also love that I can search recipes online and then download them to the site and edit them as needed. I have a laptop so I just read the recipes from the computer in our kitchen and don’t even need to print them out. If a recipe flops I just delete it.
    It’s my new best friend!

  18. I used to do menu planning for the month, but now I only do one week in advance so I can take advantage of planning around grocery sales. Any ideas how to get around this?

    • I only do a week in advance as well, in order to get the best deals possible. I suppose you could plan a month in advance if you bought case lots of meat and canned/frozen goods. Buying fresh fruits and vegetables is a little trickier to do once a month though!

      You could still plan a month in advance without taking advantage of weekly sales. You could just make each meal a budget friendly meal, and plan to make it for whichever days. Should you change your mind, you have plenty of time to figure out another dish for that day.

  19. I grew up with this system and so always did it automatically (thanks Mom and Dad!). However, fairly recently I started running into the “pantry principle” as outlined in The Complete Tightwad’s Gazette. This is a slightly alternative but still viable system if you have the space. Instead of planning out meals for a week, you figure out the ingredients that you want to have on hand — everything from flour, to salt, to beef, to canned tomatoes, etc. You don’t shop for specific meals, you shop to replenish your pantry (but a list is still critical!).

    Then sometime in advance of the actual meal you choose what to make and start any prep work (like soaking beans). I find that this works well for me right now; I’ll plan the meal anytime between 4 hours and 3 days ahead of time and just note what I’m going to make on my task list. Since we’re getting most of our produce from our garden, it lets me be flexible around what looks good in the garden today. It lets me be a bit creative in my cooking, which I’m loving right now. (Don’t get me wrong, there are other times when I just want to follow a dang recipe and get that casserole in the oven, thanks.) I find that I don’t need a huge stock of ingredients, and if I get the urge to make something that I don’t have the ingredients for, I just add them to my list and schedule it for sometime next week.

    My big hope with this system, especially if we can nail the garden well enough to get all our produce from it (yay for winter gardening!), is to only have to shop once a month! That is the dream…

    • Wow, that is a great system too, especially when taking advantage of your own home grown vegetables!

      This was the way I used to cook, stocking up on pantry items and making sure I had all my “regulars”. Sadly, it wasn’t cost effective enough for my growing family, so we had to make it more strict, which is why I switched to buying only the things I need for the week.

  20. Great post. I needed this today. I’m organized in everything else EXCEPT meals. I don’t know why this has felt like such a hurdle for me.

    Before we had kids, my husband and I usually had our main meal at lunch time (at a restaurant of course) and then would just snack a little in the evenings. Now that I’m at home with two littles, it’s a problem. My husband still eats out during the day and doesn’t want much of anything in the evening. However, I’m at home dying for some decent food.

    Growing up, my family always sat down together for dinner, and I think that’s SO important for my kids. They’re not at that age yet, but I know that if I don’t develop this habit now, it’s just going to be more of a problem in the future.

    Thanks for breaking down your process and making it seem more do-able. It’s still daunting to me, but I’m committed to developing this as a habit.

    • Cici, allow us to encourage you in your most respectable commitment. I don’t have to tell you how important those family meals are to your children; sounds like you know already.

      I am so impressed by your determination; it’s not easy to be inspired to cook for one (adult). I hope we can bring you the inspiration and support you need. We’ll have more on menu planing this month. Stay tuned.

      • I go back and forth between having a full meal plan and just making sure I have enough protein for dinners. I’ve used a few different online meal planners which are a huge help.
        My number one pet peeve in life is being at the grocery store at 5:30 with a hungry kid and all the other non-meal-planners!

  21. One of my New Year’s “goals” this year was to be more consistent with meal planning and I finally feel like I have made it a habit and will stick with it. I am too busy to prepare complicated meals in the evenings, except for the weekends sometimes, so my husband and I sat down and wrote a simple list of meals that we all like that provide some flexibility. For instance, pasta, soup, tacos, fritatta, fish and chips, etc. I pick out recipes from some of these categories, we have homemade pizza one night, and one frozen dinner from Trader Joes, and that about covers it! I also started a recipe binder where I am going to organize the recipes I clip from magazines and print off the internet and I only plan to include those that I have made and really liked. I am hoping this can become a go-to source of tried and true recipes that my family likes. Meal planning has made our evenings so much less stressful and we are eating so much better. It just takes a while to get in the groove and figure out the system that works for your family!

  22. Even with planning out my meals it is still difficult for me to decide what I want to eat but I think I have an idea that may work. When I plan my meals I think I will make lists of foods in the basic food groups. Then I will choose one thing from each group and then decide exactly what I want to make. I am just never sure what to make and I think this will help. Fortunately I am only newly married but we are expecting our first baby in June so I need to figure out some kind of system before he gets here.

    • That’s a great idea Britanie! Anything to make it simpler for you. Menu planning is versatile and whatever way you can make it work is great!

      Congratulations on the little one, I’m also due in June with our second. A very exciting event in life indeed! Menu planning becomes a whole new necessity after baby for sure.

    • Britanie, I used to be with you. I would chew on the end of a pencil looking at that M-F menu plan and waste more time trying to decide what to make than I was actually saving by menu planning.

      Fortunately I developed a system that helps me decide what to make when. I’ll be sharing that in the next few weeks. Stay tuned and thanks for reading.

      Congrats on the baby!! Woot!

  23. I do this ‘most’ of the time. But it all gets written down in my daytimer. With little ones and a husband who doesn’t cook the only one concerned with this is me!

    I agree with the master grocery list idea too. Both practices were instituted at the same time in our house and it made a huge difference in saving time and money.

  24. Great tips:). I have been planning my weekly meals for a while now (even before I had a baby). I just don’t know how to get through the week with out some sort of game plan, even if it’s a loose one!! I find when I don’t plan ahead, we end up ordering in more times than I would like to admit!!!

    I’ve GOT to get the white board… SO simple, SO brilliant! Thanks

  25. Great tips:). I have been planning my weekly meals for a while now (even before I had a baby). I just don’t know how to get through the week with out some sort of game plan, even if it’s a loose one!! I find when I don’t plan ahead, we end up ordering in more times than I would like to admit!!!

    I’ve GOT to get the white board… SO simple, SO brilliant! Thanks

  26. Jackie Lee says:

    I’d been doing this for the longest time. Only recently have I added a twist ~ I started looking at the grocery store circular when I planned our meals. That allowed me to take advantage of the sales and bring our grocery bill down even further. Our store does a lot of buy one get one sales on meat, so I ended up getting twice as much and now if times are tight we’ve got plenty of meat left from the BOGO sale. :) I’m really enjoying the new sites! Keep up the great work.

  27. Great post! It’s all about PLANNING. And that’s the toughest part to do. But it IS do-able. Like anything else…you just need to DO IT. My wife and I try to sit down each Sunday afternoon and plot out the upcoming week’s menu. Make sure you have your activity calendar in front of you! With so many after-school and evening activities, you need to know what’s coming up so you can plan (there’s that word again) as smartly as possible. It’s such a great feeling to buy food and USE IT during the week. Makes for a fun time. And there’s nothing worse than coming home from work and wondering: “what’s for dinner?”. :-)

  28. I recently got into meal planning, and do it on a week-to-week basis. It has saved me time, and money.

    Our family’s grocery budget used to be $750 for the month for 4 people (this included diapers, heath and beauty too). Well 99% of the time it was like we never had FOOD at home.

    When I began meal planning, I’d check what we had on hand already and then make my list. I’ve managed to slash our grocery bill down to about $100 per week, spending a bit more on produce.

    It’s been quite a change and we’re all loving it! :)

  29. OMG… okay, so I know this is a little lame. BUT, my husband and I have decided to give up “take-out” for Lent. WHAT?!?!?! you say? It’s harder for us than you think… I’m a sushi-a-holic and my husband loves greek food. I’m going to cook everything for our family from scratch. My neighbours are going to be talking for sure, they take bets on what we’re ordering that evening for dinner! (we’re awful, huh?) Wish me luck!

    • You can do it Caro! Hey, if you can source the ingredients, sushi isn’t that hard to make at home. How surprised would your neighbors be THEN?

      • What a great challenge to give yourself Caro, but one that with a little due diligence and determination, can be done by anyone. I commend you for even trying! I know how easy it can be to get into the ordering in/going out for food ritual.
        .-= Elizabeth’s last blog: Pan Roasted Brussels Sprouts =-.

  30. Yes, we’re big on menu planning, too-but more out of absolute necessity…we work shifted schedules…so I’m home in the morning and hubby’s home at night with the kids…and it’s hard to even get take out with two little ones, not to mention expensive! Thus, we menu plan. I always have breakfasts faves on hand (cereal, oatmeal, eggs/sausage, pbj) as well asnon-produce snacks just by picking those up when they’re on sale, but I plan our dinners. I do a lot of crockpot dinners since hubby is getting there, but doesn’t have a lot of cooking experience, so I try to limit the kitchen tasks for him most days. I find my family has favorites that they don’t mind repeating every couple of weeks (chili or roasts) or don’t mind variations of others (tacos or soups) and that helps a lot. Once you find the groove, it’s a comfortable task!

  31. My boyfriend and I have been meal planning since the new year. One of the best things we did was take a meal planning worksheet (I got an awesome one here: http://justbento.com/weekly-meal-planner-with-bento-lunch) and laminate it. It only cost $1.00 plus tax at Staples and now we just use a dry-erase marker each week. It saves us on printing a new one each week and we can easily update it whenever we make changes. I absolutely love meal planning. We’ve gotten our grocery shopping down to $40 a week (and only one trip all week), a number we could make smaller if we weren’t so attached to Boar’s Head meat. ;)

  32. If I didn’t do a menu each week we would succumb to eating out several times. There’s no way I can just go to the store without making a menu first and then a list. Whenever I’ve gone to the store without a list I end up buying random things that are hard to piece together into a healthy meal and usually spending far more than I should. Sooo menu first and shopping list second. I also arrange my shopping list in order of where things are in the store. That kind of helps keep me on track too. Once you get a few menus and meals then it’s really kind of easy to pick and choose for the week. At least a couple of times a month I try to go through the freezer and pantry to see what needs to be incorporated into the menu for the week. That has been really helpful in not wasting so much food.

    I have a friend who doesn’t use either a list or menu and is constantly having to go to the store. When I mentioned making a menu she balked at it saying, “What if we don’t feel like eating what’s on the menu?” Uhh you first put things on the menu you like and it’s not carved in stone that you have to have grilled salmon, wild rice, & greens on Tuesday. You actually are in charge of when you eat the things on the menu and can switch it around.

    In our house, menu planning and grocery lists are essential for our health. Both mental & physical. So I give both two thumbs up as being a good idea for simplifying your life.
    .-= Julia Janzen’s last blog: SimpleMom is Having a Giveaway! =-.

  33. I love doing menu planning, although it can be daunting as there is a plethora of recipes out there. For each day of the week I have a designated theme
    Monday – meatless, Tuesday – beef/pork, Wednesday – breakfast, Thursday – chicken, Friday – homemade pizza, Saturday – soup/salad, SONday – YOYO (you are on your own) or out to eat. :D
    .-= Sherry’s last blog: Frugal ways to show love to your children =-.

  34. I’m a HUGE fan of menu planning! I do find that mine ebb and flow from complex to simple, depending on what else is going on in our life. Lately, we’ve been keeping things very simple. When work was crazy a month ago, with tight deadlines and my book’s manuscript due, we were all about the spaghetti/fettucine night, the stir fry night, the pizza night, and the crockpot night, topped with the leftover night. Boring and simple, but it totally works for us. Thankfully, my family is easy to please.

  35. When it comes to being better organized around the home – we’re really on again off again out our place. I fully *believe* in meal planning. When we do it, we save money on groceries, my husband keeps his eye on the list and looks forward to his favorites and YES it takes the guess work out of meal planning.
    Great post. Very relevant .

  36. I honestly love meal planning! I always get a great sense of accomplishment when I find a combination of meals that use similar ingredients, so nothing goes to waste – chop salad, pasta carbonera, and quiche are totally different, but all use bacon and eggs!

    The key for me was starting a list of meals we like and taping it inside the cupboard with the cookbooks. If we like something new, it goes right on the list. It’s a great inspiration when I’m brainstorming for the week.
    .-= Alissa’s last blog: Simple Living =-.

  37. Thanks, for the helpful info. For months now I’ve been saying I’m going to start doing a weekly menu, along with what desserts I might liked to try. Unfortunately I haven’t done more than plan a day or two and not written anything down. :) I’m really going to give it a push, starting with the family board of meal ideas.
    ~ingrid

  38. I have a couple of the cook books in the picture! hahahah…..
    .-= Kelly’s last blog: How to Take Action Photography =-.

  39. Wow, that’s a lot of comments, so if someone already mentioned this, please disregard. But we’re on a rather tight budget and instead of planning my menu and then going and getting the ingredients at the store, no matter what the price, I look at the ads and see what’s on sale and then base my meals off of that.

    I can’t wait to try doing it by themes. I already have unconsciously, obviously the days when I’m teaching music lessons aren’t going to have a stellar meal, but it’ll be fun to give them specific names. Maybe we’ll try, whatever my 5 year old wants night, or if it doesn’t work out then we’ll pull out the frozen pizza night! Thanks again!

  40. Sounds like a fabulous plan Abby!
    Elizabeth’s last post: Saag Paneer

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