Menu Plan Monday 8.26.10

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UPDATED with a meal planning template in PDF form if you’d like to print it out.

I have done menu planning off and on (more off than on) over the years, and recently I was inspired to try it once again.  I know I keep teasing you about this new book I’m reviewing, but I haven’t received the go-ahead to promote it yet.  While the focus is on budgeting and affording real food on one income, the part that has helped me the most was the part on menu planning.

You see, I’m not a planner by nature.  I am a fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pantser. And while I enjoy the fact that I can be spontaneous and fun, it’s not the best character trait for a 38-year-old mom of three trying to do it all.  It seems like when the cooking is caught up, the laundry suffers.  And when the laundry is caught up, the blog suffers.  And when the blog is filled with clever and engaging content, the design business suffers.  And round it goes.

There are days that I want to give up because I feel like there is just too much on my plate.  Do I hear an amen?

I think it’s when I decided to commit to making more of our food from scratch that everything started to pile up.  Not only do I spend a lot more time in the kitchen nowadays, but I spend a lot more time shopping for food.  It’s nothing for me to be at a food store of some sort five days a week.

When I read about what a huge time and money saver it is to plan your meals and shop weekly, it was like a huge light bulb went off.  I know, DUH, right?  But sometimes you need to be hit upside the head with something you already knew to give you the impetus to make some changes.

Also, to save money on groceries, it is necessary to shop around and know where you can get the best prices.  So having a meal plan allows you to be more intentional about your shopping and saves you time in the long run.

I’m trying to do my meal planning two weeks at a time, so that I can reduce the amount of times I go to each particular store.  For instance, I am buying more and more at Trader Joes, as I have discovered that they carry a lot of the same things as my whole foods store at a cheaper price.  But my Trader Joes is 30 minutes away.   So if I have my meals planned out for two weeks, I can go to Trader Joes every other week and stock up on everything I’ll need.  Then I can fill in at the stores that are nearby.

I still have to sit down weekly and tweak the menu, but now that I’m in my third week, I can see that it’s taking on a nice rhythm.  This is how it works.

1. Every Monday I take inventory.

This is so that I can plan recipes that use up what I have on hand, which keeps my pantry and refrigerator from exploding.

It also helps me avoid running out of the staples that I depend on.  (I also try to keep a running list on the side of the fridge when I run out of staples so that when I go to a store, I have a grocery list already started.)

2. Then I sit down and plan my meals. (At this point, I only plan our dinners.  I just make sure to have ingredients on hand to make my standard breakfasts and lunches.)

The very first time I did this, I planned for 10 – 14 meals, assuming that there would be a few “leftover” nights in there.

Now when I sit down on Monday mornings, I take my last week’s menu plan and go back over it. I determine which meals I still have left to make and start planning the next week based on those.

Then I look at my inventory list, and I fill in the rest of the two weeks with meals that use up what I have on hand, making sure leave room for inspiration. For example, I am learning to love fresh, local, in-season produce.  I never realized how much better it tastes.  Now that it’s springtime, my local farm market is bringing in their homegrown collard greens and spinach and asparagus.  So I often leave the vegetable part of the meal blank, and I will stop into the farm market a couple times a week and pick up whatever looks good.  My farm market is 5 minutes from my house so it’s not inconvenient to make frequent stops.

3. Then I make a shopping list.

I start out by adding onto the grocery list I already have going on the fridge.  I keep it all on one long list until I’m ready to go to a particular store.

Then when I’m ready to go to Trader Joes or the whole food store or Wegmans or the farm market (those are my four main stops), I take a look at my master grocery list and make a list of just the things I plan to purchase at that particular store, making sure to cross them off the master list.

4. Use the menu plan.

I know, this sounds obvious, right?  But I’m learning to always be looking ahead to see what meat I need to set out to thaw, and if I need to start grains soaking for breakfast pancakes or homemade granola, and what veggies I may need to pick up to round out a meal.

5. I keep a list as I run out of stuff.

To keep things moving along smoothly, I keep a running list as I run out of things.  (As I mentioned, this is conveniently located on the side of the fridge.)  This saves me from having to do a thorough inventory of all my cabinets each time I run to the store.

It’s amazing to me how LITTLE time it takes to take inventory and plan our meals and write up a grocery list each Monday morning. I can usually do it while I’m getting the kids ready for school.  And I can’t even describe how glorious it feels when 4:00 rolls around and I know exactly what I’m making for dinner and the peace of having all of the ingredients already in stock, thawed and ready to go.

I’m also saving all my grocery lists. This way, after a few more weeks, I should have a wonderful repertoire of meals all ready to cycle through again, which should save even LESS time as I won’t be rifling through my cookbooks, trying to come up with inspiration.

So here is my menu plan for the upcoming week.  Again, I’m only planning dinners at this point.  Maybe I’ll get organized enough to plan out our breakfasts too, but as long as I have the staples in the house for our 3 or 4 go-to breakfasts, it doesn’t seem to be necessary to plan ahead.

MONDAY: roast chicken, roasted carrots, herbed new potatoes, spinach salad
Note: make chicken stock from leftover chicken carcass, set out pork chops to thaw*

TUESDAY: pan fried pork chops, collard greens (recipe coming soon), mac-and-cheese

WEDNESDAY: salmon cakes, quinoa, fresh veggie
Note: pick up fresh spinach for tomorrow and fresh veggie for tonight, set out ground beef and liver to thaw* for meatloaf

THURSDAY: meatloaf, baked potatoes, fresh spinach (blanched and sauteed)
Note: set out chicken and tortillas to thaw* for enchiladas

FRIDAY: chicken enchiladas, spinach salad
Note: set out ground beef to thaw*

SATURDAY: spaghetti and meatballs, salad
Note: set out pot roast to thaw*

SUNDAY: pot roast, potatoes, carrots

Here’s a sample template, if it helps.

How about you?  Are you a menu planner?  Give us your best tips for making it work.

*Please remember that it isn’t safe to thaw your meat on the counter at room temperature.  I usually thaw mine in the fridge in a pan so that if it leaks, it doesn’t go all over my fresh veggies.  EW.  If I’m short on time, I thaw it in the sink in a cold water bath.  This works quite well in a time crunch, actually.

This post was linked to Chive Talking — A Menu Planning Blog Roll to inspire health through real food!


Comments

  1. says

    I also plan my dinners and grocery list in advance, but I’m a planner by nature so it’s actually really fun for me:) But it has helped me to save money, too. And thanks for linking to your recipes – I can always use new inspiration/ideas!

  2. says

    Congratulations! I had been inspired to create a menu plan some time ago but had gotten away from it again. After being married for so long, it is pretty easy to plan and put together suppers for my meat and potato man.

    (Rule of thumb when you have a meat and potato man: The more time you spend fixing a “special” meal, the less they probably end up liking it! )

    Just the same though, I do find that it is still helpful to plan ahead! I am sure that there are still creative ways of fixing meat and potatoes that I’ve yet to try…….I think! If that’s true then it’s still good to peruse recipes and plan ahead for them!

    Have a blessed week!

  3. says

    We’ve been menu planners for a few years – it’s one thing in our lives that we can control, and it really helps in cooking dinner every night. I have a ceramics class on Tuesday nights, so not much time to cook, so we generally call that night “eat what you can find in the fridge.” Or we cook enough on Monday night to have leftovers for Tuesday night. I LOVE knowing exactly what we’re going to have, and we leave room to move things around if we’re having an extra-crazy day.

    We always have ingredients on hand to make one simple meal – like a pizza (not a frozen pizza, but ingredients to make a pizza.) It just helps knowing we have stuff for a go-to meal.

    Our shopping is done on the weekend and whatever we didn’t eat the week before, we roll it into the next week. Occasionally we try new recipes – and since it’s just me and my husband, we each choose half of the meals for the next week. If I know I’m going to be especially lazy, I choose very simple meals. :)

    I’m excited to read your meal planning posts – it may make my own meals more exciting (because I’m sure I’ll be borrowing some of your meal ideas!)

  4. TeriLynne says

    You have described almost exactly what I have been doing for the past two years … and I stick with it. I do major shopping once every 3 weeks and do a quick weekly run for stockpiling from sale ads and for fresh produce, dairy etc. (I don’t do the whole foods like you do … though every time I read a post about it I give it more and more thought.)

    One other tip I have found that really helps me is to form a general plan and then fill in with specifics. Mine is basically this:

    Week1
    M – new recipe; T – Mexican; W – leftovers; Th – chicken; F – beef; S – grilled; S – chicken
    Week 2
    M – new recipe; T – Italian; W – breakfast; Th- crock pot; F – beef; S – grilled; S – casserole
    Week 3
    M – new recipe; T – Chinese; W – leftovers; Th – meatless; F – beef; S – grilled; S – chicken

    I just fill in the blanks! Mondays I am usually home all day so that’s when I try new recipes that require more time.

    And I love to read other people’s menus – I get so many great new ideas!!

  5. AnnaK says

    Ooh, I like your post! I am not a menu planner as of yet, but this is inspiring. I love the feeling also, when I know what I’m cooking for dinner, and the meat is thawed, I have all the ingredients…. perhaps I should replicate this feeling more and more. :) (Hint hint to self)

  6. Dawn says

    This is so timely—last week I realized how much money I spent on four “quick” runs to the local grocery—you might as well go out if you are going to spend $40 every time you run in the grocery store for a quick meal. So this weekend, I made a plan! Go figure. I go online to my preferred “meat” stores (publix or ingles) and find what meat is on sale and plan around that and any really good bogo deals. Then I made a big Walmart run so I would have the staples and meal props on hand. It’s amazing when you compare the basics, like canned beans and frozen vegetables and cheese to the grocery stores. So although I spent a lot this time, I felt like I got more for my money. Now I’m committed to not enter a grocery for the next seven days! If I could just figure out how to live without food, we’d be rich! :)

  7. says

    Menu planning makes life so much easier! I usually plan 4 new meals, plus a leftovers night, and then let the weekend be up in the air, so if we head to the store or farmer’s market and find something spectacular we can experiment. I also look at my schedule and figure out which nights I can fit in baking so we have snacks and breakfasts already prepared.

    I get CSA produce on Tuesday but they send an email with what is in the box every Sunday, so that is my day to plan. I look and see what I have in the freezer, what veggies I will be getting, and what recipes have been waiting in my archives begging to be prepared. I love weeks like this one where the box ends up dovetailing perfectly with what I was already thinking about and I really only need a handful of items. I save so much money! Planning ahead also allows me to buy in bulk and cook my own beans, soak my grains, etc.

    This week: a kale, bean, and potato soup, pasta with chard, chickpea and chicken tagine, steak (from the freezer) with roasted broccoli, a leftovers night, and a trip to the farmer’s market Saturday morning.

  8. Robyn O. says

    I am new here, and am so glad I stopped by! I found you on Moms Need To Know. I plan meals for my family because when I don’t, we eat cereal and I don’t really consider that breakfast for dinner. I use a really basic template I found on the internet and plan 2 weeks in advance. I plan around what meat is in my freezer, what is fresh and in season at the grocery store, and what’s on sale. On Wednesdays, when the grocery ads come out, I take stock of my freezer and pantry, sit down with my favorite recipes and coupons, and about 30 minutes later, I’m ready to shop. For each week I try to plan the following: 1 chicken dish, 1 pork dish, 1 fish dish, 1 beef dish, 1 meatless dish, 1 soup or stew because we all love that, and 1 leftover night. When I am really on top of things, I try to work in different ethnicities and a breakfast here and there. The variety keeps us from getting bored. During busy times for my family, like when spring soccer and track overlap and we are having quick meals at really early or late times, I use my slow cooker a lot so the food is ready when we are all finally together. It keeps us from being tempted to eat out when we know there is something better and less expensive waiting at home. At this point, I only plan dinners. But I will start planning lunches and snacks soon so when summer comes my kids aren’t standing around asking what they can eat all day long.

  9. Liz says

    Menu planning is so much fun, and I do it all the time, sifting through cookbooks and favorite recipes. But then I have to stick to the plan, and I am so, so bad at this. Throw in a hubby in grad school who’s in class or the library most evenings and two kids who used to eat all kinds of stuff but who now turn up their noses at anything that’s not pizza, pancakes, or steamed broccoli (go figure on the broccoli), and it can be very discouraging to plan and cook a variety of family dinners all week long. I decided I don’t need the stress, so I plan “big” dinners on the weekends when my husband is actually around for dinner, and then I decide daily what to cook during the week, depending on my mood and the kids’ activities. I would absolutely kill for a daily fresh farmers market–so European, shopping daily at the markets for your dinner. I do plan and buy all pantry staples on a two-week basis, which is really helpful. Hats off to those of you who can stick to a menu plan! I bet you save time, money, and energy!

  10. says

    This is one of the things that I want to do long term. I have some short term goals I’m going to be working on over the next few months, but this is definitely one of the things that will be making its way to the list soon.

  11. Sarah R. says

    This is a fantastic post! I am a planner by nature and I planned our meals even before our son was born. It went by the way-side after he was born because I was caught up in new-mommy-hood, but I am now back to planning meals, and it feels fantastic! I love looking into our pantry and refrigerator and seeing all sorts of possibilities. It has definitely helped in our budget plus it is so much better health-wise (no more last minute carry-outs). Thanks for the recipes too.

    One tip that has really worked for me is to look at the calendar for other events that are going on. For example, if I know I’ll be really busy on Tuesday, I’ll make a meal in the slow-cooker, knowing that I won’t have time to prepare a regular meal. I also know that Sundays are usually our family-time days and we don’t plan much in the way of activities, so I know that I’ll have more time for cooking.

    My husband said that he and his co-workers were talking about dinners last week, and he couldn’t believe how many people relied on hot dogs and macaroni and cheese (the fluorescent orange kind) as a meal. He commented on how well we eat, which made me feel really proud that he was proud!

  12. says

    So glad you did this b/c I was really wanting to know what your week of meals look like. I’m also curious about your breakfasts and lunches, and what your kids will actually eat. My kids probably wouldn’t touch 90% of the food in this post.

    Also I cannot fathom hitting up a food store five days a week. Seriously cannot. And having four different main stops? Ugh. I do wish I had a nice farmer’s market closeby, but such a thing does not exist that I know of near me.

    I do like meal planning, when I do it…but I have a major problem sticking to the plan. I hate to cook and hubby gets tired of doing dishes, so we eat out a lot. Waste of money, I know.

  13. says

    Wow I love it! I use to be so organized but when we moved {6 mos ago} I haven’t seemed to be able to get back to a routine. I love the way you handle making a list and I am going to try and implement this! One thing I know I dont do is take inventory, so things go bad or I forgot about the items in the pantry. I am going to read through other responses to see what people do. Thanks!

  14. says

    I got into menu-planning here about 4-5 months ago! What a difference it makes in our lives. Of course with the twins, we had to be very scheduled and so this just helped smooth out the day -especially on the rough ones.

    I’m loving how much easier it is to shop-find deals-and plan. Best of luck in this ‘new adventure!’

  15. says

    don’t just save the menu plan, save the grocery store receipt. this will help you get familiar with the prices and you will know when you find a great sale.

    • Jo-Lynne says

      Yes! I’ve actually been saving all my receipts and keeping a spreadsheet of what things cost at the different stores I frequent. It’s quite eye opening.

  16. says

    I used to sit down and plan for a month at a time, but the last few months I’ve gone rather lax.

    Sigh.

    In the long run, it was such a HUGE money and time saver. Something that helped me out was having a ‘master menu’ where I listed all of our favorite meals and sorted them by type: chicken, beef, pasta, etc… Then I would plug certain meals into certain days of the week: Monday, chicken; Tuesday, pasta; etc….

    REALLY need to start that up again with a new month coming!

  17. says

    I have been planning my meals a week at a time for a while. It is helpful for the budget, the timing and the sanity! lol

    I agree with everything you said today, even the seasonal veggies. I love when the farmers markets are open!!

    • Jo-Lynne says

      I usually leave a leftover night in there somewhere, actually.

      For lunches, we usually do sandwiches. Or rolled up lunchmeat – I get the kind with no nitrates, hormones, or antibiotics from Trader Joes.

  18. says

    I am a “fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pantser” too. :)

    Thanks for writing this post, though. You’re inspiring me. I think planning our meals would help evenings to be a little less hectic around here…

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