Oct 8, 2009

How to Plan Your Weekly Menu

Since I've talked about the benefits of menu planning recently, I thought I'd share how I plan my menus. My way is most definitely not the only way, and I like to plan weekly menus. Some people do monthly menus, but that's never worked for me. (If you're interested in monthly menus and once-a-month cooking, check out Frozen Assets.)

My menu planning methods have changed through the years. Some of the changes are because I've become a better cook. This year, as my money-saving shopping methods have been refined, and I've really honed in on spending as little as possible while maintaining a comfortable lifestyle, I've altered my planning to focus not so much on what I want to eat as what I have on hand.

I have a list of meals that I make regularly: roasts in the slow cooker, tacos, nachos, pastas, fish and more. I also have a huge pile of recipes torn out of magazines that I look through to add variety. I've also started searching for recipes online that use up the ingredients I have on hand. That's how I came across the "egg with tuna" recipe that I mentioned a few weeks ago.

To plan my menu for the week, I now think about what I have on hand that I can use. Bacon and eggs might lead to breakfast or to Spaghetti Carbonara. Oil packed tuna might turn into Pan Bagnat or Tuna Pasta Salad. A pork roast will almost inevitably be made into kalua pig.

Here are some of the things I consider when deciding what to make and on what day:
  • What time we'll be getting home and how much time I'll have to cook. If we're getting home late, I'll try to plan something that can be done the night before or in just minutes when we walk in the door.
  • Whether I want leftovers. Leftovers are the easiest, cheapest brown bag lunch, especially if you have access to a microwave.
  • The weather. I learned this tip earlier this year, when I'd planned to make pizza for dinner on a day when the temps reached 99 degrees. After that, I didn't use the oven when the weather was particularly hot. But I'm very glad that lower temps have arrived, and I plan on using the oven on days that are particularly cold.
  • Whether I can make a double batch. Certain meals double easily and freeze beautifully, and can be a huge time saver. If I have freezer space, time, and ingredients, I'll try to add one of these meals to my menu to save time later.
  • How much can be made ahead of time. This goes along with the first factor, but I list it separately because I can plan for meals that require the same prep. If at all possible, I can plan to prep once and cook twice.
  • Variety. We get bored quite easily so variety is key. I never plan back to back pasta dinners, or use the same protein two days in a row.
  • Whether I can use leftovers from one meal in another meal. If I cook a roast, there's usually enough leftover not just for lunch but for another meal like tacos, enchiladas, or soup.

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Jen said...

The great thing about menu planning is it can be done in so many different ways. My approach has many of the same goals as yours but they are prioritized in a different order, so the process and results are different.

While saving money is important, saving time is the most critical issue in our meeting planning. We have two kids under 4 and they are falling to pieces on the nights that everyone goes to work/school/daycare, so we have to have dinner FAST. We decided that speed and convenience (without resorting to take out of course) ranked higher than variety on our list, so we have a two week rotation of meals. One of the nights is designated as "cook from scratch" and I have a short list of 20 recipes I usually choose from. They can all be doubled and added to the freezer, so another night is "eat from the freezer". Others are salad bar, breakfast for dinner, leftovers, pasta, and soup night. Even within this fixed menu, there's some room for variety, but I don't have to put as much time into the planning, and the recipes are all ones that are so familiar that the cooking and shopping go more quickly too. I'm not always able to *maximize* on frugality, but most of the items on the menu are things that can be cooked from the pantry.

Menu planning has really simplified my life and my whole family benefits from it!

Carrie said...

One of my favorite tips is from my grandmother's 1950s Betty Crocker cookbook and it suggests planning your menu while you're hungry. It really does make it so much easier.

I've sort of adapted that by making notes of recipes I see online or in magazines or things I'm craving so that I have most of my next week's menu done by the time getting ready to grocery shop on Sunday rolls around.

Chief Family Officer said...

@Jen - You make an excellent point, and actually, I said almost exactly the same thing when the boys were younger. (For example.) It's fabulous that you've found something that works for you - I don't think I was doing nearly as well when things were that tough!

@Carrie - That's an excellent suggestion, I love it and I'm going to start doing that myself! Thanks!