Menu Planning Backwards and Forwards
We all know it saves time and money to plan a weekly dinner menu. It's easier to resist impulse buys at the market. You can get to the actual cooking sooner when you don't have to spend time figuring out what you're going to make, then see if you have the ingredients, then (if you're like me) figure it out again because you don't have the ingredients. You're also more likely to eat a healthy diet and less likely to cop out and pick up a Big Mac, because you know you're going to pull together a nice chicken Caesar salad when you get home from work.
Tools You Can Use
Fortunately, when it comes to menu planning, there are lots of tools and software to help you get started:
- You can use menu planning software.
- You can just use Google Calendar, Google Docs, Microsoft Word, Microsoft Excel, or whatever makes it easy for you.
- You can do like I do, and just use a plain old piece of paper and pencil. (I recommend a pencil rather than a pen. You'll probably want to re-arrange your choices more than once.)
The Best Time to Plan
You can start your plan either before or after you've done the grocery shopping for the week. The advantage to planning before is that it makes it easier to stick to a list and resist expensive impulse buying. If you plan after grocery shopping, however, you can take advantage of specials you didn't know about or maybe some cool new produce that the store (or farmer's market) didn't stock last week, and then build your menu around those items.
Schedule It Out
Personally, after I make my weekday grid, I write down the week's schedule. If I know there's a meeting on Tuesday night, I'll plan a salad or soup or other one-dish meal. If the adult kid is coming to visit on Thursday, she'll get something special to welcome her. (You may also want to think about weather. If, for example, the forecast predicts it to be cool early in the week, we can have a casserole on Monday and sandwiches or a salad later on in the week as it warms up.)
Use Everything Up
I'll use a piece of scrap paper to write down what I already have in the house. This is good even if I'm going to go shopping after I make my menu because it will use up veggies that are getting old, or use up what's currently in the freezer. I consult my local market's sales flyer so I can focus on what's on special that week.
I'll also write down a couple meal ideas that I've had requests for from family members. (It could be the spouse is jonesing for some tuna or I've been thinking about a nice creamy mac and cheese all week.) If I'm drawing a blank, I'll look in my cookbooks for ideas. (If you cook with recipes, this is the time to pull them out or do your search and write down a few ideas.)
Putting It All Together
Then I start thinking about putting it all together. I've got a whole chicken in the freezer, some green beans and cabbage in the crisper, and pork chops are on sale at the market. The trick is to think about balance. Unless you really, really love chicken, don't plan chicken two nights in a row. I usually like to plan one night with animal protein, one night without.
And don't forget your side dishes! I like to make sure that each dinner has at least two veggies, and if I'm using a recipe, I'll note where to find it — in a book or the file or the internet.
Plan, Plan, Plan
Another thing to think about is cooking ahead. I've got that whole chicken, and if I roast that for Sunday dinner, I can use the leftovers later in the week for chicken sandwiches. If I make up some extra coleslaw on Monday to go with the mac and cheese, I won't have to make it on Friday to go with chicken sandwiches (which means an easy meal at the end of the week and less temptation to call out for pizza because it's the end of the week and I'm tired).
A menu is simply a blueprint or guideline. You don't have to stay wedded to it. If, for example, the weather suddenly heats up, you can make a macaroni salad instead of the mac and cheese. If it has been the day from hell and you're late and tired and just can't bear having to pull out a pan, then it's time to swing by the Chinese place and bring home orange chicken.
Having a menu is one less thing I have to think about, so I can relax and enjoy cooking dinner with my husband, knowing that we will have a tasty, healthy dinner that's also saving us money. You can't top that!