Friday, January 8, 2010

Guest Post: Meal Planning for Dummies


Before you take offense, I am one of those dummies too!

Every week, I tell myself that I'll sit down on Friday or Saturday and look at coupons, scan my cookbooks for new recipes to try that my finicky husband won't turn his nose up at my husband might enjoy, and make an organized grocery list.

And every week, I find myself mentally drained at the end of a week spent chasing a two year old who has decided that pants just aren't her thing, and pleading with a strong willed four year old to just please share the darn Polly Pockets with her sister already.

And so we end up eating chicken, spaghetti, chicken, sandwiches, chicken, stir fry, and did I say chicken already?

I make a lot of excuses...but honestly, I just don't know where to begin.

Enter Melissa of Frugal Creativity. She offered to write up a post for me on the basics of meal planning. I thought there may be others out there hiding who need a helping hand with this subject matter. Right? Right?

Take it away, Melissa!

When Amanda asked if I'd be interested in writing a guest post on menu planning, I didn't hesitate to say Yes! Afterward, though, I realized it's one of those things that I just do, and I wasn't sure where to begin to explain it. I learned by watching my mom and, although I didn't use menu plans when I was single, I've been using them for as long as I've been married.

Why menu plan? 

For me, the answer is simple: If I didn't plan our meals, we'd eat a lot more take-out, convenience, and junk foods. Neither our waistlines nor our budget can afford that. 

But menu planning also saves time, money, and stress, and it can help you balance your family's nutrition. When planning ahead, it's easier to include more fruits and veggies--and to limit less-healthy choices. For example, my family would like to eat cheese at least three times a week. I generally try to limit cheese-centric meals to one per week, although it doesn't always work out that way.

If you're just getting started, or just thinking about menu planning, Organized Home and I'm an Organizing Junkie both have good overviews of the reasons and the process. Everyone does it slightly differently, of course, and this is how I menu plan: 

1. Check what's in the freezer and refrigerator. 

credit: kitchen

What do we have on hand? At this point I'm mostly considering prepared meals and protein sources, since I start my plan with those.

2. Check the supermarket ad. 


What's on sale? I look first at meats, then at produce.

3. Check the calendar. Which days are busy?

Plan the quicker meals for those days. Is the weather hot? Plan to use the slow cooker instead of the oven. Home all day? It's a good day to make soup and bread.

4. I use my planner notebook, which already lists our appointments. 


Then, as I write the weekly menu plan, I note when I need to thaw meats, soak beans, start a sourdough sponge, and so on.

We don't have a strict routine (e.g., every Monday is Taco Night), but we have a loose pattern:

  • Pasta dishes: 1 - 2 times a week
  • Chicken: 1 -2
  • Ground beef: 1
  • Meatless meal: 1
  • Mexican or Asian themed: 1
  • Homemade pizza: 1
  • Homemade soup (in winter): 1
That adds up to more than seven per week, because there's overlap (e.g., Mexican bean burritos). Occasionally we'll do something different, like a roast, when there's a good sale. I used to keep a list of all the meals that we like, categorized by main ingredient, for reference. That list has long been lost, but after all these years, I'm pretty familiar with what my family eats! 

Armed with that formula and the information about what's on hand and what's on sale, the menu plan comes together fairly quickly. Here's the thought process behind a typical week for us:

  • Monday will be a hectic day, so we'll use a prepared meal from the freezer: eggplant rollantini. (List the dinner--along with a note to make pasta and garlic bread--in my planner for Monday. Also make a note on Sunday so I'll remember to thaw the eggplant.)
  • Tuesday is grocery day, so we'll have an easy dinner. Balsamic chicken, baked potatoes, frozen green beans. (Make a note to thaw the chicken on Monday.)
  • Wednesday - Home all day, so it's a good day to make soup and homemade bread. We have chicken bones in the freezer, celery and carrots in the fridge, so I can use those to make chicken soup. (Make a note to thaw the chicken bones on Tuesday.)
  • Thursday - My family will be wanting something fun by Thursday, so we'll make homemade pizza. We have pepperoni and onions on hand, and I'll add a green pepper if it's on sale.
  • Friday - We have a ham bone in the freezer and dry kidney beans in the pantry. That'll make a good slow-cooker meal. (Make a note to thaw the ham bone and soak the beans on Thursday.)

For inspiration and moral support, I like Menu Plan Monday, hosted by Laura at I'm an Organizing Junkie. On a typical week at least 300 bloggers will link up their menu plans, so you can find fresh ideas every week. I find that it also helps to keep me accountable and inspires me to try new recipes.

Let me know if I missed anything, and I hope you'll visit me at my blog!

Thank you so much, Melissa. This is a great start. I hope I'm not the only one who learned something today. 

I'd love to hear you all weigh in on this subject. Any tips, websites, or books you've found to help out?

{Have a wonderful weekend, my wonderful readers!}
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  1. Amanda & Melissa - really enjoyed this post! It was helpful as I seem to be in the same boat, I intend to menu plan then get busy or too tired. LOVE the tip about marking the calendar for thawing foods. I always buy tons of meat on sale to stock up and then forget to thaw it, thus a night of eating out. Have a good weekend!

    P.S. - Amanda, there's a little something for you over at my blog! : )

  2. You're really not the only one Amanda. It seems this meal planning thing has (litterally) come up in my life about a billion times since I got married. It's always just so easy for us to get take out or eat cereal for dinner instead of having a full, healthy meal. I had been to organized home site just last week & printed up most of their meal planning templates to use. I'm excited to get started on it. :-) Let me know how it goes for you.

  3. Once you start doing this as a routine it just sticks with you. My mom hates that I plan all our meals out for 2 weeks. But you gotta do whatever it takes to save money. You'll do great! Nice idea for this post though.

  4. Great post! I can't imagine being that organized, however I can see what wonderful benefits one nets by doing so! I'm a go with the flow person, prioritize in the morning but that's about it for my being organized. I often feel overwhelmed with tasks and meeting etc and I'm sure if I would take the time to plan meals, my life would be less overwhelming.

  5. This is really helpful, thanks for posting! I've noticed myself spending way too much on takeout and not enough on groceries, so I've been trying my best to stick to a menu and a routine. I admire your organization skills!

  6. Thanks for posting on this topic! Menu planning is the one thing I cannot get by without- life is just too overwhelming if I don't know what we're gonna have for dinner! I do weekly grocery shopping with my menu plan in mind on a day my little guy is in pre-school. I just can't handle taking the kids to the store, so I have to be a little organized in order to avoid that!

    I also try to plan silly meals for special days- like green eggs and ham for Dr. Suess' b-day, or heart shaped meatloaf for Valentine's Day. My husband is a pretty good sport about it, and generally eats whatever I make without much complaint, as long as he gets a burrito once in a while. Pizza night once a week (on Friday night for us) with a movie is a nice change of pace.

  7. I am the Dummy! Like, the dumbest dummy--you can't even imagine--when it comes to meal planning. So I REALLY appreciate this post! I'm going to go back and read it again. I like the common-sense approach here. Thank you, Amanda!

    Have a great weekend!

  8. Great post! I love the tip on looking at your calendar when you plan.

  9. Great post Melissa and Amanda! I especially like the idea of planning meals based on what that particular day looks like. Great thought on that!

    I did my take on the weekly menu planning debacle here:

    I also really like I'm an Orgazinzing Junkie's Menu Planning Monday. I've found several great recipes there.

    Great guest post!!!

  10. I try to plan out roughly what we'll have during the week on Sunday and then go grocery shopping. I HATE doing it, but it does save time. I enjoyed reading the tips and the one that I really need to follow is to see what is on sale in the circular. I could do a lot better job of saving $$$ while planning my meals. You have it a lot harder than I do because you've got to plan for 3x per day for every single day. Yikes!

  11. I also have done the "shopping the house, then shopping the ads" medthod for meal planning. It seriously saves So. Much. Money. I have long since fallen off the wagon though...another thing for my to do list!


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