What is menu planning?

Menu planning is pretty self-explanatory, but I’ll elaborate just to satisfy your obvious curiosity.  A menu is a listing of offered meals.  A plan lays the steps proposed to complete a task.  So menu planning is laying out a listing of meals.

Simple, right?  But it can seem a little daunting to get started on menu planning for your family at first.  I originally started menu planning because I got sick of the meal rut we were in.  It seems like I made the same dishes week after week, and frankly, I was sick of it.  I scoured the internet for a program or site that would do this for me, but there was nothing that really worked for me.  And it is much easier for me to cook off of a paper in front of me, rather than running back and forth to a computer screen.  I’m also, like many Americans, overweight.  My doctor and the nutritionist I saw (once) told me that I need to add more vegetables into my diet.  Well, duh.  I know that.  But it’s hard to eat vegetables regularly when you don’t really like too many vegetables.  Add into that the fact that we have a toddler and I just had a baby two months ago and I am currently nursing, and it becomes even more important to add those vegetables into our diets.

Menu planning makes sure that I rotate through my vast store of recipes and that we eat a balanced diet.  It also cuts way back on our grocery spending because I know precisely which meals I am going to be cooking over the week.  That means that I make fewer trips to the store, which results in less impulse buying (which is a challenge for me).  I also can plan out how best to use my coupons in conjunction with the store sales and store coupons to maximize savings.

So, if menu planning sounds like something you’d like to capitalize on, keep reading.  Now that I’ve explained how I see menu planning, let me tell you my method.

First of all, I have a three-ring binder I use to hold my recipes.  I use page protectors so that I can remove the recipe from the binder and have it on the counter-top while cooking; I can wipe it clean when I’m finished and place it back in the binder.  I use a composition notebook (so the pages won’t fall out as easily as from a spiral bound book) to map out my weekly menu plan.  Along the left-hand side of the page, I list the days of the week (M, T, W, R (for Thursday), F, Sa, Sun), skipping two to three lines between days.  I list the entree and the side or sides, one on each line.  Some of the days I plan something that I’ve been craving (Mexican food, comfort food, etc.) and other days I plan based on what is on sale at my store that week or what I have coupons for (or better yet, something that is on sale that I also have a coupon for!).

I also plan meals for the week based on difficulty or time to prepare.  For instance, Mondays are usually bad days for my husband because it is the first day in his work week and he usually gets bogged down in meetings until fairly late, so I will usually plan a meal that is easy to prepare, takes a minimal amount of time to cook, and produces the least amount of prep-work dishes to wash.  Wednesdays I usually watch my friend’s daughter for her, so I plan meals that require very little active cooking on my part.  And Fridays we generally have pizza because, well, we really like pizza and it’s fairly simple to do.

When it comes time for me to go grocery shopping, I first evaluate my food situation.  I have specifics that I like to always have on hand just in case I get bogged down or some unforeseen eventuality happens which calls for a quick and easy dinner.  These staples for me are pretty standard in most cookbooks and simple recipes too, so it helps to keep them on hand.

  • bread
  • eggs
  • milk
  • chicken broth
  • pasta
  • pasta sauce (red and Alfredo)
  • onions
  • potatoes
  • butter
  • margarine spread
  • olive oil
  • vegetable oil
  • shredded cheese
  • bread crumbs
  • canned tomatoes (diced, pureed, sauce, paste)
  • frozen chicken breasts
  • tortillas
  • lunchmeat
  • rice
  • canned beans
Once I’ve evaluated my staples, then I consider the store ads to see what is on sale.  As I am making my menu, I try to plan a different protein each night for dinner, so we usually have chicken, beef, pork, and fish each week.  Sometimes I will have ground beef and then a pot roast or a steak in the same week, so if I do that, I try to space them apart.  I plan a vegetable to go along with each meal (sometimes I just do a simple steamed vegetable, sometimes I’ll do a gratin or something else that requires more prep and planning), or if I’m doing something like lasagna or tomato-based pasta, I’ll forgo the vegetable because of the sauce.  Once I plan the menu out, I consult the recipes to see if there are any special ingredients I might need or spices that I have run out of (my standard spice rack: basil, oregano, garlic salt, garlic powder, onion powder, cumin, thyme, tarragon, chili powder, paprika, kosher salt, coarse ground black pepper, cinnamon, nutmeg, steak seasoning, poultry seasoning).
I also generally plan one day for leftovers or re-purposing of one of the previous meals (i.e. if we have pork loin one night for dinner, I’ll plan on carnitas later in the week, or turn leftover meat loaf into a tasty and quick meat sauce for pasta).
I would say that since I’ve started menu planning, I’ve cut our grocery bills each month by about $100-$200, if not more.  So if you are interested in my menu-planning experiences, stick around.  I’ll be posting my menu plans, some of my favorite recipes, and even some of my favorite food memories.  I hope to see you around!

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About menuplanningmama

I am a mother of two, and like many people today, I am also a military wife. Between my husband's work schedule and having two children who are only 20 months apart in age, it is very important to me that my family eat well and that it doesn't take hours out of my life. Menu planning has enabled my family to save money and eat better (which is important to me as a nursing mother). And eating better has great side effects: weight loss!

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