Sep 13, 2010

Menu Planning: The basics

Monday...for me, that's menu planning day.

For purposes of this blog post, I'm going to assume everyone knows the virtues of menu planning (bottom line:  saves you time and money, lets you plan a better variety of healthy foods, etc.)  But I know from personal experience and talking to other moms (of all ages) that HOW to menu plan is not always as well-known or understood.  And not to be sexist...but for most guys, menu planning is a foreign concept.  For them, dinner happens.

As most of us have figured out, there are many ways to plan your menu:
  • Ask for suggestions from family members (definitely hit-or-miss)
  • Go to the store for inspiration, buy and fix whatever sounds good today.  Tomorrow, do the same thing.  (Pssst, that's really NOT planning.)
  • Plan a menu around whatever you bought at the farmers market.
  • Plan the menu around weekly store sales and coupons (on your own, or with help from sites such as
  • Select from pre-made items from the freezer (for me that means using up stockpiled raviolis or tamales, or ready-to-assemble entrees from Once-a-Month Cooking or the Dinner A'Fare plans.)
I have used all these approaches at various times, with varying degrees of success.  But generally, I have found a weekly menu is most efficient and economical (both in terms of time and money) for us.  A two-week plan has never been successful for our family because we inevitably run out of milk, juice, sandwich bread, or something I *need* for a recipe in between bi-weekly trips, so I'm still back at the store at least once--or more--during the fortnight.

A weekly trip may occasionally be supplemented by a second store run as well, but usually I can rearrange my menu plans to eek out another day or two until the next scheduled store run when I'm on a weekly schedule.  Weekly shopping also lets me offer more fresh fruits and vegetables; not everything holds up well for 7, 10 or 14 days.

My menu planning takes place on Monday.  This became an established routine a few years ago, when I offered to take Monday night dinners to a nearby friend who was on bedrest for most of her third pregnancy.  It was just what I needed to nail down my own menu for the week.  I'd simply double up on whatever I planned for Monday, and take half to them.  This was a double blessing, since I also wanted to be a little more creative in what I shared with another relying on trusty old spaghetti week after week!  (My family LOVED this arrangement, because they got a dessert each Monday - something that doesn't typically happen around here.)

Even after she successfully delivered her baby and I stopped carrying food in to the family, I kept up the Monday planning routine.  Now it's the day I pull down my list and peruse it, compare it to what what we've recently eaten, what's in the freezer and pantry, and then rotate and balance the main dishes among chicken, fish, beef and pork, with the occasional vegetarian or egg dish thrown in. 

Once I've settled on the meat for each day, I choose a recipe to prepare it; typically something we already love or something new I've been wanting to try (at least one new recipe a week.)  Busy nights (Wednesdays year 'round, and swim practice days during the season) are geared toward super-fast and easy meals or something I can slow cook in the crockpot or my Lodge dutch oven.

Then I choose the side dishes. Confession time:  this is a weak spot in my planning.  Except for "big" meals, I rarely plan for more than one or two basic side dishes - salad and starch, fruit and starch, green vegetable and starch (I think there's a pattern here.)  And sometimes it's just a salad, veggie or other side if the main dish contains pasta or rice.  I'm working on expanding my repertoire of more side dishes, simply because dinner is a lot more interesting if you pair up the entree with something more creative than merely a serving of green beans or potatoes.  (I live in the land of meat 'n threes - you'd think this would have become ingrained by now!)

Other known weaknesses?

Breads.  Arguably, we don't NEED bread each meal, but this fall I do plan to introduce more home-baked breads to weeknight meals.  I've already got several good recipes for savory muffins and biscuits, and my cheese garlic bread is always a hit.  But I'd like to get better at making crusty breads, soft rolls and add more whole wheat and other grains to my yeast breads.  Practice makes perfect, so we a'practicing we will go this fall and winter.

Dessert is almost always an afterthought , too.  Unless I'm just really hankering for something or there's a birthday or other special occasion during the week, dessert rarely happens.  But that may not be such a bad weak spot to have, since all of us are striving for a little more health-conscious diet.

Once the menu is complete, two more steps:  First, I post it on my blog so my children and husband can see at a glance what we're having (because they FAITHFULLY read my blog each week...not!!!), and so I can remember what I planned!  Second, I jot down a grocery list and head to the store, and try to not forget anything.

Happy planning!

P.S.  A shout-out to my "little" brother (he's only a foot taller) who's celebrating his 41st birthday today.  Love ya!!!!!