UPDATED with a meal planning template in PDF form if you’d like to print it out.
I have done menu planning off and on (more off than on) over the years, and recently I was inspired to try it once again. I know I keep teasing you about this new book I’m reviewing, but I haven’t received the go-ahead to promote it yet. While the focus is on budgeting and affording real food on one income, the part that has helped me the most was the part on menu planning.
You see, I’m not a planner by nature. I am a fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pantser. And while I enjoy the fact that I can be spontaneous and fun, it’s not the best character trait for a 38-year-old mom of three trying to do it all. It seems like when the cooking is caught up, the laundry suffers. And when the laundry is caught up, the blog suffers. And when the blog is filled with clever and engaging content, the design business suffers. And round it goes.
There are days that I want to give up because I feel like there is just too much on my plate. Do I hear an amen?
I think it’s when I decided to commit to making more of our food from scratch that everything started to pile up. Not only do I spend a lot more time in the kitchen nowadays, but I spend a lot more time shopping for food. It’s nothing for me to be at a food store of some sort five days a week.
When I read about what a huge time and money saver it is to plan your meals and shop weekly, it was like a huge light bulb went off. I know, DUH, right? But sometimes you need to be hit upside the head with something you already knew to give you the impetus to make some changes.
Also, to save money on groceries, it is necessary to shop around and know where you can get the best prices. So having a meal plan allows you to be more intentional about your shopping and saves you time in the long run.
I’m trying to do my meal planning two weeks at a time, so that I can reduce the amount of times I go to each particular store. For instance, I am buying more and more at Trader Joes, as I have discovered that they carry a lot of the same things as my whole foods store at a cheaper price. But my Trader Joes is 30 minutes away. So if I have my meals planned out for two weeks, I can go to Trader Joes every other week and stock up on everything I’ll need. Then I can fill in at the stores that are nearby.
I still have to sit down weekly and tweak the menu, but now that I’m in my third week, I can see that it’s taking on a nice rhythm. This is how it works.
1. Every Monday I take inventory.
This is so that I can plan recipes that use up what I have on hand, which keeps my pantry and refrigerator from exploding.
It also helps me avoid running out of the staples that I depend on. (I also try to keep a running list on the side of the fridge when I run out of staples so that when I go to a store, I have a grocery list already started.)
2. Then I sit down and plan my meals. (At this point, I only plan our dinners. I just make sure to have ingredients on hand to make my standard breakfasts and lunches.)
The very first time I did this, I planned for 10 – 14 meals, assuming that there would be a few “leftover” nights in there.
Now when I sit down on Monday mornings, I take my last week’s menu plan and go back over it. I determine which meals I still have left to make and start planning the next week based on those.
Then I look at my inventory list, and I fill in the rest of the two weeks with meals that use up what I have on hand, making sure leave room for inspiration. For example, I am learning to love fresh, local, in-season produce. I never realized how much better it tastes. Now that it’s springtime, my local farm market is bringing in their homegrown collard greens and spinach and asparagus. So I often leave the vegetable part of the meal blank, and I will stop into the farm market a couple times a week and pick up whatever looks good. My farm market is 5 minutes from my house so it’s not inconvenient to make frequent stops.
3. Then I make a shopping list.
I start out by adding onto the grocery list I already have going on the fridge. I keep it all on one long list until I’m ready to go to a particular store.
Then when I’m ready to go to Trader Joes or the whole food store or Wegmans or the farm market (those are my four main stops), I take a look at my master grocery list and make a list of just the things I plan to purchase at that particular store, making sure to cross them off the master list.
4. Use the menu plan.
I know, this sounds obvious, right? But I’m learning to always be looking ahead to see what meat I need to set out to thaw, and if I need to start grains soaking for breakfast pancakes or homemade granola, and what veggies I may need to pick up to round out a meal.
5. I keep a list as I run out of stuff.
To keep things moving along smoothly, I keep a running list as I run out of things. (As I mentioned, this is conveniently located on the side of the fridge.) This saves me from having to do a thorough inventory of all my cabinets each time I run to the store.
It’s amazing to me how LITTLE time it takes to take inventory and plan our meals and write up a grocery list each Monday morning. I can usually do it while I’m getting the kids ready for school. And I can’t even describe how glorious it feels when 4:00 rolls around and I know exactly what I’m making for dinner and the peace of having all of the ingredients already in stock, thawed and ready to go.
I’m also saving all my grocery lists. This way, after a few more weeks, I should have a wonderful repertoire of meals all ready to cycle through again, which should save even LESS time as I won’t be rifling through my cookbooks, trying to come up with inspiration.
So here is my menu plan for the upcoming week. Again, I’m only planning dinners at this point. Maybe I’ll get organized enough to plan out our breakfasts too, but as long as I have the staples in the house for our 3 or 4 go-to breakfasts, it doesn’t seem to be necessary to plan ahead.
MONDAY: roast chicken, roasted carrots, herbed new potatoes, spinach salad
Note: make chicken stock from leftover chicken carcass, set out pork chops to thaw*
TUESDAY: pan fried pork chops, collard greens (recipe coming soon), mac-and-cheese
WEDNESDAY: salmon cakes, quinoa, fresh veggie
Note: pick up fresh spinach for tomorrow and fresh veggie for tonight, set out ground beef and liver to thaw* for meatloaf
THURSDAY: meatloaf, baked potatoes, fresh spinach (blanched and sauteed)
Note: set out chicken and tortillas to thaw* for enchiladas
FRIDAY: chicken enchiladas, spinach salad
Note: set out ground beef to thaw*
SATURDAY: spaghetti and meatballs, salad
Note: set out pot roast to thaw*
SUNDAY: pot roast, potatoes, carrots
Here’s a sample template, if it helps.
How about you? Are you a menu planner? Give us your best tips for making it work.
*Please remember that it isn’t safe to thaw your meat on the counter at room temperature. I usually thaw mine in the fridge in a pan so that if it leaks, it doesn’t go all over my fresh veggies. EW. If I’m short on time, I thaw it in the sink in a cold water bath. This works quite well in a time crunch, actually.
This post was linked to Chive Talking — A Menu Planning Blog Roll to inspire health through real food!