|CC by LizMarie_AK (Flickr)|
Lots of other bloggers (many more accomplished than I) have shared their advice; their work has made mine easier. Not that it's all that difficult; I basically use a five-step process:
- Make a rough calendar of the week -- some nights my wife has choir rehearsal; some days (rotating) she's off work during the day; maybe we have potluck plans with friends. Those events inform our menu through available time and sometimes particular ingredients or meals. I don't plan a big meal for rehearsal nights, because I have to cook it alone -- instead, I'll put down quesadillas or leftovers that can be heated when each of us has the time. It's best to plan a special dish that I want her to make on a day when she has lots of free time, and prep work or freezer cooking when I'm free for a few hours.
Some people plan out a full 3x7 menu, or only plan the weeknights when everyone is busier. Some families have rotating regular themes, like Pizza Night, Taco Night, or Stir-Fry Night. In our house, we rarely eat breakfast, so my menu plan has a slot for lunch and one for dinner, 7 days a week. I try to add at least one fruit or vegetable to most main dishes, and use leftovers to take to work for lunch. Mondays are meatless, because eating less meat is less expensive and healthier for us, and having a specific day of the week is easier for me to remember. On Wednesday lunch is catered at my office, and sometimes there are leftovers the next day. Know what works for you and make it as simple as possible.
- Start with what you have in the house. That includes staples in the pantry, the freezer inventory, any fresh supplies that will perish, and leftovers. Every other week, I check the organic produce website and see what items will be coming in the next box. Then I write down any meals I can make with them and start adding them to the weekly calendar. Sometimes these are standbys, like pasta with meat sauce, tuna sandwiches, or mac & cheese; sometimes I just want to use up leftovers or make space in the freezer, so I scout out recipes with specific ingredients (Yummly is good for this).
- Figure out what ingredients need to be purchased and when. Are we low on milk or bread? (Do we need either in the coming week, or can we get by without them until the next shopping trip?) Will we need parsley for the chicken dish, or can something else be substituted?
- Look at the local specials to see what's on sale. We buy loss leaders and other sale items from the advertisement almost exclusively, and we stock up when something we like and will use is discounted. Knowing that I'll have a lot of pasta or chicken on hand helps me plan the next couple of weeks' meals, too. If ground beef isn't on sale this week, maybe it would be better to postpone taco night.
I find it much more convenient to do this online. (I also keep my menu plan in a Google Doc for easy updating and sharing.) Here are a few sites to bookmark if you do this on a regular basis:
-Safeway (if you're a Club Card member, also check "Just For U" specials on items you purchase frequently, plus extra coupons you can add to your card from the website instead of printing and cutting)
-Lucky (also has coupons, but you have to print them)
-Trader Joe's (low prices everyday on many items; I prefer to buy certain things elsewhere on sale)
-Costco (coupons can be printed or displayed to a checker on your smartphone)
(fill in your own local chain or use the hard-copy circulars that come in the mail/with your newspaper)
The weekly specials usually start midweek (but may have one-day-only or weekend-only extras), so plan your grocery trip with that in mind. Usually we do two small shopping trips/week, with no more than what we can carry. I check the specials on Wednesdays, and plan a weekend trip and sometimes one on Monday or Tuesday of the next week.
- Fill in the blanks. I actually enjoy this part; but then I also enjoy seating charts! Once I have a list of potential meals, I take them back to the calendar and fit them into place.
Things to consider: will there be leftovers? Enough for both of us? How long will they keep in the fridge? Should I freeze them instead and eat next month? How much room is there in the freezer? What if there aren't leftovers -- what can I take for lunch instead? What if the fruit won't last until next Monday before it goes bad -- or is so good that it disappears over the weekend? What can I make in the slow cooker? What can she take to work for snacks? What can we bring to the barbecue? Where can I fit this new recipe I've been wanting to try? Do we have somewhere to store 20 pounds of rice? When do I need to defrost this meat/meal in order to serve it on __________? (Write that into the menu!!)
Once every meal slot is full, I run the draft by my wife (who will share in the shopping, cooking, and eating of most meals) and make any "final" changes. (As I noted last week, the menu is a living document, and unexpected changes do happen.) If I didn't get to everything I thought of, I take note of recipes that look good, or cravings, or particularly good meals to double when there's freezer space. Those help me with the next cycle of meal planning, so each week builds on the previous one.