Back to the basics: menu planning

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by Tsh

Tsh is the founder of this blog and is currently traveling around the world with her husband and 3 kids. Her latest book is Notes From a Blue Bike, and believes a passport is one of the world's greatest textbooks.

It’s Monday morning, the start of a new week. I’m not a fan of them either, but I choose to look at Mondays as the day that sets the mood for the rest of the week. When I wake up to a relatively straightened-up home with a penciled-in sketch of a game plan for the week, I’m more positive about another day.

If I haven’t made a menu plan for the entire month, I’ll create one for the week on Sunday evening. If you haven’t made yours yet, you’ve still got plenty of time. This week’s task in Back to the Basics? Create a menu plan, and start making this a regular habit in your household.

This week’s task:

Create a menu plan for this week, and possibly for the next two weeks.

Who this involves:

You, mostly, though you should take all the family members’ food limitations and favorites into consideration.

How long this will take:

It might take you longer if you’re new at this, but it will get faster each week, especially if you repeat your weeks. I’d set aside about an hour to search your cookbooks or your recipe bookmarks online.

The process:

Go through your current food stash and note what needs to be used up, then pore over your recipes and decide on what to make for dinner this week. Create a shopping list based on your plan, and write down your menu, either with pen and paper, or in an online calendar.

The goal:

A useful menu plan that works specifically for your family’s needs, aligning with your mission statement.

Why Plan a Menu?

Menu planning is part of a frugal home that wants to eat well, not waste food or money, enjoy the cooking process, and make sitting down as a family at the table a priority.

Just a few of the benefits — you can:

  • plan for meals based on what’s already in your fridge and pantry
  • make a well-rounded, nutritious game plan with a variety of foods throughout the week
  • reuse leftovers creatively, not letting them go to waste
  • cook what’s in season and what’s on sale, saving you money
  • you also save money by buying what you know you need
  • grocery shopping goes faster because you know what you need
  • not have that panicky, “What do I whip up for dinner?” feeling at 5 p.m.

It gets easier and easier to menu plan once you make a habit of doing it weekly or monthly, and there are a number of methods that simplify the process.

Tips & Tricks for Effective Menu Planning

As I mentioned in the introduction to the Back to the Basics series, there will be almost nothing new mentioned. Going “back to” something implies that this idea has already been part of home management for generations, and that we’ll simply be discussing the tried and true techniques out there.

Here are some hacks many families use to make their menu work for them:

• Have a daily theme. We do this — Mondays are pasta; Tuesdays are soup, salad, and/or sandwiches; Wednesdays are stir fry; Thursdays are crock pot; Fridays are pizza; Saturdays are something new, and Sundays are something easy.

An example of this is our month-long menu plan from April.

• Repeat your menu every two weeks for a season. Most of us don’t mind eating a meal twice a month, and when you create a two-week menu plan, you can be set for a few months. Try creating a two-week plan for the summer.

• Cook in advance. We’ll discuss this more when we get to batch cooking and freezer meals, but if you plan on repeating a week down the road, go ahead and make a double batch of tonight’s dinner. Then when that next week rolls around, you’re already set.

• Use a calendar program like Google Calendar. I wrote about how I use this method here.

• Plan with the seasons. I find our summertime menu plans easier, because the food is lighter and easier to prepare. Create tomato-based dishes during the summer, when they’re in abundance and fresher (and also much cheaper).

• Post your menu plan on your blog each Monday, then submit it to Menu Plan Mondays on Org Junkie. It’ll keep you accountable to doing it, and you can find lots of ideas from other families.

A Few Thoughts About Grocery Shopping

Shopping for food is easier when you plan a menu. You know exactly what you need and don’t need, and you can intentionally plan to cook what’s cheaper and in season.

Here are a few tips to make grocery shopping easier and to make your food more palatable:

• Shop your local farmer’s market once a week. You know what I mean if you read Animal, Vegetable, Miracle in the book club this spring. You’re supporting the local economy, your food is infinitely fresher, you’re eating what’s in season, and you’ll actually save money — it’s not very expensive.

Many farmers harvest organic produce and meat, but can’t afford the costly “certified organic” label from the USDA. Chat with them about their farming process, and you’ll be able to find a farmer that meets your family’s need for quality produce at a fraction of the price.

Local Harvest is a great resource to help you find a farmer’s market near you. You can also get info on joining a community-supported agriculture service (CSA).

• Keep your grocery store trips to every two weeks. If you buy most of your perishables at the farmer’s market, you can stock up on your staples at the conventional store. With a two-week menu plan, you’ll only need to go to the grocery store twice a month.

• Use coupons, but make sure you don’t buy more than you need. If you wouldn’t eat the food anyway, you’re not saving money by buying it with a coupon. Money Saving Mom and Deal Seeking Mom are great resources for coupon deals and for tricks on getting more bang from a store’s sale.

• Create a master grocery list. I have a simple one you can download for free, but the one we actually use is sorted by aisle at our particular store. Once you develop a shopping pattern, you’ll find that you usually buy the same things repeatedly.

Craft a simple grocery list in Excel, organized by aisle from your usual shop. Print it off weekly and keep it in the kitchen. Simply tick off items as you need them, and when it’s shopping day, your list is already set. We pared down our shopping time by half when we organized our list by aisle.

• Make a master price list. How often have you found olive oil on sale, but can’t remember if that’s actually a good deal compared to other stores’ prices? Create a simple list of the best normal prices on your staples, and where they can be found. Keep it in your home management notebook, and take it with you on shopping day.

• Oh, and don’t forget your reusable bags. Keep them in your car or your purse.

Your Assignment

Today, plan your menu for the week. Perhaps publish it on your blog, and then share it on Menu Plan Mondays.

Just focus on dinner for now, but if you’re a seasoned pro at menu planning, take a stab at planning breakfasts and lunches, too.

Don’t worry if it’s in pencil because it might change — that’s okay. Ours does every week. It’s there to serve you, not to force you in to a plan that doesn’t work.

Let your family mission statement guide you, if that helps. Since one of our family’s values is to “take care of our health,” we will plan a menu that is made of real food. Because we also want to “be good stewards of creation,” we will mostly eat local food. We also value simplicity, so no complicated food here.

Resources

Here are some articles I’ve already written about menu planning:

And here are other good posts from other bloggers:

What are your tips for menu planning? Feel free to link to a post on your blog, if you’ve written about it. And if you write your week’s menu on your blog, feel free to share that here, too.

Join the Conversation
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Comments

  1. I found menu planning to be one of those jobs that made me feel guilty when I didn’t follow the plan I wrote. But then I worked out two things:
    1)As long as I have a list of planned dinners written down, it doesn’t matter what order I cook them in after the first couple (where I might have some fresh fish or deli meats from the supermarket that need to be eaten up fast)
    2)Since I cook from a core set of ingredients, I don’t tend to choose recipes that have an outlying ingredient that doesn’t occur in anything else. So, as long as I plan a menu and buy the ingredients for THAT menu, I’ll usually have the ingredients on hand to swap in a different meal on the fly if I don’t feel like cooking what I planned earlier

    Rosie´s last blog post…Waking up

  2. Great tips, I am a pretty bad “menu planner” and we tend to revolve around a few basics all the time. But I would love to get this area of my life better organized. Thanks for the tips!

    melissa @ the inspired room´s last blog post…The Pottery Barn Basic Sofa Saga & Confessions

  3. Thanks for the linky love, Tsh! I think I have a thing or two to learn from you about menu planning. I’m not very good at sticking to it, but you’ve renewed my desire to give it another attempt!

    Tara @ Deal Seeking Mom´s last blog post…O, The Oprah Magazine FREE 5-Issue Subscription (New Link)

  4. Its a bit backwards on my part but I got really good at making breakfast and now Im learning about planning dinners. I think it was easier with breakfast because there’s a smaller variety of things to choose from.

  5. avatar
    Cathy G says:

    We’ve done menu planning for several years now but there are still some really good tips here. It definitely saves us money and wasted food, and also means we are catering appropriately when we have family trips and activities planned.

  6. We have an ultra-simplified meal plan during this extremely busy season of our lives – it’s healthy, but quick and simple, too! And good for me, since it takes less than 30 minutes to make dinner.

    I wrote about it here:

    http://www.steadymom.com/2009/06/meal-planning-simplified.html

    Jamie

    steadymom´s last blog post…Sponsor Giveaway :: Love and Tea Company

  7. Love your site! So much helpful information. Really enjoying reading it each day.
    For menu planning, try thisweekfordinner.com. Jane Maynard has a delicious blog to give you much needed inspiration and motivation. Great photos too. Readers can post their weekly menus. Good luck!

  8. I am working on creating a new summer time blank weekly menu planner, but posted an old one here:

    http://www.nourishingdays.com/?p=799

    After some struggles with the constant influx of produce from our csa, farmers markets and our garden I have finally found a system that works for me and helps to organize all of the menus, food preservation and vegetable usage.

    Thank you for linking to local harvest and recommending farmers markets. I am finding super cheap food there right now and it’s so nice to see the face that grew your greens :).

    Shannon´s last blog post…Soak & Dehydrate Nuts for Optimum Digestibility

  9. I’ve been meal planning for years in various ways, but I’ve finally figured out a system that works well for me. It’s similar to your plan (thanks for sharing!) and I wrote about it here:

    http://nurturemama.blogspot.com/2009/05/about-menu-planning.html

    My next goal is to finish my master price list!

    Kristi´s last blog post…Prepared Mama: Food Packs for 72-hr Kits

  10. I have been menu planning for a few years and I can’t tell you how much time and money it has saved me. I only plan a week at a time cause that works best for us, but no more staring in the fridge at 5 panicking because the hubby is coming home and we have nothing thawed. And no more last minute runs to the grocery store for shredded cheese. Seriously, this is a must in our house for sanity sake alone.

  11. I do menu planning, but I appreciate your tips and the extra resources for fine-tuning. Looks like I could be more efficient at it. So far, I haven’t really felt the “wind at my back” with menu planning like others do.

    Stacie @ newmommyhelp.net´s last blog post…4 Links To Simplify Your Life

  12. We rotate through certain “days” as well: soup day, pasta day, salad day. I used to write everything up and plan it all out. Now, I just rotate around based on what’s in the fridge and our produce box from a local farm.

  13. I wish I was more consistent at the meal planning. The weeks I have been good about it have been so much less stressful! Right now, we are enjoying the bounty of our garden, and it’s easy to throw together a pasta with veggies or grill them with chicken, etc. I hate having to run to the store for a few things, and after reading this post, I’m motivated to be more pro-active in the planning again. Thanks!

  14. Too funny for me that you picked today to do this! I was doing this for awhile and since our summer started, I have slacked big time! What a difference it makes when you have a plan! Well my blogger friend Marci talked me into starting it again so I have already done it for this week. I will be linking up with Org Junkie today! The biggest thing I learned with having a large family, is that we need to know that the plan may not always be exact. The night may change in an instant and may need one of the eaiser or quicker meals that night or vice versa. It really helps to keep that in mind! :)

  15. Great tips! I do menu planning but, I think I make it more complicated than it needs to be. I really like your idea of repeating menus every couple of weeks. I don’t do that. I like variety so I tend to shy away from that but, it would save me a ton of work if I did it that way. I’m always poring through my cookbooks and magazines looking for something new to cook…frankly, it’s exausting. Your ideas will help make it a little easier for me.
    P.S. I love your blog. I find many of your posts to be extrememly helpful!!!! Keep up the good work!

  16. Menu plans are a must in my home, and I usually have at least the beginnings of four weeks at a time on my fridge so that I can add to them as inspiration hits or I come across an interesting recipe. I start out by deciding on my proteins: local beef x1/wk; fish x2/wk; legumes x2/wk; local eggsx1/wk; meatless x1/wk. A couple times/mos I’ll swap fish, say, for tofu or another meat my family likes. This helps me greatly. I’d like to add, for all those other moms who, like me, have very poor access to farmer’s markets, that it is ok to do the best with what we have. We simply need to be faithful with OUR finances and OUR circumstances and trust that it’ll all work out.

  17. I love the idea of a master grocery list. I spotted one at my neighbor’s house on her refrigerator – just check off when you run out of something. That would help me with the basics we always need.
    I use a piece of notebook paper folded lengthwise. On one side, I write the meal idea, using meat and vegetables from our CSA. On the other, the ingredients I need. I shop with the list, jotting down brand names I want to research and prices as I go. At home, I put the meal list in my binder of recipes so I remember what I was supposed to be cooking with all those ingredients!

  18. I enjoy planning the menu. If you know what your family likes to eat, you can really make them happy. Of course you can put your favorites in the mix too! I have noticed that the more I make a menu the faster it gets! Thanks for all the great tips.

    carrie´s last blog post…Hard Times call for creative measures

  19. I used to think people that planned food for a week were crazy – how could you decide on Sunday what you would want to eat on Thursday? Now that I’m a mom and trying to stick to a budget… I LOVE HAVING PLANNED MEALS. My tips:
    1. Keep a list of your GO TO meals, so you don’t have to dig through cookbooks. When you try a new recipe you like, add it to the list. I keep mine on the inside door of my cookbook cupboard, but it could also be in your home management notebook. I also sort my list by meal type (soups, pastas, grill, etc) because that’s how we eat.
    2. Check the grocery ads! A lot of my meal decisions are based on what proteins are on sale or in the freezer (becuase I buy double on sale), and what produce is in season.
    3. Depending on our schedule for the week, I usually grocery shop for 4-5 meals to get through Thursday and then wing it on the weekends. And “Breakfast” or “Leftovers” is a valid planned meal in my book. =)

    I just keep my meal list on a post-it on the fridge, and I find I’m more likely to stick to the plan if I pull out and attach the recipes to the list.

  20. I have made menu plans weekly for years. Were to you get a free blog to post the menus on? I have never blogged before.

    • Hi Paula,

      You can go to Blogger.com or wordpress.com. The way I got started was googling free blogging. There are many out there! Hope that helps! :)

  21. Though I typically enjoy menu planning, some days I don’t have time, or just don’t have the energy or motivation. I recently stumbled across http://www.plantoeat.com. You MUST check this out! You can easily upload recipes, plan menus, create organized shopping, AND SHARE RECIPES with friends and family. I LOVE this site!

    Tamara´s last blog post…Evidence-based Practice

  22. I’ve been menu planning for years, and I LOVE it. I don’t know how people don’t menu plan. I don’t always eat exactly what I planned, on on what day I planned it, but having the food there for specific meals helps me so much. Now I base my menu plans on what is on sale, and that helps me save beaucoup bucks.

    I like the certain meals, certain days system too, although I don’t employ it.

    I guest-posted here about how I menu plan “the cheap way.”

    Jessie

    Vanderbilt Wife´s last blog post…Guest Posting at OhAmanda

  23. avatar
    Caroline says:

    Thanks for the excellent reminders and advice on this! I used to be so good at meal planning and I did make my own shopping list master sheet on Excel (as you did with the aisles!) and it worked so well. Once our son was born with his food allergies and Eczema, my hands were just way too full to much more than necessary on a day-to-day basis! Now that he has been taking Vidazorb probiotics and really become so much better….I have started to think about this again! Not only is is efficienet, but it is a lot more fun too with him being able to enjoy the same foods as the rest of the family! My kids and I actually enjoy our weekly shopping and LOVE going to the farmers market :) We even bought a huge upright freezer at a garage sale and plan on stocking up to save money! Thanks for the wonderful ideas! smilinggreenmom

  24. Thanks so much Tsh for mentioning Menu Plan Monday! This is such a great and informative post!

    I’ve been menu planning for the past three years and I can honestly say that it has been a lifesaver for me. That is why I am so passionate about it. I know saying menu planning changed my life sounds a little dramatic but it really did and I just really want to share that message with others.

    There is so much flexibility in menu planning and the amount of time and head space I save is incredible, not to mention $$. To those who may have never given it a try and are having trouble coming up with a menu on your own, just come on over and steal one from the many listed each Monday. It’s a great way to get started! :)

    All the best,
    Laura (hostess of Menu Plan Monday each week)

    Org Junkie´s last blog post…Menu Plan Monday ~ July 13th

  25. Thanks for such GREAT ideas. I linked my post today to your’s!
    Thanks!

    Netta´s last blog post…Great Ideas

  26. Something I do that is probably common sense for other, wiser moms, is to use my leftovers consciously. If I’m making roast chicken, I’ll make sure another recipe that week uses chicken (like a soup, some wraps, etc.). If I plan HOW to use the leftovers I’m less likely to waste them.

    Lindsey´s last blog post…You Spin Me Right Round

  27. I think I’m going to borrow the master grocery list, that’s a great idea! Also posting my meal plan on my blog. I normally just do recipes but having my meal plan would be a great way for me to keep track of past weeks meals since now I just write them on a sheet of paper each week! :)

  28. Thanks for the extra tips. I try to make a menu for every two weeks. It just works better for me. My thing is coming up with new meals when you feel like you have eaten everything there is to eat. Since I have found Menu plan Monday I have been gleaning different menus from other families. I love variety and this has helped a lot.

    Rana´s last blog post…Menu Plan Monday

  29. I create a monthly menu at the end of every month. It does get easier and is very helpful in shopping. I post on my blog under Tuesday Tastes the Tuesday before the end of the month.
    Thanks for your informative post!

  30. With month long menu plans, I was able to shave about $200 a month off of our grocery bill, plus the kids loved knowing the “theme” for each night. Then a month ago, I found out my son and I are Celiac, and have to eat gluten free foods. That has completely blown my budget, even though I’m cooking almost entirely from scratch! (those specialty flours are expensive!) I completely agree with keeping track of prices – I have a list in my home management binder so I can compare prices, since all of this is still so new to me. Now I know if an online deal is better than the store.

    Casey´s last blog post…A slower schedule

  31. Great post, I just don’t think I am organized enough to do menu planning. Though I probably should!

  32. This is so exciting! I have been hemming and hawing over putting together a menu plan and FINALLY! Thanks a bunch!

  33. thank you for this info. some great advice!

  34. I just wrote about some summer salads that I love from the Barefoot Contessa! They are colorful, fun, and healthy, using some of my favorite summer ingredients like corn and tomatoes. Since summer evenings in my home are challenging these days (with my husband in school), these salads work well, AND make great leftovers :)
    http://www.turnitupmom.com/food-and-nutrition/summer-salads-from-the-barefoot-contessa

  35. Thanks for the post. I love menu planning! It saves loads of money and stress, and it’s so easy. I wrote about why and how I do it here:

    http://newurbanhabitat.com/2009/03/18/the-art-of-meal-planning-save-money-eat-healthier-and-enjoy-cooking-again/

    This Back to Basics series is great so far!

    Abby´s last blog post…What’s the cycling capital of the world?

  36. Sadly, we’ve relegated this temporarily to http://www.e-mealz.com. However, for the small amount of money that we’re paying for a week’s plan, it saves a lot of fussing about what we should have, how to plan a healthier menu, whether we should try something new or not, and so on. To me, that’s worth the $1/week or so it costs. :) Besides, we tried some combinations that we never would have tried before and have now added some meals to our list of things to make. Useful for when there’s a meal we know someone won’t eat. Note – not getting paid for mentioning them, just satisfied for the short while we’ve used them.
    Before, we would sit down weekly, but often not plan as well as we should have and frequently gave up when a hectic week came along. Now, we are more committed to sticking to the plan.
    Thanks for a great article. This was a good reminder to us to keep on having a plan.

  37. There are also several free ways to find a weekly or monthly menu online. In Zero Cost Menu Planning I highlight several helpful web resources that don’t require anything beyond an internet connection.

  38. Awesome advice! Posted this on my blog.

  39. You have so many good tips about planning ahead. I like to make sure i have lots of staples in the fridge cooked, so its easy on myself and my family. So important to eat healthy and not eat out and waste money.
    Check out this blog.. Very similar to your planning

    http://blog.famtivity.com/family-meal-planning/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=family-meal-planning

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