I‘ll confess that in the midst of all our moving back to our passport country from the one where we lived for three years, and then moving again across the U.S. to the Pacific Northwest, we spent about a year where our family just winged it, food-wise. No menu planning, no giving much thought to our meals, mostly either whipping something up on the fly or going out to eat.
Stressful, eventful stages in life will do that to a family, and we’re not immune—even if I’ve written about the beauty of menu planning many times. Life just sorta happens, pretty or not, and you often knee-jerk into survival mode.
But this said, I can honestly say that looking back on that stage, life would have gone smoother had we taken the time to make a simple menu plan. I was in a cooking rut, which I used as an excuse to not menu plan—when, by golly, that’s the time more than ever to make that plan.
Nonetheless, here we are, back at menu planning, and reveling in the peace and freedom it brings. I’ve remembered how much saner dinnertime flows when we’ve made a quick plan.
So for this back to the basics installment (we’ve already talked about your bag and your beauty routine), I thought we could talk about menu planning. It might sound boring, but believe me, it’ll bring peace to your dinner. It might even toss in some zest to your cooking rut.
It doesn’t have to be complicated.
The best kind of menu planning is the simple kind, I say. Take advantage of Pinterest and the current season, and search for recipes that use your favorite seasonal and local ingredients. If it’s spring, search for asparagus. If it’s fall, search pumpkin—you get the idea.
Then, bookmark however works best for your family. Pin them, of course, and then add them to your menu plan. For a long time, I simply used Google Calendar—I just created a separate “menu” calendar, then added that evening’s fare with a link to the recipe in the description tab. I’d print out a weekly calendar, along with the accompanying recipes, and done.
I still use a similar system, except now it’s in Plan to Eat. I was honestly reluctant to try it out, simply because I didn’t want to use one. more. thing. Also, it seemed confusing… how do I add a recipe? If it doesn’t automatically import, I have to copy and paste every line? Yikes.
But then my friend Mandi reminded me about their bookmarklet tool, where I just use a button in my browser (Chrome), making it super easy to add a new recipe. Problem solved.
So I now prefer Plan to Eat because I can store all my recipes there, drag and drop onto a calendar (which can still sync to Google or iCalendar, if I want), and—I love this part—it automatically generates a shopping list based on the week’s meals. Super handy.
I still print out the weekly calendar and the accompanying menus, file them away in a binder, and just pull it out when we’re ready to cook. Both Kyle and I split the cooking 50-50 in our family, so this makes communication easy, too—just a look at our calendar, and we both know what we’re doing.
Wash, rinse, repeat.
Here’s the other thing—my family is perfectly content repeating meals. For awhile, I thought I needed to creatively whip out a new, exciting weekly plan, week after week. When really? We’re all pretty content to eat the same thing about twice per month.
This means I honestly only need to make one two-week menu plan, all season. Two weeks of meals, repeated, means eating one meal only twice in one month. I can handle that.
We leave wiggle room for eating out, trying a new recipe, or last-minute changes, of course, but sticking to a core seasonal menu means I mostly just plug-and-play our dinners. Then at the start of a new season, I start a new two-week rotation.
It doesn’t take much time.
It might take a bit of time at first to get set up, but once you have your system of choice running, menu planning doesn’t take long at all. Since I like to stay offline on Sundays, I plan for the week ahead on Saturdays. I just pull out my Plan to Eat calendar, repeat from the previous two weeks, print out my shopping list, and I’m good to go. I may plug in a new recipe for fun, but if I know our food from the previous two weeks was a hit, I don’t sweat it.
If it’s the start of a new season, I pull up Pinterest and search for new meals to try (I’m a big believer in eating locally and seasonally). We’ve also been in new-recipe-mode lately with our Whole30, and menu planning has been essential to our success there. We would have already thrown in the towel if we didn’t have a plan.
If you don’t yet—of if you’ve taken a hiatus for whatever reason—give menu planning a spin. It’ll save you money, time, and I promise, you won’t miss that 4 p.m. panic of What-am-I-going-to-make-for-dinner?
What are your favorite menu planning tricks of the trade?