Post image for A Basic Guide to Menu Planning

Photo by The Bitten Word

Menu planning saves hours of time, energy, money, and headaches, but it’s easy to overcomplicate the process. And when that happens, it becomes a burden instead of a blessing. So why do it at all?

My daily life can get crazy, as I’m sure it can for you. Cooking is one area that I can keep relatively under control, if I take a few basic steps to do it simply and thoughtfully. To make the job of nourishing my family enjoyable and cost-effective, I rely on menu planning.

What is menu planning?

All it really means is that you plan ahead of time what meals you’ll cook.

What are the benefits?

  • You can extract a grocery list from your menu choices.
  • Because you buy only what you need, less food is wasted.
  • You know with plenty of notice what’s for dinner – no more frantic 5 p.m. crazyness.
  • Cooking is more enjoyable, because odds are you’ll be more prepared.
  • You’ll have more variety, because you’ve planned it.
  • It’s healthier, because it cuts down on drive-thru runs.
  • It’s cheaper, too, because you’re eating out less, you can menu plan around your coupons, and you can intentionally cook with seasonal ingredients.

How far in advance should I plan my menu?

It’s really up to you and your family. Different seasons call for different types of home management, so if your current season is more hectic than usual, perhaps a simple menu planned for an entire month is ideal. If you like variety or experimenting, then maybe planning just a week at a time works well.
I recommend menu planning at least a week at a time, and not going farther in advance than a month. This way, you’ve got enough menus planned to make it worth your while, yet not so scheduled that it becomes too big a chore.

What’s the perfect, ideal way to menu plan?

Well, I don’t know the perfect way – but I know how I’m doing it right now for my family of 3.5 (one of us is six months old). I plan two weeks at a time, and repeat those weeks at least once. This way, I’ve got around a month planned at minimum. We’re pretty easy-going eaters, and don’t mind repeating a meal every other week – after all, that’s only having it twice a month, more or less.

I use Google Calendar to plan my menus – it’s streamlined with my Gmail account, so I can have it email me my day’s menu and recipes each morning.

How I use the internet to plan my menu

spinach feta cheese pizza
Photo by Naotake Murayama

1. A few days before a new month, I open up my Google Calendar. You can create different sub-calendars; I’ve got one labeled “Menu Plan.” I keep both this one and my “Events & Appointments” calendars open. This is so I know what events I need to plan around. I also set it to the monthly view.

2. In a separate tab, I open my del.icio.us cookbook (you can read more about how I created one.) From here, I select different tags based on what recipes I want to add to my menu. When I get to the right recipe, I click on the link, and copy the URL address.

3. Back in my Calendar, I click on a day, enter the name of the meal, set it on the Menu Plan, and go to “edit event details.” I paste the recipe URL in the description, in case I want to find it when I’m in my Calendar – this is helpful if I’m making several recipes for one meal.

4. Here’s an important part - under “Repeats,” I choose “Repeat every 2 weeks.” This will automatically plug in this recipe on this day, every other week, until I change it.

5. Under “Reminder,” I choose to have an e-mail reminder sent to my Gmail account three hours before dinner time is scheduled. This is because the bulk of my computer time is around 2-4 p.m., during my kids’ afternoon naps. I’m on the computer anyway – it’s a helpful reminder about the last half of my day, and what I need to do to get ready for dinner. If I’ve got a Crock Pot dinner planned, I have the email sent to me 12 hours prior, which is during my other computer time, before anyone else is up.

Because I repeat my recipes every two weeks, I only have to fill out two weeks of menus to have an entire month filled. At the end of the month, I can keep the recipes on the menu, or I can switch them out and repeat this process.

When a month is filled, I print out that calendar and put it in my Home Management Notebook. Sometimes I print an additional one and keep it near my grocery list in the kitchen.

Now, I don’t want it to sound like every single day I have an elaborate menu planned for each dinner. Far from it! We have some classic standbys that we make weekly – stir fry, homemade pizza, tacos, and spaghetti, to name a few. We keep variety alive with super-easy seasonal side dishes, like salad, sliced fruit, and basic steamed or roasted veggies.

I also only plan our dinners. Lunches are almost always leftovers, and if there aren’t any (there usually are), we do sandwiches, quesadillas, salads, or finger foods.

For breakfast, we rotate between oatmeal, cold cereal, scones or muffins with fruit, Dutch babies, pancakes, and granola.

I’ve got more to come – hacks on cooking from scratch, tips on selecting the right menus and recipes, and good online tools to do it all. But I’d love to hear from you – how do you plan your menus? Or do you? What are your stumbling blocks that make it challenging? What are tips you can share the rest of us?

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