Thursday, August 6, 2009

The Who, What, Where, When and Why of Menu Planning


You! Menu planning is all about making it easier for you. I'm writing about how I menu plan and grocery shop, but really this is all about you. Take whatever you can use from this and discard the rest. For example, I readily admit that I have never had kids or had to cook for a larger family. The closest I have ever come was making a menu for a dinner party, so there may be considerations when it comes to making food for multiple people day in and day out that I won't even think about. Just like there isn't one set perfect budget for every single person, there isn't one set way to make a menu. Do what works for you and your family.


Here's what you will need to make a menu - 1 pen or pencil and 2 sheets of paper, scrap is fine.
Optionally you may also want a cookbook or two and/or access to a computer. You may also want your coupons and/or store fliers.

One sheet of paper is going to contain your menu. Personally, I really recommend writing your menu down. If you want, do it day by day. My ex and I used to do this. Having your menu by day has some advantages, specifically in that you can see in a glance what the week looks like. You can also stack the menu so that the dishes containing perishable produce are first and the ones using frozen or canned items are last. Our menus would look something like this:

Monday Dinner
Turkey Kabobs, Oven Fries (Weight Watchers, pg. 85)

Tuesday Lunch
l/o kabobs and fries

Tuesday Dinner
Out, dinner with friends
Note: thaw chicken for Wednesday!

Wednesday Lunch
Ham and Cheese wrap sandwich, apple, yogurt

Wednesday Dinner
BBQ Chicken (Grilling C/B, pg. 105)
Grilled onions, corn on the cob, boiled potatoes

...and so on. It works well, especially at pointing out times you need to plan a spare lunch or extra food for company. We also made notes about thawing food and marinating food for the following day. However, menus like this can feel constraining. It comes back to that old inner rebel not wanting to make what is on the sheet. That is why I don't make my menu that way much anymore. Now I tend to make lists of things I can make and then just cook them up whenever I want. In some ways it requires more thought, because I have to plan the night ahead if I need to thaw food out, but it still works better for me. My menu now looks more like:

Shrimp Curry (Penzy's Catalog)
Rice with Onions (Indian pg. 161)

Tuna Salad stuffed tomatoes

Grilled chicken
Lebanese potato salad (Lebanese, pg 86)
Green beans

...and so on. This gives me a little more flexibility and I can even swap out things. If I don't want the green beans one night, I can look down the menu and maybe have broccoli instead - that kind of thing. It is up to you what will work best but, however you decide to make your menu, write it down. After all, the best laid plans of mice and men often go awry... especially when they are forgotten.

The other sheet of paper is for your shopping list. Here's what I do - as I jot down a dish to make, I also jot down all the ingredients I need on my shopping list. For me, this is the big advantage to making my menu ahead of time. I can create my shopping list right then, while the recipe book is open. I can also make sure I have whatever I need - a quick look in the kitchen to see if I have enough chickpeas for the hummus recipe, for example. Personally, I like to make my grocery list on the back of an old junk mail envelope. Then I can tuck my coupons inside and I am ready to go. Because I am now on a cash system for groceries, I use the other side of the envelope to add up the price of what is in my cart.


Recipes can come from different sources. You can get them from books, online, in magazines, from friends and family, even make them up on the spot. Let me give you a couple of tips when it comes to using cookbooks...

When you are first starting out, use just one or two cookbooks for your entire menu. When I started making menus, I cooked almost entirely from The 15 Minute Single Gourmet, sadly out of print now, but what I loved about this book was that recipes were 15 minutes from fridge to table. On top of that they were all healthy and designed to make a single serving. Ironically I usually doubled the recipe so I had leftovers for lunch the next day! Now my cookbook of choice is Mark Bittman's The Best Recipes in the World. My theory is that an abundance of choices sometimes makes it impossible to choose. Limit yourself and make it easier by flipping through just one book.

Personally, I enjoy occasionally flipping through my cookbooks over my morning coffee. I mark recipes that look good with little markers I have made by cutting sticky notes into strips. (I also have some reusable Post-It arrows that work well too.) I don't do this often, maybe once a month, if that, but I mark anything that looks good. Then when I make my menus, I can just flick to the page and know there will be something that looks tasty.


When you make your menu is up to you. My ex and I used to do it over Sunday morning breakfast. We'd pack a tote with a few cookbooks and go out to eat. Pouring over cookbooks while eating breakfast, waiters always thought we owned a restaurant! Now I like to make mine Thursday or Friday night so I can make my list to take with me to the Farmer's Market. Kari from How I Became a Fiscal Fussbudget says she makes hers at the store after seeing the manager's special on meat. When you make it is up to you - I like to do it when I can get on the computer afterward and search for coupons, but I see the advantage of waiting until you see the store deals. It is up to you.


I pretty much discussed this in depth yesterday. Why is because it will save you time and energy. The goal of a menu isn't to be a straightjacket - it's to be a map. It is to help you stress less and enjoy your evenings more! I am all about that.

Photo by: Urban Combing
via flickr


Kari said...

I just love this whole series!

My favorite from this article is jotting everything on the back of an old envelope so you can put your coupons in it.

Thanks for the mention in the article :)

psychsarah said...

Great tips! I too enjoy the envelope idea. I am also going to dig out some post-it arrows I haven't used since I finished school, and use them for this purpose.

My husband always gets a kick out of me sitting on the kitchen floor on Friday night (my cookbooks are all on a low shelf in our pantry, so it's just easier to get at eye level with them) with my pen and paper and flyers deciding what we'll eat for the week.

He also teases for me (with love of course) for the super-organized list I make. I divide it into sections (produce, cooler, meat, pantry, freezer, other) and try to list stuff in groups according to which aisle it's in (yes, I've essentially memorized my two fave grocery stores-I realize how pathetic that is). I find this doesn't take extra time to make my list this way, and it saves me tons of time at the store, because I don't go down aisles I don't need anything from, and I don't have to double back because I get everything I need in that aisle all at once. And yes, I realize I'm a geek, but I like it that way. :)

Kari said...

@psychsarah, I wish I could be that organized. I'm working on it though. I am constantly having to go back to one section or another. To make matters worse they are redesigning my two favorite stores.

Luckynuf said...

It would seem that you have come a long way in a year and a half. It makes me so proud to have known you and helped, maybe just a little. I try to get here and read... just to keep up.. and just to keep MY spirits up. If you can do this... I CAN TOO!

rubee said...

I'm going to start following this. We have been trying and falling off this menu planning thing so many times!