Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Why Menu Planning is Worth the Hassle

Continuing with my series on menu and meal planning:

So, why do a menu at all? Isn't it a lot of time and effort?

Because making menus saves you time and money, plus it is good for your health and your stress levels. Here's how:


When you have a list of meals you can make right at your fingertips, it saves a ton of time staring into the refrigerator with the door open. Instead, with a menu, right when you walk in the door you already know what's in there and what you can make.

Many people think cooking takes longer than eating out, but if you think about it, the average pizza delivery is 30 minutes, but there are tons of cookbooks out there with meals that take 30 minutes or less. I even have several cookbooks all dedicated to 15 minute or less meals! If you know what you are going to make and know you have all the ingredients, you can make a meal in less time than a restaurant can serve it.

No more emergency grocery store runs. Ever realize in the middle of cooking a meal that you don't have an ingredient you thought you had? Making a menu (and a shopping list from that menu) prevents this.

Less time spent shopping - when you know what you need, you can get it and get out. Having a plan means you have to spend less time going up and down every single aisle in the grocery store, and more time at other things you would rather be doing.

While making a menu does take a little extra time, you save far more than you spend. It isn't about being super organized, it's about making your life easier.


You know what one of my biggest pet peeves is? Throwing away produce that has gone bad. Ugh I hate that! I used to do it to myself a lot, and it is just like taking your money and throwing it into the compost pile. With a menu I am more likely to use up what I buy while it is still fresh.

Personally, I am not a big fan of stocking up. I know people who are, and I see why they do it, but in my case, money is scarce enough that I want it in my bank account rather being tied up into 50 cans of sale priced tuna. With a menu I buy just what I need, when I need it. On the other hand, when I do occasionally stock up, having a menu helps me use my sale items. Say chicken is on sale and I buy a family pack. I'll put chicken on the menu several times so I use it up, rather than forgetting about it until it looks like an ice age hit it.

Menu planning also curbs my impulse grocery shopping. When you have a detailed list in hand you can hit the grocery store, get exactly what you need, and get out. Oh sure, occasionally something I didn't plan on still ends up in my basket, but very rarely - and certainly a lot less than when I used to roam up and down the aisles looking for whatever "looked good."

If you have a plan, you can search for sales and/or coupons. After I have made my grocery list, I always hit the computer and look for coupons for those items and then look through store fliers for sales. Sure, you can go to the store and just buy whatever is on sale, but what about the other ingredients? For example, say you see ground Italian sausage is on sale and you have a coupon for some pasta - lasagna starts to sound good. Now what about the ricotta cheese, the tomato sauce, the spices? Do you know if you have them at home? Will you try to find a coupon or just buy them at full price? If you planned it ahead of time, you would have known what you had in the cupboard beforehand and had a chance to look for sales.

Cooking from scratch is almost always cheaper than restaurant food or processed food. Think about it... let's take an $.89 burrito. Yes, it will cost me more than $.89 to buy all the ingredients to make a burrito, however, I can make a lot more than one burrito with what I buy. My favorite tortillas are $1.25... for 30. Add together the cost of the food then divide by the number of meals you can make, and you will almost always do better by cooking at home. Personally, my budget is $125 a month. If I didn't buy cleaning supplies, pharmacy items, bags, wraps etc. also out of that budget, (which I do) my meals cost would roughly be about $1.40 per meal. When you throw in all the other stuff that I buy with grocery money that isn't actually food, I bet I am a lot closer to that $.89 number, and I eat well, really well. Tonight on the menu? Grilled bruschetta chicken, sweet corn on the cob and fennel salad. For desert? Haagen Daas ice cream. (chocolate) Take that $.89 burrito!

And that isn't all...


As I wrote in yesterday's post, I believe it is easier to plan a menu around what you already eat than to try and change your diet all at once. That doesn't mean that you can't start slipping in a few healthy meals here and there. Even just planning out your healthy snacks rather than hitting the work vending machine makes a difference. As I mentioned yesterday, on my most recent menu I tried to hit some seafood dishes because I was feeling like I wasn't eating enough fish.

The closer food is to its original state, the healthier it is. Doing a little bit of pre-planning means you can start eliminating overly processed foods that are high in sodium and fat and low in nutrition.

When we don't eat well, our bodies don't feel well. For example, if I eat too much greasy food, my face will begin to feel oily. If I don't drink enough water, I can get major headaches. Too much rich food leaves me feeling bloated. I do love to eat out and I do love me some horribly unhealthy food, but I have learned that, like everything else, it needs to be done in moderation. By making sure I eat well most of the week, I can allow myself to indulge a little now and again, without feeling bad. (Like my Haagen Daas. heh!)


Let's face it, there are very few hours in a day once you subtract time spent commuting, working, running errands and sleeping. Having a menu takes a little stress out of your day by giving you your time back. You can walk in the door, glance at your menu and put together a lovely meal to be enjoyed in the comfort of your own home. I don't know about you, but I don't find grocery shopping relaxing. I enjoy it, but I would much rather do a few, very productive trips, then do what my coworker does and go nearly every day.

It might seem counter-intuitive, but having a menu actually allows you to be spontaneous. Let's say three of my friends called me up and said they wanted to have dinner tonight. I could easily invite them to my house - I know I have chicken marinating, I have two left over salads in the fridge, and have fresh summer corn ready to go. I could plan a meal in minutes, just based on what I already have on the menu. But what happens if they would rather go out instead? No problem! I can just shift my menu items to another night.

Any time spent worrying is adding to your stress level. The reason to have a budget, ultimately, is to get your financial situation in order so you never have to worry about it. Making a menu works the same way, the goal is take away the worrying and the over thinking, and put things on automatic so you can just relax.

Photo by: seq
via flikr


psychsarah said...

Such excellent points in this post! I have been menu planning for quite a while, and I love it. Now I can't imagine going to the store without my list, and I'm out of sorts on the odd week when I didn't plan for some reason. I hope this post inspires people to give it a try!

Dawn said...

Thanks psychsarah! I am like you - I was all discombobulated last month when instead of sticking to my menus and plans, I tried to "wing it." Once you start planning meals, it is hard to go back.

Frugal Dreamer said...

I am really liking these series! I don't stock up either, I don't have the room for all that food. And like you, money is scarce. Only buy what I need! :)

Frugalchick said...

Great series! I used to stock up more, but then I moved to buying fresher, whole foods and a lot of that is perishable. So sometimes I stock up on items like pasta, but for the most part I no longer tie up my money in 50 cans of tuna either. ;)

BUT I don't have kids. If I had children and a more harried schedule (plus more mouths to feed), I might reconsider.

Kari said...

I do my menu planning a little bit different than you but I do plan. It really does make it easier. I find that meat is my biggest grocery expense so I plan off what I can get on Managers specials and go from there with the sales ads to make meal plans.

I found though that I don't say I'm eating x on Tuesday and Y on Thursday. Its when I do that, that I fall off the wagon.

So I just know what I have for meals and I chose what works for that particular day.

Kari said...

I love this series :)

Dawn said...

Frugal Dreamer - my mom likes to stock up and she has several pantries of food. It's crazy, but it works for her. Me, I like seeing my pantries lean and mean.

Frugalchick - I don't have kids either - in fact, it is just me. I agree, if I had a bigger family to feed I might be more tempted to stock up. Then again, when I was a kid my mom would stock up... and then forget what she had! Still, I think with a good plan there are great ways to save by stocking up, but like you, I have moved to fresher, seasonal produce instead.

Kari - I have done menu planning both with a day by day plan and just making a rough list of meals. There are advantages to both, but like you, I tend to like the rough list option better.

Abagale said...

I recently came accross your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I dont know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.


Dawn said...

Abagale - Welcome and thanks for stopping by and reading!

getting stuff done said...

ah the ole menu planning thing. I think this is my last hurdle. I can cook a delicious healthy cheap meal from scratch in 20 mins. But I just find the whole planning ahead thing too much. I will keep plugging away.

I am mixed about the stockpiling thing. I do buy some stuff on sale. but I do only have a smallish kitchen.