Wednesday, October 19, 2011

What's for Dinner? Menu Planning Tips

I'm hardly a menu-planning expert, but I've had a few friends and family ask me for tips, so I thought I'd put it all right here.
This is from our farmers market meal. And yes, I like my steak that rare.
Let's start at the beginning. When Mark and I first got married, we tried to menu plan. It was a huge flop. We ended up with too much food and way too much money spent.

Then last year when I started my second maternity leave I knew it would be the ticket to my sanity. I didn't want (nor had time) to spend all day figuring out what we were having for supper. I have kept it up for 14 months except for one 2 week stint which only reconfirmed that I needed to stick to it. I will never go back.

So how did I go from total flop the first time to successfully doing it the next time I attempted?

Well it was my approach. Menu planning should make your life easier and it should be cheaper. If it's not, you've got to change your approach.

The first time, I made a list of all my favourite foods and then I made a list of all the ingredients, bought them and that was our food. Except I didn't consider that all of our favourite things are expensive. Nor did I think about uses for left-overs so then we had lots of wasted food.

Now I take a different approach. First, I plan 2 weeks at a time (for me a month is overwhelming). I do a big grocery shop 2x a month and then go back just for fresh stuff on the weeks in between.

I also plan my meals BEFORE I go grocery shopping (I know that seems like a no-brainer to some, but not everyone does this).

Now this is what I do:

To start I take inventory of what is in my freezer and cupboards. Often I'll buy a big pack of meat because it's cheaper and split it up, but I only have planned two meals and it gave me four so there are 2 packs of meat buried in the bottom of my freezer (I recently started a list (ha!) of what is in my freezer so I don't lose anything in the bottom). I also take a look through my pantry and figure out if I'm almost out of basic ingredients (to save last minute trips to the store). Then I look through my fridge and see if there is something that needs to be used up.

I start with what I have and I plug in the types of meat (and I do some non-meat days too!) into the plan. I don't worry too much about recipes, this is more just to make sure that we have variety. Because as much as I like chicken, I don't want to eat it 5 days in a row.

If I know there is something fresh that can be used in a recipe, I put it into the slots right then.

I also plan a "leftover day or two." This will help me plan what types of foods to make the meat into. Casseroles yield leftovers at our house, but steaks on the BBQ do not, so if I want to have leftovers, I make sure I plan one of my meats into a casserole.

I will fill in the blanks based on what is on sale (check the flyers!).

I like to try new recipes, but I find with menu planning it's best to reuse recipes. I keep a list of the typical recipes I use. I find it's easier to plug them into the plan when I can see them in front of me and then I don't keep acquiring random ingredients that I use once and am stuck with the bottle. I had a bottle of hoisen sauce in my fridge for years that I finally chucked because I couldn't figure out what I made with it and it obviously wasn't good enough that I didn't forget.

I'll add 1-2 new meals for each 2 weeks plan just to find new things to add to the mix, but my rule is that it has to have mainly ingredients that I have on hand or use all the time. If we love the recipe I add it to the list, but otherwise it's just a one-time thing. If it was good, but more expensive, then I put it on a list for times when company comes over or nicer meals.

After I plug all my meals into my plan (I do mine right on my on-line calendar) then I go through the recipes and make sure that I have all the ingredients either in my pantry or on my grocery list. And I make sure that I have ENOUGH of each ingredient because it's nice to have potatoes in the cupboard, but if you only have 4 and you need them for 3 different meals, it's not going to help you if you don't pick some up.

You also have to be flexible with the plan. Maybe you planned to eat something one day and it ended up making way more than you planned. Throw in another left-over night to use it up (and move the meal you had planned for that day onto the next menu planning list - it saves you a day to think of). Or maybe you need a quick dinner because something came up. Swap nights around to accommodate.  Just be aware of meals that use fresh foods that you bought this week instead of next week so they don't go to waste.

I tried for a while to use a day of the week system to help me narrow down the options. So I had a day for mexican, one for italian, one for slow cooked meals, one for casseroles etc. This can be good if you can't narrow things down. I still go back to it if I'm feeling stuck.

Does this take time? Yes. But you get faster at it the more you do it. And it still takes way less time than searching for hours each day to figure out only one meal. I also like that no matter how jam-packed my day is, when I get up in the morning I have a plan and can just pull whatever I need to out of the freezer and I'm ready to go at dinner time. I love being free of the stress of what's for dinner.

Some other tips:

-I plan right in my calendar so that I know what is going on that day. On days I'm teaching I have to plan meals that either Mark can make on his own or that I can make up before I go. It's not going to work to plan a meal that takes an hour to prepare for the day you're running your kids to all their activities and are only in the house for 15 minutes.

-Sometimes you just have to pick a meal and move on as opposed to pouring through cookbooks and online. They don't all have to be gourmet.

-Ask your family for suggestions, because then you know they'll eat it.

-Until you get into the habit, when you plan your meals, mark into your calendar (a few days before the end of your current plan) to menu plan the next few weeks. That way you won't get to your first unplanned day and be stuck again. Make sure you can go grocery shopping in there too.

-If you have meals that you can make 2 of and freeze one, do it. This will save you time on a busy night. Add it to your list so you remember what is in your freezer.

-For freezer meals or meat that I've bought in bulk packs, I use freezer ziplock bags and lay them flat. Ground beef thaws much faster when it's spread out in the bag instead of a lump which is handy on days when you forget to pull something out. And it's easier to stack (or stand on it's side like a meat library), which means you can actually find things.

Do you meal plan? What are your tips?


*If you're a regular reader you'll realize that all the pictures in this post are recycled. That's because tonight's dinner was nothing spectacular. Mark and I are both sick so I made the kids KD. I wasn't going to take a picture of THAT for my blog!

1 comment:

  1. boy, you are a master list maker, lol. personally, I hate food shopping and cooking (usually) so I like to let my cupboards go bare so hubby will take me out to eat. hahaha.


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