Friday, 12 April 2013

Menu planning, the final installment, the "meat" of the matter

I plan our weekly menus and usually stick to them.  This is how I do it, this is what works for me.  There are many ways to go about this task and perhaps you will follow this method or perhaps you will take an idea or two away and create your own method.  I would love your feedback in the comments section.

This helps keep my food budget reasonable by avoiding frequent visits to the grocery store where I always pick up more than I went in for and make impulse buys. 

Menu planning helps tremendously with my stress level as well.  There's no opening of the fridge at 4 or 5 pm and wondering "what's for supper?".  There's also no stopping at the grocery store when everyone else is in the same mild, daily panic mode.

I don't plan breakfasts or lunches ahead of time, I just keep things in the pantry that we like.

For breakfast, we rotate a few choices: waffles, pancakes, crêpes, eggs, bacon, toast, cinnamon roll pancake squares, French toast, hot cereal and (as a treat) cold cereal.  Before I go to bed, I check out what we have and pretty much know when I wake up what we're going to eat for breakfast.  Sometimes, if I'm feeling really ambitious, I even prep it before I go to bed (coffee pot ready to be turned on, dry ingredients and wet ingredients measured out but not mixed together for waffles, for example).  We all get up and eat at the same time, that's just our way of doing things.  This may not work for you.  Perhaps for breakfast you'll be the only one up and will reach for something you have made ahead and frozen as you are walking out the door.  Good options for this may include a muffin and Thermos of milk, a breakfast burrito, breakfast cookie with a small yogurt, overnight oats or hot cereal in a Thermos with a piece of fruit.

Lunches for the take-away people (those who leave the house for work or school) are typically a leftover of last night or the night before as the main course.  As fillers, I fill tiny mason jars (1/2 cup size) at the beginning of the week and just pull them out of the fridge all week long so making the lunches is not too tedious for me.  Some common fillers are yogurt with fruit and grains or seeds, trail mixes or nuts and dates, custard or pudding.  I try to always add a couple pieces of fresh fruit or a carrot and some kind of treat, like a cookie or piece of cake or something like that.  My Man also has PB and jam in his lunches on Monday that he leaves at work and all week long I add two pieces of bread to his lunch every day for a sandwich.  On the weekends or for the stay-at-home people, lunch is usually my fave combo of soup and sandwiches.  Whatever is on-hand.

Supper is the meal I plan ahead of time and shop for.  Here goes everything.

So, it's Thursday night and the wees are in bed, the Big Kid is at the pool and your Man is playing a racing game on his iPad... it's quiet!  What do you do?  You meal plan!  YAY!  (This will be long the first time and each time after that it gets super easy and fast, trust me, please.)

Take out a sheet of paper and jot down all your family's favourite suppers.  All of the meals you love, like and eat anyway.  Include the fall-back meals, we're being realistic here.  If you have a picky eater, start a new list in the top right corner of your page listing the things your picky eater will eat and that you will want to have on-hand.

This is the book I use for all my meal planning...


Open it up and my scribbler is there with pens and pencil along with a small folder for the tried and true recipes.

Here is a glimpse of the tried and true recipes, I don't clip many.

Now, outside the margin on the left of your list, use an initial to identify the protein source.  Being from a meat 'n potatoes family, the meals are usually based on the meat so identify what meat each meal is.  For example, if you wrote "tacos " you would initial that with a "B" for beef or "F" for fish.  If you were making vegetarian tacos, you would use a "V".  Meatless meals thrown in there are usually good budget-stretchers and tend to be a healthier choice, so we'll go ahead and add one meatless meal a week into the plan.
B = beef
C = chicken
P = pork
F = fish
V = meatless
I also use "S" for soup meals and "I" to indicate it's a pasta meal on top of identifying the protein source.

Here is my long list of meals to choose from to create weekly menus. 
Note the protein indicated to the immediate left of the list.

On a new piece of paper, I create a protein pattern / meal pattern for the week. 
Monday is Beef
Tuesday is leftover or meatless (leftover from Sunday's big meal)
Wednesday is Pork
Thursday is Beef
Friday is Chicken
Saturday is a Fun / or Yummy or indulgent meal
Sunday is a big meal, hoping to have leftovers

You may choose themes for your suppers instead (Chinese, Italian, Mexican, Burgers and fries...).  For some families, they know Friday night is taco night or pizza night!

See the list of meals in the body of the page, the day of the week immediately to the left of that
with the day of the week a bit further to the left again.

I try to cook double batches to freeze some, but honestly, with this many mouths for each meal and then wanting to keep one or two lunch size servings for the next day, I rarely actually get that second batch in the freezer.  You may have better luck with this strategy if your family is smaller.  I do have a sauce day as often as I can and get lots into the freezer with that.

So, you have a long list of meals to choose from with the protein source on the left and you have some kind of pattern that will work for you.  Take a third piece of paper and this is your weekly menu for the coming week.  Quickly jot down the pattern you've chosen to follow then peruse your long list of meals you enjoy and fill in the blanks.  Voilà, one week done.  Go ahead and plan a second week.  A third, and before you know it, you have an idea of what the month might look like.  But, woah, let's stick to one week at a time for now.

Take a look at what you have in your house already ("shop your pantry first") then figure out what you need to buy.  You may want to factor in a second grocery run halfway through the week to replenish your fruit, vegetables and, if you're like us, the usual staples of milk, eggs and bread.

Tomorrow morning, with the kids in daycare for two hours, a full belly and list in hand (maybe even organized according to the layout of your favourite store) you breeze through the store picking up all that you need for one week's menus.  Go home and divvy up the meat for the week's meals, freeze most of it for later on in the week.  If you have time, cut up a bunch of veggies in containers in the fridge to pull from to make meal prep easier.

Another angle to take on this is to start with the weekly flyers and create your menu based on what's on sale. 

Another take on this is to strictly buy ingredients when you shop and not prepared or convenience food.  Have a hankering for Thai?  Make it!

Once you get good at this, there's Once A Month Cooking!  That sure looks pretty but, boy, it's a big commitment that first weekend of every month.  I do see how it would be beneficial for the people who arrive home at 5:30 on weeknights and bedtime is at 7, this would eat up valuable weekend time though.  I guess Once A Week cooking mightn't be overly ambitious.  A nice start is double-batch or big-batch cooking to cook once and eat twice, I fully support this concept.


  1. This is an awesome post! I have a recipe box and a list all the meals we love for just this reason but I really like how yours is sorted out in a binder. I'm going to get one today!

    1. It's organized this way so I can do my menu planning virtually anywhere. Drop a kid off at Scouts = menu plan! Get an hour in a café alone = menu plan! Long wait at the doctor's office = menu plan!