Meal Planning Basics
Menu planning is essential if you’re on a budget and it’s amazing how much you can save just by using coupons. But first, you need to plan your meals, and whether you create a weekly or monthly menu, you’ll need some help getting started. I’ve compiled a list of things you’ll need, the steps to create a menu, and tips to help ease the process.
THINGS YOU’LL NEED:
• Pen and Paper
• 3 Ring Binder
• Tab Dividers (optional)
• Protective Plastic Sheets (optional)
1. Take out a 3-ring binder and some loose-leaf paper.
2. Label different sheets of paper with the following:
• Master Menu
• Master Weekly Plan. For this one, write down the days of the week, leaving three lines for each day.
• One page for each day of the week.
3. Create a list of main dishes that you and your family enjoy on the Master Menu page you made. Do this quickly and without thinking, there will be time to edit and add on to the list later.
4. Review your list. Is there anything on it that will take longer than 30 minutes of prep (not including cooking time)? Place a star by these items and reserve them for days when you have extra time, such as the weekend or special occasions.
Look over the remaining items; can any of them be classified into certain categories such as: Casseroles, Mexican or Sandwiches? Make notes by each one that can fit into topics.
5. Determine the day you ordinarily go grocery shopping. Mark (on your Master Weekly Plan) the day before as “Leftovers.” For example, if you typically go grocery shopping on Tuesday, make Monday leftover night.
6. Figure out whether you have a day in the week that is particularly busy. Mark this day as “Quick Meal.” For example, if you run errands on Thursday, mark Thursday as “Quick Meals.”
7. Fill in any remaining days with “Soup and Sandwich Night,” “Family Favorites Night,” or even “Cheese Night.” Whatever strikes your fancy until you have all the days filled in with a designated category.
8. Grab yet another piece of paper. This will be your Current Menu.
9. Write down the days of the week until and including “Leftovers.” For example, if “Leftovers” is on Thursday, and today is Monday, write down Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday. Leave two lines for each day.
10. Place “Leftovers” on the appropriate day.
11. Determine what you have in the house and work from that, your Master Menu, and your Master Weekly Menu Plan to fill in the main dishes from now until leftover night. Make sure you have matching side dishes, if necessary, as well.
12. Take out of the freezer whatever needs to be thawed for tonight’s dinner. Be sure to include whatever side dishes you may want.
13. Create the menus for the following week in the same manner EXCEPT, you can decide what you want to make without worrying about what is already in the house (unless you want to, for example you want to get rid of that Mac & Cheese you bought a lot of because it was on sale).
14. Cull your weekly grocery list from your current weekly plan.
15. Repeat and continue updating and working with your Master Menu and Master Weekly Plan.
• If there are fewer than six items at the end of step 2, you may have to return to step 1 and re-brainstorm until you have at least six items, lest you don’t have enough for an entire week.
• Making the day before you go grocery shopping leftover night is a great way to clean out the fridge.
• Leftover night does not have to be a drag. Make it an event the family can look forward to by letting them know they can have their favorite dishes from the previous week.
Depending on how many people you have in your family, a single family favorites night can be tricky. I have found that marking their initials or color-coding your Master Menu with meals each family member enjoys to be helpful. This way you can rotate favorites on a regular basis.
• “Quick Meals” are anything from frozen dinners to sandwiches to a trip to a fast food place. This differs from the panicked rush to McDonalds, Burger King, et al. in that you have planned for the trip and you can ask the kids what they want before you leave the house. Make sure they know that once you walk out the door, there will be no mind-changing on what they want.
• On the other hand, if your family is small enough (for example, 2 adults and 2 children), give a night to your spouse and another for both of the children. One child gets even-numbered family nights and the other gets odd-numbered family nights.
• Alternatively, listen throughout the week for what your family is craving, place this dish on your Master Menu and plan to have the meal on an appropriate day. Be sure to pencil in the date it was served so you can keep track in case you need to ask what someone wants.
• Review your current menu as you create any night’s dinner and pull out what you’ll need for the next day. For example, if today is Tuesday and you’ll need chicken for Wednesday, take that out to thaw as well as any side dishes (such as potatoes for mashed potatoes) while making tonight’s dinner.
• Later you may wish to add tabbed dividers for each day of the week as well as placing any recipes into plastic protectors that you can put into your binder. This will make sure your recipes are both organized and free from the dangers of grease splatters as you cook.
• Be sure to tell younger children what is available on leftover night, lest they ask for that Enchilada that was polished off on Mexican night.
• A person’s tastes change as they get older! Make sure this is represented in your Master Menu by updating it on a regular basis.
• Do not go through cookbooks at the early stages, as this will tempt you to add recipes that are either out of your budget or are more complicated than you had expected. There will be plenty of time for experimentation after you have established a regular routine.
Finally, if you think it’s too overwhelming and something that you can’t commit to, then try having meal planners made for you!