I’ve had a few of you tell me how much you admire me for my menu planning.

Whenever I hear this, I’m usually taken aback.  I don’t really think it’s that big of a deal to plan menus for the week. I don’t feel worthy of admiration for doing it.

But, I thought I’d share with you my technique just in case you were looking for a place to get started. It’s something that has been constantly refined based on my personal style and my family’s current lifestyle. It started a lot more loosey-goosey before we had kids and has continued to gain structure over the years, especially in the past two years as we’ve tried to manage our budget more tightly and pinch pennies where we can.

I have a lot to share (more than I thought I would) so I’ve divided this into two posts. Here’s the first installment.

Check the sales at the stores

I usually start my my menu plans by checking out Southern Savers website. This is a blog/website that is dedicated to posting sales, promotions and good deals in many of the Southern grocery and drug store chains. 

There are similar sites which focus on other national chains – such as Money Saving Mom and Coupon Mom.

Anyway, I check these websites to see what is on sale for the week. My grocery of choice is Publix, so I always look to see what meats and vegetables are on sale. I try (especially post-surgery) to try to shop the perimeter of the store (meats, dairy, vegetables) and stay away from a lot of the processed foods. So, I try to capitalize on the sales whenever I can.

Check the calendar

Once I know what is on sale, I’ll jot down the things I know I want to purchase. The next step is to check the family calendar.  For example, this school year, Big Girl has a late dance class on Wednesday nights. I usually try to do something easy on that night (even leftovers) so that I’m not worrying about something being ready on time and we can eat in shifts. Usually Big Girl doesn’t eat until after class and SuperMan will eat with her. I eat earlier with Little Bit because she is often in bed by the time the other two are home.IMG_0284

I also look to see what our weekend plans are and if we have any other special activities planned. It always pains me when I forget about something and I have to either make another trip to the store, or worse, end up not cooking something as planned. (and have to toss it or, hopefully, freeze it)

This also helps me to decide if I need to make any special food purchases.  For example, we had friends over last Saturday and it was a nacho/taco themed dinner. Each family contributed different things, so I needed to be sure I purchased the items we were responsible for and I really didn’t want to make a last minute dash to the store on Saturday morning with 95% of the other people in the county who were doing their weekly shopping. I’m spoiled with shopping during the week when everyone else is at work!

Ask the troops

Based on my family’s plans for the week, the next step is to survey the family to see if there is anything they are hungry for. Some weeks, I don’t do this at all, but usually I try to ask on Sunday evenings if there are any cravings that need to be addressed.  I don’t usually get much input here, but I feel like I’ve at least given everyone the chance to have their say so there is less reason to gripe later in the week when they “get what they get and don’t pitch a fit.”

Orgjunkie.com is a great website for menu planning ideas as well.  I’ve also subscribed before to menu planning services – such as e-Mealz and Saving Dinner.com  Those were good resources, especially as I got started menu planning, to help me figure out what meals I might want to try – and to add variety to existing menu plans.

Write the plan

Finally, I write my plan.  I have used many things for this before, but what I have found works best for me is to use index cards. I use the big ones – either 5×8 or 4×6 so that I have room to write with a bold felt tip marker. This is because I’m getting old and I want to be able to read the stupid thing when it is hanging on the refrigerator and I’m in the kitchen trying to remember what I’d planned for dinner that night.

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The other advantage of using the index cards is that I save them and use them again. If I have a week where I’m feeling uninspired by my menu options, I can look back at them for ideas – or simply grab a menu plan I have used in the past and recycle it.  My hope is to one day have an old 4×6 photo album to store all my old menu plans so I can just flip through them like I do my recipe books for ideas.

Now, I know people who plan what to eat each night of the week. I don’t usually do that. Mostly because I like to leave myself open to options.  I may not want pork chops on Tuesday after all, and I like knowing I have everything in house and can cook any one of my choices as I feel like it (or as the monkeys request it).

Don’t plan for every single night

So, what I do is jot down between 4 and 6 different main courses, skipping a line or two between each one to allow me to go back and add in any particular side items I may decide to cook with them.  I don’t always decide those ahead of time, often waiting until the day I cook the main course to decide which sides I have on hand that I may want to prepare. That way, I can use up vegetables that may need cooking before they go bad in the refrigerator.

I also don’t plan all 7 days of the week. I know that my family is probably going to go out for dinner at least one night (usually no more than that) or else we go out after church on Sunday.  I also know we’ll have one night that we either do pizza (homemade) or Mexican (homemade) or will have leftovers we need to finish up. So 4 – 7 dinners usually works for me. 

I look at the meats/veggies I’ve planned to purchase from the sales and then figure out what menu items I can cook with those.  I also rummage through my bursting-at-the-seams recipe book for ideas and check some of my favorite cooking/recipe blog sites for inspiration.

I also think about what I can “cook once and eat twice” – for example, I might roast a chicken on Sunday and then use the leftovers later in the week for something else like chicken pot pies.  Or, plan to cook a pork roast for BBQ one night and use the leftover BBQ for sandwiches for lunch on Saturday.

more to come tomorrow

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