Alright, let’s get down to the nuts and bolts of this thing shall we? This is a big post. Grab a diet Dr. P and get comfy. 😉
When I started menu planning a couple of years ago, I did it weekly because I thought it was too daunting to do a monthly plan. The only problem with that was that there were weekends when I would be lazy and not take the time to plan and then scramble and make it up all week. And I wasn’t really aware of what we had in the cabinet or freezer to actually make meals happen so each week I had to dig around in the freezer and my black hole of a pantry to find meal options. Basically, we ate out far too much. Less than before menu plans, but still more than I like.
So I got fed up and I got motivated and decided to try knocking out a monthly plan and it worked beautifully!
Here’s what you’ll need:
- A Calendar (I use a dry erase calendar that sticks to my refrigerator)
- A Freezer Inventory (Don’t worry, I’ve got you covered.)
- Pen, dry erase marker, pencil – your choice
Optional supplies that I find to be helpful:
- Cookbooks – I collect ’em and I’ll share with you some of my favorite basic cookbooks in an upcoming post.
- A list of your family’s favorite meals (including your favorite take out/drive through stuff!). Hubby and I sat down together to make this list. It was really eye opening! I had no idea he loved my mother’s spaghetti recipe as much as he does. 🙂
So what do I do when I finally sit down to menu plan? Well let’s take a look at last month’s plan and I’ll run you through it. I tried to make the picture as big as I could, but Blogger was being difficult. Bear with me. 🙂
First, (See #1 in the picture) I look at the calendar and pencil in whatever events we might have that will take us away from home during dinner OR days when we have events that will keep us too busy to cook a complicated meal.
Next, I check my freezer inventory to see what we have on hand in the way of proteins, frozen veggies and freezer meals. Let’s face it. Even in the nicest of freezers things get lost. We’ve all had the steak Popsicle at the back of the freezer right? That’s why I keep an inventory of what’s in there, and check it weekly to make sure things get used in a timely manner. We’ll go over this more on Friday.
Then, I scan my pantry and cabinets to see what we have on hand for sides. I want to tell you that I have a pretty pantry inventory as well – but, I don’t. Generally, I can see what we have and I’m in there daily so I have a running tally of what we have and what we need to restock before we run out. The pantry at the new house is even nicer – a gigantic closet that’s open and airy. I can’t wait to share with you what I’m going to do with it! So stinkin’ excited – but I digress. 😉
Once I’m done taking a quick inventory, I take a look at my favorite meals list and fill a few in on my calendar (the #2’s you see in the picture). These are great when you’re first starting out – especially if you’re not a fluent home cook yet. Think of it this way – if you have 15 favorite meals (even ask the kids!) on your list, that’s half a month’s worth of easy meals you know everyone likes! By now, I have a pretty good arsenal of recipes in my noggin (those nights in the picture where you don’t see a blue dot? Yep, that’s just a go to meal at our house, I don’t even have to think about it anymore) so I don’t rely on the list as much as I did before, but let me tell you – when I’m stumped for a meal – it rescues me every time. Here are a few of our favorites:
- Homemade Taco night
- Homemade Pizza night
- Mom’s Spaghetti (my mother’s top secret recipe)
- Tuna Noodle Casserole (Hubby loves it)
- Breakfast for dinner (also incredibly easy and quick)
- Ham and Potato Soup from our holiday leftovers
Then I add in meals I want to try or that we’ve liked from some of my favorite cookbooks – or a new one, the collection is always growing. (#3)
And lastly, I fill in spaces with meals I can cook quickly, say breakfast for dinner OR slow cooker meals (#4 for both of those) that I don’t have to babysit on days when we’re busy.
I also add in nights for take out/dine out (#5) and I try to schedule big meals back to back and then have a leftovers night so things are consumed before they go bad. There are quite a few “leftovers/yoyo” (you’re on your own) nights. By actually putting on the calendar, we eat them and don’t waste nearly as much food. I used to feel bad about it. You know, “But I’m not cooking him a big meal!” Now I see it as a night that neither of us has to cook and we’re still not running to Burger King. Love it.
You can see that in April we did a lot of take out. At that point I was happy with one night a week being “treat night” and grabbing something through the drive through or ordering out. I’m trying to scale that back even further in May – I only have one “night out” aside from the wedding we’re attending – and that’s the night we close on our house. I figure we deserve a celebration.
I really dislike menu planners who say you shouldn’t ever eat out or grab a meal at McDonald’s. Occasionally is OK, nightly is not. “Never” leads to temptation, then giving in, then binge eating all the bad stuff you denied yourself once in awhile. Just my two cents. Also, I really love Taco Bell on occasion. Yep, I know how bad it is for me. Nope, don’t care. I love you for trying to convince me not to though. Y’all got my back. 😉
A couple of extra notes:
- You’ll see on my calendar that I have a lot of days where I say “and veggie” or “and sides”. I honestly don’t sweat the sides most nights. I look at them as interchangeable. We always have frozen veggies on hand, some I’ve flash frozen myself, and some I’ve picked up at the store. Generally, I grab whatever I feel like that night. Same goes for other sides like rice, potatoes, cous cous, Stove Top, mac n’ cheese, etc.
- While I plan a month out, nothing is set in stone. Sometimes I forget to take out the chicken or something doesn’t thaw in time for dinner, or we get an impromptu dinner invite. Life happens. When life happens I look ahead in the week and pick something else to make that’s easier or won’t require thawing. Heck, sometimes I just don’t feel like making whatever I had planned. Again, I just pick something else from the calendar and switch it around. It’s about having a plan – not about being so married to it that it becomes boring. No stress.
- Adam cooks. Actually, Adam loves to cook and I let him. Sometimes he wants to try new things that month and he’ll run it by me to make sure we have the ingredients and then it goes on the menu. Sometimes he surprises me by cooking a romantic dinner. I’m a lucky girl. Bottom line: The menu is not just my responsibility. We work on it together.
- You’ll notice I haven’t once mentioned that I menu plan based on what’s on sale that week at the store. That’s because I don’t. I buy things in multiples as they come on sale and I have coupons. I stockpile pantry staples and non-perishables. I buy meat when it’s on sale at 50% off or when I can get my target price and vacuum pack it with my Foodsaver when I get home so it lasts longer. The result of this type of shopping is that I spend half (yes, half) off retail most of the time and we always have food on hand. I menu plan based on what we have the day I am planning the menu and I don’t rely on sales. I do, however, shop for the fresh foods we’ll need that I can’t stockpile (fresh veggies, milk, etc) once a week along with anything that I can get a really good deal on by combining sales with coupons.
Right now, even though I’ve planned a month out, I have food for much longer than that. And no, it’s not all crap ramen and Gatorade. I’m an extreme couponer, but I’m not so extreme that I’ll buy crap junk food. Once you build a decent pantry (we’ll cover this coming up next Monday), and have a freezer full you can plan much farther in advance. Until then, if you’re more comfortable, try planning a week out or maybe two. Build up to planning a month at a time. I did.
Well there it is in a nutshell (OK a really big nutshell). I’ve gotten pretty good at it and it only takes about 30 minutes to an hour to fill out the menu for the month. One hour for the month. Think you can handle it? I know you can! Leave me a comment below telling me if you already menu plan or if you’re willing to try it. And if you have any questions, please ask. I am really passionate about this and I’d love to hear from you!