To be honest, I started menu planning about 10 years ago, when I realized that I would be crazy not to make a plan ahead of the week with husband, and jobs, and kids, and limited money or patience to go out to the store every night after work before I got home. I would rack my brain, on what to do that night. Thinking back now, I realize how crazy that was. Not only did I spend more, I wasted a ton of food in leftovers going bad, using condiments for one meal and never see them used again. I was getting crazed after work and when I’d finally unpacked, I would start dinner for the kids, our dinner would be eaten later all the time- sometimes at 9 or 10. I was younger then, and had less kids, so my body could handle it I guess. Now I just can’t imagine being bothered to do that. One meal is so much easier on all of us, except my very picky eater, and if we can’t do one meal, atleast by planning ahead, the adult meal isn’t so late that we sleep through it.
Now that my kids are getting older, activities seem to interrupt this small family pleasure. If we do have to eat separately, or at very different times say due to a gymnastics or dance class that falls at 5-7pm… dinner for the kids is basically peanut butter sandwiches! No biggie. My goal is realistic. I want to know what I will COOK ahead of time. If things interrupt this, there will always be cereal or peanut butter sandwiches. I just won’t cook twice. “This is not a restaurant,” crosses my lips these days, and I love saying it. I know I sound like a granny, but I used to do exactly this: Cook twice. Never again.
I started my whole process by trying an online helping system called SavingDinner.com, with Leanne Ely. She is a maven of nutritional advice, but more importantly for me, she offered a set list of great meals, and a grocery list that coincided with the set meals. This is way more common now, but when I started this meal-planning, she was my savior. Back then there was a portion option to make 4 or 6 servings, and the meals could be adapted for Kosher or vegetarian needs. Now, there are tons of options to plan 2, 4, or 6 servings, Paleo, Low Carb, freezer meals, or generally heart healthy and frugal meals. Each week there is one crock meal (holla!), and the meat is varied. If you find yourself cooking chicken, chicken, and more chicken, this offers you a plan on varied meat choices and fish or vegetarian. I really like how it keeps you from being in a food rut, and the plan allows for a lot of flexibility. All the recipes that you purchase are yours to keep if you download and save them to a file on your computer (or print and put in a binder, like I do).
My husband used to wince at some of the meal ideas from the plans, but they always turned out really good. I can think of one exception, and as it turns out, I had purchased frozen fish to make a meal and he really dislikes frozen fish- it had nothing to do with the recipe. If you really don’t like a recipe, just adapt it by subbing in one of your old standards. For a given week of 7 days, you get 6 dinners. My plan now, offers ideas for lunches and breakfasts too.
If I don’t use the plan with SavingDinner, it’s usually due to budget. Although no matter what plan I follow, if I meal plan at all, I will save money as there is less waste. But often times, I am facing a tight budget, so when I do planning on my own, I will focus on price. I do a big shop based on best deals, coupons, or meat deals. I make a list of things I need on a full sheet of paper. On the right side I make a column of meals to make with what I buy. I start the list of meals at home, but sometimes as I find good deals in the store, I will add items that just can’t be passed up, and put them on the meals planned for the week. I post this list to the fridge after my shop so that I remember the meals that I am prepared to make and want to make in the coming days ahead. I cross off meals that I have made, to keep track of my food inventory used up.
These are my two go-to ways to meal plan. I definitely still sometimes will find a great recipe and buy ingredients for just that one meal if the time and money are available, but the bulk of my time I follow one of the two plans above.