It’s late afternoon and you still have no idea what you’re making for dinner. Everything that comes to mind requires either time you don’t have or ingredients that would require a trip to the market. Sure, you have food in the fridge, and more food in the freezer, but frozen broccoli, mustard and a jar of green olives doesn’t sound like a meal. Our daughter once described the situation like this: “Mom, there’s no food in the fridge, only ingredients!”
This same daughter is also the one who suggested I explain how I do my meal planning. If this scenario sounds too familiar, maybe today’s post will help.
Being the compulsively organized person that I am, meal planning comes naturally to me. However, I realize that perhaps I’m the exception. Therefore, I’m going to make some suggestions to hopefully make life a bit easier, and perhaps save you some money as well.
First of all, you need some supplies. You need a calendar. You need the weekly market ads. And you need some way to make a list. You can do this online or with paper in hand. I prefer to use Google calendar, my favorite grocery store apps, and a handy little app called OurGroceries, but a paper calendar, the newspaper ads, and a pad of paper and pen will be fine.
You also need a little time. That may be the most difficult to come by, but I assure you that you’ll save more time in the long run by being more organized. No more last minute trips to the market. No more running out for take-out because you’ve run out of other options. Eating out is wonderful, but we try to plan for it, largely so we stay within our food budget.
There’s one more advantage of planning ahead, besides saving time and money and eliminating one source of stress. My husband may be content to eat the same food several meals in a row. (He’s mine, you can’t have him.) I’m not. I’m perfectly willing to eat leftovers, but I like to spread them out. Planning allows me to make the most of leftovers (I call them “planned-overs”) while still enjoying some variety.
So, how to begin? I made myself a dedicated Google calendar for my menus. That way I can turn it off when I don’t need to see it. Then I picked a food category for each day of the week.
You can categorize by…
- Style of cooking: oven, crockpot, saute, Instant Pot, casserole, grill, kids cook , etc.
- Cuisine: Mexican, Italian, Chinese, Indian, “ethnic,” breakfast for dinner, etc.
- Ingredients: chicken, vegan, beef, pasta, pork, eggs, fish, etc.
Or you could mix them up. When we were first married, we ate “around the world” every week. Is it a coincidence that there are seven days per week, and seven continents? (Sunday was Antarctica—usually frozen pizza, as most markets don’t carry penguin fillets.)
Here’s another plan I used for a while: meatless Monday, crockpot Tuesday, stir-fry Wednesday, soup and/or salad Thursday, fish on Friday, something new Saturday, leftovers on Sunday. The idea is simply to give myself a starting point—inspiration so I don’t end up in a rut.
Once I have my underlying plan, I check with the market ads. What’s on sale? Because we’re trying to incorporate more vegetables into our diet, I usually start there. Once I’ve picked the best buys on the food we like, I build a menu around it. Then I add the rest of what I’ll need to my shopping list.
Let me illustrate. Say that broccoli, Brussels sprouts, spaghetti squash, and lettuce are on sale. So are boneless/skinless chicken breasts and beef rump roast. I add sweet potatoes, cabbage, tilapia, pork chops, and canned pears. I already have a partly used bag of potatoes, assorted frozen vegetables, onions, carrots, and various other staples. Here’s my menu for the week:
- Meatless Monday: Spaghetti squash with a marinara sauce and lots of cheese, and a salad.
- Crockpot Tuesday: Divide the roast into 1/3 and 2/3, then dump both pieces into the crockpot with onions and some Italian herbs. The bigger part becomes pot roast, along with oven roasted potatoes, carrots, and Brussels sprouts. Save half the liquid for Thursday, make the rest into gravy.
- Stir-fry Wednesday: Stir-fry half the chicken with broccoli, carrots, part of the cabbage, and onions. Serve over brown rice (make extra for Friday).
- Soup/Salad Thursday: Shred the smaller roast. Add saved liquid, Italian seasonings, garlic, a can of diced tomatoes, onions, a package of frozen Italian veggies, macaroni, more beef broth (or use V-8), and a can of kidney beans. I’ve made minestrone.
- Fish Friday: Sautéed tilapia, frozen green beans, brown rice (from Wednesday).
- Something New Saturday: Pork chops with pear chutney (this turned out to be delicious—definitely a make-again recipe!), sweet potatoes, sautéed cabbage.
- Leftovers Sunday: Finish off the pot roast. Add a baked potato and frozen veggies.
While I have an idea of what to make each night, it’s not set in concrete. It’s perfectly permissible to swap things around if our plans change. I also keep a few things in the freezer for those nights when no one feels like cooking. (We prefer to stock up on frozen beer-battered fish sticks or some BBQ chicken saved from the last time we grilled, along with frozen veggies, but there are lots of options.) If I don’t get to every meal planned, we just move things down a day and overflow into the next week.
All this reminds me—I need to go take tomorrow’s chicken out of the freezer so it can marinate overnight.