I get questions all the time from readers, friends and family regarding my menu planning strategies.  To some, it may seem that menu planning, grocery shopping and cooking dinner every night require tons of thought, time and effort on my part.  On the contrary, I find that planning such things ends up saving lots of time and money in the long run.  So I thought a post explaining my thoughts, tips and tricks might be a useful resource for some readers.

Why I Plan a Weekly Menu
We all have to eat everyday. It’s one of our most basic human needs.  But just because it’s a need doesn’t mean it can’t be enjoyable.  In fact, I think it absolutely should be!  I never want to fall into a rut where we make the same things over and over (and over…) because there are just so many wonderful meals to try.  As much as I love pasta, I don’t want to eat it every night of the week.  When I plan our menus I make sure there is variety, with different types of meals throughout the week.  If we have a high fat meal one night, I try to counterbalance with lighter meals the rest of the week.  I aim to incorporate a variety of proteins as well as vegetarian meals into the rotation to keep things interesting.

Cooking at home is both more economical and healthier than eating foods from restaurants (or frozen or processed foods.) I feel so much better making all our food and knowing exactly how it was prepared.  In addition to planning main dishes, I plan all our side dishes too.  It helps ensure that we are eating the right amount of fruits and vegetables, and keeps every meal well rounded.  This is for the health of myself and my family.  As for the cost factor, I can feed our family of three (including a lot of baking for others) on $80-120/week for breakfast, lunch and dinner.  Pretty good deal, if you ask me.  Not to mention, if you already spent the money on groceries, you’ll be far less likely to head out to a restaurant.

My free time often feels nonexistent, so it is imperative that I use my time wisely.  By planning a menu, making a shopping list, doing one grocery trip per week, and knowing what meal I will be cooking each night, I save lots of time that could be wasted running to the store for little trips or standing in front of the refrigerator wondering what to make each night.

The Process - Planning the Menu
Now that you know why I plan a menu, here are the things I take into consideration when planning.  (I realize it seems I spend a ridiculous amount of time thinking about food but after all, I’m a food blogger.  It’s what I do.)

What sounds good? Always the first thing I think about.  Anything I’ve been craving, it goes on the menu.
How busy is the week? Some weeks are busier than others, and that definitely needs to be taken into consideration.  If I have a lot of other commitments, there is no way I’m spending more than 30 minutes on dinner (but I still make it – just plan simple meals!)
What ingredients do I have around? I’ve found anytime I focus on using items I already have on hand, our grocery bill is significantly lower.
Keep it balanced. If the thing I was craving was a hamburger, I’m not going to plan the rest of the week with meatloaf, spaghetti and meatballs, etc.
Round it out. Plan side dishes to go with all the main dishes to balance each meal.  If you are making macaroni and cheese, don’t plan other starchy sides like potatoes or bread – eat your veggies!
Sales or coupons? It’s not usually a big priority for me, but occasionally I do look at our store’s weekly ad to see if they have any great deals I should incorporate into my menu, or even items I want to stock up on for later.

Make a List
Once the menu is planned, I make a shopping list.  I gather together all the resources I need including cookbooks, magazines and my laptop.  I look at every single recipe that I plan to make during the week and write down all the ingredients I’ll need.  Even if it is a recipe I’ve made a million times, I still look at it because it’s inevitable I will forget something if I don’t.

While I’m making the list, there’s always a few items where I think, “Maybe we have enough…” but I’m not totally sure.  I write those in the upper right corner of my shopping list.  Once the list is complete, I go to the kitchen for a quick inventory check to see if I actually do have those items or if I need to buy them.  It definitely helps to keep from buying something you already have a ton of (except in my case for oatmeal, which I continue to buy in mass quantities.)

I’ve been buying the majority of our meat and poultry products from our local butcher.  If I plan to buy anything there, I call ahead and place the order so we can just stop by and pick it up on the way home from the grocery if need be.

Now, I shop!  One crucial thing for me is to cross off each item as I buy it otherwise I will always, always forget something.  The list needs to be totally scratched out by the end of the shopping trip.

The Kitchen is Stocked
Once all the groceries are home, I do a quick check of expiration dates in case any meat, poultry, etc. needs to be frozen before the date I’m planning to use it.

Obviously it isn’t a requirement, but having a place to display the menu definitely comes in handy.  Ben can just look at the board whenever he wants to know what is for dinner.  I’m sure this would also be helpful with older kids who can read.

Each evening before bed or in the morning before I leave for work, I check the menu to remind myself of what I will be making for dinner and to move any necessary items from the freezer to the refrigerator to thaw during the day.  If I do have some free time in the evening, I may do a bit of prep for the next night’s meal chopping vegetables, making a sauce, etc. so that there is less to do when I get home.  This is especially helpful when I have planned a more labor intensive meal for a weeknight (like my favorite enchiladas).  I can still have whatever yummy food I want, but the work is split between two nights.

That’s it!  Maybe it seems crazy, but the organization makes everything so much easier.   Hopefully this is useful to some of you!