When I was cooking for a family, the evening went much smoother when I had at least a bare bones plan of what we’d be eating each night for dinner. I may have planned before or after shopping but I had a plan. Starting dinner at 6pm with no plan made for some late dinners. That’s okay now when it’s just me but when I was a single mom with two young children to feed, life went smoother with a menu plan.
I think that’s the popularity of those meal delivery services. You just pick what you want (make a plan!) and everything is done for you. But you know those are more expensive than making your own plan and doing your own shopping. I understand the appeal of having only “just what you need” delivered and think they’re a better option than eating out or getting take-out, but cooking from scratch is still my preferred method.
Having a plan also let me get the girls involved. At various times I would make them each come up with one dinner idea each week, and as they got older they could help or even cook that meal. It also taught them a bit about planning a meal. What vegetable did they want to eat with that macaroni and cheese they wanted?
At various times, I planned more or planned less. Often if I did have a plan, I wouldn’t assign a particular day to a specific dinner menu. I would just have a list of dishes I was going to fix that week. I would typically list 5 meals. We almost always had pizza on Friday nights and typically would have leftovers one night. I would decide in the morning what to make that night based on what was happening, or sometimes the night before so I could defrost anything that needed defrosting. A typical list, looking back at my list from March 2013, might be:
Plan Two Weeks at Once
Some people like to plan two weeks at once and only go shopping every two weeks. I tried that for a little while but found it too constricting. I like being more spontaneous. But I’ve known people who were quite happy to have just a few plans that they would repeat, shifting slightly with the seasons.
Have a Theme for Each Day
In Feed Your Family Fast Healthy Meals on $10 a Day (affiliate link), Linda West Eckhardt categories but doesn’t plan specific dishes until she’s at the grocery store and looks at what’s good and what’s on sale. As you get to be an experience cook, this becomes easier and easier. When you’re first starting out though, it’s easier to have a plan and then go shopping I think.
- Fish or Seafood
- Chicken or Turkey
- Red Meats
- Eggs or Cheese
- Comfort Food
- Fish and Meatless
But having some kind of a template makes it much easier than starting with a blank slate. And I always liked to leave one night as “new recipe” night because that’s how I roll.
The other advantage of having a menu plan is taking care of the leftovers! I can predict pretty readily which dinners will provide a lunch or two. Since I work from home, that’s invaluable and keeps me from picking up a quick burrito or being stuck with a boring sandwich too many times. And when my girls were here, they usually packed a lunch to school or work. It also helps me keep track of the age of leftovers so I know what needs eating or tossing.
The Food Nanny’s menu template isn’t available for download anymore but you can download this one from The Postman’s Knock, which is pictured here. She’s actually got several different ones. Make up a list of your favorite recipes for each theme you decide on if you like cooking the same things and menu planning will be even easier.
I knew people who would create several two week menu plans and reuse them. If you don’t mind eating the same things over and over, this takes all the stress out of planning. You can have seasonal menus that you re-use as well. Even when re-using menu plans, you might leave one or two days a week open and just pick new meals for those nights.
Making Menu Planning Easier with Recipe Lists
Create a list of your favorite recipe and list out the ingredients of the recipes so that writing up your grocery list will be a snap! You can also jot down the cookbook and page number of the recipe or link to an online recipe. For example:
- Chicken and Broccoli Casserole: 2 boneless skinless chicken breasts or 2 cups leftover chicken, 2 cups broccoli, 1 can cream of mushroom soup, milk, mayo, curry powder, lemon juice, bread crumbs, 1/2 cup Cheddar cheese.
- Macaroni and Cheese: 8 oz pasta, butter, flour, dry mustard, milk, 12 oz Cheddar cheese, bread crumbs, paprika
Then instead of having to look up your recipes to see what you need, you can just scan your list of favorites, decide what you’re going to make in the upcoming week(s) and add what you need to your grocery list without having to go online or pull out any cookbooks.
Of course, these days there are apps that will do that for you! I know several people that like Pepperplate. I like to use Eat Your Books to find recipes in cookbooks I own because I can search across different cookbooks. Despite (or because of?) keeping this blog for so many years, I really enjoy trying new recipes and Eat Your Books lets me find things based on ingredients.
Organize Your Favorite Recipes in a Binder
Yes, you can always go online and find most anything–until you can’t! Suddenly your favorite recipe for something is gone! The site got hacked or the author quit writing and took the blog down or the company put the recipes behind a firewall so you have to pay to access them now. When I redesigned the site and moved everything over to WordPress, a lot of recipes didn’t make the move. Suddenly I was getting emails from people who went looking for something and couldn’t find it!
Print your favorites off and keep hard copies in a binder, with or without sheet protectors. Make notes on what you did different or who in your family liked it or didn’t.
Keep Track of What You’ve Cooked
I started the blog to keep track of what I cooked because I would forget. Now I also have a little notebook I keep in the kitchen and I write down what I actually made.
I am also a big fan of making notes in cookbooks. I note the date the first time I made a dish, who I made it for if there was company, and what I thought of it. If I made any changes to the recipe, I note that down too.1