Menu Planning Basics

Start with the following questions to guide your choices
·       What duration of time are you planning your menu for; a week, two weeks, a month?
·       What is your normal schedule; are there days you get home late or family members are not home?
·       How much preparation time do you have; do you need quick meals or have time to experiment?
·       Are there any special events or deviations from your normal schedule that has to be considered such as a birthday or company?
·       Are there any items you want to include because of sales, coupons, or seasonal availability?
·       Are there any dietary concerns?

Getting Started
·       Take stock of what you have on hand and plan to use it.
·       Have a pen and at least two pieces of paper for the menu plan and the grocery list. (I used to keep a 3-subject spiral notebook one section for menu plans, one section for recipe inspirations, and the last section for grocery list. Now I mostly use the computer)
·       Cookbook, cooking magazine or other recipes for inspiration
·       Decide which planning method you want to utilize

Planning Methods
·       Craving or see-food method - think about what you feel like eating
o   Have a well-stocked pantry with items your family enjoys most often
o   Consider creating a master pantry shopping list to avoid rewriting your list every time you shop
·       Routine method - if it is Monday it must be meatloaf
o   Choose 7 10 menus to rotate
o   Make a master menu plan with accompanying grocery list, consider laminating it.
o   This method works great for breakfast, lunch, or picky eaters
·       Framework method each night has a theme, but the choices change
o   Set a schedule for the nights of the week, for example Monday is pasta night, Tuesday is sandwich night, Wednesday is crock-pot night, etc
o   Choose menus that follow the schedule such as pasta night menus could include spaghetti and meatballs, fettuccine alfredo, pasta primavera, etc
o   Looking for new menu ideas is easier when it fits a category.
o   This could also become a master plan for the routine method.
·       Inspiration method - menus based on cookbooks, magazines, or media
o   While looking at recipes from any source, write down the title and location of any you want to try.
o   If a recipe is from the Internet, copy the recipe to your computer for easier retrieval.
o   If a recipe uses a small amount of a new or unusual ingredient for your family, try to find another recipe using that same ingredient to eliminate waste. For example, use the blue cheese left over from blue cheese stuffed burgers to make a blue cheese vinaigrette.
o   Make sure to include a few tried-and-true recipes in your menu plan for nights when prep time in minimal

Grocery List
·       It is important to have a detailed grocery list which I create on separate paper while making the menu plan.
·       If an ingredient is highly perishable, I will plan to use it soon, or purchase it at the time of use.
·       Divide your grocery list into departments such as dairy, produce, grocery-cans, grocery-ethnic, etc.

My Hybrid Method
I use a combination of menu planning methods that works well for our family. A few notes about our life based on how I answer the introductory questions.
·       Some nights we have more time to cook than others.
·       My daughter and I have food allergies to work around
·       During the school year, I teach on Wednesdays outside the home.
·       I am an adventurous cook when I have time.
·       I always ask my family, if there is something they would like on the menu.
·       My husband travels occasionally so we have 2 or 3 simple menus that we eat when he is out of town (And yes, one of them is cereal)
·       Wednesday nights - I almost always have a crock-pot or pressure cooker meal planned.
·       Thursday nights our daughters are not home so I will plan a menu they probably would not like such as fish.
·       Saturday night is often family night, with a dinner that I will put a bit more effort into.

Generally I go to my recipe collection to choose menus with my framework for Wednesday, Thursday, and Saturday nights in mind. I try not to take on too many new recipes at once. If I see a new side or vegetable dish I want to try, I will pair it with something easy such as grilled chicken. If I will plan a new entrée, I will rely on a tried-and-true side dish. I always plan a vegetable, but not specifically. I want to see what looks good at the market. On my grocery list, that looks like veggie to steam under the produce category. Also, I do invent many new recipes, so I will note my idea in the menu plan as well.

Here are a few menu examples with notes for clarification in the parenthesis:

Sole Almandine (new recipe CL 2010, page 56)
Caramelized onion rice (inventing)
Steamed veggie (market determined)

Eggplant Meatballs (tried-and-true)
Pasta (pantry determined)
Salad (market determined)

Grilled Chicken (tried-and-true)
Corn Soufflé (new recipe download in recipe folder on pc)
Steamed veggie (market determined)

Planning for a month sounds like it could be very rigid, but it really provides the most interesting menus while being flexible enough to include good deals at the market, spontaneous plans, and even food cravings. The greatest part is I am only spending an hour or so every month versus 30 minutes every day a making decision on how to feed my family. This method works for me, but you will need to tweak a menu planning system that works best for you. Share what you come up with!

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