Eating Dinner Together – Part 2 (How I Plan Our Menu)

Last week I shared my thoughts on the benefits of menu planning.  In case you missed it, you can see the post here.  Menu planning saves money and time.  It also helps busy parents avoid apprehension at 5 p.m. when they realize they have no idea what to serve for dinner.

Our family has utilized menu planning for almost fifteen years.  I can say, without a doubt, that we would absolutely NOT be able to adhere to our $350 budget if we did not plan ahead when it comes to meals.  I am also confident that our menu was the primary reason we were able to successfully conquer our reliance on fast food a few years ago.  If we know in the morning what we are going to eat for dinner at home, and we think it will taste good, then we will go home at the end of the day and eat it.

So, how do we plan our menu?  Currently, I plan our menu a week at a time.  In the past, I have planned as much as a month in advance.  I reserve that mammoth experience for special occasions, though, like the birth of a baby or a job change: something that is going to really throw a wrench in our ability to plan ahead.  For anyone who has never attempted menu planning, I recommend sticking with a week at a time, at least to begin.  The following steps are what I use to get food on the table every week:

1. Look in the refrigerator, freezer, and pantry.

Before I even begin writing a menu or checking grocery ads, I take stock of what we already have in the house.  I take note of items that are going to be past their prime soon.  Leftover pizza sauce might be incorporated into spaghetti for supper tomorrow.  Browning bananas will either get frozen or incorporated into banana bread later in the week.  Yogurt that might expire in a couple days will become part of a breakfast smoothie.

I have said before that our family rarely wastes food, and this is primarily for two reasons.  First, Todd nearly always takes leftovers to work for his lunches, rather than eating out. This has saved us thousands of dollars over the years.  Second, we constantly repurpose food before it spoils.  By brown bagging and repurposing our leftovers, we are reducing food waste and avoiding unnecessary, extra purchases at the grocery store.

As a side note, if I see food in the fridge that I know we won’t eat anytime soon, but I hate to see it spoil, I freeze it.  We were gifted with a large flat of tomatoes a week ago.  We have eaten all we can before they are going to turn, so today I sliced and froze the remainder.  I’ll use them in sauces and soups another time.

2. Look through the grocery ads.

I do not pay full price for very many food items.  The things I do pay full price on are the ones that rarely go on sale–pantry staples, mostly.  I know when and how often most things go on sale, and I usually stock up on items when I find awesome prices.  This is not to say that I will not walk out of a grocery store with twenty bottles of ketchup–that is hoarding.  I will, however, buy enough ketchup to last me until I know it will be on sale again, maybe three or four bottles.

So, as an example, if boneless, skinless chicken breasts are on sale in a grocery ad at a price I am willing to pay, we will be eating chicken that week.  Probably a couple of times.  I will also buy extra chicken, freeze it, and have it on hand for the next week, when chicken is no longer on sale.

As I look through the grocery ads for items on sale, I try to look for items that can be paired with what I already have.  If pepperoni is on sale, and I have tons of cheese in my refrigerator, I will probably plan to make dough so that we can eat pizza that week.

In addition to looking for food items that can be paired with what I already have in my house, I am on the lookout for food I will be needing soon.  Currently, that means I am watching for anything useful for baking, Thanksgiving dinner, and National Candy Collection Day.  Based on all this information, I make the bulk of my shopping list.

Lastly, I always check out several different ads.  My schedule only allows me to hit a few stores in any given week, and I have my favorites.  I know which stores have the best produce, where I can find the cheapest milk, and how I can get the best deals with coupons.  I also avoid certain stores, either because I do not like their prices, their quality is not as good, or I lack the willpower to consistently stick with my shopping list in their aisles.

3. Grab your calendar.

Once I know what food is in the house already and what I can get at a good price, I am ready to start evaluating when certain foods will show up on the menu.  If I am going to be gone from home on a given afternoon, making pizza delivery extremely tempting by suppertime, I am almost certain to plan a slow cooker supper for that day.  If I know I have something homemade waiting for me in the slow cooker at home, I know I will eat it.

Supper is not the only event that I take note of on my calendar.  I look to see if any of the kids are responsible for bringing a snack to an activity.  Does anyone need to brown bag a lunch or supper at school or some evening commitment?  Do we have any dinner parties or potlucks where we are expected to bring a dish to share?  All of these meals are accounted for when the menu is created so that I do not have to make a harried trip through the express lane at the last minute.

Finally, when I look at the calendar, I take into account what our mornings will look like when breakfast is planned.  Cold cereal is often served on busy mornings, or at the very least muffins that were baked the day before.  Items that I consider time intensive, like pancakes, are saved for Saturdays when I can make breakfast while still wearing my pajamas.

4. Fill in the menu.

Some menu planners only plan ahead for dinners.  I think this is a mistake, especially if the goal is to reduce grocery bills and fast food consumption.  Our menu takes into account breakfast, lunch, supper, and snacks.  This helps me repurpose food better, too.  When we had birthday cake a few weeks ago, there was some leftover frosting in the fridge.  I knew ahead of time that I would serve that frosting as a dip with pretzels a few days later.

In addition to planning our main dishes for supper and lunch, I also plan ahead for our sides.  I know how much lettuce we will eat in any given week for salads.  I know how many boxes of pasta or bags of potatoes we will go through.  This keeps me from having a dinner plate with nothing but a lonely chicken breast staring back at me.

And in the spirit of not wasting food, I plan how to make one prepared item into something else later in the week.  Roast beef with winter vegetables might show up as BBQ beef sandwiches with mashed potatoes a couple days later.  I also have at least one meal in the week (usually Sunday lunch) designated only for consuming leftovers.

5. Add anything extra to the shopping list.

Once the initial shopping list is done and the menu is written, I incorporate anything random that must still be purchased.  Most often, this means making sure pantry staples, like baking powder or flour, are plentiful enough to get me through the week.  Sometimes I also have to include items for a homeschool science experiment (lima beans this week!) or someone’s 4H project.

Over the next two weeks, I will be sharing how my menu actually translates into getting food on the table.  I will tell you how I find time to make homemade bread, how I use my favorite two appliances (the freezer and the slow cooker), and where I find some of my best plan-ahead food preparation resources.

I would enjoy knowing if you plan your menus, and what methods you utilize.  Send me and email or comment below!