Thursday, April 14, 2016

Menu Planning - How Do I Start?

Menu planning is one of the most effective ways of saving money by eliminating wasted food, and also of eliminating most of the stress involved in getting a meal on the table every day.  It can be daunting - where do I start?  I did a blog post with a basic overview awhile back, so start by reading Save Money by Menu Planning.

Step 1: What meals do you want to plan?  If your breakfasts are usually the same or everyone fixes for themselves, it probably doesn't make sense to plan them out.  Think about starting planning with just your main meal each day for the next week. You can see in the menu plan above how I used items already in my freezer or leftovers from previous meals.  (I am doing Weight Watchers, so the numbers are the number of points for that particular food.) Just starting out, though, keep it simple.

Step 2: What do you have going on for the next week that may affect how much time you will have to cook or if some family members won't be eating at home?  If it is a busy day, that is the time to plan something quick and easy or something in a slow cooker. If you typically eat out once or twice a week, plan that in.

Step 3: This next step takes a little time but reaps the largest rewards.  Inventory what you currently have on hand.  Start with the refrigerator, and plan on using as much as possible in the next few meals, since this is most likely to spoil if not used soon. (This is also a good time to discard anything lurking around that is questionable.)  Don't worry about listing every little condiment, etc. but try to remember what you have. Do the freezer next, and then the pantry.  Once again, don't worry about all the various incidentals, but be sure and list anything that might become a main ingredient or side dish. Taking inventory is easiest if you have two people, one calling off the items and one writing them down. This is not something you need to do every week, and once you get on top of things, you can only do it occasionally (if you are super organized, you may never have to do it again).

Step 4: It is easiest if you divide up your list of what you have on hand into main ingredients (meat, fish, prepared foods, etc.), side dish ingredients (veggies, rice, noodles, etc.) and important ingredients (canned soups, sauces, spice mixes, etc.).  Now comes the part I like the best - look at your lists and brainstorm meal ideas, concentrating on what needs to be used up first and what meals can be made without buying additional ingredients (or that need only minimal purchases). If you don't particularly like to cook and your family is content with eating the same meals often, list a few of your favorite meals and just rotate them. One blogger I follow who is dealing with health issues is currently recycling the same weekly plan each week. 

Step 5: This step is optional, but I find it is very helpful in keeping my grocery budget in check. Look at the sale ads and make a list of good buys that you know your family likes.  I used to plan my menu around the sale ads, but now I tend to buy what is on sale to use for upcoming plans instead. For example, one of my favorite meats is pork chops, so when they are on sale, I stock up and freeze them.  Same with ground beef and chicken, dividing them up into meal-sized quantities before freezing.  Stay flexible - if I have planned on broccoli with a particular meal, and asparagus is in season and on sale, I use it instead. I also like to keep at least a minimal selection of frozen fruit and veggies on hand so that I can always fall back on them instead of making a special trip to the store because I don't have anything to fix for a side dish.

Step 6: Write it down and post it somewhere easy to see (mine lives on the refrigerator door).  It doesn't have to be fancy, but you need to be able to see at a glance what needs to be defrosted or prepped in advance.  It is great if you can do some of the prep in advance.  For example, if you are going to need chopped onions three times in the upcoming week, chop them all at once.  I plan my menus on a simple Excel spreadsheet, and the right hand column has a place for notes to myself about when something needs to be taken out of the freezer to defrost or soak dried beans the night before cooking them, or other such prep.  I also note what needs to be on my grocery list for this week's run to the store.  I eat my main meal at noon, and eat lightly at night, so I plan on eating leftovers or something simple in the evenings.

Step 7: Get in the habit of checking your plan for tomorrow's meal before you go to bed at night or first thing in the morning to make sure you won't be dealing with a chunk of frozen meat when you start dinner.  Stay flexible - feel free to switch up meals onto different days, or substitute something else if you just aren't feeling it.  It is great to keep ingredients for last-minute meals available, because there is always going to be times when something unexpected comes up and what you had planned to fix just isn't going to happen. Always keep in mind that your menu plan is there to serve you, not to hold you hostage.  If you don't really like the planning, consider checking out some the already prepared meal plans, either free or for a fee (see links on Saving Money By Menu Planning).

Step 8: This step is purely optional.  When you fix something that freezes well, make a double batch and put one in the freezer.  For example, when I make spaghetti sauce (one of my specialties) I do a large batch and package all the extra sauce into meal-sized portions and freeze them. This also works well with meatballs, meat loaf and many casserole dishes.

Weight Watchers - 12 Last Minute Meals

12 Easy Meals To Make When There Is Nothing To Eat (Read the comments for more ideas.)

Free Printable Meal Plans

Weight Watching Sides and Sweets

Weight Watchers Veggie Side Dishes
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