Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Menu Planning

If you're like me and you like to make schedules and spread sheets then planning menus can be exciting and a fun challenge. But most of the time menu planning can be a bit difficult and, let's face it, boring. Even when you like to make lists and schedules it's not always the most fun. I've had a few people mention how meal planning is hard and wish they could do it better. Well, you're in luck because I have a few tricks up my sleeves that I'd like to share.

The very first thing you could do is Google it. I know it seems obvious but there are lots of great ideas out there and some helpful websites that will either do it for you or help you out along the way. I found this post on realsimple.com that gives several "basic" recipes with variations on the theme. This is an easy way to use the same ingredients throughout the week and have a starting point for your planning. Easy! Epicurious.com has a section called everday cooking which includes a fast weeknight dinners tab. They basically give you a menu for the week's dinners. This is super helpful and, if you like experimenting with menus and new food ideas, it could be a good place to start.

I like to have somewhat of a routine to my meal planning. Each night M-F has a "theme" and every week I choose a meal from that category. I use alliteration because it's easy to remember, i.e. Macaroni Monday. You could have Meatless Monday, Meaty Monday, Mexican Monday, etc. I think you get the point. Planning my weekly menu this way helps to focus my planning ideas. Here's a run down of how I do it:
  • Macaroni Monday - This includes basically any pasta/noodle dish I make or would like to make. We don't have macaroni every Monday, but you could! Sometimes I'll make rice noodles and we'll have Asian, or shredded veggie "noodles" in a wrap.
  • Taco Tuesday - Mexican food! Yes please!
  • Sandwich Wednesday - Sandwiches are so easy and left overs come in handy here quite often. If sandwiches don't seem dinner appropriate to you or your significant other throw a little extra cheese in there and heat it on a grill pan. Ta da: Panini! This category also includes anything on a bun or in a wrap: burgers, sloppy joe's, burritos... You can always include a veggie or salad on the side or make it a veggie sandwich/wrap/burger/burrito.
  • Slow Cooker Thursday - Thursdays are hard for me because it's getting close to the weekend and I'm feeling less and less like cooking. It's also the night we have the least amount of time for dinner because we have music rehearsal at church. I have to be creative here and make something that doesn't require too much energy to get on the table and that will clean up quick. That's where my slow cooker comes in handy! Since we've gone mostly vegetarian throughout the week it's a little harder to find meals to cook in the slow cooker, but any kind of soup or chili is always a hit. There are millions of recipes out there, even whole cookbooks devoted to slow cookers!
  • Family Friday - We always eat together, but this is one night we like to have a fun, easy meal that I don't have to work too hard at. It usually means pizza! I know it's kid food but I looooooooove pizza! We'll usually get take-and-bake or go to Round Table, then out for ice cream or a walk to the park. Basically this is a really great night to get the kids involved and have them help you make dinner or pick what they want to eat. Give yourself a break here and make something easy!
  • Saturdays we eat dinner out or Josh helps me cook something yummy. I don't usually plan it.
  • Sundays we eat left overs and prep for the week ahead.

So there you have it. I will say that before I start my meal planning I check my cupboards, fridge, and freezer to see what I've got on hand. This helps me choose meals that incorporate those ingredients. Just this one thing saves money and time. Sometimes it saves me an entire trip to the grocery store because I have enough on hand to make a few days worth of meals. You can also use the "What's for Dinner" tool at Recipes.com to plan your meals based on the ingredients you have on-hand. You list three ingredients you have and it gives you four recipes which include those things. Couldn't be simpler!

Meal planning takes time so plan ahead to plan your meals. Set aside a half hour or an hour on Friday or Saturday and just do it! If you feel stuck or uninspired ask your hub or kids what they like that you make. Sometimes Josh will remind me of a meal I made that I had totally forgotten about.

The last tip is the hardest one for me: stick to your menu! I maybe felt like stuffed peppers when I made the menu but now they don't sound good. Boo. Force yourself to use the ingredients you've got and make the meal anyway. Turn it into something that does sound good or switch it with another night of the week. This way you save more moola and the food doesn't go bad.

Here's what a typical week might look like for us:
Monday - Spaghetti with Turkey meatballs
Tuesday - Veggie Tacos
Wednesday - Black Bean Burgers with Green Bean "Fries"
Thursday - Meatless Turkey Chili (I use Beef-less Ground Beef from Trader Joe's)
Friday - Papa Murphy's followed by mini blizzards at Dairy Queen
Saturday - Grilled Salmon, Baked Potatoes, Broccoli

Hope this was helpful!

P.S. I also plan lunches based on what leftovers we have so we make sure to eat it all!

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Look it up!