Meal Planning

What’s for dinner?

It’s the question of the hour. Too many of us look for answers in the grocery store at 5 p.m. Harassed by hungry children, we rack our brains for an answer to the dinner-hour question.

Three meals a day. Seven dinners a week. From supermarket to pantry, refrigerator to table, sink to cupboard, the kitchen routine can get old, old, old.

No wonder we hide our heads like ostriches from the plain and simple fact: into each day, one dinner must fall.

What’s the answer? A menu plan.

Menu planning doesn’t have be complicated. A small investment of time can reap great rewards:

  • A menu plan saves money. Reducing trips to the supermarket, a menu plan reduces impulse spending. Using leftovers efficiently cuts food waste, while planned buying in bulk makes it easy to stockpile freezer meals at reduced prices.
  • A menu plan saves time. No dash to the neighbors for a missing ingredient, no frantic searches through the freezer for something, anything to thaw for dinner.
  • A menu plan improves nutrition. Without the daily dash to the supermarket, there’s time to prepare side dishes and salads to complement the main dish, increasing the family’s consumption of fruits and vegetables.

Follow these tips to put the power of menu and meal planning to work for you:

Where to start? The food flyers from your local newspaper. Try to make your menu plan and shopping list the day the food ads appear.

You’ll use the ads to get a feel for the week’s sales and bargains. Use that feeling to guide your menu plan.

Menu Planning Basics

Okay, it’s Sunday night and you have your paper, all of the ads & coupons. Ready? Time to rough out a simple menu plan. The goal is two-fold: shop efficiently to obtain food required for seven dinner meals, while minimizing expenditure, cooking, shopping and cleaning time.

  • Scan the food ads for specials and sales. Rough out a draft menu plan: seven dinner entrees that can be made from weekly specials, side dishes and salads.
  • Wander to pantry and refrigerator to check for any of last week’s purchases that are languishing beneath wilting lettuce or hardening tortillas. Check for draft recipe ingredients. Review your shopping list and note needed items.
  • Ready, set, shop–but shop with an open mind. That 59-cent fryer won’t look like such a bargain next to a marked-down mega-pack of boneless chicken breasts at 89 cents a pound. Be ready to substitute if you find a great deal.
  • Return from shopping. As you put away groceries, match up the menu plan with the family’s calendar, saving the oven roast for a lazy Sunday afternoon, the quick-fix pizza for soccer night.
  • Post the menu plan on the refrigerator door. Refer to it during the coming week as you prepare meals.

That’s it! The bare bones of menu planning. You’ve made a draft plan, shopped from a list, retained flexibility in the marketplace, firmed up your plan and held yourself accountable.

The devil, however, is in the details. Here are some points to ponder as you bring menu planning under control:

Build A Personal Shopping List

Create a routine around your menu planning. Sure, you can try new recipes–just don’t let your enthusiasm for the glossy pages of the cookbook con you into doing so more than twice a month. Cooking tried-and-true speeds dinner preparation and streamlines menu planning.

To do it, look for cues in the family schedule. At-home days with more free time can handle a fancy meal–or can signal soup, sandwiches and Cook’s Night Off. Running the evening kid carpool is a great time to plan for pick-up sandwiches. Make the routine yours, and it will serve you well.

Stay Flexible

Menu plans aren’t written in stone. So you’re dodging cramps on the “big” cooking day? Swap it out with Pizza Night and go to bed early with a cup of herb tea.

A posted menu plan promotes accountability and you’ll feel smug at your frugality and good planning.

Make It A Habit

Simple or not, a menu plan won’t help you if you don’t make one. Get into the habit of planning before you shop, and you’ll get hooked–one addiction of great value.

Recycle Menu Plans

After you’ve made menu plans for a few weeks, the beauty of the activity shines through: recycle them! Your family won’t mind, and you’ll save even more time and energy.

Instead of an ambitious plan for 30-day menus, tuck completed menu plans in a file folder or envelope. Next time fryers are 59 cents a pound at the market, pull out the plan you made this week. Done!

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