Menu Planning: Save Time In The Kitchen

What's for dinner? It's the question of the hour!

Too many home managers look for answers in the supermarket at 5 p.m. Harried from the day's work and harassed by by hungry children, they rack their brains for an answer to the what's-for-dinner dilemma.

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! Planning meals ahead requires a small investment of time, but 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. Knowing what to serve each day--and having the ingredients already on hand--cuts back on the drive-through habit.

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

Dare to Do It

For too many of us, making a menu plan is something we intend to do . . . when we get around to it. Instead of seeing menu planning as an activity that adds to our quality of life, we dread sitting down to decide next Thursday's dinner. "I'll do that next week, when I'm more organized."

Wrong! Menu planning is the first line of defense in the fight to an organized kitchen, not the cherry on the icing on the cake.

Take the vow. "I, [state your name], hereby promise not to visit the supermarket again until I've made a menu plan!"

Start Small and Simple

Still muttering, "But I don't wanna ..."? Break into menu planning easily by starting small and simple.

Think, "next week." Seven little dinners, one trip to the supermarket. Sure, it's fun to think about indexing your recipe collection, entering the data in a database and crunching menus till the year 2015, but resist the urge.

Slow and steady builds menu planning skills and shows the benefits of the exercise. Elaborate hoo-rah becomes just another failed exercise in home management overkill.

Where to start? The food flyers from your local newspaper, or sales circulars from your markets' Web sites. You'll use the ads to get a feel for the week's sales and bargains. They'll be the basis for the week's selection of dinners.

This week in my hometown, two local chain supermarkets are offering whole fryers for the low, low price of 99 cents a pound. Clearly, this is the week for Ginger Chicken and Fajitas, not a time to dream about Beef Stew and Grilled Pork.

Menu Planning Basics

Okay, it's food ad day. 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. Here's the overview of the process:

  • Scan the food ads (newspaper or online) 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 99-cent fryer won't look like such a bargain next to a marked-down mega-pack of boneless chicken breasts at $1.29 a pound. Be ready to substitute if you find a great deal.
  • Return from shopping. As you put away groceries, flesh out the menu plan. Match it up 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! Use the pager links below for some points to ponder as you bring menu planning under control.

Build A Personal Shopping List

Planner companies, gift shops and generous desktop publishers all compete to produce cute little shopping lists for all persuasions and occasions. Bear-shaped shopping lists. Long skinny shopping lists. Shopping lists with winsome graphics, kittycats and teddy bears. Awwwwww.

[We even offer some, too, in the printables library .]

Only one problem: why aren't you using them?

Because they don't work, that's why. Teenaged sons play stuff-the-hoop with the empty cereal box and the trash can, but have you ever known one to neatly write "Cheerios" on the list? Blank shopping lists fit about as well as one-size-fits-all clothing.

Solution? Build a pre-printed family shopping list on the computer, listing all the foods and sundries your family consumes. Print 52 copies each year. Post them on the refrigerator. Boys who don't circle "cereal" on the list when they empty the box must eat hot cereal for the rest of the week.

Make your list work for you: organize it by aisle. Next shopping trip, grab a hand-out supermarket map as you leave. Construct your personal shopping list according to the order you shop the store. You'll speed your way out the door in record time!

Coast in the Calm of a Routine

Yes, there are some well-organized souls among us who don't make formal meal plans. Look close, and you'll discover that household meal service dances to a routine.

Sunday's a big dinner, and Tuesday gets the leftovers. Monday is burger night, and Wednesday sees spaghetti, year in and year out. Thursday's the day for a casserole, and Dad grills on Friday. Saturday night, it's take-out or pizza.

Create a routine around your menu planning. Sure, you can try new recipes--just don't let your enthusiasm for the cookbook trick you into doing so more than twice a month.

Find cues in the family schedule to help you plan a routine. At-home days with more free time can handle a fancy meal--or can signal soup, sandwiches and Cook's Night Off. The night you drive the sports team carpool is a great time to plan for pick-up sandwiches. Make the routine yours, and it will serve you well.

Consider Cook's Choice

Build flexibility into your plan and serve the aims of thrift with a weekly Cook's Choice Night.

Traditionally held the night before grocery shopping, "Cook's Choice" is a menu planning catch-all designed to account for real life.

Use it to tie up loose ends before the next round of menu planning.

You can slide a neglected dinner into Cook's Choice, or chop up the contents of the refrigerator for a clean-out stir-fry.

Either way, you'll feel smug at your frugality and good planning.

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.

With meals planned and ingredients on hand, it's easy to juggle your menu plan when circumstances require. Staying flexible--while being prepared--brings calm to the kitchen!

Make It A Habit

Simple or not, a menu plan won't help you if you don't make one. Weekly menu planning is a good candidate for a new habit: an action on "auto-pilot" that you engage in without thinking. Need to learn how? Check out Habit, the Household Wonder Worker as a guide to building new habits for an organized home.

Get into the habit of planning menus before you shop, and you'll get hooked on the ease and convenience--an 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! Organized by main ingredient--chicken breasts, say, or chuck steak--completed menu plans make it even simpler to plan and shop for a week's meals.

Tuck completed menu plans in a file folder or page protector in your household notebook. Next time fryers are 99 cents a pound at the market, pull out the plan you made this week. Done!

Group Plans by Season

Over time, weekly menu plans will setting into two major groups: menus for warm weather, and fall/winter menus. Try to assemble six to eight plans for each menu "season"; most families do well with that much variety--and no more.

For instance, a great special on ground beef signals grilled hamburgers and burrito bar during warm-weather months; spaghetti or cabbage rolls during the cold season.

Include both variations in your menu stash for re-use next time you spot ground beef at a bargain price--whatever the weather!

Make the Move to Monthly Menu Plans

Once you've flexed your menu planning muscles with a few weekly plans, consider moving from weekly to monthly menu plans. It takes only a few more minutes to add the additional three weeks to your plan; doing so saves time all month long.

Longer-term menu plans are slightly more complex, relying as they do on freezer and pantry. But by reducing trips to the store--and maximizing use of food on hand--they bring superior savings and convenience.

Build Your Pantry Power

Longer-term menu planning brings new emphasis to household food storage areas: refrigerator, freezer and pantry.

Brush up on your pantry power with our Beginner's Guide to Pantry Pride; keep tabs on stored foodstuffs with free printable pantry inventory and freezer inventory forms.

Maintaining an organized pantry offers many advantages for the menu planner. Keeping stocks of bought-on-sale staples lowers food bills and speeds meal preparation. Unexpected guests are no problem when you can turn to the pantry or freezer for hospitality supplies or a pre-prepared entree.

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