At the encouragement of my friend Stef, I thought I’d share with you some tips and habits that make weekly menu planning possible for me and my family. Ideally, we shop at the grocery store once a week and work off a list I’ve created that allows me to plan out the dinners I make for my family for the entire week until the next grocery shopping trip. It’s fantastic if I can also get to a farmer’s market or a local fruit stand in that time, but my health has been such that I usually plan on leaving the house as little as possible and any extra trips are considered a wonderful bonus. These are the practices I put into place that keep the weekly meal plan ball rolling.
—Keep A Reasonably Stocked Pantry: Pantries are super helpful, and a really large one is a luxury, but it’s not required. I have a broom closet-sized one in my kitchen, and some shelves in the garage that I keep non-perishable things such as canned goods and unopened boxes of pasta. A pantry doesn’t need to be large as long as it’s suited to your purposes. I’ve read a lot about pantries over the years, and I can’t count the number of listed “essential pantry items” that don’t apply to me. No matter what an article or cook book says, you don’t need five kinds of vinegar if you only regularly use two. Sure, it might not be expensive, but you are paying for hanging on to that extra vinegar with valuable pantry space that could be taken by something more useful. (This is just an example; I have a ton of vinegar and love them, but pantry stocking is not one size fits all.) When you are stocking your pantry, think about what you cook often, and what has more than one use. I like to stock up on jars of a basic tomato sauce because it can be the base of a pizza sauce, or for spaghetti, or a soup–the list goes on. My favorite pantry items are jarred salsas, preserves, chicken stock, dried mushrooms, olive oil, and canned beans. To an extent, your fridge and freezer serve as a cold storage pantries. Keep a supply of frequently eaten items in there, too, and you that much closer to dinner. I love frozen edamame, my kids cannot get enough peas, and my life would not be complete without the ability to pull different frozen cuts of chicken out in the morning to cook at night.
—Schedule Weekly Fridge & Pantry Cleaning: keeping your pantries and cupboards in order does several things: it helps you find what you have, it prevents you from buying duplicates (because it’s easier to buy than it is to dig), and when you keep on top of your food supply it’s that much easier to get dinner on the table and prevent waste. This has been one of the more important steps for me to keep on top of getting dinner on the table each night. Knowing exactly what I have empowers me and also feeds my creativity when planning what to make next. It is also such a great feeling to open up the fridge or the cupboard and to see everything arranged neatly and ready to go.
—Take Your Weekly Schedule Into Account: When you make your schedule, take into account any reoccurring daily or evening events or tasks. Isobel, for example, has gymnastics every Wednesday evening, and our plans for the weekend look very different from one week to the next. Those days aren’t ideal for complex or time-consuming meals, and if I didn’t take that into account, I’d be setting myself up for failure, or at least deep frustration. On Monday I like to do my grocery shopping, and I do a lot of chores that day, too. Although my evening is pretty free, I schedule a simple meal that day because I have to much going on in the day to expect anything else.
—Schedule Days to Eat Leftovers And To Eat Out: This is something that I discovered by trial and error. I used different meal planning methods that had you plan meals for every day of the week, and not only were my grocery bills astronomical, we had crazy amounts of leftovers and no plans to eat them. Make time for at least one day of leftovers has made all the difference, and our flexible weekend schedule allows for more time to eat leftovers if we have them. Conversely, if there are no leftovers, I can pull items out of the pantry and put a simple meal together. But I can’t remember having to do that in ages. We also save one night a week for eating out: we love sushi, and tacos, and gyros, and diner food, and we wouldn’t want to miss out on our favorites. We could never stick to a meal plan that didn’t let us skip dishes every now and again.
—Schedule Flexible Days and Less Flexible Days: I don’t plan much for the weekends. We usually eat a big brunch on Saturdays, but even then it seems our weekend plans are always so different. We usually eat at least one meal with family or friends, and beyond that we have leftovers or simple meals with big, filling brunches to get us through.
—Keep A “To Eat” List: I keep a list of “food to be eaten soon” out where I can see it so stuff that we have a lot of, or that we need to eat that isn’t a big part of our dinners, gets noticed. Right now, we have two huge bowls full of oranges. It’s citrus season and my parents keep bringing over bags of them. When I’m in the mood for a snack I can look at the list. Also any food or leftovers that won’t last until the next leftover day are put here. This really cuts back on waste, and is also helpful for improvising or embellishing meals.
—Start Dinner Early: sometimes even knowing what I’m going to make for dinner that night isn’t enough to ensure I actually do it, but a little prep work early in the day works wonders. I’ll maybe do some vegetable chopping after breakfast and I’m already mentally committed to seeing a dish through.
—Rotate New Dishes & Favorite Meals: one thing about a lot of the meal-planning services is that you are often following their recipes. That can be mentally exhausting at the end of a long day. You need to vary your meal planning with dishes you know extrememly well, dishes you really look forward to, and new dishes that you haven’t tried before. If you aren’t including some dishes you could make in your sleep you will put yourself in danger of dinner burn out.
—Create Your Own System: planning software, apps, and services are great, but don’t be afraid to create your own system. I did because many of the recipes I wanted to use weren’t found online. I have hundreds of cookbooks and I wanted to include those, too. They are more reliable in producing a tasty dinner than a random link from Pinterest. I even developed my own notation system for recipes from books and magazines that I use to quickly find the recipe I need.
—Browse Cookbooks, Food Blogs, & Pinterest: Regular little peeks, even if you aren’t planning a menu at that time, really helps with inspiration and just thinking about food and meals in general, which translates into more and better cooking at home.
—Don’t Be Afraid To Revise: It can take time to get a meal planning schedule perfected, and the best way to do it is trial and error. The system is supposed to serve you, not the other way around, so don’t be afraid to change your schedule. You will need to every so often as your life, schedule and needs change.
—My System: here’s the basic outline of how I plan my meals to get the most of one shopping trip. This works for my family right now, but is subject to change, like all things in life are:
- Monday: (grocery shopping) simple meal
- Tuesday: a more time-consuming meal
- Wednesday: leftover remix
- Thursday: take out
- Friday: a more time-consuming meal
- Saturday: no plans (usually we have plans with friends or family)
- Sunday: simple meal