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I hate menu planning (sorry) but “the list” is working for me…

Posted by on Jan 13, 2012 in Blog Posts | 12 comments

It seems like every website that talks about getting family dinner on the table talks about menu planning, and with good reason. It is hard. For me it is the part I least enjoy of the process of getting food on the table. I have tried to make myself do it in nice organized ways, I have tried print-outs, read books, and it doesn’t work for me. I read a book that even had menu planning based on ethnic cuisine. Mondays is tex-mex, Tuesdays Italian…

Here are my main obstacles for the traditional (see left) weekly-menu planning:
• it didn’t take into account what looked fresh at the market. Green beans on the list, but they looked like crap? Then I felt stuck…
• It didn’t take into account what was on SALE.
I never want to look at circulars, or coupons (most of the from scratch stuff doesn’t go on sale it seems.) So, if cabbage is on sale, I can make cole-slaw one night.
• It didn’t take into account what kind of day I had, or what the weather did.
I had a crappy day, or an unexpected call from a client in the transition to Trust model that I needed to squeeze in. I might not want to cut up all the root veggies for my roasted root veggies. Or, we finally got a sunny day and I want to let M play at the park, not rush home to get the stew meat browning int the Dutch oven…

• It took too much time. It wasn’t much fun. It felt like an added burden, not a tool to make life easier (and isn’t that the test for a “menu plan?”)

Now, I cook mostly without recipes, the way my mom did. I have 5 or 6 ways I can cook most proteins, a handful of starchy sides, ways to prep veggies and fruits… So, the weekly menu-plan wasn’t working for me. I seemed able to plan a few days of menus, stir-fry or turkey curry. I hated that I not infrequently threw food out because I deviated from the plan and had other menus that I needed to cook (I recognize the luxury that I can do that…)

What has been working for me is “the list.” I go to the market, usually with two or three meals I want to cook in mind. Then I see what looks yummy or is on sale. I buy three or four veggies for sides, fresh fruit for snacks, a couple proteins. Then I come home and write what I have in the fridge.

I have one column for veggies, another for fruits, and top right I make tentative meal plans. Monday: Turkey curry with broccoli, Tuesday: Pork chops with green beans…

When we eat the cabbage or green beans, or the figs or grapes, I cross them off. I don’t worry that I will forget about the corn in the crisper and hate myself when I throw it out a week later…

If you’re new to planning meals, start with what you are eating now, but eat it together, then try to plan by breakfast what you will eat that night for dinner… Find what works for you! Don’t try to force a method to work, but do give it a chance. Here is a link to Ellyn Satter’s meal-planning handout. I think the key is to go slowly and see what works for you. I tried to do the weekly meal-plans and it was spoiling the experience, AND I felt guilty that I couldn’t or didn’t do it or stick to it. But, I did plan in my own way, I do take things out of the freezer to thaw and think about food groups and menus and it works for us right now. Maybe another system will work better down the road, but just like with eating, don’t let the “shoulds” spoil planning and getting food on the table!

When I lived where I could walk to a coop, I shopped small, frequent trips every 2-3 days, so I didn’t need to plan. If you live miles from a grocery or have a tight budget, more thoughtful planning may help. There are many ways people can plan to feed themselves and their families. What works for you is the “right” way!

How do you plan to get family meals together?

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  1. Jenny Islander

    First I check the family schedule for the next week. I work part-time on some nights after my husband comes home from his full-time job and there are other things going on in the evening. On those nights I plan to have a crockpot meal or lots of leftovers. Then I check the sales flyer for the one store that does sales flyers, which happens to be the one where we buy our meat. I check with my husband about what he would like to eat of the meats in our price range. I write down the top three. Whichever one is actually in stock is the one I buy and I buy a lot of it for dinner. I also buy one other non-egg protein, usually dried beans, but sometimes cheese if on sale; one fresh veggie that is in good shape in our price range, plus frozen which are usually cheaper and in better shape; and a starch/grain–potatoes, bread, rice. (Breakfast is cereal, toast, leftovers, eggs, and/or fruit; lunch is canned chunky soup or salmon, pancakes, eggs, leftovers, and/or something simple that uses leftovers such as fried rice; snacks are fruit, carrots, and assorted crunchy chippy things. This part hardly ever changes so it’s easy.)

    How it looks:

    SATURDAY: Shop after husband is off work. Get dinner at hot food counter.
    SUNDAY: Burgers on whole wheat toast (more filling than buns), homemade coleslaw. (Bought value pack of hamburger.)
    MONDAY: The same. This is 2nd day of husband’s weekend, so I can work in the morning and still have time to bake. I make chocolate chip mini muffins for dessert for the next few days.
    TUESDAY: The same. Only a few ounces of beef left; I throw it in the freezer.
    WEDNESDAY: Have to work. Crockpot mac and cheese with some leftover ham that I had in the freezer; fresh tomatoes on the side.
    THURSDAY: Work again. Leftover mac and cheese, more fresh tomatoes.
    FRIDAY: Put on rice to cook. Pull last of ground beef out of freezer, saute, drain, set aside. Grate cheese, set aside. Check avocado I bought on sale–is it finally ripe? No, I missed the date, it’s overripe, pitch it. Stir-fry package of “Santa Fe Style” frozen veggies (corn, onions, black beans, broccoli, peppers), throw meat back in to reheat, season with chili powder and cumin. The rice is ready just about now. Serve hot rice, meat and veggie mixture, grated cheese, salsa, and sour cream and let people combine as they like.

  2. emma

    Prior to going grocery shopping, I clean out my fridge to see what I already have (and to make sure nothing’s gone ick) and look at my freezer inventory (meats, frozen leftovers, etc). Then I write down 4-5 meals that I want to cook that week. At least 1 will be fish, and 1 red meat. One meal per week will be a “freezer meal” (something that freezes & re-heats well like a casserole, curry, chili, soup, etc., which I make in a big batch & freeze the leftovers flat in ziploc bags so they stack well in our small freezer compartment), and once every couple of weeks I’ll make a “big batch” meal to restock.
    I don’t specify which day of the week is which meal, but usually the fish gets eaten the night I went shopping (for obvious reasons), and I try to cook the meals with perishables/special ingredients earlier in the week (depending on how much time/energy I have).
    I buy my meat in bulk, depending on what’s on special, ziploc into meal-sized portions and freeze; then use the meat in my freezer to plan out the next week’s meals.
    I figure the other 2-3 meals will be taken up with leftovers, eating out, or something easy & on-hand like toasted sandwiches, burgers (we always have burger buns & patties in the freezer), spag bolognaise (always have pasta & sauce in the pantry), tortilla wraps (always have tortillas & salsa in the fridge, add some kind of meat & salad, or leftovers, etc for a quick & easy meal).
    I also try to have a couple of meals per week that I know Mr. 2-yr-old has eaten before (doesn’t necessarily mean he’ll eat it this week though – ugh, kids!!), and at least one component in each meal that he *should* like.

  3. KellyK

    What seems to work for my husband and me is to do a weekly list, without specifying the day. Each includes some sort of protein, starch, fat, and veggie. The fat usually isn’t specifically planned unless the meal is a particularly light one. Like, if we’re having fish and rice, then we may include a salad with blue cheese dressing.

    We try to have a mix of “I actually feel like cooking” meals and “Toss something together quick and easy” meals, skewing more toward the latter when we’re busy. One week that we expected to be particularly rough was literally hot dogs, chicken tenders, burgers, nachos, and then one typical meat/rice/veggie meal.

    Most of our veggies are frozen, except when we specifically plan to use CSA or farm-stand veggies. I’d like to try a CSA again, but we ended up throwing a lot out the last time.

    Another thing about the list that helps us is to put the grocery list and the meal list on the same page, and to divide the grocery list into “buy any time” and “buy that day or the day before.” So if we specifically need a perishable item, we get it when we need it, rather than “having” to use it, but we still do the big grocery run on the weekend.

    We also buy frozen veggies in large quantity and don’t necessarily specify what veggie on the meal plan. Typical meals are something like “Chicken w/ pan sauce, rice, random frozen veggie” or “steak, mashed potatoes, salad.”

  4. Nicole

    My mom and dad were very good about meal planning and passed along the habit to me. I’ve gotten to the point that I see it as an enjoyable challenge, and it works well. I actually do sit down with some cookbooks and the grocery store circulars to match what’s on sale with what I’ve stocked up on (I always buy meat and pantry staples on sale, though not to the “Coupon Diva” level). I try to plan three meat meals and three vegetarian meals (always leave space for one out night), and I try to leave the veggie sides somewhat open to accommodate for what looks good. I’m totally fine with writing “veg” on the side and picking something there. Same with “fruit”. If I’m successful, I almost never have to buy more than one kind of meat in a week (the most expensive thing) and I don’t have to buy full-price pantry staples.

    It sounds complicated, but it’s really not. Also, I enjoy it, so there’s that. 🙂

  5. Ashley

    I have a similar system, but I actually do consider it to be menu planning. We have a dry erase board on our fridge with the days marked out. Any day where we’re super busy is marked and we plan on left overs. Usually we have 3-4 nights of a planned meal a week, and I’ll write in something for each night. If we deviate a bit, that’s fine too. It’s pretty laid back. I also buy my meat in bulk which helps. I always have like 30 pounds of meat lying around, at least, so we can choose at our leisure.

  6. Heather

    My husband and I do weekly meal planning together. It’s part of our Sunday morning ritual: a nice leisurely breakfast and then meal planning over the last of the coffee. It’s actually more than meal planning; we both look at our schedules for the next week so we get a handle on any meetings or rehearsals in the evenings and know who’s picking up our son each day. That tells us how many meals need to be super quick to prepare and how many we can take more time with. We don’t eat meat, so I like to look at our meals over the course of a week to see that we have a variety of protein sources. I try to balance out meals that may be challenging for our son with meals that are a sure hit. And we try to get at least one meal, like a soup or a casserole, that will provide some leftovers for lunches. Then all of us go to the grocery store together.

    We just make a list of meals, though – we don’t plan it out that Monday is X, and Tuesday is Y, so there is always some flexibility, and we always have staples for some quick meals (scrambled eggs, or spaghetti and jarred sauce, or bean burritos) for nights that we just don’t feel like cooking.

    It works really well for us. We need the combination of planning ahead and flexibility to deal with my husband’s wacky schedule (he’s a musician). And now that my son can read and reach a lot of things at the store, shopping together is becoming fun.

  7. Tricia

    I make a weekly meal plan and really enjoy it. It gives me a sense of sanity and in a crazy week. I do it on a white board so if I get a wild hair and want to switch Tuesday’s green beans with Wednesdays’ broccoli, then one swipe of the finger does it. The kids, I think, like being able to see our week laid out like that. Dinner is such an extraordinarily important part of their day.

    Meal planning also helps me clear out the fridge and the freezer, by planning to use those things.

    Most importantly, planning out a week helps me balance our meals. I can see that, okay, I’ve got one beef meal, one chicken meal, one bean meal, one starchy meal, etc. And, once again, one swipe of the finger and I can get spontaneous if I want to.

    • katja

      LOVE IT! This is what I was hoping for. Families sharing what they have found works for them! Do you ever find the kids looking ahead and complaining? I remember we’d ask mom, “what’s for dinner” and when she said cryptically, “something good” we knew it was her overcooked, leathery pork chops and the whining would begin! (She is an otherwise wonderful cook…)

  8. Dawn

    I do make a menu and then buy from the recipes but I also have some staples always on my list that, theoretically, I can use to make last minute things if something on my menu doesn’t work. But I’ve found that being in school has ganked my menu planning/grocery list all to hell because my schedule is so unpredictable and pressed. So now I’m buying more convenience foods and we’re grabbing take-out more often. Like I always used to soak my own beans and often made my own bread but we’re eating canned beans and buying bread these days. If I hadn’t been reading you I’d be fretting about this way more but now I say any time we’re sitting down at the table together enjoying our time is a good time and we do that seven nights a week. Sometimes it’s homemade lentil soup and sometimes it’s take-out pizza but at least we’re having good family time and eating together so that’s all good, right?

    I’ll go back to cooking from scratch when my time budget evens back out!!!

    • katja

      Oh, Yay!!! Yes, it’s great and amazing that you are doing as well as you are! I remember writing about my name, “dynamics” and that part of the dynamic part was that feeding, cooking eating goes through cycles depending on your life circumstances. I’d say you are doing beautifully, and being aware of your efforts, and specifically rejecting the guilt will, in my experience keep you all happier and healthier and excited to get back to the beans and bread when life comes around to a more calm cycle… This is such a lovely, graceful way of looking at it. Thank you!

  9. Bobbini

    Two things that help me with meal-planning:
    A Freezer

    I have a round of about 12 entree recipes–some with meat and some without. My kids and husband don’t care if we have quiche every week, so we often do. Other items in the rotation include sloppy joes, home-made pizza or calzones, black bean burritos or quesadillas, split pea soup (only in the winter), roasted whole chicken, scrambled eggs, and baked pasta. Things that don’t include protein/vegetable/starch are rounded out with bread, frozen or fresh vegetables, noodles or rice.

    The freezer means I can buy meat and frozen vegetables. and I can ‘shop’ in the freezer in weeks when money is tight or I don’t have any big ideas.

    • katja

      While we love our new apartment living, I mourn the loss of our chest freezer! We too have our staples on rotation. Current weekly is pork with maple syrup and dijon glaze…Thanks for sharing!


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