I started Menu Planning regularly for our family about seven years ago. My Nanny sat me down a couple of years prior to that and showed me how to make a list of meals and a grocery list to go with it. Her simple lesson has saved me so much time, headaches, and money over the years – I wish I could give her a thousand hugs for taking the time to teach me how to plan a menu for my family. Since then several friends have asked me for tips and how-to’s for their own menu planning. In a perfect world, I would simply invite all of y’all to sit down at my kitchen table with a cup of coffee and a spiral notebook and we would do our menu planning together. But, since that’s not really possible, we’ll do the best we can right here.
- 1. Give yourself 30 minutes to an hour to plan your menu and make your grocery list.
I know that sounds like a big chunk of your time. Moms with little ones might feel it’s impossible to carve out ten minutes, let alone an hour. But this time you’ll spend planning is absolutely crucial to saving time and money later throughout your week. If you need to, wait until your kids are in bed or napping. Pour yourself a drink, coffee, tea, whatever – and get settled in a comfy “thinking” spot. I find it’s best for me to NOT plan meals right after I eat. If I’m full, I don’t want to think about food. I tend to do better when I’m a little hungry, then i can think of lots of meals.
- 2. Grab a piece of paper and a pencil or pen.
I realize this is the age of computers and smart phones. I’d certainly be lost without my little phone. But when you’re brainstorming, it’s just easier to go a little old fashioned. You can cross things out, make notes more easily, and get your thoughts out on paper. We’ll work on arranging our menu and grocery list on the computer or phone later. Right now, you’re back in school, writing out your list. Feel free to doodle if it helps you think.
- 3. Number your list.
That blank piece of paper is scary. Don’t sit there and stare at it! Go ahead and take charge of that bad boy and number your list with however many days you need to plan. Sometimes I just need a week’s worth of meals, sometimes I need two weeks, you may need a whole month, or only three nights. Start writing your numbers, leaving a line or two of space in between for your meals and any notes you’ll need to add.
- 4. Throw some dates on there.
Take a look at your calendar and write down the days for your menu. Make a note of any special activities, like church or sports practice. Those are days when you might want to have an easier, quicker meal planned. I also make a note of any date nights when I’ll need to pick up a pizza for the kids, or days when we’ll have company over for dinner and I may want to plan something a little extra special. It’s also great to plan a “leftovers night” or as I like to call it E.M.F.H. (every man for himself) night. Moms need days off too.
- 5. Start thinking of your family’s favorite meals.
Taco nights are a must at least once a week around here. I usually throw taco night on a Wednesday, because it’s an easy and quick meal for us to have before we rush out the door for evening church services. Perhaps your family loves spaghetti, sloppy Joe’s, or a certain casserole. Once I’ve added taco night, breakfast for dinner night, spaghetti night, and a few other regular favorites, I usually find my menu is half done already.
- 6. It’s all about the protein.
For the rest of your meals, start thinking about the protein source. For example: if I plan to have baked chicken thighs one night, I know that means I’ll buy a 10-pound bag of chicken quarters. That ends up being enough chicken for two meals for our family. So I’ll fill in another chicken dinner on another night. We’ll have Asian Baked Chicken on Tuesday and then Friday we’ll enjoy some Ginger Lime Chicken in the Crock Pot. Perhaps I’ll want some ground beef meals like Trim Healthy Mama’s Cheeseburger Pie. That means I’ll be picking up a 5-pound package of ground beef because it’s the best deal for our family, and that ends up being enough protein for two or three meals. So I’ll plan Cheeseburger Pie (you’ll have to buy the Trim Healthy Mama book for that awesome recipe!), and then I’ll have enough meat for Beef Vegetable Soup later in the week. This is also a great time to cruise around on Pinterest and look at a few of those recipes you’ve been pinning. Just don’t spend too much time! And don’t get sidetracked by non-food pins. You’re on a mission. Start thinking of beef, chicken, pork, and fish dishes, and perhaps a vegetarian night.
- 7. Round up your side dishes.
After you’ve planned your main dishes for the week, it’s pretty easy to pick your sides: green beans, broccoli, salads, macaroni and cheese, ect. These are the final touches for rounding out your menu.
- 8. Make a grocery list based on your menu.
Now it’s time to look at each meal you’ve planned and make a list of what you’ll need. You may have to glance around in your fridge, freezer, and pantry to see what you already have on hand. If I’m planning taco night, then I know I’ll need ground beef, shredded cheese, a can or two of Rotel, seasonings (if I don’t already have them in my pantry), taco shells, tortillas, lettuce, tomatoes, sour cream, avocados – for guacamole, refried beans, and salsa. Visualize the full meal and make a note of all the ingredients needed. Take it one meal at a time and work on your list. The goal is to make only one trip to the store. If you happen to forget an item or two, it’s not the end of the world. I certainly forget a few things here and there – but it’s best to keep your trips to the store to a minimum in order to save money. You know you can’t make it out of Wal-Mart without spending at least $50-$100. Try to stay out of the store as much as possible. At this point I’ll start inputing items on my grocery shopping list app on my phone.
- 9. Display your menu in a prominent spot in your kitchen.
At this point you can rewrite your list to dress it up if you’d like. I sometimes print out a cute little background in PicMonkey and write my finished menu on it. You can also just take the first draft and stick it on the fridge if you’d like. As long as you can easily read it and know what you’re making for dinner, that’s all that matter. Taking an extra step to make an attractive menu can help you feel better about your list, and your family will like reading “what’s for dinner” for themselves. You’ll also be able to take a look in the morning at what’s planned for the day and be able to prep for that.
- 10. Don’t feel trapped by the menu.
Things happen. Life takes little twists and turns and plans change. If you need to switch around a meal here and there – feel free to do so! Sometimes we’ll have something other than tacos on Wednesdays! Imagine the chaos! Usually it’s because I forgot to set out meat to thaw the night before. When that happens, simply cross of the meal you’re having instead and you’ll be able to keep track of which meals are left.