Sunday, March 18, 2012

Menu Planning Made Easy

It's 5:30. Do you know what's for dinner? Is it a mad scramble to the grocery store for something, anything, to throw together? When you get to the store, do you buy a bunch of random stuff and still don't have anything to make? Does this happen to you Every. Single. Day? Uggg! That sounds horrible! With a little bit of planning, set-up, and creativity (actually, creativity is optional), you can save yourself a ton of time, money and frustration.

There are many meal planning websites, often with a fee attached, that make a menu for you and then generate a grocery list for you. I've looked at some, and really wasn't that impressed. I just didn't eat the kinds of meals they were suggesting. I wanted something more personal that suited my tastes, health considerations, and schedule.

I'm not an expert, but I think Mark and I have a great plan for getting good meals on our table. We spend maybe 10 minutes planning a weekly menu and less than 5 minutes putting a grocery list together. We only go to the grocery store once a week, unless we need fresh fruits or veggies toward the end of the week, and then it's just a quick trip, very little thought required.

It took some tweaking of the system, but this is what we've been doing for the past 5 years and it still works great. And I would like to share it with you. Nice, yes? Feel free to make it your own (this is where you can be creative, if you wish).

First, make two Excel spreadsheets (don't worry, no fancy Excel skills required). One, a simple grid with the days of the week across the top, and the meals down the side. Like this:

Now, what to put in all those empty spaces? That's where the next file comes in. It's the key to the whole system, and it does take some time to put together. But, man, it is so worth it. And it doesn't take that much time, really. You could get a good start with just one hour of work. This file is the Menu Planner (vs. the Menu). Simply, it's another Excel worksheet. On the top row, the column headers are Main Dish, Sides, and Ingredients. Simple, yes? It looks like this:

Okay, so now you have to do a little work. Simply start by filling in the first column, Main Dish, with...well, the main dish! Start with dinner items, since that seems to be the biggest problem for most people. What do you like to eat? What do you like to cook? The key is to include only those meals that you and your family actually eat. This is not where you list everything you wish you knew how to make, or that one recipe you've always wanted to try. That's for later. For now simply fill in that first column. It is easy to do this is you have your recipe file with you (recipe box, favorite cookbook, computer file, however you keep track of your recipes).

Next, go to the ingredients column. Using your recipes, or off the top of your head if you are certain you know all the ingredients you need, list the ingredients. I will sometimes add the quantity if that is important, but this doesn't need to be a copy of the recipe itself. Simply putting "1lb ground beef" is enough - whether it's going to be made in to patties or sauteed isn't important for this project. I generally do not include things I usually keep stocked in the fridge or pantry, like butter, flour, salt or pepper. But be as inclusive as you need to be, especially if your pantry is not well supplied. Or if a recipe calls for a large quantity of something. One recipe I have calls for 8 (eight!) cloves of garlic. I usually have garlic on hand, but for that one I like to get a fresh bulb.

The "sides" column is an extra that makes life a little easier. What side dish do you need to make this meal complete? A salad? A veggie? Tortillas? Rolls? Go ahead and brainstorm a few things and add them to the list.

Here's what my menu planner looks like filled in:

We have a list of over 60 meals that Mark and I like to make and eat. When we try a new recipe that we know we'll want to make again, we add it to the list.

Each week, we check our schedules and decide who should be responsible for the meal on any given night. It makes sense for us to have Mark cook most week nights, since he is typically home earlier in the day than I am. I usually handle cooking on the weekends. This may not seem fair to Mark, but we have a rule - if you cook, you don't have to clean up. So I do more dishes during the week. A lot more. Mark makes a mess. But he makes great meals. Anyway. Once we decide who is cooking when, we each decide what we want to make (cook's choice). We simply look at the menu planner for ideas, and fill in the blanks on the menu. I know, right? Easy. And then I usually fill in some breakfast and lunch items, which makes it easy to make the grocery list. Some weeks we have a leftover night. Not all. Just depends on what we make. Here's an example of a completed menu:

Now that you know what your making, it's easy to make a grocery list. Simply add the items from the "Ingredients" column of the Menu Planner to your grocery list. Don't forget to check the "Sides" category to see if you need anything like a salad, or asparagus, or something. Then add any other items from the menu, and anything else you need (basics, such as milk, bread, bananas; or shaving cream, laundry detergent, etc).

And then go shopping! That's it. Simple, yes? So go ahead and give it a try. Save some time. Save some money.

If you eat 5 smaller meals, or include snacks in your day, just add a couple of rows to your menu and fill them in. If you'd rather plan out a whole month in advance, go for it! I personally don't like to plan that far in advance, mainly because our schedules are somewhat random. But it certainly works for some. It usually involves shopping for nonperishable items once a month, then buying perishable items weekly or as needed.

Please let me know if you have any questions by leaving a comment. And if you give this a try, let me know how it works for you. Do already have a good way to plan meals? I'd love to hear about it!

Eat well, my friends! Cheers!


Becky said...

Great idea. Been using it for forty years and it makes life easy. Great idea to use Excel.

Catherine L said...

Okay, I'm making my menus today and I'm trying your system! I had an Excel spreadsheet of the meals we eat but didn't have the second spreadsheet that shows the ingredients, so I'm working on that now. I have a question: which Jambalaya mix do you use and with what kind of sausage? ;) Thanks, Lor!