Weekly menu planning

My sister-in-law (I have two, I’ll leave you guessing about which one) told me recently that she wants to do two things: incorporate more vegetables into her family’s diet and plan what her family eats more regularly.

I started creating a weekly menu about the time I started law school, in the hopes that it would save me time because I only had to go shopping once a week. It has made such a difference in the quality and variety of meals we eat that I thought I’d write a post about why and how we do it, in the hopes that others might find it useful.

First, why we plan our menu each week. As I mentioned above, I started doing it originally to save time. We continue to plan our meals even though I am out of school, because we discovered a number of additional benefits:

  1. You’re saved from 8 p.m. post-work dinner freakout (aka “Ack! I’m hungry! What am I going to have for dinner? I know, I’ll just order teriyaki…again…”). When dinner is planned, half of the freakout is solved, and if you plan the right dishes, dinner prep takes less time than the pizza delivery boy.
  2. Ingredients are guaranteed to be on hand.
  3. Cooking goes much faster, since you know how to prepare the meal (by knowledge or through printed recipes).
  4. When your significant other gets home before you, he/she can help with dinner prep, because they know what’s for dinner.
  5. You eat healthier, as home-cooked meals are more nutritious and less toxic for your body than frozen or take-out meals.
  6. Grocery shopping goes way faster. You go to the store knowing exactly what you want and don’t fritter away extra time wandering around. Case in point: I shop at Costco on a weeknight and am usually in and out of the store in 15-20 minutes.
  7. Extra trips to the store are mostly eliminated. (This saves you money on impulse purchases, too!)
  8. You can plan for leftovers for office/school lunches, saving you tons of money a year in take-out lunches. Nick loves this, too, because peanut butter sandwiches get tired 40,000 times in a row.
  9. Leftovers can be packed into lunches as you clean up the kitchen, saving you time in the morning.
  10. There is less food waste, because you are buying only what you need.
  11. It allows for variety during the week.

There are as many ways to plan a menu as their are people planning menus. Here’s what works for us.

Step 1: Pick a shopping day. It doesn’t matter what day, just pick one that works with your schedule. Mine happens to be Thursday evening, because I’m usually planning for weekend adventures by then.

Step 2: Decide which meals you are going to plan – all of them or just dinners. Pull out a piece of paper and pen, whiteboard, Word doc, or other tool to record your menu. I just plan dinners, because I know we’ll eat a salad and leftovers as lunches, and we usually eat a few staples for breakfast (oatmeal, green smoothies, fruit/muesli, etc.) that don’t require any planning provided I have the basics on hand. I use paper to record our menu, so I can tack the list to my refrigerator when I’m done.

Step 3: The day before you go shopping, review your calendar for the next week and mark down any important activities that would impact your meals (e.g. work lunches, after-work activities, etc.). Write the activities on your menu, so you don’t forget. This week, we’re going to the theater on Thursday, so I needed to decide whether we were going to eat out or have a quick dinner at home. We opted for a quick dinner at home before leaving.

Step 4: Canvas your refrigerator and write down all the misc. veggies and other foods you find that need to be eaten up. This week I had half a butternut squash and some carrots in the vegetable drawer. (This is also a great time to toss the science experiments.)

Step 5: Think about dishes (or look through cookbooks) for recipes/dishes that incorporate those foods. Check the foods off the list as you pick recipes that incorporate them. Write the dish on your menu (including the cookbook and page number of the recipe), then review the ingredient list and write down anything you’re missing on your shopping list.

Step 6: Once you’ve figured out how to use up what’s in your fridge, you can begin planning the remaining meals. As you pick a menu item, write it on your menu, then review the ingredient list and add any missing items on your shopping list.

Step 7: Review your pantry for any staples you’ve used up. For us, that means oatmeal, muesli, flour, spices, soy milk, and fruit. Add those items to your shopping list.

And that’s it! Now you have your shopping list and are good to go.

Following, are a few tips that have helped us. If you have any extras, please share it in the comments!

  • Think about the fruits and veggies that are in season right now and try to use those in your meals. It will save you money (in-season foods are cheaper) and the food will taste better (in-season foods are fresher).
  • Check the weekly grocery store circulars before you plan to see if there are any specials or coupons that could reduce your grocery bill.
  • If you’re struggling to come up with dishes, try assigning a theme to each night of the week. Monday = crockpot; Tuesday = soup; Wednesday = pasta; etc. That will help you narrow down your choices a bit. Alternately, you could decide to cook from one cookbook on a given week.
  • Designate one night as “leftover night.” Inevitably there are leftovers that need to be eaten that haven’t made it into lunches, or you going out with friends, or you had a tough day and just don’t feel like cooking. A planned leftover night keeps you from buying more food than you need.
  • When making things that freeze well, double the recipe and freeze it. Make sure you write down what you’ve made on a list somewhere, though, so you don’t forget it. Then, when you need a reheat-and-eat meal, you’ve got one stocked away.
  • Be mindful of the shelf life of your fresh produce. Meals that incorporate perishables like bean sprouts and arugula should be eaten within a day or two. Things with frozen vegetables or less perishable vegetables such as cauliflower, cabbage, and potatoes can be eaten a little later in the week.
  • Plan to eat something green at every dinner. No excuses: it is way too easy to throw together a salad or steam broccoli. Your body will thank you!

Lastly, I’ll give you a glimpse at our menu this week. I’m using the cook (mostly) out of one cookbook method this week. This week’s cookbook is Appetite for Reduction. When you see it all laid out, it looks sort of like an exciting restaurant menu. I’m hungry just thinking about all the yummy things we’re going to eat!

Thursday: Kidney Bean and Butternut Squash Jamba Stew

Friday: Maple-glazed turnips with prunes and steamed broccoli

Saturday: what’s-in-the-fridge pizza (basically any spare veggies we have on a pizza crust) and salad

Sunday: Black Beans in Red Velvet Mole, steamed kale, and rice

Monday: Chickpea Picatta and Caulipots

Tuesday: leftovers

Wednesday: Curried Chickpeas and Greens and basmati rice

4 comments for “Weekly menu planning

  1. January 23, 2011 at 8:00 pm

    (I) we used to be heavily into meal planning but now I’m more about “what looks good or fresh” or what is on sale at the market when we go shopping.

    But I have to say I disagree with many of the reasons for it. For instance if it is 8pm and we don’t have food cooking on the stove, neither of us are going to make it planned or not. We usually have quick meals for those occasions. Things we are sure to have in the house/garden that we can put together quickly; like burritos. These are often the items we eat on “leftover night” as well because unless we plan for it, we rarely have enough leftovers for two dinners.

    A downside to weekly meal planning is if you plan something (that requires soaking beans overnight) and then stay late at work, or something comes up that evening that prevents a timely dinner then you end up soaking beans for multiple days. Rare, but stuff like that has happened to us.

    Spending less time in the store is good, but that is actually fun creative time for us wandering the produce looking for ideas and what looks yummy.

    My favorite benefit from menu planning is leftovers. There are obvious time and money benefits to doubling a recipe. It takes virtually the same amount of time to make, and if the main ingredient is something on sale then you are really saving money.

  2. Carry
    January 24, 2011 at 8:43 am

    I’m glad the “scan the produce aisle for what looks good” method works for you! When I did that, I spent twice as much time at the store and still had to make a second (or third) trip to the store for items that I needed to complete the dish. Thinking about what’s in season is usually enough.

    Our weeknight meals tend to take 20 minutes or less to prepare, so at 8 p.m. it’s no big deal for us to spend 20 minutes in the kitchen. To each his own, I suppose!

    Did you know that soaking beans for multiple days is actually a good thing! If you don’t get around to cooking them, just change the water; you’ll end up with healthy little sprouts, which are even more nutritious than the bean. Just toss it in to your recipe as you would the soaked beans and … YUM!

  3. January 31, 2011 at 6:46 pm

    Sorry about that negative comment. I didn’t mean it to be as such.

    Scanning does work for us, but like I said we find that to be fun creative time. (We always go together for produce shopping.) And sometimes you go to the market, and what you wanted to buy doesn’t looks so great like broccoli or celery did when California had all that rain last month.

    Does the pressure cooker allow 20 minute meals? I know you eat vegan at home, but are some meals raw? Or is it the cookbook? (I’d like recommendations.) Unfortunately, most things we make require 10 minutes of cutting and chopping.

    Thanks for the tip about the beans!

    • Carry
      January 31, 2011 at 9:21 pm

      No apology necessary. Disagreement isn’t negative; and, as I said, I’m glad the way you shop works for you! If I held recipes in my head better, I could see how that would be a lot of fun. Sometimes in the summer, when I’m at the farmers market, I look for interesting veggies, but those usually end up as side dishes.

      We eat lots of raw foods. There’s nothing better than a good salad packed 🙂

      As far as the pressure cooker goes, yes it does make cooking fast. Tonight for example, we chopped some potatoes, red pepper, and onions (5 min.) and threw it into the pressure cooker with some coconut milk, a stalk of lemongrass, and some ground coriander (2 min.). We cooked it at high pressure for 5 min., while we steamed some broccoli and voila! Dinner in less than 15 minutes. If you’re interested in buying a pressure cooker, I definitely recommend Lorna Sass’s cookbook Great Vegetarian Cooking Under Pressure. The recipes are simple, quick, and fantastic tasting.

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