Wednesday, February 2, 2011

How Do I Menu Plan?

As I was responding to a FB friend about how I plan a weekly menu, I realized I probably could write about it here, and maybe I could write somewhat coherently about my experience of menu planning.

Menu planning has evolved in our family. I don't remember when we started being pretty regular about planning, and perhaps we aren't quite as regular at it as I would like to imagine. I do remember a time when menu planning was more like "hmm, what's for dinner tonight?" I'm also pretty sure that time was well before we had kids, or at least before we had kids eating table foods. Sometime between the "what's for dinner" time and now, I've tried different ways of planning what we will eat.

Menu planning has become crucial to my weight management. Without a plan, I eat whatever is around, and that may or may not be a healthy choice. Menu planning is not all about my weight management though. Menu planning gives me a chance to explore new recipes and try to have a reasonably diverse diet. I love pasta, but it is better for everyone if I eat something other than pasta for dinner. Menu planning also gives me a chance to think about my weekly schedule from a different perspective. When do I have the opportunity to cook? When am I more rushed and in need of something quicker? Thinking about my schedule in this way has helped me not forget about appointments, activities, and various commitments. It actually keeps me organized in non-food ways, weird as that seems.

And to be perfectly blunt, I'm a bit of a control freak (yeah yeah, I know my friends are all saying "a bit???"). Menu planning is an opportunity to control something which is nearly completely controllable (unlike #*!& ice dams).

Here is how I plan a week of food.
  • I pick a day/time to do my planning. For me, this usually is Wednesday night or Thursday morning since I have my Weight Watchers meeting on Wednesday and prefer to do my grocery shopping in the second half of the week.
  • I think about my schedule and the family's schedule for the week. When I will be out? When am I in a hurry? When do I have time to cook something requiring more attention?
  • I think about types of meals I might like for that week or types of meals someone has requested. To do this, I actually made a list of our most frequently consumed meals and categorized them by "genre" (e.g., pasta, chicken, fish, vegetarian, "Mexican," etc.). This list making took under 15 minutes. As I think about meal types, I can refer to the list and consider family favorites (pasta night = pesto tortellini; chicken might = chicken fingers or baked chicken or chicken shepherd pie, etc.).
  • I try to make sure a few meals will leave leftovers for lunches.
  • I match the type of meal to a specific recipe/idea while considering schedule. For example, when I have time to cook, I might choose to make chicken fingers with green beans and potatoes. When I don't have as much time to cook, I might choose a slow-cooker soup with bread.
  • I browse recipes for new ideas, esp. when I know a main ingredient but not how I want to prepare it.
  • I plan meals for every dinner at a minimum, but I don't plan to cook new food every night. At least one night, usually 2, is up to Aaron due to my schedule. And we do order pizza or Thai food once a week.
  • The last step is that I look at recipes and make a shopping list. The previous bullet points can be done in whatever order works for that week, but the grocery list is super important. I do it last so I make sure not to forget anything. I usually forget something anyway.
Something else that helps with my menu planning is that I have some no-cook, go to meals for when I really don't have time for anything. Mostly this applies to breakfast when I'm trying to get kids fed and out the door. I barely have time to eat on preschool mornings, so forget about actually cooking anything! These basic quick meals also change with time. Right now, quick breakfasts for the kids include instant oatmeal, Cheerios, and yogurt (not usually all of those at one breakfast). Ellie also sometimes will eat toast or string cheese. For me, I love Chobani Greek yogurt on top of fruit, specifically fruit requiring very little preparation. I pull off a handful of grapes, peel a clementine, quickly cut a banana. Pour yogurt on top and enjoy. It's amazingly filling, more so than a bagel with cream cheese and keeps me going longer. A few months ago, I made large batches of steel cut oatmeal in the slow cooker and would add a bit of brown sugar when I was ready to eat it. These quick breakfasts reduce the planning, and I don't have to think about food when I really don't have time.

Although there never seems to be time to plan a menu, I find that menu planning actually gives me more time during the week because I don't have to come up with food ideas while trying to do everything else. Making a bit of time each week to come up with even 2-3 dinners makes the rest of the week go more smoothly. I make fewer "emergency" trips to the grocery. I eat more healthfully which generally helps my mood and energy. Menu planning means I never get to 5:00 and ask "what's for dinner." Instead, I answer that question when my family asks, feeling competent and confident in the plan.


  1. Yep, we learned years ago that we had to meal plan or we ended up eating crap! Even pre-WW weight.

    And we also like to try at least one new recipe a week. Maybe not so easy with kids, but for us it keeps things interesting!

    Do you have Costco around? I go there for their fruit and veggies. Or do you buy organic? I don't because I decided I just needed to eat more fruits and vegs (when I was on WW) and then the organic label got manipulated too, so I just buy their fruit and wash well. And yes, the carbon footprint is large...oh well.

    Anyway, they have great deals on large amounts of fruit. So I have about a cup of berries with my Greek yogurt every morning. They also have Fage and Chobani Greek yogurt too, cheaper than I've ever found! My preference is Fage though. It sure does keep you full, huh?

    Nice post.

  2. We have a Costco, but BJ's Warehouse club is closer. We get some produce there and we buy various yogurt including Chobani there (much more reasonably priced!!). Honestly, I'd rather buy local than organic, but in the winter I have to give in on both those ideals.

    And agreed about carbon footprint. I hate knowing that the cherries we have are from Chile. Nothing against Chile. It's just so far. But if I wait until I can buy local, then I go about 1.5 seasons without eating fruit. Blech.

    I do try new recipes pretty often, despite/because of the kids. I think it's important for them to expand their palates. I try to have some balance between new and familiar. Once I know the kids REALLY like something, I try to make it more regularly (assuming it's not JUST pasta).