Friday, September 4, 2009

Getting It All Together: Menu Planning

The Menu Section of my notebook…hmmm…hasn’t seen much action lately. I have seriously let this department go for quite some time which is why I’ve been racking my brain the last few days trying to find inspiration for this post. After a great talk with my friend Stephanie yesterday (Thanks Steph) I finally got some motivation. Yay!
I was out of healthy dinner ideas. Making nutritious meals my kids will actually eat is no easy feat. It’s no wonder I’m stuck in a rut and end up making the same food time and time again. But no more! The age old question of “What’s for dinner?” will now be neatly placed in my notebook in the form of a menu plan. Menu planning actually used to be one of my favorite weekly “chores”. Far too many times recently, making a menu plan is something I intend to do . . . when I get around to it. Somehow the days fly by and I’m faced with a hungry brood with no idea what to prepare. I tell myself "Oh well, another week shot, maybe I'll get to it next week, when I'm more organized." (In my head I'm a perfectionist and tend NOT to accomplish anything if I can't do it my way right the first time.) I know it doesn't have to be complicated. I know a small investment of time can reap great rewards: like saving money, saving time, and saving your health. Can you hear me still muttering, "But I don't wanna ..."?

Well, let’s keep it real, anyone who knows me knows that I think it is great fun to think about indexing my recipe collection, entering the data in a relational database and crunching menus till the year 2015, but I shall resist the urge. Hi my name is Jenn, I'm a list-a-holic. These days elaborate hoop-lah becomes just another failed exercise in home management overkill. So repeat after me “I shall break into menu planning easily by starting small and simple.” Think, next week- seven days- one trip to the grocery store.

Where to start? Here’s my game plan:
I wandered to my cupboards and refrigerator to check what I had on hand only to discover a few of last week's purchases that were languishing beneath wilting lettuce or hardening tortillas. Bad girl! So the first step for me is to take a pantry inventory. You can download my cheat sheet here. Once I do this I will have a good idea of what I already have on hand. I know I’m overstocked so I should probably proclaim a no spend month just to clean out those darn cupboards. Crickets chirping

Moving on…

What does my family like to eat?
Next I will make a list of everything I like to cook or things I know my family will eat. This will give me a start on my list of meals.
What is on sale?
Then I will dig out the grocery fliers from my local newspaper. I'll use the ads to get a feel for the week's sales and bargains and use that feeling to guide my menu plan.
Okay. Ready? Time to rough out a simple menu plan.
What does my week look like?
Now I drag out the good ol’ household notebook and open it to the calendar pages. I will flesh out my menu plan by matching it up with the family's calendar. This way I can save the oven roast for a Sunday afternoon and the quick-fix taco salad for Survivor night *wink, etc.
Lists~oh I love thee
Make your shopping list. You can print my blank family shopping list here. Post it on the refrigerator. I generally keep 1 extra of our most used items on hand. Say I use the last of the grape jelly. No big deal, I go to the cupboard pull out the next grape jelly and immediately write grape jelly in the corresponding category on my shopping list. It has worked great with boys husbands who don't write "Frosted Mini Wheats” on the list when they empty the box eat Trix cereal for the rest of the week.
Ready, set, shop--but shop WITH COUPONS
Some sites that I’ve had a reasonable amount of success are
The Grocery Game (membership required but worth the small investment)
Coupon Mom (free but sometimes difficult to get the deep discounts found using the grocery game.
Practical Saver My friend Stephanie uses this one. I have just been too lazy to try it yet, although Stephanie’s GINORMOUS savings at Safeway a few weeks ago has me on the verge.
Post the menu plan on the refrigerator door. Refer to it during the coming week as you prepare meals.
That's it! The bare bones of menu planning. You've made a draft plan, shopped from a list, firmed up your plan and held yourself accountable. The devil, however, is in the details. Here are some points to ponder as you bring menu planning under control:
Yes, there are some well-organized souls among us (don’t look at me) who don't make formal meal plans. I bet if you look close though you'll discover that household meal time dances to a routine. Sunday's a big dinner, Monday is burger night, Tuesday gets the leftovers from Sunday, Wednesday sees spaghetti, Thursday's the day for a casserole, and Dad grills on Friday. Saturday night, it's take-out or pizza.
Create a routine around your menu planning. Sure, you can try new recipes just don't let your enthusiasm for the glossy pages of the latest Taste Of Home issue con you into doing so more than three or four times month. Cooking tried-and-true speeds dinner preparation and streamlines menu planning.
To do it, look for cues in the family schedule. Make the routine yours, and it will serve you well. Remember though to stay flexible as menu plans aren't written in stone. If you are dodging cramps on the "big" cooking day? Swap it out with Pizza Night and go to bed early. The purpose of a meal planner is to make the dinner decision time less agonizing and to help you with your grocery shopping.
After you've made menu plans for a few weeks, the beauty of the activity shines through: recycle them! Your family won't mind, and you'll save even more time and energy.
Instead of an ambitious plan for 30-day menus, tuck completed menu plans in your notebook. Next time chicken is 59 cents a pound at the store, pull out the plan you made that week. Done!
With that said all you first-born-organizer-slightly-OCD-types I have found THE TOOL OF THE CENTURY for you. Go to this website and scroll down to the weekly and monthly menu planner and download whichever one tickles your fancy (I downloaded both just in case the aforementioned indexing of recipe collection compulsion sets in). The creators of this template, Jon and Maria Wittwer,God bless their pea pickin' hearts state “For each main dish, side dish, breakfast, and lunch entry, you can select an item from a drop-down list within the cell. You can edit the meal lists based upon your own favorite foods and recipes. The weekly meal planner also has a notes and grocery list section.” Oh how I love a good list. I’m just giddy with excitement to try this one out.

I double dog dare you to do it!
Take the vow with me. "I, [state your name], hereby promise not to visit the supermarket again until I've made a simple menu plan!" Amen

PS. Kris over at ScrapWarrior has made some PDF and Excel files for us. So visit her blog for these downloads. Thanks Kris!
Have a great weekend everyone!

1 comment:

Stephanie said...

Wowzers! And Great Scott Batman! That was a lot of information! Thank you for the sharing and encouragement.

I am glad to report that I have pulled together ALL of my recipes and categorized them based on type of meat, pasta and so on. I think this system will help me with the
4 o'clock crunch time so I don't spend 30 minutes searching through recipes.

Thank you so much for blogging so extensively. It really motivated me to get my toosh in gear!