M is for Menu Planning (#23 Start Menu Planning Again/ 30 While 30)

Ah, menu planning.  If you take a minute to google those two words you will likely come across hundreds and thousands or ideas, menu ideas, lists, suggestions, advice, and instructions on how to perform this task for your family to make your grocery shopping days and meal prep time more simple.  I figured it was time to share my method.

I used to menu plan fairly regularly and then I got out of the habit.  Subsequently our grocery budget didn’t seem to stretch as far and I found myself, all too often, standing with the refrigerator door wide open, scratching my head, pondering what on earth was I going to feed the starving masses.

Confession #1:  I am HORRIBLE at coming up with dinner ideas on the spot.  I am not one of those gifted women who can make a gourmet three course meal from chicken leg, a piece of cheese, and a jar of peanut butter. 

So back when I started my 30 Before 30 list, I determined that I needed to get my menu planning game face back on and get more organized.

Confession #2:  I am equally bad at whipping up breakfast and lunch.

My husband gets paid biweekly, so that is how I determine the time period I am planning for and how many meals I need.  I plan ALL meals: breakfast, lunch, and dinner.  I also plan for snacks.  Trust me, this sounds more difficult than it really is to do.

I start out by grabbing three sheets of paper.  One to write down the meals, one to make my list on, and the last is my meal list from the previous planning period.

Then I carry over any meals or snacks from the previous planning period that for some reason did not get prepared.  We could have eaten out or had leftovers, etc.  This paper is broken down into categories that are self explanatory: breakfast, lunch, dinner, snacks.  I put each meal in its appropriate place.  After I’ve done this, I know exactly how many more meals we need for the remainder of the pay period.  If I carried over three meals, I’ll need eleven more to complete my menu plan.  If there were no meals to carry over, then I start from scratch, numbering 1-14 under each main meal category.  As far as snacks go, I typically plan to have at least six things in this section.  Many of the snacks we eat are long lasting items, so they will stretch through the period.  There are also days where we don’t have snacks.

The other blank sheet of paper is where I’ll make my grocery list as I plan.  I also categorize this according to the section of the grocery store the item is found.  This makes shopping go more smoothly.  Since more often than not, I have my three children in tow when I make our grocery shopping trip, I like to be as efficient as possible.  The categories I use are:

  • Dairy
  • Breads
  • Meats
  • Condiments/Sauces
  • Spices/Seasonings
  • Baking Needs
  • Canned Goods(I don’t buy many of these, but I do use canned tomatoes and occasionally things like refried beans for tacos or tuna)
  • Beverages
  • Produce
  • Paper Products
  • Toiletries
  • Miscellaneous (things that don’t fit into the above categories) 

Now it’s time to dig in and get to work!  First, I ask each of my children what meal they’d like for me to add to the plan.  They always look forward to their “special meal night.”  Then I ask my husband if he has any preferences.  Once I’ve plugged those in, I might choose some of the meals that we enjoy on a fairly regular basis(things like spaghetti, tacos, homemade pizza).  Then I start perusing my Recipes Pinterest board and plugging in anything that makes me go “Mmmm.” After Pinterest, I move on to my own recipe box that I have filled over the years on AllRecipes.com.  (I love that site!)  Finally, I gather up my cookbooks and flip through the pages, using them to round out my plan.

I do include side dishes in my plan as well if it isn’t an all encompassing casserole or soup.

Confession #3: I am no better at whipping up side dishes than I am at coming up with a meal out of thin air. 

Here are some examples that I might have in our plan for each category:

Apple Cinnamon Muffins
Strawberry Vanilla Pancakes
Eggs and toast with honey butter

Grilled cheese sandwiches and soup
Cracker, fruit/veggie, and cheese plate
Honey Nutty Rollers with baby carrots

Curried Chicken, Brown Rice, and Lentil Casserole
Black Bean Vegetable Soup with tortilla chips
Red Beans and Rice

Crunchy Honey Vanilla Granola
Whole Wheat Soft Pretzels
Popcorn (from the kernel, not microwaved)

As I choose each meal, I add the ingredients that I need to prepare it that are not available in my pantry to my list in the appropriate category. If there is something that I need more than one of (like the number of pounds of ground turkey), I denote this using tally marks next to the product. Give me about an hour and I can knock this out and be ready to load up my buggy!  After you’ve done it a time or two, it will go faster.

Some tips:

  • Keep a running list somewhere in your kitchen to jot down when you run out of staples.  This prevents having to go BACK to the store after you’ve done your big shopping trip for that butter that you didn’t account for while choosing your meals. Add this to your main list once you’ve planned your meals.
  • Make sure to include if you know you will not be eating at home during the time period.  This will save you some time and money or you can use the money you’d use toward that meal to pick up a few fun extras that you typically don’t buy (ice cream, anyone?)
  • Stick to your list!  The main reason I plan out all of our meals and snacks is to help me stick to my grocery budget!
  • Account for things that you can’t pick up all at once.  We use about 4-5 gallons of milk in a two week period.  Our fridge won’t fit all of them at once, so I denote on my list that I need 5, but I only buy 2-3 on my initial trip.   Produce also falls into this category. 
  • Make sure to include if you need to make something for a special event or occasion.  If there is a potluck or a church function that requires me to make a dish, I include that in the plan. 

If you are interested in learning how I save money on our groceries, check out this post.

That’s how I do it!  Do you menu plan?  Do you have a method or do you just go with the flow? 

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  1. I really need to start menu planning again…

  2. You’ve shared some great tips, Dusty. It’s a terrific habit to cultivate. Menu planning is HUGE sanity-saver for me. I’m making some notes, and implementing some of your ideas during my next session of menu planning.
    Have a great week!

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