Thursday, February 24, 2011

Menu Planning: A Primer

What's for dinner?

Recently I was asked about getting started with menu planning. Sometimes, all it takes is a question to find out how many ideas you have about something and then it all gushes out of your mouth in a stream of menu-planning-mania.

If you are serious about saving money and making the most of your shopping trips, claiming good stewardship of your time and resources, menu planning is the ONLY way to go. It stops you from buying stuff that looks good at the time but sits around in your cabinet forever, stops you from making impulse buys, and in the long run makes your life easier. Who doesn't want life to be easier? Last year I shared my tips for making the most out of seasonal visits to farm markets, but this time I thought, what about meal planning?

Here are some initial points to get started:

Plan for one week at a time. Look at your calender and decide how many meals you’ll be eating at home, and what days might demand quick and easy suppers.

Start with your supermarket circulars if you use them and see what's on sale. Pay special attention to the front and back pages because those are you best bargains. The items that stores are losing money on go on the front and back pages. Start planning. Don't forget to plan for leftovers, snacks, and lunches to take to work. If possible, make extra food at supper so you can have it for lunch the next day.

Make sure you plan your menu right up to the day when you know you will be able to make it back to the store. You need to know when your NEXT trip to the store will be after this one, so you don't over-buy or under-buy.

In case life happens and you can't get to the store next time when you thought that you could, keep an "emergency meal" on hand. Maybe even two. These should be meals that are made from frozen and pantry items that won't go bad, so it doesn't matter how long you have them stored, within reason. These are your safety nets in case you can't get to the store, or in case you thought there would be leftovers when there is not.

Don't forget to plan for dessert, too. And breakfast!

I used to menu-plan for 2 weeks ahead. It really didn't work for me because I found that there was always the inevitable SOMETHING that I would run out of and have to go to the store for anyway. Also, if you cook with a lot of fresh ingredients like I do, things would go bad before I could use them. I find that I can get away with planning for about ten days. Just something to think about.

Common menu-planning mistakes to avoid:

1) Finding a recipe, putting it on the menu, getting to the store and discovering that the ingredients are expensive or out-of-season. Or else it involves a small amount of an expensive ingredient that you will only use once.

2) Putting something on the menu without checking to see which of the ingredients you already have and do not need to buy again. Make sure you "inventory your stock" before going to the store. Don't assume you have something-check!

3) Buying out-of-season ingredients when they are at their most expensive. (Example- this is a good time to buy potatoes, not blueberries.)

These are things that work for me, but everyone has different schedules and family sizes.

So readers, help me out. What would your advice be to the young lady who first asked me?


  1. Monica,

    Good Evening, I read your money saving tips which are very informative and saving wise. You ask about any tips others may have; my grandma told me that if we check out the grocery store's circular, we could always have a variety of things by observing thier weekly sale items! Something different would be on sale weekly.

    Debbie S.

  2. I try to menu plan but the hard thing for us is there is only a set amount of money even if there are extra days in between paychecks. Casseroles really help but it can still be hard.

  3. I'm a big believer in trying to always keep brown rice on hand . . . then you can always "fill in the cracks" with that fixed in different ways. With 4 hungry children--two of them teens--in the house . . . it seems there are ALWAYS "cracks".

  4. Monica, you are like the model of home-grown goodness. I've always wanted to do this, not only for economy of resources, but also because I could plan for economy of calories. The fast food is usually the most expensive and the highest in calories.

    Maybe we should all pay you for posting a model meal-planning week, complete with a grocery list. Many people have someone clean their house... give me a good cook any day, and I will clean my house. Having someone plan meals and cook several meals a week would be like living in the lap of luxury for me.

    Thanks, Monica, for prodding us to be healthier and thriftier.


  5. I enjoyed reading your guide to meal planning. Like you, I shop and plan for a week's worth of meals each visit to the store. One thing I do that keeps my stock of food items "in stock" at home is replacing any non-perishable or food I put in the freezer that were opened during the previous week, i.e. condiments, meats, canned goods, etc. I keep a running list during the week & add all of them to it. Have a great weekend!

  6. What a great post! We've been doing this for awhile now and it never dawned on me that people just go to the store without planning. Cha ching! It's actually kind of fun to sit down and plan the week. It reminds me to try new recipes, too. I like the part where you say to have "emergency" meals in the freezer or pantry. That's a very good idea because sometimes things come up, like LIFE, so it's nice to have an easy go-to meal instead of ordering out. And when we're going to order out, that goes on the menu, too, so we can make a salad or something to go with it.

    I'd say my biggest mistake in menu planning is planning something BIG for my day off - homemade sauces or bread, etc. When my day off gets here, I usually don't want to spend the whole day on dinner. I like to stick to the weekends for those things. :)

  7. So many good ideas here, and a heart "Amen" to having brown rice on hand. During the winter I like to make sure I have a few potatoes, too. Thank you for all your help!

  8. Hi Monica! Love your blog! Just something I do to save money within my menu plans...I make sure that if I am making a large roast or chicken, etc. I plan a second and sometimes a third meal that same week, using the extra meat. I end up throwing away leftovers unless I have a plan for it. Just a thought.
    Blessings ~ Jamie

  9. It is easy to plan meals at our house. If I have a chicken cooked we have 3 meals of chicken and veggies, then one meal of chicken soup or chicken pot pie. If I don't have a chicken cooked we have pork chops or burgers. We always have veggies. No dessert, 'cause Mr. D doesn't eat that. We occasionally will have applesauce and yogurt, but only if supper has been a "little skimpy" as Mr. D says.

    He always has the same thing for breakfast except on Saturday when we always have pancakes.

    May be a little boring and I do branch out if I see a recipe that looks interesting. I don't know if Mr. D appreciates it or not, but my taste buds enjoy a change once in a while. I usually have leftovers to heat up for lunch and Mr. D usually doesn't take time for lunch.

    Our meat chickens run about 10-12 lbs each and last us for 3 suppers and a couple of lunches as well. We hope to raise pigs sometime soon. I only buy beef if it is on sale, but we've discussed going in on a beef or purchasing a side of beef next year.

    I'm not much at planning out meals because of the repetition. I usually cook a chicken on Saturday when I'm around to keep an eye on it. It's almost like cooking a turkey.

    What is your favorite entre for supper?


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