9 Tips To Master Menu Planning

For me, menu planning is a delightful pastime. I love getting cozy on my living room couch with a cup of tea in hand and browse through the local store ads, cookbooks, and my own notes and recipes. As I jot down a menu for the upcoming week, I couldn’t be happier. “Ah, this is the life….” I say to myself. I love being a homemaker and Menu Planning is one of my favorite chores.

Menu Planning-1-2 I don’t always have the time to indulge in this relaxing pastime of mine, so most often I’m jotting down a menu quickly when I have some free time at work, while we’re driving somewhere with my husband, in the waiting room of the doctor’s office, etc. If all else fails, I will sit in the car and take 10 minutes to figure out my menu plan right before hitting the grocery stores.

The worst thing you can do is walk into the store for your weekly stocking up without a plan of attack.

IMG_1746 If you’re not like me (and most people aren’t, I realize that), you may think that menu planning isn’t that important and frankly, just sounds like too much work and headache.

Here are FOUR reasons why I think Menu Planning is worth your time and effort:

1. It will save you lots for MONEY.

2. It will save you lots of TIME.

3. It will save you from FRUSTRATION.

4. It will help you EAT BETTER.

Here are some things to consider when you are planning a menu.

1. Shop from your pantry.

Take a few minutes to look through you pantry, refrigerator and freezer and take note of the things that you already have and can prepare this week. This may seem boring, and feel dull and tedious, but remember, all those groceries were interesting and exciting when you were picking them out and brought them home last week or a few weeks ago. You did spend hard earned money on them, so use them up.

I like to spend at least one week per month, not buying anything new, but using up whatever I have. It’s really cool to see bare shelves and get creative.

IMG_1739 (333x500) It’s shocking how much food gets thrown out and wasted, because we simply ignore it and don’t use it once we bring it home from the grocery store.

The average American throws away 1.5 lbs of food every day and 25% of the food that we bring home is wasted.

Take a look at this chart with some shocking US food waste facts and statistics. I pinned this so I’ll have a handy reminder.

Let’s say NO to food waste and do our best to reduce our contribution to this sad state of affairs.

2. Cook perishables first.

One of the reasons that we end up wasting food, is simply because we don’t use it quickly enough. Make sure to use the food that will spoil sooner before you prepare the food that can be stored safely for a longer period of time.

For example, as a general rule of thumb, whenever I buy fresh fish, I always cook it the same day or the next day at the very latest.(Here’s a tip on how to store fresh fish).

Other food that spoils quickly: Fresh berries, herbs, lettuce, tomatoes.

IMG_9278 (550x367) You can relax about potatoes, pasta, cabbage, grains, etc.

IMG_6859 (500x333) DO you want another handy chart? This one from CookSmarts tells you the shelf life of some common ingredients and what you should used right away and what can last for weeks.  

3. What’s on sale?

Pay attention to the weekly sales flyers that come in the mail. You can also look them up online, which is what I usually do. You will save so much money this way. If chicken is on sale this week, plan to cook some chicken this week, instead of paying twice as much money for beef, if it’s not on sale.

Screen Shot 2014-01-15 at 2.37.48 AM 4. What’s in season?

Focus on the ingredients that are in season, because they will taste better. Strawberries, tomatoes, etc. will taste very bland and watery when they’re not in season. We have very weird seasons here in Florida. For example, our tomato season is right now, which I’m SO excited about, and strawberry season is in the winter time also. Not only will the ingredients taste better, but they are usually cheaper too.

These lovely tomatoes were from a local farm last January. I am hoping to visit make a visit for tomatoes again soon.

These lovely tomatoes were from a local farm last January. I am hoping to make a visit for tomatoes again soon.

5. What am I or my family craving?

This is usually a natural thing for us to consider, and how most of us grocery shop. We stroll through the aisles and grab what looks good. IMG_3529 This may surprise many of you, who think that planning a menu zaps all the fun out of eating and have the mistaken idea that being organized will force you to eat things you don’t feel like eating, and you’ll be compelled to eat rice, beans and tuna fish sandwiches, to save a buck or two.

Guess what? YOU’RE the one who is making the decisions of what will be on your menu, so you can decide to cook what you’re craving. I love to ask my husband or guests that are staying with us if they are craving any particular food and incorporating it into the menu.

6. Stay Healthy, Diversify and Don’t Get Into a Rut

Planning a menu is a fantastic way of keeping track of what you’re eating and try to eat healthier. As you are looking at your week’s menu all in one glance, it’s easy to spot “trouble areas” and notice if you’ve unintentionally been on a junk food streak. Have you ever realized a week later that all week you’ve been eating really heavy, calorie laden dinners, without meaning to? It’s easy to slip up if you don’t plan your menus.

Whole Roasted Trout-1-4 When you’re planning a menu, you make sure that you are eating enough fruits and vegetables every day, include seafood at least twice a week, and keep unhealthy foods to a minimum. I try to restrict unhealthy dinners to no more than once or twice a week, but if we’re doing well all week, we don’t have to feel guilty and can really indulge in some Scalloped Potatoes, steak and a delicious slice of cake.

Some people might not mind eating the same things over and over again (my husband is one of them), but  I love trying new recipes and like to eat different foods. Diversifying is not just to spice things up and make them more interesting though. It’s important for  a balanced diet, so make sure that you’re eating enough grains, vegetables, fruits, etc. and are getting a good variety of vitamins and nutrients.

This is a good time to look at all those recipes you pinned and actually make them.

7. Consult Your Calendar

Make life easier for yourself. It’s so easy to grab fast food or spend unwanted money on restaurants if we’re busy and for lack of planning.

With just a bit of planning, you can avoid all those money and diet pit holes.

I’m a night shifter, so I try to cook enough food before my work nights, so I don’t have to cook on the days after a night shift. On Mondays, I always plan a meal that is great served as a leftover,  or really simple dinner options, so I can have dinner on the table in half an hour or less. Planning a menu also helps me to plan accordingly and prep ingredients ahead of time whenever I can, unthaw ingredients in plenty of time, etc.

Look at your schedule. If you know you will be have a special occasion or a really busy day ahead of you, plan accordingly.

We let life “surprise” us and turn planned events into hectic emergencies, when in reality, we know when most of these times are approaching and just a little planning on our part could have  made everything so much easier.

  • Cook Once – Eat Twice – Many recipes are perfect to eat as leftovers, so cook up a large pot of Borsch and you won’t have to cook the next day.
  • Make Ahead Meals – prep the ingredients, assemble the food ahead of time and all that’s left on your busy day is the cooking.
  • Freezer Cooking
  • Quick and Easy Dinner Options and Snacks

8. Plan an extra dinner and a few extra snacks

We all know how hectic and unpredictable life can be. When that happens,  you’ll have everything on hand and will be able to prepare whip up something quickly without getting in a tizzy, having to run to the store, order out, etc. If your week runs smoothly and you don’t end up making the “extra dinner option”, no worries, just put it in your menu plan for the following week. I usually always have certain ingredients in the house for really quick food options, such as scrambled eggs, omelet, rice, pasta, chicken noodle soup, pan fried potatoes, baked potatoes, etc.

Baked Potato 9. Keep It Simple and Be Flexible

Don’t overcomplicate menu planning or you just won’t do it. Do what works best for you.

Sometimes, I just write down 7 dinners, buy the ingredients for those meals and don’t specify which days I’ll be cooking them.

As for breakfasts, lunches and snacks, we only eat breakfast as a family on the weekend, so I simply buy staple ingredients to have on hand to make breakfast or lunch. When it’s just me at home in the mornings, I eat somethings very simple, like eggs, oatmeal, sandwich with tea, yogurt, fruit, etc. and for lunch (which I don’t eat very often) most of the time I eat leftovers.

You don’t have to have a fancy shmancy menu planning notebook or special board where you write down a detailed plan for each day, outlining what you’ll be eating for breakfast lunch and dinner, unless that’s what works for you.

The most important thing is that you are making the best choices for your family and making life easier for yourself.

I’d love to hear all about your menu planning.

How many of you do it, and how do you do it? 

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Comments

  1. says

    This is so helpful, thanks! I used to plan meals at some point, and it really did help.
    I would have a list of dishes I could make using the stuff I have in my fridge, and I’d cook it when we feel like it, that week.
    I like cooking, but if I have to cook every night and come up with ideas on the spot, it stresses me out. I have a feeling that planning meals will be a good step in changing that.

    • says

      I love being in the kitchen (of course), but it stresses me out too, if it’s a really busy day and I don’t have anything planned. Then I’m crabby and in a bad mood, which doesn’t help the atmosphere in the home:(.
      I also love that we save so much money, eat healthier and don’t waste as much food. So many benefits.

  2. Roxanne says

    Wow! I absolutely loved this article. I used to do weekly menu planning, but this year I started doing it monthly. I’m really enjoying it! It’s a lot off my mind to have it down on paper and to know that I already have everything in my pantry. (I do one monthly grocery trip and then biweekly purchase fresh fruits and veggies)
    My parents raise cattle, so I get fresh meat almost weekly. We really enjoy eating meat that’s never been frozen! :)
    Sometimes I wonder, how on earth did i go with out a meal plan in the past?! It’s amazing to have that part of my day stress free :) :) :)

    • says

      Wow, Roxanne! That is so awesome that you get to enjoy such great quality beef. That is an incredible blessing.
      I also write down a bunch of ideas for the upcoming month and then I make a more definite menu plan a week in advance. Most of the time, I shop for perishables every week and other things like meat, pantry staples, dry goods once a month or so. It really helps:).

  3. N Wilson says

    Thanks for the great tips! Love it! I never planned dinner menu before… And very time (almost every day) when my husband driving from work I asking him to stop at grocery store and get something for the dinner or just plain we ordering delivery…. Can’t tell you… How much food beer throwing away at my house!!!!!! It’s terrible! I feel bad about it… It’s a great idea to cook a larger ammountt of food… Like soups… Several times I made soups ( from your blog ) and my family loved it and we been eating for several days… Mike was taking for lunch to work… It was awesome!!! I need to start doing this again…. Well…. Off to kitchen I go!!!!!! Going to make “cabbage soup”"”awwww… Thank you!!!!!!

    • says

      I know exactly what you mean! When I first got married, I could come up with something to cook every day and most of the time I had to go to the store every day too, or ask Sergi to stop by the grocery store on the way home from work. We ended up throwing away so much. I felt awful and that’s one of the reasons I started to plan the menu a week or two in advance. It makes my life so much easier.

  4. Nelya says

    Thank you Olga for sharing such great insights on meal planning. I have not been planning menus and its definitly stressful to have to come up with something everyday. Its been on my mind to start planning, but I’ve been dreading it for some reason. After reading this blog, i feel much better about starting and even a bit excited about it. I also like how you give suggestions for healthy eating (its my goal for this year to eat healthier). We have been eating out more than we should latetly and i know that now i can control it. Thanks again. Im about to go through my pantries right now and see what I can cook for tonight at least and will definetly start making weekly menus.

    • says

      Hi Nelya!
      I’m so glad that this was helpful to you.
      I agree that meal time can be a very stressful time of day. Menu planning is one way to simplify and get a little peace into an otherwise stressful time.

  5. Mila says

    Love your tips! I tried planning once but never really followed it:/ cause other things popped up. Will try with your suggestions and hope it gives me less stress every day trying to figure out what I should be cooking for dinner. Thank you Olga:)

    • says

      Hi Mila,
      It seems like a lot of work, but it really isn’t. After you do it a few times, it will only take you a few minutes to plan a menu. It makes life so much easier and less stressful:).

  6. Marina says

    Great tips!
    I have been debating if I should plan my meals out, if it’s even worth it, it seems like so much work… But I gotta tell you, you won me over.
    Would you consider sharing your weekly menu with us? Either on your blog or Instagram, if not weekly, at least once in a while, it would help those of us just starting out.
    Thank you, Olga, for another helpful post!

  7. Tanyagreent says

    Hey Olga
    Can you share any of your meal plan menus.
    I always wanted to do it but I found that I can’t force myself to eat what was planned. Like I always want to cook and eat when and what I crave at this moment. Thanks

    • says

      Hi Tanyagreent!
      Here are a few Menu Plans I shared a while ago.
      Menu Plan Week 1
      Menu Planning Week 2
      Menu Planning Week 3
      If you’re interested, I can start sharing my Menu Plans in the future as well.
      And guess what, if you’re craving something, put it in your menu. A menu plan is just to keep you organized and keep you from making extra trips to the store, ordering out more than you should, etc.
      I write down the new recipes that I want to try, our favorite meals that we’re craving, etc. and make a menu plan based on that. I hope that helps.

  8. Inna says

    Always plan a menu. I use to do it for a month long, but about 3 months ago I switched for 2 weeks menus. I always enjoy the time while planning. My husband loves that I plan our menu. I just hang it on the fridge door and he always peaks in the morning. I never plan our breakfast menu because I always have yogurt, oatmeal, farina, ingredients for pancakes or waffles, eggs, cereal, ect. I prepare our breakfast depending on the time I have and mood. I always have soup or borshch in my fridge! Always! My kids love it and i think it’s very important to eat soup or borshch every day. So if didn’t have time to cook a dinner and sometimes that happens, even when planning, I always have food that reheats great. Borshch or soup reheats great and doesn’t cost much to make it. Why not cook a huge pot? My husband is never home for lunch, but when kids are back from school its great that I can offer a bowl of hot soup after a junk lunch they had at school.
    Thanks for sharing your tips! I like how you mansion to cook from produce that’s in season. I love that idea, but sometimes I really want a fresh salad with veggies that are not in season. I have to agree it doesn’t taste as good.

    • says

      1-2 week plans work best for me too, Inna.
      I like to have available food ready for quick dinner options as well. My husband and I love soups and I make it at least 1-2 times a week.
      I love your “system”. I guess it’s mostly “experienced mom and homemaker”:). Great job.

    • says

      Hi Ange,
      The most important thing for me is to keep it simple and not overcomplicate it. I guess it becomes a habit after a while. It’s also something I really enjoy, so it doesn’t feel like a chore to me:).

  9. says

    I love this post!
    This reminds me again and again to plan my meals.
    My only downside is that I cook meals for my family, and for our residents, who don’t like a lot of foods that we eat, and we don’t like what they eat.

    I usually would jot down the name of the dish on my daily calendar, or print off a blank calendar for the whole month and post it on the fridge and jot down a weekly menu in there.

    • says

      What a bummer! It always makes it so much harder when you have to cook 2 different meals for the same. It would be so much easier to cook one thing for everyone, right:).
      Maybe you can come up with one meal a week that all of you can enjoy. At least one day a week you can get a small break. Or how about making a double batch of the meals, and a few days a week you can just reheat leftovers?

  10. says

    Most of my” planning” happens in my head while in the grocery store. The funny thing is that I write things down, and sometimes just forget my shopping list at home lol. I’m a busy mom of 3, and as crazy as it gets sometimes I know that more planning would only do good. Just one more “money-saving”tip for everyone: Never do grocery shopping when hungry! =)

    • says

      I agree with that 100%, Veronika:). Whenever I got to the store hungry, lots of item appear in my cart that have no business there, just because everything looks SO good and I start craving so many different dishes that I’ll never get a chance to cook all of them up before them spoil:).

  11. Shirley David says

    Hey Olga,
    Lovely post. I enjoyed reading it and photographs r too good.
    Most of d ladies hate grocery shopping I met…They r surprised that I Love grocery shopping. I make my list n feel excited about the nxt week cooking..In store I like to stand near green leafy veggies n colorful fruit. I LIKE the picture where u r with d baby n picking veggies.
    I enjoy housekeeping n cooking like u do and I m in a very bad mood if I don’t hav any idea about what is for dinner tonight. …
    Two thumbs up for this post.

  12. Lidiya says

    Olga I love all you wonderful tips, however I did try doing the menu planning ahead of time (1 week) but when I get to that week I no longer want to make it (either I’m feeling too tired or it no longer sounds as appetizing). I do end up cooking and my husband always ends up loving it and every one who has dinner with us that day!!! (even though sometimes i Dont really like, and not sure its deserves all that hussle) Do You have any tips for me, or how could I improve?

    • says

      I really don’t know how to help you with this, Lidiya.
      If I crave something, I will keep craving it until I actually eat it. Sometimes, I will crave something for weeks or months until I finally get around to making it.
      Maybe you can have a supply of ingredients on hand in the pantry of things that you like to eat, and a stash of different meat and fish in the freezer. This way, you can plan to cook whatever you are craving and have all the ingredients in the house already. I know it saves a lot of time and money if you don’t go to the grocery store every day.

  13. Isis Tomik says

    Dear Olga,
    I was in the middle of menu planning – as I googled Steelhead recipes and your blog popped up as the top search item. I’ve been a follower since then.

    I plan weekly (after reading all the comments I might try for 2 weeks). You advised of no “fancy notebook” but I will share with all the I bought a weekly planner for the entire year (actually its a “school planner” its got from Sep 2013 to Dec 2014 – week by week; and its not thicker than 1/2″).

    It has the week on the Left Hand side and a notes pages on the right hand side. So I plan a menu on the left and write the grocery list on the right =) . My favorite part is I can flip back to the past pages and “see” what I haven’t made in a while or notice what I make way too often (I only started this menu planning in Sep – just like the notebook).

    The notebook lives in my purse so as soon as I get a “craving” I write down for the upcoming weeks and it is one less day to plan for. =)

    Thanks for the blog – and if EVER you decide to publish a cookbook – just know that I alone would buy about 10 copies for all my family and friends…and I would advertise to the WORLD how great your recipes are. =)

    • says

      I am so glad you found my blog and are following my recipes and writing:). Thank you, Isis!
      That sounds like a really useful and practical notebook.
      I’m definitely not against planners, notebook, etc. It can be as fancy or simple as you like, as long as you use it and it’s helpful to you.
      My planners and notebooks “live” in my purse as well and I also write down dishes that I crave and dishes that I want to try as I think of them:).
      A cookbook is in the works, but, as you can imagine, it takes A LOT of time. I’m thrilled to know that you would be interested.

  14. Morgan says

    Hi Olga! I love your site! I am also a menu planner. I used to plan a whole month of dinners at once but then I started doing my shopping weekly. I have a very tight grocery budget so I started couponing to save money. Now I plan my meals based on what is on sale that week. I think your tips are spot on. I also think it is smart to pay attention to prices of foods you buy often like fresh meat and produce. Like you said., fresh produce is cheaper when it is in season. If you know what’s in season in your area its easy to spot a good deal. Also, stores like to advertise sales on things that really aren’t good deals if you know your prices. For example: if pork chops are buy one get one free then make sure you look at the price per pound because usually those pork chops will be $3.99/lb, When they are usually $1.99/lb. So you’re really not getting anything free. Stores like to trick you! So my addition is just know your prices and pay attention when you shop, don’t be fooled :-)

    • says

      Hi Morgan!
      I’m happy to meet a fellow menu planner:).
      I absolutely agree with you; it’s very important to know prices of the ingredients that you want to buy.

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