Planning Family Menus

A menu plan saves time, money and energy. It promotes a healthy diet and keeps you sane. Check out our tips for creating foolproof family menus for a week or more.
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Drama Free Dinners: Meal Planning

Drama Free Dinners: Meal Planning

As a home manager your most valuable asset is energy. Help save some energy and time and plan dinners a week in advance.

Photo by: DK - House Works © 2010 Dorling Kindersley Limited

DK - House Works , 2010 Dorling Kindersley Limited

What are we having for dinner? It’s the question of the hour. Too often, we find ourselves looking for answers in the supermarket at 5 p.m. Harried and harassed by hungry children, we scan the aisles in desperation and rack our brains for a quick answer to the recurring dinnertime question.

Keeping the family fed can be daunting. Three meals a day. Seven dinners a week. From supermarket to pantry, refrigerator to table, sink to cupboard, the kitchen routine can get old, old, old. No wonder we hide our heads like ostriches from the plain and simple fact: into each day, one dinner must fall. What’s the answer? A menu plan.

A menu plan saves money, because it cuts out last-ditch trips to the supermarket. A menu plan saves you time. No dash to the neighbors next door for a missing ingredient, no frantic searches through the freezer for something to thaw for dinner.

Most important, a weekly (or monthly) menu plan conserves a home manager’s most valuable resource: energy. Follow these strategies to put the power of menu and meal planning to work for you.

Dare to Do It

Often, making a menu plan is something we intend to do when we get around to it. Instead of seeing menu planning as an activity that adds to our quality of life, we dread sitting down to decide next Thursday’s dinner. “I’ll do that next week, when I’m more organized.”

Wrong! Menu planning is the first line of defense in the fight against kitchen chaos. It’s better to do menu planning in a single, 10-minute weekly session than to do it nightly and in despair—standing in line at the market or peering into an open refrigerator. Internet menu planning services offer menu plans and shopping lists by e-mail, integrating current coupon offers for maximum savings at the supermarket.

Take the vow. “I [state your name], hereby promise not to visit the supermarket again until I’ve made a menu plan!”

Start Small and Simple

Grandiose ideas of weekly new recipes and complex monthly schedules can scuttle the act of menu planning before it begins. Sure, it’s fun to think about indexing your recipe collection, entering the data in a relational database and crunching menus until the next decade, but resist the urge.

Instead, think, “next week.” Seven little dinners, one trip to the supermarket. Slow and steady builds menu-planning skills and shows you the benefits of the exercise. Elaborate and over-detailed menu plans become just another failed exercise: roadkill on the way to an organized kitchen.

The Power of Advertising

Where to begin to make menu plans? Start with what’s on sale! Scan food fliers from the local newspapers or visit supermarket websites to get a feel for the week’s sales and bargains. Build menus around loss leaders: items offered at below-market prices to attract traffic to the stores.

This week in my home town, for instance, two local chain supermarkets are offering whole fryers for a low, low price. To feed my family well and frugally, this is the week for Ginger Chicken and Fajitas, not a time to dream about Beef Stew and Grilled Pork Tenderloins. I’ll serve those when roasts are the loss leader at the market.

Build a Family Shopping List

Look in any gift store or browse mail-order catalogs and you’ll find cute little shopping lists for all persuasions and occasions. Bear-shaped shopping lists. Long skinny shopping lists. Shopping lists with winsome graphics. Shopping lists with colored borders. Cute, colorful freebies with pictures of kitty cats and teddy bears. Most homes have two or three pads of lists or a dozen.

Only one problem: why aren’t you using them?

Because they don’t work, that’s why! Teenaged sons play stuff-the-trash can with the empty cereal box, but have you ever known one to write “Cheerios” neatly on a shopping list? Pre-printed lists, moreover, fit about as well as one-size-fits-all stockings from the convenience store.

Solution? Build a family shopping list, noting all the foods and sundries your family consumes. Check your receipts. Computerized store receipts can help jog memories for items to include on the list. Include a few blank lines for new foods or unexpected ingredients.

When building your family shopping list, grab a handout supermarket map next time you visit the store. Organize your personal shopping list according to the departments where you shop in the store. Once you’ve made your family list, use a printer or copier to print 52 copies: a year’s worth of shopping lists for the household.

Each week, post a fresh list on the refrigerator door or in the Family Information Center. When today’s breakfast empties the carton of orange juice, circle that item on the list. Boys who don’t circle “Sugar Gaggers” on the list when they empty the box will soon learn the principle of cause-and-effect—not making a note means that they’ll be eating hot cereal for the rest of the week.

On shopping day, grab the list and take it to the supermarket. You’ll know at a glance that you need to buy more juice, cereal and bread.

Court the Calm of a Routine

Yes, there are some well-organized souls among us who don’t make formal meal plans. But look closer and you’ll discover that there’s an underlying strategy behind this seemingly relaxed approach—the household meal service dances to a routine.

Sunday’s a big dinner, and Tuesday gets the leftovers. Monday is burger night, and Wednesday sees spaghetti, year in and year out. 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 cookbook con you into doing so more than twice a month. Cooking tried-and-true speeds dinner preparation and streamlines menu planning.

To do it, look for cues in the family schedule. At-home days with more free time can handle a fancy meal or can signal soup, sandwiches, and Cook’s Night Off. Running the evening kid carpool is a great time to plan for pick-up burgers. Make the routine yours, and it will serve you well.

Stay Flexible

Menu plans aren’t written in stone. So you’re fighting fatigue on the “big” cooking day? Swap it with Pizza Night and go to bed early with a cup of herb tea. Family members will forgive you, as long as they get their postponed favorite a day or two later. Building flexibility into your plan can also serve the aims of thrift with Cook’s Choice Night. Traditionally held the night before grocery shopping, you can slide a neglected dinner into Cook’s Choice, or chop up the contents of the refrigerator for a clean-it-out stir fry. Either way, you’ll feel smug at your frugality and good planning.

Make It a Habit

Simple or not, a menu plan won’t help you if you don’t make one. Weekly menu planning is a good candidate for the weekly checklist. Get into the habit of planning before you shop, and you’ll get hooked!

Recycle Not Reinvent

After you’ve made menu plans for a few weeks, the beauty of the activity shines through: you can 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 a file folder or envelope. Next time fryers are on special offer at the market, pull out the plan you made this week. Done!

Menu Planning Basics

OK, it’s food ad day. Ready? Time to rough out a simple menu plan. The goal is two-fold: shop efficiently to obtain food required for seven dinner meals, while minimizing expenditure, cooking, shopping, and cleaning time. These are the bare bones of menu planning: make a draft plan, shop from a list, retain flexibility, firm up your plan, and hold yourself accountable.

- Scan the food ads for specials and sales. Rough out a draft menu plan: seven main dinner meals that can be made from weekly specials, side dishes, and salads. Use a blank sheet of paper, or a menu planner form.

- Wander to the pantry and the refrigerator to check for any of last week’s purchases that are languishing beneath wilting lettuce or hardening tortillas. The best bargain is food you’ve already purchased so plan to use it! Review your shopping list and note any condiments or spices that you will need for the week’s meals.

- Ready, set, shop—but shop with an open mind. That fryer on special offer won’t look like such a bargain next to a marked-down mega-pack of boneless chicken breasts at less than a dollar a pound. Be ready to substitute.

- Return from shopping and stock your shelves. As you put away groceries, flesh out the menu plan. Match it up with the family’s calendar, saving the oven roast for a lazy Sunday, the quick-fix pizza for soccer night.

- Post the menu plan on the refrigerator door. Refer to it during the coming week as you prepare meals.

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