Moment of Truth: I actually plan my menu weekly. That's just what works best for me. Also, I'm one of those weird people who actually likes to grocery shop. Might be because a couple times a month I can get my husband to stay home with the kiddos, and I can drink my latte and compare sales tags in peace.
See, the thing with menu planning is you have to start with a plan for the planning. Otherwise, you might get overwhelmed. At least that's true for me.
Though I do plan out our menus week by week, I also have a Monthly Meal Planner that's just a running list of meals that might work for the upcoming month. I jot meal ideas down based on seasonal cycles for produce, our monthly calendar, and what's already hanging out in the kitchen. I also write down ideas for breakfasts and lunches so I can factor those into my plans.
I have a board full of delicious ideas on Pinterest but truthfully, I've made only a handful of those dishes. If I start there, I wind up with a menu that's based purely on cravings and good photography. Not a good idea for being strategic with my budget.
1. Consult Your Cupboard
So, instead, when I meal plan I start with what I already have. A quick assessment of my pantry and freezer helps me know what is available to me immediately. I keep an inventory of what's on hand using these printables from Getting It Together: A Home Management System that Works. But I don't update these as often as I'd like, so often I just do a quick scan of the shelves and make notes of the meals I could make on the Monthly Meal Planning guide from the same set of printables. (And sometimes I'm out of ink in the printer, so I just write on a piece of paper, because, you know, whatever gets it done.)
2. Consult Your Calendar
When I sit down on the weekend to plan for the following week, I always look at my calendar. I need to know if my husband has an evening meeting or if I have a girls' night or if there's an evening that's not going to allow for a lot of food prep, so I can plan accordingly. This helps me choose which nights are best for crockpot meals, leftovers, just sandwiches, or everyone's favorite--a quick run through the Chic-Fil-A drive-through. When I make my initial list of monthly meal ideas, I always include dinners and breakfasts I know are easy prep and cleanup for those crazy nights that so dominate our busy lives.
3. Consult Your Capacity
A home cooked meal is a labor of love and commitment. It is, even if it's just pancakes on paper plates because you have to make it and clean up after. Dishes are my absolute least favorite part of executing my meal plan. There have been times I've tossed it out the window and we've just gone out because I simply can't wash one more dish. So when I meal plan, I have to think about my capacity. If I've got a fairly open week, I have a tendency to think that's when I'll make all those awesome (and time-consuming) recipes I've been pinning or marking in my favorite cookbooks (or this month's issue of Southern Living). But even if there's nothing but family dinner on our agenda in the evening, if I make a big meal from start to finish and the clean up, family night has turned into a kitchen all-nighter and I'm exhausted. So if I plan for a meal, I know is going to take a little more effort and babysitting, I try to put it in between meals on the calendar that are simple and low-key. Usually those meals are the most low-budget ones, too.
4. Consult Your Coupons
I used to start with the sales. Because sales and coupon matchups are how you save the most money right? Then I realized that my tendency was to come home with lots of snacks, cereal, and Hamburger Helper, none of which was going very far or keeping everyone from still being hungry. So I started meal planning first based on the sales for meat and produce. Chicken's on sale? Great, we will have four different versions of chicken casserole and one night of stir fry. So that wasn't working either. But once I moved consulting the sales to the last thing I do for menu planning, supper got a lot more interesting and I became a lot less stressed. These days, I only coupon for my staples like peanut butter or yogurt. We don't buy a lot of cereal because I make breakfast, but that's an easy item to pick up for a low price with a coupon match. I rely on different stores than just my one because I know I can almost always count on better meat deals at Quality Foods and better produce at the local markets or my CSA. Coupons used to rule my menu planning and grocery shopping, now they are just a tool that helps me stay on target with our budget.
So how do you menu plan? Do you use one of the services I hear are great? Do you just figure it out as you go? What tips do you have for me? Because I'm always looking for more creative ways to make dinner a less stressful part of our day.
This post is part of my series Living Whole(ish) on a Budget. You can read my Tips for Buying Locally Sourced Produce, Meat, and Dairy here.
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