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Simplify your menu

by Karen on January 18, 2012

Menu planning is one of those things I take for granted now. For as long as Tony and I have been together, I have always sat down and written out meals for each day of the week, and then shopped based on that meal plan. It wasn’t always this way for me. In college, when I lived with a roommate and planned most of my meals for myself, I didn’t really plan at all. I went to the grocery store, picked up whatever looked good, spent way too much money for one person, and felt like I had nothing to eat two days later. I don’t even remember what that’s like now, but it sounds like chaos!

Even if you’re single, menu planning is crucial if you want to eat healthy and frugally. Poor planning is one of the main reasons people end up spending money on unhealthy food at a drive-thru in the middle of the week. Either that, or you end up like me in college with a cart full of expensive food and “nothing to eat.”

There is most certainly room in the menu plan for eating out if you like, but the point is to plan for it. Know when you’re eating at home, what you’re eating, and when you want to go out for dinner.

Here’s my simple menu planning system. Feel free to share your ideas in the comments!

Start with the sale ad for your local grocery stores.

If you get a Sunday paper, chances are the ads are included. If not, check the grocery store’s website. Our local stores are Kroger and Meijer, and both stores offer easy online access to their weekly sales ads. I pull them up and look for deals that pop out at me and inspire menu ideas. Meats, cheeses, and produce items can all inspire menu ideas. If beef is on sale, I’ll make spaghetti with meat sauce. If chicken is on sale, I plan for chicken dishes and stock up my freezer. If cheese is on sale, it’s homemade mac and cheese or broccoli cheddar soup. Not only does buying what’s on sale save money, but it can make coming up with meal ideas easier if you’re inspired by the sale items.

Plan around your weekly schedule.

I always keep my weekly schedule handy when I’m planning meals for the week. If it’s going to be a busy day, I plan an easy meal. For laid back days, I may plan to try something new and a little more complex. This also prevents me from planning a meal for a night that we have dinner plans. If your menu works with your schedule, you’re more likely to stick to it instead of abandoning the plan for pizza.

Keep a list of tried and true favorites.

Even though there are some dishes we’ve been cooking forever, I always seem to get a form of writer’s block when it’s time to plan the menu. To combat this, I keep a list of our favorite dishes saved on my computer with links to the recipes. Some simple meals get repeated a lot (homemade pizza, burritos, roasted chicken, and grilled cheese sandwiches, for example). Some are reserved only for special occasions (like my mom’s delicious but labor-intensive lasagna). Keeping the list handy makes it easy for me to write a quick and dirty menu if need be.

The Internet is your best friend.

I am not exaggerating when I say that every time I plan a menu, I marvel at how people did this before the Internet. I guess that’s what all those cookbooks collecting dust on my bookshelf were for? Sites like AllRecipes, Food Network, and Pinterest make it incredibly easy for me to search for meal ideas and try new things.

I must confess that Pinterest (follow me here) has replaced all other recipe sites for me in the past few months, though. I have separate boards for Main Dishes, Crock Pot Meals, Side Dishes, Snacks, and Desserts. Every time I see something that looks good, I pin it on the appropriate board. I also pin recipes I see around the web on my own boards. When I’m looking for ideas, I just have to scroll through the Main Dishes board.

A word of advice: I see lots of people splitting their food boards into incredibly specific categories — soups, sandwiches, entrees, etc. I don’t recommend doing it that way. One board with all of your dinner ideas makes it easier to scroll through without clicking around to several different boards and looking for what you need.

Share the menu with the whole family.

Since my husband and I are currently the only family members who get a vote, I always email the menu to my husband right after I finish planning it. I also write it on a dry erase board that hangs in our kitchen for easy reference. This may seem redundant, but you would be amazed how often we completely forget the menu we just planned within minutes of returning from the grocery store. Displaying the menu lets everyone know what you’re eating and when, and serves as a reminder when you need to thaw the meat or begin preparing dinner earlier for more complex meals.

When all else fails, eat leftovers.

If money is tight or you’re struggling to come up with a meal, leftovers night is a great way to clean out the fridge without emptying your wallet (heh, see what I did there?). Let’s be real, though: leftovers night is also a great excuse to order a pizza.

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