Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Making A Menu Plan that Works

My two week menu rotation is a surprisingly controversial topic. It works great for our family, but I certainly don't expect it to work well for every family. A system of organizing your food some way can work well for every family, though. Here are the ways we organized our menu to figure out which foods went where.

By Time

Most of our schedules look the same week after week. Our schedule looks different than most, as my husband works both first and second shifts and he has a class schedule to wrestle with. This effects how much prep time I have with each meal. There is one day each week when we have dinner early and I go with him to class to shop in "the big city." We need a lighter meal on that day. When he works second shift, I don't plan on making a crock pot meal for lunch. My most time consuming meals are when he works first shift and I have all the time I could want to make a meal.

You may have work schedules to keep in mind, as well as any kids activities and your own schedule of errands.

By Cooking Method

Anyone still do the old fashioned baking day? If you bake, it is a good idea. It will save on the electric bill and save time. It is much easier to make a batch of muffins when the flour is already out for making bread. This is a perfect day to throw together a pizza or casserole for dinner.

This can overlap with deciding based on time. If you know you won't have time in the evening for meal prep, throw some food in the crock pot in the morning.

By Main Dish or Ingredient

In our family, we have ham night, chicken night and Mexican night. Ham night is Sunday because it is a Sunday tradition. Mexican night is Saturday. It is both my husband and my favorite night, because we love Mexican food. Chicken night is Wednesday because I have time to make an elaborate dish if I want to or, if I am exhausted, I can serve a simple meal of chicken, potatoes and veggies.

If you have something in the back of your cabinet or produce drawer that you are afraid will go bad, incorporating those into your menu is a good idea, too.

Here is our menu, simplified in these terms:

Sunday: ham night
Monday: full hour prep time
Tuesday: full hour prep time
Wednesday: chicken night
Thursday: light meal
Friday: crock pot day
Saturday: Mexican night

If this isn't something you already do, it may take a time investment to figure out, but it saves a ton of time in the long run. Especially if time is your greatest obstacle to home cooking, figuring out what you can do with the time you have will be an advantage. Even if you just make everything in your crock pot, there is still a ton of crock pot meals to satisfy your family.

How do you decide on a menu plan? If you have trouble menu planning, what's your biggest obstacle?


Carla said...

My biggest obstacle is my DH. He doesn't work a fixed schedule at his retail job. It makes our lives very unpredictable and hard to schedule anything. He may work any combination of 5-6 hours a day between 7am and ending at midnight. I try to plan around his schedule since he is very particular about what he likes (he hates pasta but the kids would eat it for every meal if they could, for instance), but sometimes his hours get changed. So I have learned to be very flexible :)

I like big batch cooking for the freezer. Yesterday I made a large taco bake, 3 ham and cheese quiche, 4 chicken quiche and 3 white castle pies for the freezer. I cut them into serving size portions before freezing. It saves so much time doing the prep work all at once and it took me less than an hour for everything (except the last batch that cooked). Last week I made lots and lots of soup for the freezer. I love just being able to pull something out when I don't feel like cooking, which is often.

Scottish Twins said...

We try to use what we already have in the house. I also clip coupons and try to use those items I have a coupon for in my menu planning. Then, I always try to add a meal with something I have never tried before every Friday.

Looking ahead at your calendar helps - I look at my week and decide which days I will be either too busy to prepare a difficult meal or that we will be out of the house during the time I usually prepare dinner. On those nights I usually do a crockpot meal or we have leftovers.

I recently wrote about my method here -

Do you use coupons in your meal planning Emily?

Simple in France said...

Emily, this is a great post. I've actually been hoping you'd post further on your meal rotation. I'm going to be visiting my family in CA really soon and their grocery spending is horrific--PLUS they loose tons of money eating out each month. I'm hoping to be able to help them and I think a rotation such as yours would really provide the 'scaffolding' they'll need to get started.

And I find it funny that your rotation is so controversial---really. I suggest that the people who find it shocking take a look at what they actually do eat. DH and I have probably less variety that you do! When I examine our default weekly rotation (the one we fall into without planning) we have the following each week: a pasta night, a pizza night, a soup or chili night, a quiche or gratin night and the rest of the week we just eat the leftovers. We didn't plan it that way, but as you said in an earlier post--we like what we like!

In fact, if I gave myself a 2 week rotation, it would probably cause our diet to be MORE varried than it is now. I'm thinking of putting my family in CA on a 1 week rotation, because it will be easier for them to keep up with when I'm no longer visiting. Routine is efficient and it allows you to save time, money, energy and creativity so that you can splurge where you want to.

Whoa--that was a long comment! Phew.

Sarah said...

I don't understand why this would be controversial. If it works for you, great. I try to limit myself to one shopping trip a week. Also, I'll sit down and plan out the week of suppers so I'll know exactly what to buy. Both of those things save us money. We get a weekly delivery of fresh organic veggies from a CSA, so I try to plan some meals around those.

Treva said...

Menu plans and a price book are the 2 things that will save the most money where food is concerned. I basically like to keep a well-stocked freezer and pantry and then plan my meals based on what's available in my home. My shopping list is then a few items I need to round out the menu plan, a few items for lunches and breakfasts, and then loss leaders to keep the stock going. I make out 5 or 6 meals for us to eat. My only "plans" are that I try really hard to serve salmon on Sunday or Monday, we try to eat a meat-free meal once a week, and I plan at least one night of leftovers preferably before the next shopping trip.

I don't have any problems with a rotation menu. Really when I think about it there are several things I cook that are family favorites and everyone would be sad if they weren't fixed on a regular basis. If I added them up there's probably a month worth of menus that are truly loved and which I cycle through on a regular basis.

vm said...

Our menu planning is almost nonexistent. I order vegetables from a CSA pickup once a week. I figure out how many vegetables to get for a week's worth of dinners and then each morning pair a vegetable with a protein in my head so that I've got something appropriate defrosted based on what our time crunch is for the day and thus how much time I'll be able to dedicate to cooking that night---which always seems to be very little since I've got a 15-month old (Emily, I would love to know how you are managing to do so much with 3 children requiring your time.)

I LOVE cooking and love the diversity of the local, seasonal vegetables and very often let them dictate what we will be eating that week.

Devon said...

I do a monthly rotation (DH hates repetitiveness). Plus, it's difficult for me to get out, so it's just easier if I do one large shopping trip for the month and have DH just pick up milk when we run out.

I am learning about couponing, though, and think I might try it.

I have wheedled the once-a-month shop to an art only spent 150.00 this month! YAY!

Anonymous said...

Your blog inspired me to give meal planning a go again. My biggest obstacle is my health and all its entailments.

I would like more variety, but I don't have much cooking skills as of now. I started a list of meals I do like, a master pantry list, and am going to browse the cookbooks I own for simple recipes to copy into a folder - then donate them cause I don't use them;)

Perhaps once I'm more adept in the kitchen then browse the bookstores and possibly order a few recommended allergen-free books in the future. -Cris

Emily said...

Scottish Twins, I don't usually use coupons, often overpriced processed foods, but I checked out your link for organic coupons. Awesome! For everyone else:

Simple in France, sounds like a good plan for your family in CA, if they are willing to go along with it. (:

vm, I think I can accomplish what I do because I have easy kids. Daniel is the EASIEST and has taught Bobby, my 15 month old, to be too. They play together a lot, and in a small apartment, we all know what each other is doing all the time, and they like to help with a lot of the tasks I do. My newborn sleeps a LOT, and nurses when I'm on the computer, reading, or working on my Christmas craft.

Jenny @ The Zepf Life said...

I have to work my meal plans around the kids schedule and my part time work schedule. I usually try to cook ahead for the days that I work. I will make a big batch of spaghetti sauce, or we will have leftover chicken turned into something else that night.

I have found a meal plan to be very beneficial. I used to do a 2 week meal plan and think I am going back to that, it seemed to work out better for us.

Meg said...

I plan our menus week by week for a number of reasons...I like to cook and try a variety of new things, we buy local when possible then by the sales ads for the week, and we always have something different going on. I work a fairly demanding job and sometimes have work obligations to tend to. Every week I have a list of several meals that 1.) we want to eat/try soon, and 2.) I can make that week with the ingredients that we have on hand.

I generally know if I'm going to have a long day ahead of me, so I make something that reheats well the night enchiladas, chili, potato soup, etc. Or...I'll stick something in the crockpot. If we want something like pizza, I'll make the crust the weekend before or the night before, so it's quicker when it comes down to a pizza night. Often I'll prep meat and sauces the night before so it goes quickly the next day. Some of my favorite recipes are timely.

So, we don't have a set menu, but I keep a running tab on recipes we can make with our ingredients on hand, and take my week from there.

I generally always keep a big hunk of pork and a whole chicken in the freezer. We love BBQ pork in the crockpot, and a whole chicken roasted in the crock pot works well...and gives me plenty of meat for a quick second meal during the week.

We do eat out once per week. I get coupons and specials for some of our favorite joints, so it stays pretty cheap.

Clisby said...

I don't have a day-by-day rotation, although I cook certain things pretty frequently. (I work full-time but telecommute, and both kids are in school - so normally, I don't have a problem finding time to cook dinner.)

Like some of the other respondents, I don't specifically plan menus ahead of time; I just keep staple foods on hand, and cook whatever I feel like. I usually decide the night before what the next day's dinner will be, in case I have to defrost anything. However, during any two-week period you can be sure I'll have: roast chicken; chili or spaghetti; at least one vegetarian meal per week; at least one fish meal per week; at least one pasta meal besides spaghetti (mac & cheese; fettucini alfredo; etc.) I get produce from a CSA, which is not necessarily frugal but does provide really fresh, locally grown food. I won't waste it, so that spurs me to try stuff I wouldn't normally eat, which reminds me I need to go cook some acorn squash. One night a week is usually leftover night, when we clean out the refrigerator. I'm trying to be more organized about cooking extra to freeze. At the moment I'm cooking batches of tomato sauce (the CSA had a bumper crop of tomatoes, so I got 25 pounds of organic tomatoes for $20.) It'll take me at least another day to cook it all and freeze it.

Aiming4Simple said...

Baking days? It never occurred to me to have a baking day every week until I read the My First Little House books with my daughters. In the book Winter Days in the Big Woods, I was fascinated to come across this chant:"Wash on Monday, Iron on Tuesday, Mend on Wednesday, Clean on Friday, Bake on Saturday, Rest on Sunday."

My own mother worked outside the home, so baking was more of a seasonal, holiday occurrence. I've been inspired recently by also following along with Crystal's baking days at her Money Saving Mom blog.

As for menu planning, a two week rotation sounds like it would work very well for frugal families. I personally enjoyed the month where I planned a full 30 days of various meals. There were some repeats, but I felt able to quench my thirst for variety. Anyway, thank you, Emily, for encouraging us to menu plan--it's one of those habits that is easy to let slide even when we know and enjoy the benefits.

SoMo said...

My husband works long hours and is rarely home for dinner time. So I schedule dinner for the kids and me around 5pm. That gives me an hour after we get home from school pick up and allows enough time for play and get ready for bed, which is at 7pm. However, there are a few days when I need to prepare something quick because there is an activity.

I only cook 3 days a week, because we always have tons of leftovers. I have not yet perfected the art of cooking only what we will eat at one sitting. No big deal. It makes it easier for my husband to grab something when he is hungry and it cuts down the grocery bill. Of course, we do have some quick foods on hand, like chicken nuggets. I was making them myself, but the kids won't eat them. They won't eat my homemade mac and cheese, either.

I try to plan one pasta meal a week for savings and because we like pasta, but don't want to eat it too much.

I don't have a meal rotation, because I like variety. My grandmother use to make the same thing everyday each week and we were so sick of it. I do make a weekly menu and it helps a lot. I leave the weekly menu and grocery list docs opened on my laptop, so if I get an idea for something we want to eat or need I can put on the list right away. It took some time to get to this point, but I don't know how we ever lived without. Oh yeah, we use to spend $150 a week on groceries for 2 people. Now I am down to $75 a week for 5 with a trip to Sam's thrown in.

SoMo said...

Oh, I stop stocking up for my freezer, especially meat, between June-Nov, hurricane season. I have never been so sad and disgusted then when we had to throw out tons of food that went bad.

KC said...

I menu plan each week. My method is to pass pen and paper around and get my son and his girlfriend to write down some meals they would like to see on the menu (this was interesting to do before my husband and I separated as I was cooking for him and his three daughters as well - lots of opinions about our meals in those days!). I then think about anything I would particularly like. Then I look at our schedules and figure out how much preparation time I will have each day. I consider what I have in the freezer or refrigerator that needs to be used up. And finally I sort out which meals we will have on which days and make a shopping list accordingly. We stick to the plan pretty well - sometimes meals will get swapped around if something unexpected crops up. Menu planning saves me time and money - and piece of mind - when I walk in the door after work I know exactly what I am cooking and don't need to employ my brain too much.

Early Modern Mom said...

I really enjoy meal planning, but I now have two vegetarians and an uncooperative husband in the house. Invariably, what I plan for the week is not what DH wants, so if I need him to cook one night, he'll go out and buy new groceries (never mind that he loves the food if I cook it). Compound that with the fact that I am not a vegetarian, and I don't know how to improvise good vegetarian meals. We end up doing a lot of on-the-fly eating.

Guinevere said...

We meal plan once a week before we grocery shop, and the meals are based around our schedule. For instance, Tuesdays are always a quick-meal night because I get home at 530 from work and leave at 630 for bible study. DH and I share the cooking, so he grills on Tues nights, which is really quick - we can get dinner on the table in 10 or 15 minutes.

We do have our favorite recipes we repeat, but we also try a lot of new recipes each week, because we enjoy cooking (and eating) a lot. We try to ensure when we meal plan that we are using the same ingredients for multiple meals -- i.e. if we need to buy limes, ginger and buttermilk, that's going to work for more than one recipe, so we aren't wasteful.

Anonymous said...

I have gotten my husband on board with meal planning and I really like the two week rotation of meals so we have adopted the idea. Half the time it takes to make dinner is myself or my husband figuring out what we want, this makes it effortless!

I also wanted to say that while I certainly don't agree with all of your ideas, this blog has really made me think about what I do with my money. So people may leave snarky comments and be rude, but know that someone on the other side of the US was affected by your blog. Thank you for making me think about these things! I will continue to follow your blog.

crabcakes said...

My main challenges are two things.

First, our schedules fluctuate. My spouse works 40-45 hours a week and I work about 25. We do alternate but there is usually only one parent home for dinner four nights a week.

Also, my spouse is a vegetarian and the kids and I are not. We eat mostly vegetarian but sometimes I just want to make a big turkey and eat it through the week without having to think about having a veggie option.

Eliza said...

I did it! I read from start to finish and now I am finally up to date. As you can see, I am excited.
Can't wait to hear what comes next.

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