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Meal Planning 101

April 8, 2010 Print This Post Print This Post

One of the questions I’m most frequently asked by friends & readers has to do with meal planning — How do you do it?! So I decided that I’d spend a little time and tell you how I do it! But first, lets start off with the why! There are 3 good reasons why everyone should meal plan:

1. It saves money. If you have everything planned and go to the grocery store with a list in hand for exactly what you need, you cut down on those ‘Oh this looks good, I’m sure I can use that in something this week” purchases.

2. Grocery shopping is easier. That list I mentioned in #1 means easier, hopefully quicker trips to the grocery store = more time to do other, better things.

3. Cooking gets easier. No standing in front of the fridge & pantry for twenty minutes trying to decide what to cook/eat.

But there are a lot of different ways to approach meal planning.You could have a set rotation Monday’s = Breakfast for Dinner, Tuesdays = Tacos, Friday = Pizza Night, etc. You could even develop a set menu that you rotate monthly. I think everyone approaches meal planning slightly differently. I’ll begin with my personal strategy and methodology. And readers, feel free to chime in with your strategies, tips & tricks! So here’s my meal planning strategy:

Check the Grocery Ads. I always start by looking at the ad for my local grocery store. Our grocery store ad comes in the mail but is also available online so if its not something you normally do, go check it out now! How does the grocery ad help? For starters, buying stuff on sale saves money. Second, it greatly helps narrow down the WHAT to eat question. As an example, this week our grocery store has the following items on sale that caught my eye:

$0.97 Large Red Bell Peppers
2/$1 Large Haas Avocados
Buy Butter Lettuce, Get Free Romaine

What catches your eye is not necessarily what catches mine. So now what? What do you do with these things? Sometimes it comes straight to me and other times it needs more work. Bell Peppers = Stir Fry. Avocados calls for Mexican – I don’t know what yet. Butter lettuce = lettuce wraps. Romaine = Salad for side dishes.

Now its time to Make a Meal Plan & Grocery List. I typically grocery shop on the weekend (Saturday mornings preferably). When I’m making my plan for the week, I assign meals to days (so I don’t forget any days) but the reality is that we rarely eat our meals on those assigned days (with the except of seafood which we eat immediately). So based upon the grocery ad inspiration I start with this off the top of my head (look I’m half way done and all I did was look at the Grocery Ad!):

Sat: Stir Fry & Brown Rice
Sun: Enchiladas with Chips, Salsa & Guac
Mon: Lettuce Wraps
Tues: ____ & Salad
Wed:
Thurs:
Fri: Dinner Out w/ Friends

Then I fill in the gaps, based upon what sounds good to me or via inspiration. Where does my inspiration come? A lot of places. When it comes time to fill in some days, sometimes its just whatever I might be craving like Fried Rice. Or sometimes, I have to dig around to find something that sounds good. For that, I usually have a few go to sources:

(1) My cookbook collection!

(2) Web resources. My first stop is always Epicurious.com — I don’t think I’ve had a single Gourmet magazine recipe go wrong for me. Its a great starting place for inspiration if nothing else. Here are some other web resources that might be useful to you:

(3) Bloggers. I have my list of favorite blogs where I might go look for a new recipe that looks good or go back to Google Reader and find some of the recipes I’ve previously saved from my fellow bloggers. Don’t regularly follow blogs? Use google’s blog search feature. I prefer this over blindly googling for recipes because I tend to get my commentary from bloggers about a recipe. Another great blogging resource is Jane’s Blog, This Week for Dinner. She posts her menu weekly and calls her readers to share their menus so there are lots of menus in one place if you need some ideas!

It usually takes me about 15 minutes to plan a menu for the week and then I don’t have to worry about it again! Breakfasts and lunches are easy. I simply make sure we have cereal, milk, and cereal bars since those are our go-to items. I always put fruit on the grocery list as well. And we either eat sandwiches for lunch or leftovers so lunchmeat and/or PB are items I always check for before heading to the store.

So, menu planning in a nutshell. How do you plan your menus?

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{ 16 comments… read them below or add one }

Dunne' April 8, 2010 at 5:47 am

This is essentially how I do my menu planning as well! I haven’t always done but I can say (for those who don’t), DO IT!!! It takes so much stress out of figuring out everyday what to have for dinner that night. And like Ashley said, it saves a great deal of money and helps you stay organized for the week; it’s such a nice feeling knowing what you’ll be eating that week!

Looking through the ads definitely helps (although I will admit that sometimes I don’t always use that as my guide) and I’ve been trying to get better about clipping coupons for additional savings! Another thing I do is keep all of my recipes (ones that I’ve pulled out of magazines/cooking publications, recipes from others and recipes that I’ve wrote down) in 3-ring binders. I have them categorized according to: Appetizers, Salads, Breads, Brunch, Soups, Sandwiches, Side Dishes, Entrees and Desserts. I store each recipe in a plastic protector sheet and slip it in under the appropriate category. So when I’m stuck and can’t figure out what to make, I’ll go to my Entrees section and flip through to see what sounds good, what would work with the ingredients I have or what would work with what’s on sale that week! It’s really helpful and helps me stay even more organized in the kitchen, especially now that I don’t have a million cooking magazines in my cookbook cupboard!

Thanks, Ashley, for sharing Jane’s site with us…..I have added it to my Google Reader for additional weekly menu planning inspiration!

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Tracy April 8, 2010 at 8:52 am

Great post! I actually plan out my meals for 2 weeks, as strangely, I don’t really like to go grocery shopping. I love your “this week’s menu” widget!

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Mar April 8, 2010 at 9:23 am

We tend to eat a more Traditional Foods diet, so it’s rare to find what we need on the sale flyer. Sometimes at Whole Foods, but I only do my shopping there once a month (2 kids in tow = I’m only going to one store a week and it’s too $$ to go there every time).

I do make a weekly calendar though, and take into account anything we have on specific days. I do those days first (ie, going to the lake after work means a crockpot meal, a late appt mean I plan on making enough for leftovers that night), then I fill in the blanks. Sometimes DH will have a special request, or I have a craving, but I try to use at least one new recipe a week. I usually pick a cookbook and work my way through every recipe in there- my favourites so far have been the Real Simple ones. Easy, and truly yummy.

I also make sure to have my staples on hand in case of a last minute change of plans- spaghetti fixings, and cornbread chili pie. I can do either of those with only 10 minutes of prep time.

For lunches, we have a rotation- I make a big casserole of something on Sunday night and that makes dinner that night plus 2-3 days of lunches for both of us. Then I do either salsa chicken (chicken+peach salsa+crockpot), pulled pork (pork+Stubb’s Honey Pecan BBQ sauce+crockpot), or “Homebirds” (our version of a Freebirds burrito, lol) and that covers our lunches for the week as well. Breakfast is similar in that it’s one of two things every day, so o thought required there.

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Wendy (The Local Cook) April 8, 2010 at 9:31 am

I usually choose a week’s worth of recipes, trying to select things that will use up what I have on hand. Then I shop for any additional ingredients I might need. I have a general idea of what I’ll make when but it can fluctuate. Lunches are always leftovers, breakfasts are always smoothies.

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Jesse April 8, 2010 at 9:33 am

great post! there seems to be a lot of talk around the blogosphere about meal plans and meal planning lately. i do a weekly meal plan, like you, and shop once a week, on sunday’s. i love it and it really does save money and time. i think i would be truly lost without my meal plan and i dont even want to think about the time, money or FOOD that was wasted before i started meal planning. i keep all my recipes in a 3 ring binder, like dunne’ talked about above, and i also use page protectors. in the front of my binder i have a list of dinner ideas and i have a list of “favorite” meals. i find a lot of new recipes from blogs AND my rachael ray magazine subscription!

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Amber April 8, 2010 at 9:37 am

Great post! I plan the same way, except I also look at what coupons I have to make my list.

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Krista (aka Buckin) April 8, 2010 at 10:07 am

I used to do it very much like you. Now I start with what items are locally in season for my area and what’s available at the Farmer’s Market. THEN I check what’s on sale and build my menu around the Farmer’s Market/garden items.

It’s still very economical/budget friendly and healthy for you and your local economy. I keep an eye out for new recipes and file them to use when I know the majority of ingredients will be available.

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Krystal April 8, 2010 at 12:25 pm

Awesome post! I plan the same way, but also add coupons to the mix – figuring out ways to cut costs or have one new recipe to try at least once a week. That way it will get me out of the rut of go-to recipes as well. I love the Healthy Bread in 5 minutes a day right now, it’s always out so I can constantly look at bread recipes to make.

Meal planning is like a chore that I absolutely love to do, getting out all the books, weekly ads, and inspired blog posts – it’s like the creativity juices just flow and you get inspired to cook. I also figure out which grocery store I can do the majority of my shopping – farmers markets are best for produce, but if I can do all my shopping at one store – then I’m done for the day. It just makes it for an easier one trip stop versus three or four stores.

Big reminder that helps me the most, I’ll write up the weekly menu on a huge magnet on the fridge, and then write or notate where I got the recipe from and the page number if applicable. I subscribe to too many food magazines, and lately I’ll add a post-it on top of the magazine cover – writing down which recipes I’d like to try and make.

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Cara April 8, 2010 at 8:23 pm

I work my meal plan pretty similar to the way you do, but I must be slow, it takes me a lot longer! I keep an evolving stash of recipes bookmarked from blogs, Epicurious, and my latest obsession – Eating Well. It can be hard to decide what to make sometimes, with a good balance of easy/quick staples and new meals that might take me a bit longer. I also try to resort to what’s in my freezer before anything else, since we buy our fish and meats in bulk.

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cmonstr April 8, 2010 at 8:26 pm

that was fun to read :) . I am lame and can’t plan anything like this since it is just me to feed these days and im just not all that hard to feed! ;) When I DO have the time though, I do like to actually make meals ahead of time on the weekend and either freeze them or pop them in the fridge to heat up later that week. I do this with enchiladas (frozen), bread, chili, pasta, hummus, that sort of thing.

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jane April 8, 2010 at 9:33 pm

hey dude…thanks for the shoutout! :) so happy we’ve connected through this blogging stuff! love it!

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Stephanie April 8, 2010 at 9:47 pm

What a great explanation of meal planning! I also meal plan but need to get better about matching it with the grocery sales. I’ve found if I don’t meal plan then we almost always end up eating out. Great post!

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themilkmanswife April 8, 2010 at 10:00 pm

Great post!! I use essentially the same system (and same sources). I actually get kind of excited when the new grocery ad comes out each Wednesday. Meal planning is fun! Even before I look at the ads, I look at what I already have. Usually there’s a couple scraps of produce leftover from the week before that can be turned into something before they spoil. My main goal is to get in and out of the grocery store in as little time as possible and spend as little as possible – making a meal plan is really the only way to get that accomplished! :)

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Angie April 12, 2010 at 11:50 am

This is very similar to how I plan as well. I’m actually working on a post to put out soon so I’ll have to direct everyone to yours as well. Menu planning is SOOO helpful. Not only does it mean less time shopping but it also helps save money and time spent wondering what to make that night!

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emilia April 12, 2010 at 1:30 pm

this post inspired me to meal plan before grocery shopping yesterday. i definitely saved some money and feel less anxious about cooking this week. thanks!

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Jennifer Moore April 18, 2010 at 12:37 am

I frequently meal plan for the week and I always feel more relaxed about cooking if I do. I need to get better about matching to sale ads. One of the things that helps me at the grocery store is a program for my PDA called Splash Shopper. It’s my grocery list, but I can list aisle numbers for things and then sort by aisle number. This is great since I don’t waste time going back and forth in the store. I’m sure there is something similar for iPhones (since everyone but me seems to have one). Another thing I do, is write my meal plan on a dry erase broken out by day of the week I placed on my pantry door.

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