5 Tips for Menu Planning

I know a secret that will guarantee that you eat healthier and save money this year.  This 10-minute task will also help you spend more time with family, reduce your carbon footprint, and become more organized.  Best part? It’s free! I’m talking about planning a weekly menu, one of the easiest and most effective ways to live better in the new year.

Menu planning is the cornerstone of my blog.  In fact, it’s one of the big reasons I started to write about food in the first place.  Shortly after we got married last May, my husband and I divvied up household chores, with cooking falling squarely on my shoulders.  I’ve always loved to cook, but it took me some time to get organized about it. I planned weekly menus sporadically at first.  Some weeks, I’d take the time to write out a schedule of meals. Other weeks, I forgot or thought we could skip it. Those weeks went badly. We’d often run out of food, bicker about meals and resort to fast food on busy nights. (Okay, most nights.)

In July 2010 I made a resolution to plan a menu for us every week, and I’m proud to say that I haven’t missed a single one since.  I had so much fun with the process, that I decided to blog about it. And now here we are!  I know I’m just getting started on my food blogging, menu planning journey, but here are five things that I’ve learned along the way.

1. Write down the plan using whatever format works best for you. No matter how great your menu plan may be, it doesn’t mean a thing if you keep it in your head.  The menu becomes useful when you take a moment to write (or type) it down in a format that’s easy to read and share. Here is what my meal plan looks like. I write it in Microsoft Word each week using the same format. Breakfast and lunch options are listed out and don’t change much from week to week.  I organize dinners by the day according to our social and work calendars and the longevity of produce in the Greenling local box. If that format doesn’t seem like a good fit for you, no worries! There are a ton of other examples online. Try one and make it work for you.

2. Print out the menu and hang it on the fridge. It’s impossible to stick to a menu plan that you can’t see. Empower your family to help with cooking tasks and quit asking “What’s for dinner??” by hanging the menu prominently in their view. Go high tech, too, and share the menu via email and GoogleDocs so that everyone knows what’s cooking each week.

3. Find a weekly routine that fits your family’s schedule. I run a Wednesday to Tuesday meal planning schedule since that’s what works best for me. I meal plan and grocery shop mid-week so that weekends are free for leisure and cooking. I also serve leftovers on Tuesday nights, no matter what.  This night off from cooking allows me some extra time to meal plan for the next week, and uses up extra food in our fridge.

4. Use a CSA or Grocery Delivery Service. We should all have a personal assistant to do our grocery shopping. Yeah, right. For most, the next best thing is hiring a CSA or grocery delivery service to bring you produce and milk every week. Produce spoils quickly and it’s time consuming to select at conventional grocery stores, so by delegating that portion of the shopping to the experts, you can save time and ensure that you’ve always got fresh food on hand. Our Greenling local box delivery arrives every Wednesday like clockwork, and the menu of local produce they offer serves as the basis for my weekly food routine. Since we can count on fresh groceries and a fresh start every week, we never have the excuse “There’s no food in the fridge,” to eat fast food any more. I’ve also been able to cut back on conventional grocery shopping to just twice a month, saving money on impulse buys at the checkout and gasoline for the car.

5. Start a food blog. I’m just kidding (mostly) with this one.  Blogging my menu plans helps keep me accountable, introduces me to new friends, and gives me inspiration from other food bloggers.  But blogging is a big time commitment.  You can get most the same benefits by getting involved in one of the many menu planning groups online without starting your own blog.  A few standouts include:

  • Cafemom.com’s Meal Planning Group. An active internet forum where lots of moms share their meal plans with each other.*
  • Orgjunkie.com’s Menu Plan Monday community. Laura posts her own menu plan every Monday and hundreds of other bloggers join in. This is a great way to find new food blogs and see what other home cooks are up to each week.
  • This Week for Dinner is the space where California-based blogger Jane Maynard shares her menu plan each week and readers leave comments sharing theirs.  This one is a little different from Orgjunkie’s in that many of the commenters are non-bloggers who share for fun, not to drive traffic to their own content.
  • Finally, you can always find my meal plan here at The Austin Gastronomist and Steph’s  over at the Greenling blog Eating Out of the Local Box. On Tuesdays we each blog a different meal plan that use Local Box produce and easy recipes. If you need some help getting started, choose what you like from each of our plans and use that as a launch pad for your own awesome menu.

Admittedly, most of the food blogs and internet forums devoted to menu planning cater to a mid-life, stay-at-home-mom audience. Part of why I became a food blogger is because I felt a bit out of place in those spaces. I mean, I love what they’re doing, but I know that there must be other young, childless, busy people cooking at home from a menu! Hopefully as the locavore/sustainable foodie movement grows, I’ll be able to write more about the menu planning communities of single ladies, starving artists, 20-somethings, punk rockers, rock climbers, and college students. In the meantime, whoever you are, happy menu planning!

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6 responses to “5 Tips for Menu Planning

  1. I definitely know what you’re saying about feeling out of place in most of the forums that discuss meal-planning, but I think it’s a great idea. I will be making it a part of my life once I’m the one doing most of the cooking and I think it’s awesome that you are gearing things toward a different audience. Thanks!

  2. Kathryn! My friend and I were just talking tonight about how weekly meal planning is a great way to eat healthier and then I come home and you’ve written a blog post about it! Thank you for all the tips. I think I might sign up for the Greenling local produce box and I’m encouraging my friend to do it as well. Looking forward to a delicious 2011!

  3. Hey, what a great coincidence. 🙂 I hope the tips were helpful. Let me know how you like the Local Box!

  4. Thanks for sharing the secret! I so need to get planning and this is a geat motivator. Great tips and resources!

  5. This is some helpful advice for achieving my New Year’s resolution of eating out less and cooking more! Thanks!
    I have flirted with the thought of signing up with a CSA or Greenling, but being a single woman, my concern is how much is in, say, the Local Box and how much of it might go to waste if I can’t cook/eat it in a week.

  6. Ally, thank you! Good luck with your menu plan. 🙂

    Esmerelda, you can do it, but a full-sized Local Box or CSA share may not be the best fit to meet your needs. Many CSAs do half shares, which might be a good option. Some people also find a work buddy to share with and have their deliveries made to the office. And although Greenling doesn’t offer a 1/2-sized Local Box, their ala carte minimum is just $25. This would give you the option to get local produce plus some other goodies delivered if you wanted, with less food waste. Anyways, good luck with your resolution to cook more! You can do it! Let me know what you end up making, okay?

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