I used to do weekly menu plans on a pretty regular basis - I found that they saved both time and money, and, perhaps most importantly, they virtually eliminated the daily 4:00 pm anxiety that had me questioning the universe about what on earth I was going to cook for dinner. Two or three years ago, for some reason that I can't remember, I basically stopped menu planning and went back to the weekly grocery shop where I wandered the aisles in search of that miracle food that I thought would look so tantalizing on our dinner plates...only to discover that same have-to-have item rotted in the back of the refrigerator a month later, or lying somewhere unused at the back of the pantry shelf.
Then, last fall, as I began to think more and more about the need to change some aspects of my lifestyle, I realized that menu planning was, once again, looking like a pretty good option. I began to venture back into weekly meal plans and then, over the Christmas holidays, brainstormed about the possibility of doing a longer, and more detailed, meal plan. So, in early January, I put together my first ever three-week meal plan. It worked so well that I subsequently did another three-week meal plan. Proudly, I noted that my first and second attempts bore very little resemblance - there were few duplications. The fact is that I have a lot of recipes and I also really enjoy trying new ones - in fact, aside from a few long-standing favourites, I get bored pretty quickly if I continue to cook the same-old-same-old. My process does need some revision, though.... For example, in both of the recent three-week menu plans, I've planned for six nights/week. In reality, though, I really need plan for only five; one of the other two nights is easily taken up with what we call "refrigerator buffet" (aka leftovers); and there's usually one other night in the week when we'll either do something really fast (like, scrambled eggs & toast) because our schedule requires it, or we'll go out for for a meal, or (least commonly) we'll order something in. In the future, I'll be planning for five nights/week and see how that goes. But for the most recent go-round, I'll actually be able to get almost four weeks' meals out of my three-week plan.
A few other notes about my menu plans:
- the majority of my planning goes into dinner-time meals because these are the meals I find the hardest to prep on a last-minute basis. However, on each of my menu plans, I note the following on the bottom half of the page: lunch ideas (cause sometimes I just have no ideas any more); baking I want to do in the coming weeks; desserts I plan to make on the weekends; etc etc. Making note of these things helps me with grocery lists and also with ideas for non-dinner-related items.
- I've planned my meals around the following 'themes': chicken night; beef night; vegetarian night; fish night; soup/miscellaneous night; sometimes a fun night.
- I don't bother assigning meals to particular days of the week. I just list the meals I have planned for the week, and then choose in the morning what I feel like making for dinner that night (and take whatever I need to out of the freezer). Easier this way.
- On Fridays, we usually try to do something a bit more 'fun' for dinner. For us, this usually means that vegetables aren't mandatory at Friday dinner. I know, I know, I can hear the gasps now already - no worries, I always load up more on veggies for lunch that day and maybe add a scoop of "veggies + for kids" to a fruit smoothie to ensure we get our veggies in for the day (one scoop is the equivalent of 7-9 veggie servings). One example of a Friday fun night meal might be waffles and farmer sausage, piled with strawberries and warm custard; other times, I'll choose Friday evenings to be a homemade pizza night, and then it's easier to incorporate some veggies.
- Once I've developed my menu plan, I gather any recipes I need, and go through the plan meal by meal to develop a grocery list; I also ensure that I have all ingredients I'll need for baking, desserts, breakfasts, and lunches. On one side of a piece of paper, I list all of the dry goods that I'll need for all three of the coming weeks; on the other side, I list all of the fresh ingredients that I'll need for each of the three weeks - I sort the fresh ingredients by week (#1, #2, #3). When I go grocery shopping at the beginning of the three weeks, I shop for the dry goods (for all three weeks), as well as for week #1's fresh ingredients. Then, at the beginning of weeks two and three, I already have my list prepared to run out and very quickly grab the fresh ingredients I'll need for that week (milk, fruit, veggies, cheese, eggs, yogurt, etc etc).
- Because I purchase organic beef and chicken from local farmers, I tend to purchase my meat in bulk every few months; for this reason, my grocery lists rarely include meat (an exception being if I feel like cooking a pork loin, which I don't have an organic source for yet).
At least these first two times I've done the three-week plan, it's taken me about two hours on an evening to do the following:
- go through my freezers and cupboards to see what meat I'd like to use up.
- go through my files of recipes to choose what I'd like to include (and these will be kept in a separate file for the coming three weeks, so that they're very accessible).
- write down the menu plan, including: entree; veggies; extras that I'll need to have on hand (eg. sour cream; salsa; etc).
- prepare a detailed grocery list as noted above (and go through my pantry to make sure I don't already have what I've just added to my list).
I imagine that I'll get a bit faster at this as time goes by...especially because I imagine that, once I've ironed out the wrinkles in the plans, I'll be able to rotate them. Because we all three hate eating the same things too often, my goal is to develop about four three-week plans so that we won't eat many things (other than favourites) more than once about every three months. This may be idealistic, I don't know. But that's the goal for now.
Tomorrow, I'll post one of my three-week plans to give you an idea of what's working for me so far. I hope it might be of help to you. I also look forward to your suggestions/comments/recipes...anything to make them better!