Many people think that you have to be some super organized person to menu plan. Believe me, you don't. If I can menu plan, anyone can. The thing is, there is more than one way to go about it. The only point is to have at least some sort of idea of what you are going to be eating at some point over the next week/month so you can have some sort of game plan at the store and in the kitchen. Sounds real exact, huh? Menu planning is no a one-size-fits-all thing. There are many ways to approach it that appeal to different personalities/situations. Here are the different ways you can approach menu planning:
3 Meals a Day + snacks
This is the most detailed of meal plans. This requires you to plan out pretty much everything you are going to eat. You plan what you are going to eat for every meal, including side dishes. You would also plan for any additional snacks or dessert you will be eating. One advantage to this is knowing exactly what you need to buy at the grocery store and how much. You can plan to use leftover ingredients on another day so that you have less waste. One disadvantage is of course the time needed to plan. It also makes it harder to take advantage of some unexpected sales and use unplanned for leftovers. I feel this type of plan would especially be beneficial to larger families, though.
This is generally what I do (though I try to list ideas for breakfasts just to show you what we eat) because I am not organized enough to do three meals (though my goal is to slowly work my way there). I like to also plan my side dishes (though this doesn't always get done), especially if we are eating a meal that requires a certain side dish (like salmon patties). The advantage of this way is that you get what is generally the biggest/hardest meal out of the way in terms of planning. You are not standing in front of your fridge at 5:00 wondering "what the heck am I going to eat?" either. The disadvantage is that you still have to guess at what you need to buy for the other meals, as well as what you are actually going to eat.
This is the most laid-back way to approach menu planning, but it can still save money! If you are the type of person/family that has a hectic schedule or you tend to eat the same meals on a regular basis, this could work for you. With this approach you simply have an idea in your head of foods you would like to eat during the week and keep food in the house that would allow you to make various meals. One advantage to this is when you have events that just pop-up, your meal plans are not wasted or messed up. It allows for you to be spontaneous and change your mind (because you never really made up your mind!) when your appetite changes. The disadvantage would of course buying too much/not enough at the store and being at a loss of what to eat on those days you are feeling unmotivated/uncreative.
So now you know the three general approaches to menu planning - from the super organized to the laid back. But how do you do it? There are many ways to go about it based on the approach you take and the way you shop, but here is the basic game plan in five easy steps to help you get started if you have never done this. It can be adapted to fit your needs.
- Take stock of what you already have in the house. You can do this formally, with a pen and paper, or in your head. Just look around and see what foods you already have in your freezer, fridge, and pantry. What kinds of proteins do you have in the freezer that maybe you have forgotten about? What about starches? Any produce that needs to be used up? Using what you already have is a great way to save at the store.
- Make a list (again, this can be done on paper or in your head) of foods you already like or can make using the ingredients you have. Use recipe sites if you need to. Food.com and Epicurious are sites with great ideas and allow people to comment on the recipes they have tried. I especially love Allrecipes because it has a section where you can search using the ingredients you have.
- Check the store circulars. Between the newspaper, home mailings, and the internet, most stores give you easy access to what is on sale. Is there anything on sale for a rock bottom price you can't pass up? Incorporate those in your meals for the week.
- Make a finished list of the meals you are going to make for the week. Once you have done this, go ahead and add side dishes (again, based on what you have/what is on sale). You can assign specific days based on what you have going on that week (or if you like to have theme dinners like Taco Tuesdays) or just have a list to pick from during the week.
- Now you are ready to hit the store (but not on an empty stomach!) with a list of ingredients you will need. Be prepared to make substitutions when you get there in case you find something that would work just as well at a better price. Ground turkey cheaper than beef? Substitute it! Green beans cheaper than broccoli? Substitute it!