January 22, 2011

How To Make A Menu Plan

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Most of the time, I love to cook.  (All of us, even Food Network stars, have days when we say, “Meh.  Let’s get pizza.”)  What I don’t like is a) wandering around the store, trying to decide what to buy, and b) standing in front of the fridge at 4pm trying to decide what to cook.  With either, invariably I forget something or don’t have an important ingredient or the main ingredient is frozen solid or there’s no time to cook what I had in mind.

I started menu planning about five years ago, when I had a toddler and was pregnant with another child.  After finding myself in the kitchen at dinnertime with no idea what to cook too many times, I turned to menu planning to keep myself more organized and in control.

Some people say they don’t like to menu plan because they don’t want to commit to cooking spaghetti on Tuesday or meatloaf on Friday, but it’s easy to tailor menu planning to your life.

Here’s how I make a menu plan:

First, I flip open my calendar and take a look at our activities for the week to figure out how many meals I need to cook, and how much time I have. Right now, we don’t have a lot going on and are home most nights, so it’s OK if a meal takes a little longer to prepare. Come May, my son will have softball games twice a week, so I’ll need meals that are quick to prepare and easy to clean up for those nights. We usually have leftovers one night, and some weekends I can count on eating at a relative’s house or out on the town. I also tend to shop every seven-to-10 days, but if you shop less often, you’ll need to make sure you use up your fresh items first.

Take a peek in your pantry and fridge to see not only what you already have on hand, but if you have anything languishing that needs to be used up before it goes bad. Not sure what to make to use up a strange ingredient? Many recipe sites and search engines let you search by ingredient, this is a great place to start.

Check out the store circular for sales. 

Stumped for ideas? Check out the packaging on some of the items you already have for recipes. This is my favorite trick when I need inspiration. Most pasta boxes, for example, have a recipe using that particular kind of pasta. Sauces and dressings sometimes have recipes for marinades or dips, and canned beans might have a recipe for chili.

In the winter, I make soups a lot. I also use my crockpot frequently year round. It’s obviously great for those time pinched days, most comfort food meals adapt well to crockpot use in the winter, and they don’t heat up the kitchen in the summer. During the warmer months, I make hearty sandwiches for dinner a lot, served with fresh fruit and salads on the side.

Once I’ve made my menu and list of items I need to buy, I add the usual things such as milk and eggs, and organize the list by area of the store to prevent having to crisscross back and forth to get something I forgot.  (Here’s another tip — if you use coupons, pull them them out while you make your list and then staple or paperclip them to your list so you don’t forget them at home.)

I decide which meal I’m making the night before, which gives me time to pull out anything that needs to thaw.

Using these guidelines, here’s what a recent menu looked like:

  • Stuffed Shells — The Can Can sale was going on at ShopRite, and pasta and assorted sauces were a great price!  I served these with garlic bread and steamed veggies.
  • Cheesy Salsa Mini Meatloaves — In this easy recipe from Kraft Foods, the meatloaf is cooked in muffin tins, which not only helps with portion control, but reduces the cooking time significantly.  My local ShopRite had both salsa and ground beef on sale, and I decided to serve salad and french fries to go with this meal.
  • Tuna Casserole — I received ramekins for Christmas, and I’m planning this recipe to use them for the first time.  Nearly all the ingredients in this recipe were in a box of goodies I recieved from ShopRite as part of the Potluck panel (and they were all on sale during the Can Can sale).  Salad and steamed corn as sides.
  • Steak with Garlic-Wine Sauce — London Broil wa a great price at my local store, so I picked some up to make this easy, yet fancy meal.  Broccoli crowns were also on sale, so I got some to go with the steak.  I left a decision on the sides open to be salad or bread or baked potatoes.
  • Saucy Peach Chicken — This simple meal uses canned fruit as both cooking sauce and topping, in addition to basic pantry staples.  I made it with apricots instead, because that’s one of the treats I received from ShopRite.  Vegetables and bread on the side. 

I’d love to hear from you.  Do you menu plan?  Any tips to add?

IMPORTANT NOTICE: As a POTLUCKTM blogger, I received ShopRite products from ShopRite for free.