Why Should You Start Menu Planning?
Modern American adults are busier than ever with work, children, and friends, and the advent of the internet means everyone is under assault 24/7 from bosses, coworkers and relatives. It seems almost impossible to squeeze in home-cooked meals for your family in between all your other obligations. Grabbing takeout is the easy way out, but it’s too expensive for most families to do too frequently.
If that sounds like you, menu planning just might be the solution. Just a little bit of advanced planning can cut your grocery shopping trips in half, save your family a ton of money and ensure you and your kids will be eating a healthy and wholesome dinner every night.
Getting the kids involved in planning and cooking meals is a great way to teach them essential skills in life and the kitchen, or you can use cooking together as a fun date-night idea with your spouse or significant other. Meal planning and cooking don’t have to be thankless chores!
Principles of Menu Planning
Menu planning and meal prepping have become cultural phenomena, with online communities, blogs, books, and television shows based entirely on talking about and helping others with food planning. People love it because it takes a lot of the guesswork out of planning your meals and feeding yourself and your family.
You may believe that you’re too busy even to plan your weekly menu. But the truth is, it’s easy to get started. With all these resources, you can find everything you need with just a few minutes of searching.
The hardcore food planner zealots espouse the many virtues of the practice, from the money and time savings to the nutritional benefits, especially for people trying to lose weight. However, most of us take a more measured approach to meal planning.
You don’t need to invest in complicated planning systems with binders and tabs and stickers (unless you really want to). A notepad and a pen are all you need to be successful. We also don’t believe menu planning is going to solve all your food-related problems. You still need to plan, shop for, and prepare your meals, so even though you’ll be saving a lot of time, it still takes some work.
You can also cheat on your menu plan, or at least account for a day or two of takeout or pizza every week. Jumping straight into 21 home-cooked meals every week is an excellent way to overwhelm yourself and lead to inevitable failure.
How to Get Started
Step One: Recipes
The first step is finding recipes. You probably already have a few go-to recipes you fall back on when you need a quick meal, so you should add those to your weekly list to keep things easy. For the rest of your meals, try to add some variety by searching online for your recipes using your favorite ingredients.
To be even more efficient, trying to plan your week by finding recipes that use the same key ingredients, like chicken, potatoes, asparagus, etc. That’ll make shopping a lot easier and reduce the amount of food you’re wasting.
Step Two: Craft Your Menu
Once you know what you’re going to make, you should create your menu. There are a variety of guides and apps you can download to assist in this process. As you’re writing your menu, keep in mind any obligations or events you have planned that week.
Make sure your meals are scheduled accordingly. Don’t try to squeeze in an elaborate meal on the same day as your daughter’s karate class or your boyfriend’s big work conference.
Step Three: Grocery Shopping
Now that you have your recipes and your menu, it’s time to shop. Some menu planning apps will automatically create shopping lists for you based on the recipes you’re using, but most of you will have to craft the list yourself.
Start by listing all of the ingredients you need for your recipes. Write down the exact amounts of each ingredient you need, even if you’re repeating ones for multiple recipes. Then, go through your kitchen to see what you already have. Most of us have at least a dozen spices in our cabinets, and staples such as eggs and milk might already be in your fridge. Cross off any of these items from your list.
Now it’s time to create your actual grocery list. Go through your remaining ingredients and combine any repeats. Once you know how much of each item you’ll need to get, you can put it on your shopping list. To make things even easier on yourself, group each item on the list according to which section of the store it’s in.
You can also arrange them in order of where they are in the store, starting with the produce and meat section and ending in the frozen section. Now it’s time to head to the store! With your superior shopping list in-hand, your grocery trip should take half the time.
Step Four: Food Prepping
Weekends are a great time to plan, shop, and prep your weekly menu, since you’re less likely to have job or school obligations to work around. Using this plan, you should be able to get all your meal prepping done on Sunday.
The specific prep-work you’ll need to do will depend on the recipes you’re cooking. In general, though, you’ll want to wash and chop all your herbs and vegetables, mix your marinades, and cook anything you’ll need first thing in the morning for breakfast or lunch.
Depending on your skill level and your recipes, you should be able to get this step done in about an hour, but you’ll save yourself a ton of time during the week.
Step Five: Weekday Cooking
This is the part where many people fail: following through on your cooking plans during the week. We get it—you’re exhausted after work, you’ve got errands to run, the kids are hungry NOW—there are plenty of reasons to forgo cooking on any particular night.
The rewards for sticking to the plan are even more numerous, though. The sense of accomplishment you’ll feel every time you succeed is enough to motivate most of us to keep going.
That’s why it’s so important to start with quick, easy recipes, rather than jumping into complicated meals right away. You have to anticipate how tired and busy you’ll be at the end of the day, and plan accordingly.
How to Keep It Up
Congratulations! You’ve successfully begun your menu planning routine. You’ve gotten through the biggest hurdle, which is just getting started in the first place. Now how can you ensure you’ll keep it up in the long-run?
Use a Template or Worksheet
The USDA.gov’s Budget Weekly Meals site provides a free worksheet for keeping track of your weekly meals. They also have an interactive tool to help you find recipes that match the ingredients you already have in your kitchen.
You can also find printable calendars and shopping lists if you like having a hard copy of your menu plan. Searching for meal planner templates online should yield a wealth of options.
Keep Looking for New Recipes
Don’t get stuck in a rut. You need a little bit of variety every week, so you don’t get sick of your meals. There are a variety of recipe databases online that are free to use and have user ratings and reviews. Reddit has a few communities for meal planning, like Meal Prep Sunday, Meal Prep, and Eat Cheap and Healthy. These subreddits also provide support to new and veteran menu planners and offer advice and tips.
Write a Journal
It may sound like an unnecessary extra step, but writing a menu journal could prove helpful. Take notes about how long each recipe takes to make, how easy it is to find the ingredients, and how much everyone liked (or hated) the finished product. One or two sentences is plenty; you don’t need to write a novel every week.
Set Goals for Yourself
If you find yourself lacking the motivation to keep going, setting a tangible goal can give you the mental boost you need to continue. Whether that goal is financial, weight-loss, or health-related, you should aim big but set frequent milestones, so you don’t get discouraged.
Menu planning isn’t going to solve all your problems instantly, but it’s a great way to start. Just taking an hour or two each week to prep for all of your meals will reduce your stress levels and improve your diet. The hardest part is just getting started, but now you’re armed with all the knowledge you need to dive in!