Monday, May 23, 2011

What's for Dinner?: Finding Our Way Back to Meal Planning

I know some bloggers who post their weekly meal plans, and I'm not sure I can commit to that. But I do know we desperately need to get back to consistent meal planning around here.

Remember my One Small Change that wasn't so small for May?  I boldly said we'd not eat out for 4 weeks. Well, we're not doing so good on it. We've eaten out or had take-out, not one by four times this month. Three of those were surrounding the half marathon chaos. Not good. After a failure with April's One Small Change, well, let's just say I've got to get it together!

To break the cycle, we menu-planned, grocery-shopped, hit-the-farmer's-market and put-it-all-in-writing.  Menu-planning seems to come naturally for some, but for some of us, it can be overwhelming. Others suffer from a loss of inspiration in your menu.  These are some of the things we did to help us in both our planning and inspiration.

Our Menu Plan Board

Each week before meal planning or grocery shopping, I check the coupon match ups for our local grocery store. I'd love to get to a point where all my food was sourced locally, but we still use the grocery store for some weekly staples. Coupons help me buy organic and natural items for half the cost or less. It doesn't compare to the savings of some popular couponers who will buy anything if it's cheap or free, but it does help stretch my grocery budget allowing me to spend more on high quality, local, organic foods.  I also love to watch some of the natural deal blogs for great prices at or other places. I occasionally find a great deal on something we regularly purchase and can stock up.

Inventories are kept on the fridge for easy access

Armed with my list of coupon purchases for the week, I take a look at what I have in the house.  The easiest way to do this has been using fridge and freezer inventories along with a somewhat organized pantry. We keep the inventory sheets on the fridge so we can regularly reference and check things off as we use them. We have a sheet for the downstairs freezer, the upstairs freezer, and the refrigerator.
Inventory from Organized Home

With an idea of what I'm buying because it's a great deal this week and an idea of what I already have in the house, I write down a few ideas off the top of my head for meals. Then I hit up my favorite resources for recipes. I have a recipe binder where I throw recipes I find in magazines or have printed and used previously. That's usually where I check first. After that, I might pick one cookbook to reference for the week. I love my Holistic Moms Network cookbooks. I'll also check some of my favorite blogs including Frugal Granola, Kitchen Stewardship, and Passionate Homemaking for recipes. I find I get overwhelmed when every recipe for the week comes from a different resource so I try to stick to one or two each week.
A semi-organized pantry helps us know what we have on hand

Even with limiting myself to one resource, I can feel a little lost at this point in the process. To help with this, we decided to give each night it's own category. We planned the days around our schedule. Wednesdays are crazy so they are a great day to have a meal ready in the slow cooker. On Sundays, we go to the farmer's market and pick up a fresh chicken and seasonal vegetables so why not cook some of it? Many of our meals may be vegetarian whether grilling or pasta but we set Mondays as the day we always plan to eat meatless. In general, at least two to three other days will be meatless as well but we are flexible in which ones.

The menu plan hangs for all to see.

To finish it all off, we write it on our menu planning board on the wall so the whole family knows the plan. If I'm stuck at the kids' school late, hubby can take over. If we need to do some switching around it's clear to everyone what the plan was and the options for rearranging.

Without further ado, here is our menu plan for this week including our daily categories. We aimed for simple as we get back to good routines.

Chicken Roast Sunday: Chicken Roast and Asparagus with Quinoa Salad
Meatless Monday: Quinoa Corn Chowder
Grilling Tuesday: Steaks and Grilled Zucchini with a grain if we decide to add one.
Slowcooker Wednesday: Chicken Noodle Soup made with leftover chicken from Sunday Roast
Pasta Thursday: Lemon Garlic White Bean Pasta
Friday Pizza: Whatever veggies are left in the house!
Open-Fire Saturday or Misc.: Nitrite-free hot dogs from Farmer's Market cooked on an open fire with fruit and salad.

I also add to the list a few snack or breakfast items I'll be cooking to keep us stocked as we try to avoid relying on processed things. This week, I'll be making granola, maple chocolate chip cookies, and crackers.

Do you menu plan?  What works for you?  What doesn't?

Here are some great meal-planning resources:
SimpleMom's A Basic Guide to Menu Planning
FrugalGranola's Quick Meal-Planning 101
KitchenStewardship's Eat Well, Spend Less: Top 40 Frugal Meals


  1. I've been working on menu plans for about 15 month. Here is what works for me:
    - I write all my plans on a notebook, with one page per month. That way I can go back and see what I was cooking a couple of month back or last year. It helps me rediscover good meal that I used to make all the time but forgot about when thing were not in season anymore.
    - Sometimes I just use somebody else's meal plan. has a lot of good, cheap vegetarian recipes that we like. She used to post weekly meal plan and sometimes I would just copy her plan, only one week later. If another blogger likes the same food as you do and already does the planning job, take advantage of it.
    - I always plan for a leftovers night, so I cook slightly larger quantities and plan only 5 to 6 meals per week.
    - I don't use coupons, it would be too complicated. If something is on a good sale I will buy it and either freeze or plan a meal around it. Other than that I just stick to my plan and grocery list. Out of laziness I only shop at Whole Foods but spend less than $150 per week for a family of 4, including everybody's breakfast, lunch and dinner. Cutting down on meat/fish helped a lot. But when we have meat we buy the good stuff!

    - I used to have a meal plan template, like Monday meat, tuesday beans, wednesday slowcooker, thursday fish, etc and had a list of recipes to choose from for each category.

    Your plan for this week looks delicious!

  2. Great tips Steph!

    I love the idea of cataloging them all in a notebook. I could do that in the front of my recipe binder. Especially with seasonal variations - that would be so helpful!

    We consistently meal planned for about a year but then lost track, and it's amazing how much you forget one you're out of the routine.

    We used to plan a leftover night but my husband hates leftovers. So we mostly use them for lunch or I make enough that I can then freeze the leftovers for a small meal if one of us isn't home.

    I wish we had Whole Foods nearby but the closest is over an hour away. We usually spend $50-75/week, but we also buy a portion of a grass-fed organic cow at least once a year, and buy a lot of stuff in bulk like maple syrup, raw honey, etc so those are budgeted out separately.

    Great stuff, thanks for sharing!


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