Sure, maybe you've read elsewhere about how menu planning works, how helpful it is, how it can save you so much money because you're sticking to a list... But I can't tell you how many blog entries I've read where people basically say "This is how you do it! Just do it." Or where they skip steps in the process because they assume you know already. This is crap I had to learn myself, the hard way, and I figure if it helps one person figure out how to put together a meal plan then it's worth the time I spent telling you all about it.
In our house, we've started a habit of menu planning on Sunday afternoons/evenings. I'd like to say it takes 10 minutes, but let's be real here: It takes longer than that once you add in all the extra steps.
First I clean out the fridge. I try to make a habit of touching everything in the fridge except the stuff in the door, because the stuff in the door is either condiments that rarely go bad or beverages that get used up too quickly. So I check everything in there, see if anything has gone bad*, see what needs to be used ASAP, and just get a basic inventory.
* I'm proud of myself for growing as a person. I've stopped judging myself for having wasted food. Some of it is due to poor planning, some to impulse buying or buying out of season, and some to sudden changes in plans that are inherent with living a life of chronic illness. I do still ask myself, why did this go bad? I take it as an opportunity to reduce overspending and utilize better planning, but when it was out of my control I just be gentle with myself and let it go. See? Growing.
Then I check the ad papers. When we didn't have a newspaper coming in, I didn't bother with this. But I've since realized two things: a) most ad papers are online; and b) sometimes they give me good ideas; the same good ideas I get when I'm looking at these good deals IN the store, AFTER I've already made my meal plan, and therefore it helps to avoid impulse-buying. This also goes back to my defunct price book idea. I couldn't be bothered, apparently, to keep up with the records-keeping, but at least I can use my Good Head for Numbers and check what's available where for how much.
Make the schedule. I know that on Friday and Saturday, Mr. Moon gets off work stupid-late. Thursday isn't MUCH better, but an hour makes a difference. So, I try to make Friday or Saturday a crockpot meal (which in my case means soup) and the other one a casserole of some kind. I means it's easier to feed Mum & Pops dinner at a reasonable hour, and still have dinner together when he gets home. (Although given our eating schedule, M&P's dinner time is like my lunch time, so I end up eating with them and snacking on seconds or something else at "dinner" but that's all fine too.) Mondays and Tuesdays being his days off and Wednesday being off at a reasonable hour, one of those will be date night and the other two will be meals that are slightly more extravagant, or at least ambitious. Stuff on the grill, more cook-and-eat-right-away stuff, or things that require lots of extra prep when I have him as an extra set of hands or to carry heavy things.
But the rest of us have schedules too, and knowing when anyone is eating away from home or when Mum isn't there to help makes it easier to know what to cook and when it needs to be ready. The schedule also helps me know if there are days we should be expecting guests for dinner! Nothing like making a casserole only big enough for four and then finding out that one of Mr. Moon's brothers will be here for dinner tonight!
Make the meal plans! Now that I know What I have to cook with already, When I have to cook it, and Where I need to go to get additional specific ingredients that are a good price, I can start putting them together. That's the easy part! But it can be so overwhelming with a clean slate, so I make sure to write "Leftovers" on a day (usually Saturday or Sunday) and what days anyone will be Out for dinner. Suddenly it's not so spacious and it helps to break that writer's block. It also helps to have everyone involved. Pops doesn't care to be, and that's fine because he hasn't yet complained about our food choices. I make a point of asking him for requests, and making a point of fulfilling them since he actually has an opinion on the topic so rarely.
Mum and Mr. Moon and I sit down and make a plan, trying to keep our efforts somewhat spread out between us so that no one gets the majority of the work. It also means that if Mum or I simply can't do whatever we intended to make that day, we can either jump in to pick up each other's slack or just switch days and make something else (or a combination of the two, picking slack by switching days). This seems to be the majority of the cause of food that goes bad before we get to it.
Right now our goal has been to use up stuff that's in the freezers, as we have already thrown away so much that was freezer burned to the point of being inedible. It also makes room for things such as batches of chili and spaghetti sauce that can be labor intensive and easier to make larger batches than small. So one of the first things we try to do is use up what's in the fridge that's going bad, and get through some of the stockpiled meats and frozen dinners.
Figure out what's missing. Anything that we don't have already that is necessary to make the menu gets put on the list. I admit freely that this step occasionally takes us back to meal planning if we discover that a key ingredient that needs to be purchased is going to be out of our budget that week or that the list has just gotten long. Fortunately, we have lots of frozen meals to fall back on right now, so when that happens we try to pick from the freezer and back stock a bit more. I assume that if the list has gotten fairly long, it's either because there are a lot of staples on sale for stocking up, or because we're not focusing on using up our back stock enough. I've also been trying to make sure that any staples that go on the list get checked for back stock. Just because we emptied a bottle of olive oil this week doesn't mean we need to buy more!
Pick your store[s]. When we had Grocery Outlet available to us, we would shop there first. They generally had good deals except for produce, and remarkably had a lot of high-quality foods! Lots of organic processed foods, a bunch of grass-fed free-range beef, and at least the kitchenwares aisle was fun. Down here it's Winco, since G.O. is so far away. Winco doesn't even have an ad paper, so in order to see what deals they have today you just have to go in. They have some organic processed foods, but the big draw is their bulk section. I can buy organic whole wheat pasta for 78 cents per pound as opposed to the $2/lb regular price or $1.25 on sale at Safeway. Score! And since we're trying to limit our processed convenience foods, it doesn't matter that their selection of the organic stuff is smaller. It just makes me cook from scratch more.
By now I have a master list with what's on sale where, and I can buy similar items for the same or better pricing than the other stores on the list if I find it at Winco (or somewhere else we stop). It means that even if we still HAVE to stop at that other store, it's a lot faster of a trip there. Last time we had to go to 4 stores, we were done in 90 minutes. Mum was impressed, and I was happy not to have to go shopping again for a week! But this week we only had to stop at the produce store, because the list was all produce that was on sale there. No additional stops needed. Even if there was one thing we needed from somewhere else, we could look at that list and ask whether that was worth an extra stop. When it comes down to just being a half gallon of milk that's on sale for only 25 cents cheaper than where you are now, well, not worth it just because it's on sale.
Do you plan your meals in advance? Want to do a guest entry about monthly cooking, and how you plan meals for that? Or are you more a member of the "Dinner is in an hour, what should we make today?" camp?