Menu planning.
Does the very phrase make you smile or cringe? I know this won’t come as a surprise since most of you know what a nerd I am when it comes to food, but I happen to love menu planning. I think about it all the time and find it very therapeutic and dare I say, fun, to sit down at the computer and set up a schedule for our monthly meals.

However, I know that isn’t the case with everyone. Some dread the very task. But in the hope of making at least one person’s life easier, I want to share with you a few tips that have helped me become more organized and better able to stick to our stringent food budget.

Sit Down and Plan It Out.
I plan my meals two weeks at a time. Why two weeks? First and foremost: I don’t want to do extensive grocery shopping every week. Also, any more frequently (i.e. weekly) and it takes me too much time to write down the menu. I know that sounds crazy, but it is just as easy for me to spend the time deciding on recipes/meals two weeks at a time instead of doing the process each week. Any less frequently (i.e. monthly) and it is impossible for me to afford my groceries (since I want to do the bulk grocery shopping trip based on the menu) due to a bi-weekly paycheck. So every two weeks it is.

I plan the menu and subsequent grocery shopping list a few days in advance of grocery shopping because inevitably I need to add things to the list that I forgot and only remember as I’m working in the kitchen those next few days. Also, I have a white board on the side of my refrigerator that details my daily tasks and on the side, I keep a running list of food items I’ve run out of during the 2-week menu, like cornstarch, syrup, etc. and I add those things first thing when I sit down and plan the menu.

My Trusty Spreadsheet.
I have a little nifty document that helps me plan all of this out. My lovely menu planning spreadsheet. Below are two links to help you out.

Menu Planning Example: this is an example of the last menu I planned for my family, complete with the meals I planned and the comprehensive grocery list.

Menu Plan Template: this is basically a blank template of the version above. You can use this template for your own needs, if you like. To use it for yourself, click on the link and it will download to a Microsoft Word document. You can edit it to your liking and save it for future reference.

As a quick explanation (because it isn’t rocket science, I promise), in the table on the first page of the document, I list the meals we’ll have for dinner each night. At the top of each day in italics, I detail if there is any homemade baked good to go along with the meal (like breadsticks, rolls, etc.) so I can get a head start in the morning.

The second page of this document is where I list the ingredients I need for the meals. As I go along, I figure out what we want to eat on Tuesday, list the meal and any sides, and then I go to the second page and list the ingredients I need for the meal that I don’t already have on hand. I do this for each day in the menu cycle.

Once I’m done planning the evening meals, I add foods to the grocery list on the second page that I need for lunches, snacks, general milk supply, etc.

I’ve also added a little section under the menu planning table that lists treats I want to make during the week since I really only plan an actual dessert for Sunday dinners. I add those “extra treat” ingredients to the second page and then I know I have them on hand when the craving hits. And trust me, the craving always hits.

I print this document out with the table of meals on one side and the grocery list on the other and I take it with me to the grocery store. When I get home I post it on the side of my fridge so I can see the meals at a glance.

Grocery Shopping.
The big grocery trip happens once every two weeks, sans children I might add (the last time I took all four boys to the grocery store, the cart tipped over landing on two of my boys and spewing my 82 packages of Oreos for the Oreo Truffles I was making everywhere, so I prefer to go it alone when my husband can take care of the charges). I also plan to do a small (i.e. 10 items or less) grocery run for the second week to pick up any fresh foods that I may need that don’t keep well for two weeks, like mushrooms and bananas.

You can be really diligent and plan to use low-lasting foods the first week in your meals, but I find I usually have to run the second week to get milk anyway (we drink an exorbitant amount of milk in our house) so I’m fine picking up fresh foods along with that trip.

Money Back Guarantee.
I’ve used this method for a couple of years now and not only does it make my life easier, but I know it saves me money because if I didn’t plan out my meals, I’d be at the grocery store every day. And I don’t know about you, but I can’t get in and out of the grocery store without spending at least $30, even if I just went in for bread and milk. Happy Menu Planning everyone!

137 Responses to Kitchen Tip: Menu Planning 101

  1. Paige says:

    I love menu planning, it has saved us so much money! I do it a week at a time, but now I am inspired to do it two weeks out. It would be great to make less trips to Walmart. I would love to know what an egg sandwich is, never heard of that. I like eggs, so I would probably like that. :-)

  2. Tiffani says:

    I’d love a copy of the template!!

    tumbletiffer at gmail dot com

    thank you so much!!

  3. Chris and Janeil says:

    I have been married for eight years and have never made a menu! So five o’clock at this house can get a little stressful. But you have inspired me and I would love your template which makes it look so easy. I think once I start I can do it. Thanks for making it easy for the rest of us, your awesome!
    Janeil
    http://[email protected]

  4. Chris and Janeil says:

    oh and I would also love to know how you make your Hawaiian Haystacks I remember having them as a kid and would love to make them again. When you get a chance of course:) Thank You!
    Janeil

  5. natalie says:

    HI there…this is great! I love your stuff. Thank you so much. Could you please email me a copy of this?

    What a lot of work but I will really appreciate it!

    Natalie

  6. Melanie says:

    Natalie – can you include your email address so I can email this to you?

  7. Steph says:

    i would love this sent to me, too!!thank you!!gibsoncasa at gmail.com

  8. [...] was such a great response to the Menu Planning tips a few weeks ago, that I wanted to follow it up with a post on the basics of my pantry staples. [...]

  9. Paula says:

    I found your site today and I love it! I love the simplicity of the meals! I’ve got a pretty picky family!

    I haven’t delved into menu planning yet, but I am working up to it. I don’t even like cooking! I do, however, love shopping (I’m a bit of a coupon geek). I came across a website: http://www.springpadit.com. It has changed the way I think about cooking and planning meals. For those who don’t want to use the spreadsheet method, I have found that SpringPad simplifies it for you. SpringPad is actually a free organizational application, but it has some recipe apps that make it fantastic! No more bookmarks all over the internet! You find a recipe you like (such as from your site) and you click “Spring It”. It pulls up the ingredients list automatically and you can block and copy the rest of the directions and ad tags, notes, pictures, etc. It also copies the location of the original file so you can visit the site again. You can also share the recipes with other SpringPad users. You can also create a weekly meal plan from the recipes and even a shopping list from the meal plan and/or recipes. It doesn’t import every single ingredient either…you can click on whatever ingredients you know you need. Love, love, love it! Like I said, it’s inspiring me to cook and have fun!

    Thanks again for the wonderful site!

  10. brittany says:

    I’d love a template!

    thanks,
    brittany

  11. Christi says:

    Hi! I have been trying to plan menus in advance and it just hasn’t worked. I am excited to try your mothod. Could you e-mail me the template? I am new to your site and love it. I love the thick and chewy chocolate chip bars and so do my cub scouts. :) I am excited to try more of your recipes! [email protected] Thanks!

  12. Erika says:

    Can you email me the word doc? thank you! i am determined to try this – I need help!

  13. Raebee says:

    Guys, she’s provided the links above…why should she send them to each of you via email? That’s very time consuming!

  14. Mel says:

    Raebee – you are so sweet, thanks for “getting my back” on this one. I actually just barely updated this post with the downloadable link so up to a day ago, I really did have to email the template out. Thank goodness I found an easier way. Thanks for your support!

  15. Carolyn says:

    I used to plan, but in recent years we have so much unpredictablility it drives me crazy. The kids have an unexpected school “thing” for an activity they’re in, or receive an invitation to somewhere, etc. I have been a single mom for years and there are only three of us anyway. Also, I work and often drive kids to & fro all afternoon (I teach, laid off, so subbing right now so I’m basically off when they are) and not home to prep things. Our day is so long that even the crockpot overcooks things. Seems like the minute I get back to planning, we have the craziest week ever and there goes the plan! Do you have any blogs on cloning oneself? LOL

  16. Heidi says:

    What say you for buying produce for 2 weeks? I’m about to attempt this. I’m afraid of wasting oodles of money in that category. Maybe I should freeze some of it??

    • Mel says:

      Heidi – well…the honest answer is that buying produce for 2 weeks hasn’t ever worked for me because like you mentioned, I ended up wasting money when it went bad. So that’s why I do a huge grocery trip every 2 weeks (sometimes ever four if I am brave!) and then do short, very small grocery runs for each upcoming week to get fresh produce.

  17. [...] method last year (two weeks at a time) and I loved it. (Just in case someone else might want it, here is the idea and form I would fill out and use for my two week menu planning last year. It worked for me for quite [...]

  18. Logan says:

    This was great to read! I am so organized at work and i’m not sure why I don’t carry that home with me. I can really see how the planning would save money. I really appreciate how much you share with your readers!

  19. T says:

    I would love to have your template emailed to me as well ! I’m a newcomer to your site, but an VERY impressed. Thank you !

  20. amy says:

    I’m so glad I found your blog and the link to your planning template. I’m going to give it a try. I am always planning as we go, a day or two ahead, which means we are always at the store. I think this can really help us. I’m looking forward to exploring your blog as I also like to cook from scratch and feed my kids as healthy meals as I can. THANKS!

  21. Mandi says:

    Feeding people takes up so much of my life! Thank you so much for making it more fun, more delicious, and oh, so much easier.

  22. Mel says:

    Just found your site and love the recipes and the menu planning ideas. The geek in me has an idea for you. Can you implement your menu template into your recipe box and then enable it so you can drop and drag your recipe names with links to it. This would let each of us can use your recipes and create our own menu plans online. We could even share them with others on the site.

  23. jeanne raver says:

    How could you have known that meal planning is exactly what I need to do in order to bring my grocery store spending dollars to a more reasonable level! Of course, I do not plan menus, decide what to have for dinner in the morning of (which, of course, necessitates another trip to the grocery store!), … Anyway, DH has given-up trying to pound some sense into me!! LOVE, love your blog – the recipes I’ve tried have been awesome! I am in the process of organizing my thoughts in order to begin my own blog and your blog has been a source of inspiration for me!! Anyhoo – could I bother you to send me your template the next time you get ready to send your next batch out? Also, is there anyway you could send me the recipes as well in your document as well? You’re a doll!
    [email protected]

  24. Hilary says:

    So I understand the spreadsheet and the grocery shopping every two weeks… but how do I decide what to put on the menu each day? Is there a secret formula? Do you have chicken once a week, vegetarian once a week, etc.. Do you have bread with every meal? How many entrees equals a meal? Do I have to have a main dish, salad, veggies, and bread to make it a meal? If there is only a main dish is that still a meal? My head is spinning with this whole planning thing.

  25. Britt-Marie says:

    wow, That was super simple. I read the word “spread sheet” and I felt overwhelmed, but then when I opened it up I thought, I can do that! That’s so much! You are so wonderful to share this and all your wonderful recipes/tips with everyone.

  26. Ruth Higham says:

    I would like your template. I love your recipes. Thank you.

    • Mel says:

      Ruth Higham – There is a blank menu template on the Menu Planning 101 page that you can use! It is a blue link. I am glad you are enjoying the recipes.

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