Kitchen Tip: Menu Planning 101

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!