Today is March 28th. It should be well into spring by now. Instead we are still struggling to hit temps in the 50s. I know that warmer weather is right around the corner – I can just feel it in my bones! As such, I’ve been thinking a lot about spring cleaning, organizing, etc… Spring just brings that out in everyone. And for some reason, it seems like for the last two weeks all I’ve done is talk about menu planning. I can’t help it! It keeps coming up in every conversation. Anyway… menu planning is something that I’ve loosely been doing for about 9 months but I’ve really buckled down since January and have a few tips to share.
There are many benefits of menu planning. For me it has decreased our grocery bill, wasted less meat/produce, and brought some sanity back to dinnertime. I really enjoy cooking and baking but not when I’m scrambling to figure out something to feed us – let alone something healthy. While I love menu planning – I’ll be the first to admit that I take “detours” almost every week 🙂 Sometimes, I forget to let the chicken thaw out or misjudged the amount of something and now have to substitute. Menu planning can be as flexible as you want it to be 🙂
First, I would strongly suggest creating a template of a menu that can be reused from week to week. (There are several cute idea on Pinterest (see pics below) – however, I was lazy and just did a boring Word doc). After you create your menu – be sure to post it somewhere that you will see it every day. I put mine in my home office but you can use the refrigerator, cupboard door, or on the counter. It doesn’t matter where you keep it – just make sure you can see it every day.
As you sit down to create your weekly meal plan, be sure that you have you calendar in front of you. Create meals according to your schedule. Do you have a yoga class every Thursday night? If so, choose something quick and easy that night like tilapia fillets and steamed veggies. The fish will thaw out in about 5 minutes and usually takes no more than 10 – 15 minutes in the oven. Or create a crock pot meal the night before and just turn it on before you leave in the morning. Then your cooking is done for you before you even walk in the door. Use your calendar to your advantage. It took me several weeks before I realized I should stop trying to make a large meal on Tuesdays. I usually have Mary Kay training or facials on Tuesday evenings so I don’t even get home until 8:30pm. Now, I know to have something ready to go that takes little-to-no prep and cook time on Tuesdays! (Live it, Learn it :))
As you create your menu, plan to use your fresh produce up as quickly as possible. I usually get groceries every Monday morning. So as I plan my menu, I try to plan to use my fresh produce up on Monday – Wednesday. (I should clarify – when I say produce I mean produce that “turns” fairly quickly and doesn’t have a long shelf life. For example, strawberries, mushrooms, romaine lettuce, etc). This will help you decrease your waste significantly. Again – a lesson that took me several weeks to learn. I would constantly buy mushrooms (because I’ll put them in just about anything) but I would wait until the end of the week to use them and by then they were “questionable”. (Shhh… don’t tell Aaron :)) But now, I know to use my frozen veggies or potatoes towards the end of the week and use the berries, salads, etc at the beginning. Again, this works for me because I get groceries on Monday but if you are a Thursday shopper then you can use your fresh produce all weekend and aim the frozen goods towards mid-week.
Another lesson learned is to plan “big-ticket” items towards the beginning of the week. “Big-ticket” means something that can be made into several meals. For example, roasted chicken, pork tenderloin, or even a large batch of cooked ground turkey. Plan you “big-ticket” menu item towards the beginning of the week and then use the leftovers to create other meals on the following days. Last week, I made a few pounds of ground turkey. I’ve turned it into stuffed peppers the first night, corn and turkey quesadillas the next day (literally just using the filling from the peppers in a flour tortilla shell), and then used the rest to top a homemade pizza on Friday night. Or you can also throw something like that into some pasta sauce and spaghetti noodles – easy peasy! By doing this, I significantly cut down on the prep/cook time throughout the week. As I mentioned above, I love cooking but I am a busy gal and most of my meals take less than 30 minutes of prep/cook time.
Menu planning has also helped me create a much healthier lifestyle for our home. I’m no longer struggling to find healthy options. By planning out my meals, I can methodically include healthy sides such as steamed cauliflower (Aaron’s favorite), sweet potato wedges, side salads, or quinoa. I can also monitor how many “cheat” meals I am creating. For example, we love doing a homemade pizza on Friday nights. Yes, it is healthier than a greasy Casey’s pizza but pizza is pizza… just not that healthy! I also have drastically reduced the amount of pasta meals we eat. Pasta is great because it is quick and easy but no matter how you cook it – it just isn’t that healthy for you. By menu planning, I can keep pasta-based meals to just one per week.
In addition to the health benefits, our grocery bill has been reduced as well. Your menu plan automatically turns into your grocery list. We waste less produce now, buy less pre-packaged foods, and reduced our “doubling-up” (Raise your hand if you also have 5 jars of red pasta sauce because every time you go to the grocery store you are convinced that you used your last jar…).
These tried-and-true tips have really helped make cooking dinner enjoyable again. Do you have any tips that help make dinnertime more manageable?