Planning a Menu
Planning a menu may seem daunting and overwhelming. Menu options may either seem redundant, or there are so many choices you don’t know where to start. However you feel about menu planning, I promise once you get it down, it’s hard to live without. Those nights of cold cereal and scrambled eggs get fewer and farther between. Five o’clock comes and no one has to wonder what’s for dinner, because it’s actually in the crock pot.
Our days, nights, weeks (you get the idea) go SO much smoother when I have a menu that I actually use! Knowing what we’ll be eating helps me be able to shop, prep, AND ask for help. Instead of me trying to throw something together last minute. It also allows me to ENJOY meal time! Believe me when I say, there have been way too many days, weeks, and months of no menu for me to compare it to! Not only do we eat healthier when I have a menu planned, we also spend less than half the amount on food. Whether it gets wasted when it goes bad, or because we grab something on our way home knowing we’re too tired, busy, lazy, or just not sure what to cook when we get there!
As you start building a menu it will get faster and easier…so stick with me and keep at it! We’ll all be here doing it together.
For me making a menu requires a few different things
First, our family (and my personal) calendar. Our schedule helps determine what we’ll be cooking that night for dinner (or breakfast and lunch too for that matter) . Busy afternoons and evenings are perfect for crockpots, freezer meals, or other quick dishes. Where as a less busy day means I have a little more time to spend in the kitchen prepping and adding sides that may require extra time. I try to mix things up so we get a good variety, even though my family doesn’t seem to care as long as there’s food to eat 🙂
Second, a meal list. This list is made up by the whole family, with the help of our recipe box, recipe books, and of course Pinterest. I have meals broken down into different categories and sub categories. For example, Chicken, Beef, Seafood, Meatless and then things like, Soups, Mexican, Grilled. You could also rate them as far as prep time, and ease so when it’s someone else’s night to cook they know what to expect. As you go to fill out your menu it’s much simpler if things are in categories.
I also recommend having a category for meals you know everyone in your family likes (hopefully you have a few of these, even if it’s mac n cheese, or pizza). I’m lucky in the fact that my family will pretty much eat anything I make, but there are definite favorites (like chicken roll ups or chimichangas) that I know everyone loves. There are also a few things, like Salmon, that I make when a certain child will be gone for dinner. My kids learned early on that saying eww gross, or that looks disgusting, earned them an empty plate and they got to cook a few extra meals.
There are MANY ways to make your menu, but the MAIN thing you need to determine is, WHAT WORKS FOR YOU! It doesn’t matter, what the Dinsmore’s, the Jackson’s or the Neilson’s are doing, if it doesn’t work for your house! The whole point of having a menu is to make it easier on you, not to add more stress! I’m sharing a few different ideas, see if one works. If if doesn’t, switch it, or mix and match it. Remember, easier meal times are what we’re going for!
4, 6 or 8 week menu – At one point we had an 8 week menu that we just repeated. This doesn’t work for our family now because our schedule is different each week and some busy days land on a heavy meal prep meal. It may work for you and your family though. If you do choose to do a set menu I recommend adding one or two days a month as “random” days to add new or not rotated meals. This helped with variety in our menu when we did menu this way.
Another option is setting up different nights of the week as different categories.
Monday = Family Favorites Tuesday = Mexican Wednesday = Grill Thursday = Meatless Friday = Pizza or Pasta Saturday = Leftovers aka clean the fridge Sunday = Breakfast for dinner
Here are a few other categories we’ve used when we’ve made our menus this way. Italian, Comfort Foods, Soup/Sandwich/Salads, Asian, Seafood, Casserole, Crockpot, All American.
You get the idea.
Do your family members take turns cooking different nights of the week? We’ve had different phases in life that we did this. Whoever was is charge of cooking that night decided what we we’d be having (within reason). The menu was made monthly on a Sunday evening with everyone helping. This didn’t last long because it took For-Ev-Er to get a menu planned…we all dreaded it! They decided they’d rather me make the menu and tell them what they were fixing. This also gave them experience helping with different meals instead of sticking with meals they already knew how to make.
Currently for our menu I just try to keep things rotated between types of meat, and categories. This way we’re not eating Mexican food with chicken 3 nights in a row. I always have a stock of freezer meals to rotate in on busy days that really help keep me on track!
Don’t plan your menu on Monday. Monday’s are hard enough, so why would you add something you dread to that day?! Besides, by Monday morning I like to have all of my groceries in my house for the week (or at least be picking them up or having them delivered that morning).
I like to make a 4-8 week menu because I find myself adding in more variety when I do this. If I schedule out our menu weekly we seem to repeat meals more often and things start getting repetitive. I write out a brief menu for the month on the calendar. Adding in sides as I fill out our weekly menu plan allows me to add fresh fruit/veggie from things on sale that week. I like to have our weekly menu finalized on by Thursday or Friday for the following week. This gives me time to check ads that come out on Wednesday, get groceries ordered, and shopping done over the weekend. Many weeks we end up with a meal we didn’t end up making and fresh ingredients were purchased for. Finalizing our weekly menu allows me to add it into the next weeks menu without wasting food already purchased.
When cooking meat for our main dish towards the first of the week, I like to cook extra and add it to quesadillas, salads, or sandwiches later that week. I’m also a huge believer (and doer) of making 2 and sticking one in the freezer. It takes very little extra time and effort, and no extra mess, of making two. Yet, saves you so much time, effort, and mess when you’re able to pull something from the freezer. I’ll be doing a whole separate post on this coming up.
Remember, the point of this is to make your life easier, not more stressful! It may take a few months to get things figured out what works best for you! Don’t try it once and decide it doesn’t work for your family. Instead make adjustments and make it your own! Your menu planning won’t look like just like someone else’s it will look like YOURS!
And if cold cereal or scrambled eggs make it on the menu 3 times in one week, IT’S OKAY! Just try to make sure you’re eating it together!
Since writing this post we have gone back to our repeat menu with some adaptation.
Making a menu is not something I enjoy doing, but I knew I needed some flexibility with our busy schedules. I came up with a 16 week “set” menu. Each week 5 meals are scheduled. There are always 2-3 freezer meals, one meal that takes a little longer prep, and one or two meals that are simpler. At the end of each week just like I’ve done previously, I finalize my menu for the following week. I can then look at the calendar for the week and decide which days need freezer meals, which night I have a little more time for prep. Scheduling out 5 meals per week also allows for a night of leftovers, a night out, or a new recipe I’ve been wanting to try. If the new recipe is a hit I add it to the rotation usually eliminating a meal we’re tired of. This has been a great way to get a good variety, allowing it to fit in our schedule, and not have to menu plan every month.
If you’d like to receive a copy of our 16 week menu plan and menu planning sheet, you just need to sign up for our email and it will be sent to you.