Tuesday, February 22, 2011

How To Menu Plan

Recently, I was speaking with a mentor of mine. She's helping to put together a "how to" menu plan session for some younger women. This mentoring group was formed to help fulfill the Titus 2 passage where older women are to teach the younger women. They speak on both spiritual walk topics and on practical how-to topics. What a great idea! I'm not part of the group but I've heard wonderful things about it...

Anyway, she encouraged me to write a blog post about how to menu plan. Now, in some regards, I feel that menu planning is a very personal thing. You know what you like to eat, what your family likes to eat, HOW your family should be eating, what you have time to make and what you can afford. All of these various ideas roll into each week's menu plan.

I've been menu planning for 2 1/2 years. Some weeks I'm full of inspiration and it takes me 5 minutes to plan all the week's dinners. Other weeks, I sit with a blank face and stare at the computer screen (where I keep track of the menu) and ask anyone who walks by or happens to call or come to the door - what do you think we should eat next week?

Okay, let's get into it. First, you need to decide a few items.

1. What meals do you want to plan for? I plan solely and specifically for dinner. Yes, we eat other meals AND snacks, but I don't plan for them. Why? Well, my wonderful husband isn't home during the week for them and I like to keep them simple. For instance, peanut butter and jelly, grilled cheese sandwiches, quesadillas, meat & cheese with crackers and leftovers compose the bulk of our lunches. They are quick and simple, easy to prepare and the kids love them. If I see something like fish sticks or taquitos go on sale, I'll buy them and throw them into the mix. This may not work for you. You may want to plan out breakfast, lunch and dinner along with snacks. You'll be amazingly organized but it will take extra time.
2. How many days do you want to eat at home? I know this is perhaps a silly question but it really does help. I plan for 5 nights and this is why: one night can be leftovers (or something pulled from the freezer) and one night can be take out or take and bake pizza. I don't really like to cook on Sundays, so if all else fails, we eat popcorn and cheese. :)
3. How are you going to keep track? I keep my menu plan on Google calendar. There are other free calendar websites that you can use too. We do this for a couple of reasons. 1. My husband can access it at work and see what's going on. 2. We also keep our activity calendar on the same application. So, when I plan, I can easily see - Oh! We are going to have to head out to practice or go to AWANA or such and such has invited us over and adjust the meal for that night accordingly. If something comes up for an evening, I take that planned meal on the calendar and drag it to another day. No scribbles, no crossing things out. Some other ideas would be just to hand write it on a basic calendar. Use a dry erase board that you keep on your refrigerator. Pin up a sheet on a cork board - and then throw darts at it to determine the order of the meals :)

Now for the next part, choosing the actual meals. Are you still with me?

My family likes variety. Or I should, say, I like variety. And since, I'm the cook - guess what we get? To help get variety in your meals try these tips.

1. Make variations of things you like. For instance, your family likes hamburgers so try making: Greek style burgers (with Feta cheese and olives in the mix), Taco Burgers (add taco seasoning to meat), Pizza burgers (top with sauce and cheese and other various toppings), Cuban style burgers (with deli ham and swiss cheese, wrapped in foil and pressed). If your family likes pizza, try things like a pesto based sauce, BBQ chicken pizza, a Thai-style chicken pizza, differing toppings. Or try making a calzone instead! Don't be afraid to experiment. Keep a simple side so people will have something to eat even if the star of the event isn't their cup of tea.

2. Think ethnically diverse. One night is Italian night, one is Asian inspired, and one is good ole retro American (like meatloaf!), one is Southwest, and the next is Mexican. I try not to do 5 Mexican inspired meals in a week. The result of the beans alone is harbinger of why that's not a good idea.

3. Visit cooking blogs or check out cooking magazines. If you are reading this blog, then you have internet access of some sort. People are SO creative. And many are SUCH good writers! If I find a blog that makes me giggle and makes me hungry, I go back. Pioneer Woman is one that will do that. A site called Seriouseats.com has recently gotten my attention and I'm loving it! Orgjunkie.com hosts a Menu Plan Monday event every Monday where people post their menu's for the week. In fact, that's why I started posting my menus on this blog. I've since stopped participating but it is still a good place to find inspiration.

4. I try to use a method where I don't use the same variety of meat more than twice a week and sometimes I incorporate meatless dishes. So, I'll do one or two beef, one or two chicken, pork, fish and/or a legume. Just using a variety of protein sources will help you get variation in your meals.

Okay, so you are thinking variations, now what?

1. Start with what you already have in your pantry. I like to keep a well stocked pantry and it serves as the foundation of most of my meals. My pantry maybe more varied than yours, or maybe not! But look at what you got - most likely it is the basis for what you most like to eat. And don't be afraid to experiment with some new pantry items - try different grains such as different types of rice. Add a new bean into the mix (we stick to pinto, black and Great Northern but aren't afraid of something new).

2. Now you know what ingredients you have on hand already, go to the sales flyers. What's on sale? Is it time to stock up on a great deal on pork loin? Cook some for a meal in the next couple of days and then freeze the rest. So one meal is going to have pork as the main protein - it goes like that. What veggies are on sale? Eggplant? How about eggplant parmesan? Asparagus? Cream of aspargus soup or roasted asparagus to go with those loin pork chops. An outrageous deal on potatoes? Why not make a potato soup? Along with that, I try to buy fruits and vegetables seasonally. Mostly because a). they're ususally cheaper and b). they usually taste better. Once I was fooled into buying a cantaloupe this winter. Never. Again. Ick.

3. Plan your easiest meals for your most hectic days. I like to do crockpot meals on Wednesdays because that day has the craziest evening for us. On Fridays, I've got more time in the afternoons so I might put a little more effort into those meals and make something a little more complex.
4. So you see that pork is on sale and you have items a, b, and c in your pantry. You think they can go together but you're not sure how. Check out allrecipes.com's ingredient search or even just google your ingredients followed by "recipe" and you are sure to get some hits.

Lastly, make the time to do it. It is SO worth it. You'll save money, you'll save time and you'll save yourself a lot of frustration. My dear husband told me that I became a much better cook when I started menu planning. Interesting, huh? Menu planning with the follow through is when inspiration meets motivation - you end up with good results and good eats. I'm hoping this blog is helpful to you. If you have any questions, please feel free to post them in the comment section under this post.

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