Menu Planning – Part 1

Say the words, “Menu Plan” out loud and you are sure to get a reaction.  The reactions run the gamut from huge (usually vocal) proponents, to nay-sayers, to those who feel guilty because they think they should do it, but just don’t.  I’d say that I am on the proponent side, but that I’m not obnoxiously vocal about it (at least I hope that I’m not).

Menu planning isn’t something that I just decided to start one day.  After I graduated from college, I realized that if I wanted to eat, I had to learn how to cook.  I went with what I knew, which was a lot of processed, just-add-water-and-butter, heat & serve kinds of things.  Basically, non-perishables.  Because I lived on my own, cooked only for myself and my food didn’t expire for decades, there was no need to plan meals.  The more I learned about cooking (mostly from watching The Food Network), the more I was drawn to dishes made with fresh, (translation: perishable) ingredients.  At this time, I lived in suburban Washington, DC with a grocery store two blocks from my apartment.  I also had at least a 45 minute commute home, which was incredibly annoying, but allowed me time to decide if I felt like making a real meal or just heating something up.  If I was in a cooking mood, I’d stop at the store, pick up what I needed and cook it up that night.

When I moved to Minnesota, I still lived by myself, but I despised going to the grocery store.  I was so spoiled in DC.  There were amazing grocery stores at every corner and that’s where I learned to grocery shop.  I moved to the tundra, and my choices were much more limited.  Every time I went to the store, I felt frustrated – either at the selection (or lack thereof) or the prices.  I found a direct correlation between my bad moods and number of trips to one of the town’s “grocery stores”.  My grocery shopping looked a lot like my laundry schedule – go as long as you can without tackling the chore.

But I still liked cooking with real food as much as possible.  This necessitated some sort of planning ahead.  Thus, menu planning, for me, started as thinking of two or three meals that I’d like to eat in the next week and making a list of the necessary ingredients.  It really was that simple.

It was only after I got married that I started planning specific meals for specific days.  The confluence of coordinating two schedules, controlling a grocery budget and giving us good reasons not to eat out all the time (which we would have loved to do – but knew we shouldn’t) made for the perfect storm to start a new habit.

Now, there is no going back.

Each week, I sit down at our computer, look at our calendar for next week, check out our deep freezer, refrigerator and pantry contents, assign meals to each day and make our grocery list.  Honestly, I don’t enjoy the process that much.  Some people may think it’s fun.  I’m not one of them.  But as much as I don’t like the process, I love the end product.  The ends more than justifies the means.

The benefits of meal planning are many and vary among families.  For us, they include:

  1. It allows us to eat meals at home as a family on nights when we have something else going on.  Because I start our meal planning with our schedule, on nights when we have somewhere to go, I plan the meal accordingly.  Usually something in the crock-pot so that we can eat as soon as we get home.  If I didn’t do this, we would eat fast food all.the.time.  And as much as I want to do that, I really don’t want to do that.
  2. We save some serious moo-lah.  Or at the very least, allows us to afford pricier items.  After meal planning, I make a list of what we need to make that week’s meals.  I go through what I call our “masters” list, which is just the staples we always have on hand, and add anything that we are out of.  The items on this list are the only things in my cart when we check out.  In the grocery store, I am a woman on a mission.  I find what I need, and only what I need.  For time’s sake and our budget’s sake, I don’t do any perusing.  It’s not unusual to skip over half of the aisles in the grocery store in any given trip.  If my mentality isn’t “What do I think looks good to eat this week?”, I’m far less likely to make impulse buys.  (Disclaimer: In the interest of full disclosure, I must admit that my one weakness to this is the ice cream section.  Ice cream ends up in our cart much more often than it occurs on our list).  There are, however, some foods that aren’t cheap that we really like to eat, and buying groceries this way justifies us spending the money on them.  Because I don’t buy food we don’t need, we have a little extra to eat the things we really love like steak, salmon, LOTS of fresh fruits, and Edy’s ice cream.
  3. Menu Planning helps me achieve my goal of not letting our deep freezer become a black hole.  Each week, I try to have at least one meal that comes from our deep freezer.  If I didn’t plan for it, we would only accumulate food in there and never take it out.  Not at all the reason deep freezers were invented.
  4. It adds variety to our meals.  If it’s something that I really like, I could eat the same thing for days on end.  And when I was single, I did.  I would make a pan of lasagna and that was my lunch for the next two weeks.  I’m not joking.  I do our menu planning electronically on an app called Pepperplate.com (more about that later), which stores all of our meal schedules.  If I feel like I’m falling in a rut, I can look back and see how many time’s we’ve had BLT’s in the last month.  Sometimes, it’s not nearly as often as I think it is, and other times, well, let’s just say that it’s a good thing I checked.
  5. I spend the day looking forward to eating supper, instead of spending it dreading 5 PM and the inevitable standing in the kitchen trying to figure out what to make.  I don’t make food that we don’t enjoy eating.  So instead of peering in the fridge at 5:10, trying to make a decision and feeling like I’m wasting precious evening time, I get excited at 4:50 because that night we’re having fill-in-the-blank and everything’s there for it, I just have to cook it.  (Which, I admit that I enjoy.  I know that this is not the case for everyone).
  6. You have to make the decision at some point. For me, this is the ultimate reason.  Even when I lived in DC and heated up frozen pre-cooked chicken breast to add to Pasta Roni (yes, I am ashamed to admit that that was a “good” meal), the 3 minutes I spent trying to decide on that was miserable.  When people ask me about meal planning, what I always say is that unless you starve yourself, you have to make the decision.  It’s not one of those things that goes away if you don’t think about it.  So, if you have to make the decision, why not make in advance?  This allows you to take into consideration all of the factors listed above and any others that make a difference for you, and make the most out of what is going to be a part of your day – no matter how much you wish it wasn’t.

For the month of June, I will be sharing more about the benefits of and tricks to meal planning.  Whenever I’ve talked with people about this before, they always had questions.  I will be collecting any questions that come up on my Facebook page and answering as many of them as I can at the end of the month.  Whatever you’re wondering regarding meal planning, shopping and prep, let me know.

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