If you’re new to menu planning, you may have some questions about how to make it work for you. It may seem like a time waster. Even though you may spend more time up front on the meal process, it will end up saving you time and possibly money. When I first started adding more fruits and vegetables to my diet, I bought lots from the grocery store, but didn’t have enough variety of recipes to eat it all and unfortunately, much got thrown away each week. However, I knew if I didn’t buy it I would never learn to eat it and as I persisted, trying new recipes, adding more side dishes and eating less meat, I did end up eating most of what I bought. During that time of change, I could have saved money on my grocery bill each week if I had done some menu planning before shopping. I also would have saved time in meal preparation if I had planned ahead on making double batches and freezing them, soaking beans the night before, putting dinner ingredients in the crockpot in the morning before I left for work, and so forth.
When menu planning, some people plan each day’s meals with their calendars, so they know which days they’ll have time to cook and when they won’t. I am not that structured. I am more of a mood eater and an on and off cook. One day I’ll have time and be in the mood to cook, so I’ll cook a bunch. Another day, I have no desire or time to cook so I’ll eat leftovers, pull something out of the freezer, or make something simple. Because I am single, I can usually plan about 3 main dishes, and a couple of ideas of each for lunch, breakfast, and snacks per week. Then I eat leftovers for the rest of my meals. When I make a double batch of anything, I can freeze all of the extra for another time. If you’re cooking for a family, you’ll probably have to be more structured and plan more meals. Another benefit to less structure is that I’m more able to take advantage of sales, buy produce that looks good and avoid what looks old that week. If you’re a more experienced cook than I, you probably know how to substitute similar vegetables in your meals in order to have the same advantages when buying groceries for your menus. I guess all of these examples are to illustrate that menu planning does not mean that you’ll be trapped into rigidity. Some structure can actually give you more freedom.
One of the first steps in planning meals is to write down your family’s favorite cook from scratch meals. See how many weeks of menus you can come up with. After that, look for recipes that fit your tastes, style of cooking, and health goals. Try one of these new recipes each week. Slowly add to your repertoire and replace processed foods with these healthy alternatives over time. Even after you feel you have enough recipes for a solid foundation, continue to try a few new recipes each month. You may want to try new recipes that include seasonal produce, a new seasoning, or healthier ingredients. Plus, variety will help you stick with your healthier eating goals and keep you satisfied with your meals.
Both Cherie and I have a binder of recipes that we use while actually cooking. I recommend that you start a binder of recipes as well. That way you don’t get your cookbooks messy, especially if you’re borrowing some new ones from the library to try out some new recipes. Also, with a binder, you can organize recipes from many different sources into your own personal cookbook. You choose the organizational method as well. You can organize it by meal, by main ingredient, by weekly menus, by seasons, or whatever works for you. I have a section of untested recipes in mine, so when I want to try something new, my research is already done. Use sticky notes or write on the recipe feedback from your family after the meal. Then when you come back to making that recipe, you can tweak the recipe as needed. Also, write down the changes you tried, so if they really liked what you did, you can repeat it.
As always, when trying something new, make it fit your life’s circumstances and your personal style. Don’t try to fit exactly into someone else’s mold. You won’t be happy and you might miss out on the benefits if you give up on it because it didn’t precisely work for you.