Thursday, January 7, 2010

Flexible Menu Planning in 15 Minutes per Week

Over the past several months I've noticed (via Facebook and throughout my little blogging network) comments about dinner preparation frustration. Based on those comments, I'm guessing there's a cycle that many people go through. (Because I've been in this situation, I'll use me as an example.) I think it goes a little something like this . . .

Day 1: Nat goes grocery shopping without a list or a plan and grabs things she knows she needs at home and a bunch of stuff that looks great.

Days 2-7: Nat wonders what to make for dinner at about 5PM. After searching through her newly-stocked cupboards, nothing seems to come to mind. She looks through her recipes, but seems to be missing at least one key ingredient in any dish that looks good. Kids start to grumble about being hungry. Finally she digs out a frozen pizza from the back of the fridge that's been there 6 months and has it on the table in about 15 minutes.


I went through this for a while, and it nearly drove me batty. I started developing a system for myself about 5 years ago and have tweaked (and simplified) it until it's virtually second nature to me. I can't imagine going to the grocery store without making a plan and a shopping list first. To me, it's like continually compiling craft supplies not knowing what you're going to make out of them and coincidentally having the right things for a project you stumble upon. It's silly.

In order to realistically plan meals in about 10-15 minutes per week, you have to have your recipes organized and know what's in your pantry. That took quite a bit longer for me, as I've moved a lot of recipes to digital format, but I still use cookbooks and find recipes in magazines. Whether you use your computer or a simple recipe box or binder, this will work for you. At the very least, have a running list of dishes taped to the inside of your cabinet so you can easily see your options. If you need a little help with recipe organization, I've got a couple of posts about how I did my own:

Organizing Recipes in Microsoft OneNote
Creating a Recipe Binder

OK, once you've got things organized, it's seriously a breeze. All you need is . . .

A pen
A magnetic shopping list pad (you can often find these in the dollar section at Target)

Step 1: Grab a pen, your pad, and your recipe file/binder/book. Because I like to try a lot of new recipes, I have mine in about 2-3 different places. Some weeks I pull a couple of books out and plan my week solely from those. To make it easier, I go through my cookbooks (beforehand, like when I'm watching TV or something) and put Post-it flags on the pages the interest me. I also rip pages out of my cooking magazines and organize them in a folder. Sometimes I pull from that. Sometimes I look through my computer file.

Ah, a token puzzle piece. We have those everywhere in our house. And no I didn't plant that in the picture on purpose. I'm so used to them I didn't even notice it was in the picture until later.

Step 2: Decide how many meals you'll need to prepare in the coming week. I also like to decide what kinds of meals I want (types of meat or ethnicity, etc.).

Step 3: Browse through your recipes and choose however many you need. As you do this, write the things you'll need to buy (it's good to know what you have in your pantry) at the top of your list and the dishes (as well as the sources, i.e. cookbook and page number) at the bottom of the list. Like this:

Step 4: Rip off the bottom part and stick it on your fridge for reference. After having just two children my memory is getting increasingly worse. Sometimes I forget what I have planned the day after I go shopping.

There. Your week is planned and you've got your list. None of this is ground-breaking information, I think. It's just a matter of taking a few minute to plan. Planning meals ahead of time has a lot of great benefits -- never wondering what you'll make for dinner, saving money at the grocery store, not to mention quicker grocery shopping -- helpful if you've got little ones to entertain.

A few other notes and tidbits. . .

1. You might notice that I don't use a calendar to assign a meal to a certain day. I like having the flexibility during the week to cook what I feel like eating. And because I planned ahead of time, I've narrowed my choices down to 5 or 6 options.

2. If you like trying new recipes (like me), it's a good idea to go back to the source and make a note of whether or not you liked how it turned out or any other comments about the recipe. I stick post-its in my cookbooks when I do this. You'd be surprised how soon you forget when you make something (baby brains strikes again).

3. If you're into couponing, I'm sure this can fit in there somewhere. But I'm guessing if you coupon, you probably already do meal planning as well.

If you have a system that works for you I'd love to hear about it! The more ideas, the better :)

Good luck!


  1. I used to be really big on meal planning. I bet my family misses my near constant cooking. Poor family, haha. Lately we eat a lot of tuna fish, and a LOT of biscuits, haha. This did motivate me to maybe kick my butt into gear and get back into the kitchen, but then I remember how hard meal planning with food allergies is, and I slump back down in my seat.

  2. I've been doing this for the last few weeks, and I started doing it exactly how you do. I started a "blog" where I can write down my favorite recipes, so I refer to that when I don't have a LOT of time, and when I do have time to go through my cookbooks, I put all of that week's recipes on the blog so I don't have to go back and find them later. (If we end up not liking it, I remove it from the blog). It works GREAT for me!


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