Well, I received one comment on my MIA post, so I know at least one person is actually reading what I write out there!
The comment was for me to explain a little bit about Menu Planning.
Well, here's what works for me. I've been doing menu planning for years in a variety of ways, but I will give you some tips on what I think will work to help you get started if you're new to menu planning for your family.
First, I would advise to take BABY STEPS. . . . Over time, menu planning gets easier and pretty soon it just becomes a way of life. For me, it's hard to imagine going into a week without a menu plan because it just makes life easier on so many levels. But like learning any new skill, it does take some time to get it to come naturally. Just take a few baby steps at a time. You'll get it.
Baby Step #1
Figure out what meals your family will eat without too much complaining. Write a list of them down. Try bringing up the topic one night at the dinner table and jot down ideas while the family lists off their favorites. You'll be amazed at what they say. You'll find that you do make quite a few things that the family already enjoys.
Baby Step #2
Plan 2 weeks worth of meals. To start, I would suggest using some sort of theme method. For example, have a Chicken Night, a Sandwich Night, a Breakfast for Dinner Night, a Pizza Night, a Pasta Night, a Crock Pot Night, etc. Start with 7 different themes. See if you can plug in any of the family favorites on that list. You now have 14 meals you know you can serve and the family will eat without complaining. That's a huge accomplishment. You can continue to add meals to this list and refer back to it in the weeks ahead.
When I first started menu planning, I went with a general list like this. I did not necessarily know what night we were eating what meal, but I knew that I wanted to fix chicken and noodles, tacos, spaghetti, etc. If cooking is not your thing, go with things you know how to fix well and things you know your family will eat. There will be time for recipe experimentation later on.
You can round out your meals with salad and fruit. I don't always plan out exactly what fruit and salad we will have, but we always have fruit and some sort of green salad with our meals. Just concentrate on planning the main dish/side dish to get you started.
I also always have some sort of dessert planned. It's not usually fancy. We eat a lot of ice cream around our house. But the kids really look forward to having dessert nightly. About once a week I do try to make something more traditional - like brownies, cookies, cake, etc. - if I have time or if the kids ask to help me bake something.
Baby Step #3
Take inventory of what you already have in the freezer and pantry. What can you make on that list of 14 favorites that you already have the ingredients for? What ingredients are you missing in order to be able to make those 14 dishes? Make a list of the things that you need. If you come across items in your pantry that you have no idea what to do with, donate them to a Food Pantry or set them aside and try to find a recipe to use them in the upcoming weeks. Do not just stuff them back into your pantry.
Baby Step #4
Set a grocery budget and try really hard to stick to it. Using cash helps. We are able to eat very well for $100 a week. That might not be the case for you. You might have more to spend, or you might have to squeeze by on less. I love the challenge of using coupons. I know that the thought of using coupons freaks out many other people. You can still eat well even without coupons. Come up with whatever number works for you and learn to work with that number.
Baby Step #5
Browse the store weekly circular ads and make a list of needed items for the 14 meals that you want to make. Hopefully some of the needed items will be on sale. We have not had the most reliable delivery of our grocery ads with the paper. That frustrates me so much! Ads are also available online, but I prefer the paper kind. I spend a few minutes looking at the ads when they come. Then I spend about 20 minutes looking at it more carefully a little bit later when I'm ready to make my list.
We're lucky because we have a choice when it comes to which store I visit during the week. I try to just pick one major store a week and do my shopping there. Trying to hit all the stores is just too time consuming. I like Kroger over Meijer, but only because it seems to take me forever to get through Meijer because the store is so big and the checkout is so slow. Plus I always end up putting more things in my cart than are on my list. The prices for non-sale items are higher at Kroger, but I do a better job of sticking to the list of sale items. I also have quite a few things that I regularly stock up on at Aldi. I can make a quick stop at Aldi and pick up what I need without having to worry about having coupons. The trick with shopping at Aldi is that the store is filled with all kinds of processed foods that are easy to toss into your cart. Those prepackaged items, even if they are cheaper than what you can get namebrand, still add up quickly.
To keep your budget down, you need to buy items that you use often (like the ones for your top 14 family favorite meals) when they go on sale. For example, last week Kroger had Smart Taste Pasta for 49 cents a box. I bought 10 boxes. I know that I will be able to make use of them in the coming months because pasta is a meal that my family will eat without complaining. I will vary the sauces that we eat, but I know we will eat pasta 10 times in the next few months. The price will go back up to $1.59 or more next week, so it was a good time to stock up.
If you can match a coupon with an instore special, that's even better! There are several websites that list grocery store and coupon match ups. A couple of my favorites are Stretching a Buck and 4 Our 2 Cents. Both are written by Columbus area women. You can sign up for their daily e-mail blog updates or just visit their sites. I have my own system of using coupons, but I don't think it's the most efficient way. It works for me. If you decide to use coupons, you'll find what works for you.
Baby Step #6
Go to the store with a prepared list. Because I have browsed the store ads and I have made a list of meals that I want to make, I am able to go through the store and stick pretty much to my list. I buy almost exclusively the weekly store specials unless it is something we absolutely need and must have at that exact shopping moment. For example, we are all out of butter. Butter has not been on sale for several weeks, so I have to pay full price for butter because I need butter to make several things on our menu that week.
I shop with a list that has our menu on the bottom and my shopping list on top. I can check to make sure I have everything I need to fix the meals on my menu plan as I'm going through the store. My shopping list is divided into sections (produce, cereals, dry goods, canned goods, etc) I put all my coupons that match the items on my list in an envelope. Having the list and the coupons pulled out ahead of time helps me stick to my list and to stay on task.
One of the ways that I have been able to expand our weekly menu items and keep our budget down is to always keep an eye out for Manager Special stickers. These orange stickered items are often greatly reduced. Sometimes I luck out and the Manager Special items will actually be items I need to make the meals on my list. Sometimes they will not. If the item is something I can freeze and use later, I will pick it up and then add it into my next rotation of meals.
Try to refrain from just throwing items into your cart because they look so good. I'm especially bad about this in the chip and ice cream aisle. Restraint from this area will result in lower grocery bills and hopefully lower numbers on the scale!
Baby Step #7
Put all the groceries away when you get home. You'll have a sense of accomplishment that you have everything you need for 2 weeks of meals. Freeze what needs to go into the freezer. Just about everything can be put in the freezer. Organize the items you put into the pantry and the frig. If you have time, clean your fruits and veggies so they are ready to use. (except berries. . . I wash berries as we use them so they don't get slimy)
Baby Step #8
Hang your menu plan where you will see it daily. I hang mine on the frig. There's no need to panic about what to make for dinner. You've got it all right there in front of you. It's okay you don't know exactly what day you're making what. You know what you have available to make, and that's a big first step. Yea you!
Baby Step #9
Figure out at least one day ahead what you'll make for dinner the next night from your list of 14 meals. Take a look at your list as you finish cleaning up dinner and figure out what will work for tomorrow night's dinner. Get the supplies gathered. Take anything out of the freezer that needs to thaw. Make sure you still have everything you need. For example, make sure you still have enough cheese to put on top of the pizza and that someone else didn't see the cheese in the drawer and decide to make nachos for a late night snack while you were out at a meeting.
Baby Step #10
Fix dinner confidently and enjoy time around the table with the ones you love. Mealtimes are precious. The kids are growing up so fast and research states family mealtimes are key to a child's overall wellbeing. Cook with confidence and love and it will come through in what you serve on the table.
There are lots of other helpful websites that give more indepth tutorials about menu planning. Here are a couple of my favorites if you want to do a little more research.
I'll do another post about some steps you can take after you've done these BABY STEPS. If you're new to menu planning, just start small. That's my advice. You can fine tune as you go along, but just start somewhere.
So. . . what's for dinner at your house tonight?