Friday, February 13, 2009

Menu Planning

A reader recently asked me if I could share a bit about how we plan our menus. Some of the questions asked were:

How do you decide what the meals will be? Does it hinge on what the sale specials are that week? Or on what's available in the pantry? Does everyone use the same approach to planning?

My Mom and I alternate every two weeks on the menu planning and cooking so each time we plan a menu it is for two weeks at a time. Both her and my ‘methods’ are similar and are fairly simple . . .

--How do you decide what the meals will be? By what menus look good, or haven't been eaten in awhile, or new things you want to try?

Deciding what the meals will be used to be a challenge for me as our recipes were scattered on recipe cards, sheets of paper, in cookbooks, etc. or were not written down at all, and trying to remember what all meals we liked was difficult! Because of this (and also because I wanted to have my own recipe collection) several years ago, I began typing up the recipes that we like, printing them out, putting them in sheet protectors and then putting them categorically in a binder. I also printed out a bunch of recipes from our favorite online recipe site Taste of Home. What is fun about these recipes is that they also often have a photo with them which makes the recipe binder more enjoyable use, and it also helps me remember what exactly the recipe is! :)

Since putting the binder together, when it comes time to plan a menu, I will flip through the notebook and select recipes based on several factors. Each menu, I try to have some simple recipes and then more complex ones. I also try to have variety in the order of meals – say we do not have two Mexican dishes two nights in a row, nor soup two nights in a row (unless it is leftovers that is. :) I also generally include at least one new thing (either main dish, side dish or bread) on the menu, as I love experimenting! If it turns out to be something we like, I’ll add the recipe to my binder.

--Does it hinge on what the sale specials are that week? Or on what's available in the pantry?

In part, yes, the menu planning does hinge on sales, but not necessarily the ones of that week. Meat is generally the most expensive part of a meal, and as we have been blessed with freezer space, when there is a good sale on ground beef or chicken breasts (these are what we use most often in our meals
) we will stock up on them. When other types of meat that we do not use as much go on sale (such as a roast, turkey or ham), we will often get one or more of those too. So the majority of the meals that end up on our menus are ones that use what we already have in the freezer. Though, there are those occasions when it does not work out this way, and we end up buying meat when it is not on sale, but we are getting better in our planning which helps with this!

A menu - (anyone else have breakfast for dinner? :)

Once we decide the main dish for each day, then we will plan side dishes. Usually that will include some type of bread and a vegetable dish. As we were able to put up a lot of produce in the freezer this past summer/fall, the majority of our side dishes utilize those things.

We do try to keep our pantry and freezer well stocked (often by buying things when they are on sale such as shredded cheese) so that helps when it comes time to plan the menu. But as we have a few discount grocery stores here in town, the ‘basic’ ingredients can usually be gotten less expensively there at regular price than at sale prices of stores such as Hy-Vee or Dillons.

This menu planning is a relatively new thing for me (as in the past few years), and I have learned so much from my Mom as she has been planning menus for as long as I can remember. Planning menus has many rewards and has been very helpful for us, but one thing I have learned is to be flexible! More often than not my menu plan changes at least once during my weeks – usually because we accumulate enough leftovers to suffice for a meal so one of the ‘scheduled’ meals gets taken off. But sometimes this menu change is due to forgetting to thaw meat out . . . I am notorious for that! I can remember more than one occasion where I was in the kitchen making something simple like fried egg sandwiches or BLT’s for dinner and someone will say “I thought we were having ______________ tonight?" :)
Thankfully, though, I am doing better with remembering this important detail. :) (One thing that helps to avoid this scenario is to write on the menu what needs to be thawed out when.)

Well, now that I have shared a bit about what we do, do any of you have tips, things you would like to add, or other helpful hints that relate to menu planning? If so, please feel free to share!


  1. Thanks for the post, Sarah. Sounds like some good planning on your part. I actually no longer worry about thawing the meat ahead of time, as our microwave defrosts it well, usually in less than 7 minutes! So while I'm getting other things/ingredients ready, I'll thaw the meat out in there.

    Also, have you ever considered trying the 30-day-cooking plan? I don't use that, but I have a friend who has found it a real timesaver. Basically, you spend a weekend preparing up to 30 meals (not all of them necessarily different) and then freezing them. Then each night you already have your entree prepared and need only add a side dish, salad, dessert, etc.

    ~ Betsy

  2. That looks very organized, Sarah, and very similar to how we were doing it for a while. We have gotten slack on menu planning recently, but it is something we want to pick back up! It is a big time saver. And just a quick question - what are BLT's (I probably should know, but I don't!)?

  3. At our house we have certain meal categories for certain days of the week (Monday is soup, Tuesday is potatoes, Wednesday is noodles, Thursday is Mexican, Friday is stir-fry). Each of the children has a day they are responsible for making dinner or helping to make dinner (Monday is Brian, Tuesday is Libby, Wednesday is Logan, Thursday is Naomi, Friday is Mom's night). We've used this system for several years and it work well. Each year Mom rotates the food/day/child so that each child becomes proficient at each meal category.

    On Saturday we girls usually prepare a dish for Sunday dinner (usually a vegetable salad, a fruit salad, rolls, and dessert). Mom makes the main dish (baked beans and baked potatoes, chicken and rice, roast beef with vegetables). On Sunday morning Mom puts the food in the oven and Dad sets the self-timer on the stove. When we return home from church, dinner is ready to put on the table. We have a special meal with a table cloth, china and good silverware and since each of us girls did a part on Saturday, no one is stuck all day in the kitchen and we don't have a lot of preparation on the Lord's day.

  4. Funny you should mention this. :) I just spent a good part of my afternoon working on a menu with Mom. I am trying to figure out how she makes the grocery money go so far! Maybe if I sit beside her as she does it enough times, I'll get the hang of it.

    I like having a recipe collection, too!

  5. We also have breakfast for dinner sometimes. It was always fun when I was a little kid when mom would do that.
    I also am bad about not getting meat out to thaw on time, but have found that if it is chicken or hamburger that if I put it in the sink and fill it with hot water it only takes 20 minutes or so to thaw, maybe more if it was a big piece of meat.
    I am terrible about not following my menus. Something else ends up sounding good or we eat at my Mother in laws or something and only eat one or so "planned" meal.
    Hopefully I will get better at it with practice.

  6. BLT? Is that Bacon, lettuce and tomato as we use the term in UK?
    Very organised Sarah.
    I use my Defrost on the Microwave for thawing, or put meat in COLD water, never hot, to thaw gradually.

  7. You’re welcome, Betsy! :) That is a good idea to use the microwave to defrost things . . . thank you for sharing!

    I have read about the 30-day-cooking plan, and it sounds like quite the undertaking! Have you tried it before? I can see how it could be quite a help – especially if you were going to be going through a season where it would be more difficult to do the cooking. I am not sure if this is something that I will try sometime or not, as I do really enjoy cooking dinner each day (most times anyway :), but it is a good idea to keep in mind. Thank you for sharing about it!

  8. I try to be organized, Anna, but it isn’t always so neat and orderly! :) To answer your question, BLT’s are Bacon, Lettuce, and Tomato Sandwiches. You toast the bread, put on miracle whip, layer the bacon, lettuce and tomatoes and enjoy! It is such a good summertime meal, especially when there are fresh tomatoes from the garden!

  9. Thank you for sharing all that, Amy! Your Mom sounds very organized. I had heard of designating certain meal categories for each day, and it sounds like it is a system that has worked well for your family. Especially as your siblings rotate through with the cooking – like you shared, it would help them learn to be proficient in each meal category. I am sure you all have lots of fun times together in the kitchen!

    Your Sunday meals sound so special! I enjoyed reading about it. :) We, too, generally do our Sunday meal preparation on Saturday. Every Sunday afternoon, we have an afternoon potluck with our church families so it is necessary to have all the food made in advance! All that is left to do then is to either stick it in the oven when we arrive, or pull it out of the fridge when it’s time to eat. :)

  10. Isn’t it wonderful, Amber, that we can learn from our mothers in these areas of homemaking?! It sounds like you are taking advantage of your mother’s wisdom. :) Have fun figuring out how to stretch the grocery money!

  11. I am glad to hear that we are not the only ones who eat breakfast for dinner, Becky! :) My Mom especially likes doing this, and now with an abundant supply of eggs, we have been doing it more often as of late.

    Thank you for sharing about defrosting frozen meat in the sink! That is a good idea. :)

    It can be difficult to follow a menu sometimes! Though, isn’t it nice that a menu is not a ‘set in stone’ thing, and we can change things around if we would like? :)

  12. That would be correct, Elizabeth! :) They are so good, aren’t they?!

    Thank you for sharing the thawing meat tips! I appreciated it. :)

  13. Breakfast for dinner is what we do when we are either to tired to cook or when we forget to thaw the meat! The easiest is eggs/omelet, biscuits, and potatos although we also do pancakes or waffles and scrambled eggs.

    What you and your Mom do is very similar to what my Mom does. Menu's are planned around what we have on hand or what we will be getting at the grocery store.

    Have a great day Sarah!

  14. Sarah...I haven't tried the 30-day cooking plan myself, as I've never had a completely free weekend that I could devote solely to cooking. My plan is what I call "incidental preparedness." This means that often when I prepare something, I deliberately double or triple the recipe, and freeze the extra for another day. It's just as easy to mix up 3 meatloafs as it is to mix up one, for example, so it's an efficient way to be prepared for another day.

    ~ Betsy O.

  15. Thank you for sharing about your 'breakfasts for dinner', Ashley! They sound good. :) We sometimes have waffles or pancakes for dinner, too.

    That is interesting that your Mom plans her menu similar to how we do ours! It certainly works well for us. :)

  16. What a good idea, Betsy, to double or triple recipes and then freeze the extra for another day! That would be quite a time saver. Thank you for sharing!

  17. Yes, the thawing... I know what you are talking about here. I try to remember taking the frozen item out the night before, or even earlier for a big bird, to let it thaw slowly in the fridge (where it will hopefully save electricity costs by keeping the fridge cool). I also found out in a cooking programme that you can actually grill fish that is still frozen. I don't normally use the grill much but I have adapted this piece of information for my own use. Instead of using a lid on my vegetable pot, I place a pan on top, in which I put the fish (normally fillets). Sometimes I then cover the pan with a lid, sometimes I don't. So all the heat from steaming the potatoes underneath the pan gets used to thaw and cook the fish - it is usually cooked at the same time as the potatoes, or before. And the fish tastes great because the cooking happens in a slow, low temperature process.

  18. Thank you for sharing those ideas, Agnes! :)


Thanks so much for your comment! Each one is read and enjoyed. :)