My mom is a great cook. She cooks every day from scratch, just like her mother used to do. It’s a natural thing for her. I remember her often saying that she doesn’t mind cooking. It’s the dreaded “what to cook for dinner tonight?” question that drove her crazy. Having to face it every. single.day. is the killer of joy in the kitchen. If only someone came up with ideas for what she should cook! I don’t know why, but menu planning was not a thing in Russia back then (is it now?).
Well, it didn’t happen overnight for me, but I did figure out the way to keep that joy of cooking alive, and keep my family of six fed and happy. Throughout the years I tried different systems for a while, but they did not stick. At first I thought I am just not trying hard enough, until I realized: they fail because they do not fit my lifestyle.
If a menu planning system didn’t work for you, it doesn’t mean it is a bad system or you are a bad planner– it just means, it does not fit your particular lifestyle.
I thought I will share my experience in case you are struggling to find what works for you, like I did in the past.
*What did not work for me and why:
1. Subscribing to a full weekly/monthly/yearly list of meals to be delivered to my inbox (like this service. I still have their menus emailed to me in 2009!)
These plans don’t offer enough flexibility: the lists of meals are generic, and don’t consider my family’s preferences, allergies, etc. They also don’t take into account what particular items maybe on sale that week in my grocery store. Some plans have more flexibility then others, but it is still someone who doesn’t know me and my
picky eaters family that creates my menu.
2. Assigning a specific theme to each day of the week, Monday- “Seafood”, Tuesday- “Soup and Salad”, Wednesday- “Mexican”, etc…you get the idea.
Just like in the situation above, this approach offers little flexibility. For whatever reason it is hard to stick to each “theme” day. There will be leftover seafood for Tuesday, or you are just not in the mood for Mexican on Wednesday, and the whole set up is shuffled just like that. I found that having one or two “theme” days is easier to implement (like Pizza night Friday, or Meatless Monday, etc.)
3. Using specially designed “Menu binders” or print outs, or writing my menu on a pretty chalk board, etc.
Pre-designed menu planning tools are too restrictive. There are always either too many or not enough lines for my weekly menu plan. Once I think I got every day covered and written down in my “Menu” print-out, something comes up and I need to switch things around, and scratching out commences: neither pretty nor helpful.
Do you sense a theme here? Flexibility! I found that allowing for circumstances and being flexible was very important in making menu planning sustainable, something I could do long-term. Because life! There will always be reasons to switch things around.
*Here is how I plan menus now:
1. Make a running list to cover 10-14 days: I keep adding to the list when I come across a recipe I want to try in the near future. This keeps me stocked up with meal ideas.
2. Use a plain compact spiral notebook. This way I can easily switch meals around if I need to, scratch out and add as I go. I am in control of the tool, not the other way around. For example, I have enchilada casserole planned for Monday, and shrimp with peppers in a creamy sauce for Tuesday. Comes Monday, and a kid gets sick and I need to make a trip to the doctor’s office, which takes all of the afternoon. No time to make the casserole, it will have to wait till the next day. I do have 20 minutes to quickly defrost the shrimp and throw some peppers in the skillet though. Quick switching around, no damage to the general plan.
2. Plan for leftovers: Brown more ground beef, saute an extra chicken breast, make more soup than enough for one meal. Then I either freeze the leftovers (“freezer stash”) or make them a part of another meal later in the week. Cook once, eat twice.
3. Look for ideas and recipes: online, magazines and cookbooks, Pinterest (here is my “Quick dinners from scratch” Pinterest board), poll my people– ask if they have any requests. I keep the most popular recipes in a folder in the kitchen cabinet, along with recipes to try (which then get moved into the “popular” category, or get tossed).
4. Think in terms of protein sources: chicken, beef, pork, seafood, legums, etc. I don’t want three “chicken” days in a row for example, but plan a day per each source, spreading them evenly throughout the week. And that’s the base of the menu. Once I have chosen protein, I add sides, typically a veggie and a grain/pasta/potato. I start with the “protein” that I already have, and then see if I need to buy more.
5. Sales-based grocery shopping: I don’t clip coupons, they are a huge time suck and almost never cover what I need anyway. I try not to buy food at a full price either. I look for what’s on sale that week, there is always something on sale. Here is where built-in flexibility comes handy: I can make substitutions easily based on what’s on sale. If I have cabbage penciled in to go with pork but the store has a really good price on green beans– that’s what I grab, with no harm to my menu plan. And I am always on a look out for sales on things I can freeze. Here is an iPhone app that I use for grocery list:
This is it in a nutshell. I am not a crafty kind, and I can’t spare a minute (nor do I have a lot of spare minutes) to do anything more elaborate than jot a list of meal ideas in my trusty notebook. I am sure this system will evolve when our lifestyle changes. But for now it fits us perfectly. Once you find a system that works for YOU, you will not go back, I promise.
What are your thoughts on menu planning? Are gadgets and visual organizers your thing, or maybe you have a unique menu planning system of your own? Please share in the comments!