Uncharted and Sometimes Daunting Territory- Menu Planning

I’m back! I have missed blogging terribly but I have come to a realization: I am a seasonal blogger. I hate Summer. I really do. I have what you might call Reverse SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder); instead of getting down when it’s grey and cool/cold for too long, I get down and moody when it’s sunny and warm/hot for too long. When it’s cool/cold, grey and wet I am nearly giddy- no exaggeration. So Summer for me is endless torment. Especially this summer with it’s drought. I tried to blog but got nowhere because I resented being in the kitchen when it was so hot and I was moody because of endless sunlight and heat. Also, Summer food just isn’t that much fun to cook or blog for me. My favorite foods are comfort foods which are, for me, synonymous with Fall & Winter foods. So I have decided that I will blog during my preferred time of year- doing so happily- and take Summers off.

On to today’s topic: Menu Planning. I posted on Facebook last night that I am going a bit menu crazy right now. I have November’s menu nearly done (two slots to fill + a few sides to figure out!) and I’ve also gotten a start on December’s menu. I got a few comments to the tune of astonishment and a question of “How do you do that?” as well. So I decided to address the topic because I really do think most everyone can benefit from having a menu plan. It saves me money on groceries and it saves me tons of headache trying to figure out what to get on the table for dinner. I used to spend way too much money on things that were easy to get on the table because I didn’t have a plan and I spent way too much thought on “What in the world am I going to make for dinner tonight?!’ But then I started planning out my menus and it was an incredible relief to be able to go to the fridge and, instead of staring blankly into it racking my brain for something to make for dinner, just take a look at the menu hanging there and say “oh- I need to make sure I start cooking____ at 4 pm and then make ____ to go along with it. Oh and I need to get ____ out to start thawing for dinner 2 nights from now”. Dinner problem solved. It’s an incredible blessing to not have that stress anymore!

So here’s the how-to… As I’ve mentioned, I plan my menus out a month ahead of time. We do a big trip to Sam’s and King Soopers at the beginning of each month and then we do little filler trips in between. So for me it’s just easier to do the whole month at once but alot of people just do a weekly menu and that’s great- whatever works for the way you do things! One of the commenters on Facebook said she would love to do a month at a time and fewer shopping trips but hasn’t figured out how to do so because of produce & other perishables. Those are the things I buy on the filler trips. After our big shopping trips are out of the way (and when I say big I mean BIG. We need 2 carts at Sam’s and sometimes King Soopers as well) my filler trips usually consist of about 10 items. Things like milk, produce, yogurt, etc. are on my fill in list. And let me tell you- doing it this way may not cut down on the number of trips but it is so much easier to get just a few things each week than having to negotiate the entire store with a full shopping list every week. What’s the trick to having only one big shopping trip every month instead of weekly large trips? Besides menu planning, of course: using pretty much the same things every month. I have also mentioned before in this blog that my family cannot eat the same thing all the time. And it’s true. We can’t. We can’t do pizza every Saturday night or Tacos every Wednesday night. We’d go crazy. That’s just the way we are. I can’t make any dish more than once each month. But my shopping list looks pretty much the same every month. How? I use the same items just in completely different ways. I buy 10 pounds of chicken breasts and about 6 pounds of hamburger every month but there are literally thousands of ways to cook them. Those are just 2 examples but you get the point. And if your family can do Taco Wednesday and Pizza Saturday, etc. every week then your battle to get a menu plan done is half won. You just plug those in and you’re good to go! You’ll actually have an easier time making a monthly menu than I do!

As for the mechanics of how I make my menus- the actual writing them out- I use a pen & paper as well as my Google Calendar. I keep spiral bound notebooks that are solely for menu planning. Here is what I have so far for November…

In the upper right hand corner I have the number of meals I will need for the month and the page is numbered accordingly. You can see that I have a special section for Breakfast for dinner. That is the one thing my family can eat every single week. I always do it on a different day of each week and I always make something different each time. The items that are circled are special meals that have a whole menu of their own- in this case Zachariah’s birthday dinner and Thanksgiving. If you’re one who is counting the number of meals I have listed you will see that things don’t add up- I’m missing some days. That’s because I make Sundays “Fend For Yourself” nights. (BTW, one could also make these “Leftover Nights” and get rid of all the bits & pieces that are kicking around your fridge.) That is the night I take off of cooking and I make maybe chicken nuggets or frozen pizza as a main dish for the kids and then Ron (if he’s home) and I will eat later. After the kids go to bed we might have frozen pizza or I might make some sort of special sandwich or something and we’ll watch a movie or the like and just spend time together. The point is I’m not cooking a whole meal that has to be on the table for the whole family at one time. I’m the only one in the house that does the cooking and the dishes so every week I get a break on Sunday night.  This is the format for every month. And since I keep all the menu lists together in spiral notebooks it’s easy for me to go back and get ideas for current and future menus, see what I’ve made recently, and what I haven’t made for awhile that may be due for a reappearance. You could do this on your computer of course but I like having it on paper so that if something happens to my computer (Heaven forbid!!) I can still access all my menu info and not have to start again from scratch. After I have this page done for the month I go to my Google Calendar and plug everything in, making sure we aren’t having chicken 3 nights in a row or Breakfast twice in one week; that sort of thing. This is also where I make my lists for my big shopping trips as well as plan out some of my smaller weekly shopping trips. If I see a recipe that will be made, say,  in the 3rd week of the month that needs heavy whipping cream I can plan to get that the week I’m making the dish instead of at the beginning of the  month because if I bought it during the big trip it would be bad by the time I needed it.

Now this is just how I do mine. There are many ways to menu plan but this is what works best for me. I’ve checked out the menu planning sites but I don’t like them. Most of them want you to pay for the really “useful” things they offer and most of them make planning too complicated. I am perfectly capable of (and thoroughly enjoy) making my own shopping lists & tracking sales, and I don’t need their recipe ideas & suggestions so I leave those sites alone and do it this way. I use Google Calendar because it’s the one I’ve found that is easiest to use with they way I do menu planning. And no one says you have to do it by the month- by the week is fine. Or maybe you just do the weekdays and weekends are open. There are also some people who only plan out the main dishes and leave the sides for last minute. I don’t do it that way because that’s not how my brain works but if that works for you that’s awesome! You’ll still have a much easier time figuring out what to make for dinner than if you didn’t plan ahead of time at all.

I hope this has helped those who are having a hard time in the menu planning department. I can’t even begin to tell you how much having a menu pre-planned and on paper (or in the computer) has helped to relieve my stress in the kitchen. To be able to look at my menu and know what I’m making each day is so much more preferable to the dropping feeling I got in the pit of my stomach when I realized I had to have dinner made in a few hours & I had no clue what to make and all the meat was frozen still. Once you put the effort into getting it done and see how much it helps it will be a breeze to do each time :.)

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