Text and Images by Lindsey Johnson for Design Mom.
There are two ways to answer that dreaded five o’clock “What’s for dinner, Mom?” question: one includes the phone number of your neighborhood pizza place, and one requires a little more planning. I promise that the latter option is so worth it, and I have a few secrets to ensure that your local delivery people never learn your name! It should be noted that I love planning menus, and I love grocery shopping; it’s honestly all about the planning.
Secret Number One is identifying all of the main dishes and side dishes your family likes to eat. The less surprises, the less scowls and growls! Sit down with a notebook and make a list of all of these foods — everything from spaghetti to stir fry. Be sure to ask each member of the family for their input.
Once I’ve listed the meals my family likes, it’s time to gather the recipes in one place. And that’s Secret Number Two: Dedicate and organize a binder, folder, or recipe box with the most-used, most-loved recipes for quick reference, and keep it with your cookbooks, or somewhere easily accessible when cooking. If those recipes are in a cookbook, bookmark it so it’s easy to find with bright, colorful tabs.
Next comes the fun part. Fill in an empty weekly or monthly calendar with the meals. Secret Number Three is all about scheduling and sticking to it: Make sure to add in any special occasions, appointments, or other events that will be helpful when deciding when to eat which meal. If you have a birthday that month, you might want to make a note somewhere about any special meals or desserts you want to make or if you’ll be eating out instead. What I said earlier still applies here: The less surprises, the less scowls and growls! Want to go the extra mile? When I’m planning main and side dishes, I try to add in at least one thing I know for sure each person will love so there is something on their plate they are guaranteed to enjoy.
Secret Number Four: Be realistic about your schedule. While a pot roast and homemade rolls on Wednesday sounds like a lovely mid-week treat, it can turn into a stressful moment if your daughter has a two-hour dance practice that day and your son has to be at soccer right after! I plan on using my slow-cooker several times throughout the week because it saves so much time, and one-pot meals are lifesavers on busy nights. I used to plan really complicated meals when my kids were tiny because I was home all day and I liked doing it. Now that everyone is older, 30-minute meals are more my speed. Save the more involved recipes for the weekend or a day when you can dedicate the time.
Plan meals according to the way you like to eat with regards to things like your schedule or time constraints. If your life is hectic and busy, then planning one week at a time might be best for you. It might make things more simple to fill in a whole month of meals. Which brings us to Secret Number Five: Consider your natural grocery shopping habits. Are you someone who likes to pop into the market every other day on the way home from work, or are you someone who only shops twice a month? Are Saturdays reserved for serendipitous finds at farmer’s markets and roadside stands? Or does bulk shopping make more sense for your family? If you despise the market, go as infrequently as you possibly can. If you love it, you’ll find a little more flexibility in your menu planning.
Secret Number Six: Eat food when it is in season, which saves money and ensures an ever-changing variety of fresh ingredients. In-season produce is usually on sale (or free from my garden!) and helps me stick to a budget. Our menus change by the month. My weekly menus in August will differ greatly from the ones in February. I also like a lot of variety, so we might only eat the same thing once a month. Your family might like something more predictable.
If you are part of a CSA or something similar, you may not always know what you’ll be getting each week. It will be more difficult to predict your menus. Keep things a little more open-ended. For instance, you might want to simply label Thursday as pasta night and know that you’ll be adding veggies into the dish. Or Tuesday might be soup night and you’ll use whatever you get in the soup.
Secret Number Seven: A proven time and money saver is adding meals to your plan that are great for leftovers or can be turned into another easy meal. One of my favorites is a roast chicken on a Sunday night that can be turned into a pot pie, soup, enchiladas, or something else on Monday night. Or you can plan on purchasing a rotisserie chicken from the store with the same idea in mind.
Secret Number Eight: Don’t forget planning breakfasts and lunches — something I was always forgetting to do before I started planning menus! I ended up using my dinner ingredients for the other meals, which messed up my plans or required an emergency trip to the grocery store. Not a big deal for me, but planning ahead makes things so much easier. Our breakfasts are almost always oatmeal, cereal, or toast. My kids usually eat school lunch, my husband eats at work, and I usually plan on eating a salad or leftovers at lunchtime.
Let’s look at an actual weekly menu that works for my family:
Breakfast: Puff Pancakes with fresh fruit
Dinner: Roast Chicken with vegetables, green salad, homemade ice cream (remove meat and put the bones in the slow cooker overnight to make a broth)
Breakfast: Oatmeal with berries
Dinner: Biscuit-Topped Chicken Pot Pie (chicken and broth from the roast chicken the night before)
Breakfast: Smoothies and whole wheat toast
Dinner: Quesadillas and salsa (I have a weekly meeting on Tuesdays, so this is something easy my husband can make and the kids will eat!)
Breakfast: Cold cereal with bananas
Dinner: Vegetable Stir-Fry with Orange-Miso Dressing and sticky rice
Breakfast: Whole Wheat Buttermilk Pancakes with maple syrup
Dinner: Spaghetti, salad, and garlic bread
Breakfast: Oatmeal or cold cereal with fruit
Dinner: Homemade Pizza
Breakfast: Omelets with mushrooms and veggies, hashbrowns, fresh fruit, and muffins
Dinner: Leftovers for kids, because Mom and Dad are going out with friends!
Once I have my list of meals figured out, I make my shopping list. Secret Number Nine is one we’ve heard a million times, but it’s worth repeating: Shopping with a list will save you so much time and money when you’re at the store. You’re less likely to impulse buy when you are armed with a detailed list. Also, shop at stores where you are familiar with the floor plan, so you won’t have to hunt for ingredients as much.
I separate my grocery list into three columns: Menu, We Have, and We Need. This helps me stay focused and curbs any panicking about forgetting something.
This is what my list looks like:
I also make sure to add a few extras to my grocery list to allow for my lunches — like fresh or dried fruit, veggies, crackers, cheese, yogurt, or other healthy foods to use for snacks.
Secret Number Ten: Remember that some fresh items are more perishable than others. Take that into account when you are planning your menu and shopping. If I know I need cilantro for a recipe I’ve scheduled for Friday, I won’t want to buy it the previous Saturday, or I will discover it has gone bad when I’m ready to add it to my recipe on Friday night. If you don’t rely on canned goods very often, you will probably shop more frequently in order to pick up the fresh ingredients.
Secret Number Eleven: Display your menu where you can see it. While I like writing it down in my planner, it also helps to have it on the fridge. I like using a dry erase board. The other bonus with a fridge display is that everyone else knows what we’re having, too. My kids really like that part, especially if I add illustrations!
Lastly, go easy on yourself. Things come up. So Secret Number Twelve is: always keep a few backup easy meals ready to go in the freezer or pantry. This might be an extra jar of spaghetti sauce and bag of frozen ravioli that you reserve for emergency dinners, or when you’re just plain too tired for something more involved. Anything so you don’t call out for pizza!
Bonus Secret: If you’ve read my tips and you’re still feeling overwhelmed, try a more formal schedule. Monday is breakfast-for-dinner (you just smiled at your own childhood memory of this meal, didn’t you?), Tuesday is for tacos (or any kind of Mexican food), Wednesday is leftover night, Thursday is Italian, Friday is soup, Saturday is dinner out with friends or family, and Sunday is slow-cooker. This way you’ll always basically know what you’re making each night for dinner. It narrows the seemingly endless options, and once again…the less surprises, the less scowls and growls!
Best of luck in your menu planning! I’m sure you’ll be a pro in no time. And if you happen to be a pro already, I’d love to hear what works for you!
P.S. — Want to know all the secrets? Click here.