1) It saves a whole heap of money on groceries- you know exactly what you need, and can buy your non-perishable ingredients in bulk.
2) It keeps us from eating at restaurants, because the obstacle of coming up with an idea for dinner is avoided.
3) It simply makes life easier- come home, look at the menu plan, know what's for dinner, and cook it.
(Click on Photos to Enlarge)
The conversation about menu planning ties in pretty closely with how we shop for groceries. Since moving into our house, we stock up on bulk staple foods about once every three months, and shop weekly for fresh produce and other perishables. These bulk shopping trips usually cost $200-300. For our stock-up runs, we shop at Costco and WinCo, and occasionally at other local coops for unusual ingredients or smaller amounts of particular ingredients. We always buy flour at Bob's Red Mill, which is marginally more expensive than other stores but much better quality and nutrition, and the Whole Grain Store is just down the road from our house! On our bulk shopping trips we stock up on things like rice, pasta, dry beans, lentils, couscous, flour, other baking ingredients, spices, butter, vinegars and oils, and big bags of potatoes and onions.
We also usually buy large packages of good quality fish at Costco, then divide it into meal portions and freeze those individually. We always have grains, pasta, frozen vegetables and baking supplies on hand, which allows us to limit our weekly shopping to fresh fruit and veggies and milk. We don't buy a lot of meat, usually purchasing several meals' worth at a time from a local farm. We eat meat about once a week. Whenever we do eat meat we make and freeze stock using the leftovers and bones. We also regularly cook up and freeze big batches of beans, and save usable veggie scraps in the freezer until we have enough to make a pot of vegetable stock (a trick I learned from Alina :). In the summer we grow our own vegetables and shop almost exclusively at farmers markets for produce. In the winter, we mostly shop at Trader Joe's for fresh ingredients, as it is the closest to our house (we don't count Safeway) and generally has good quality and prices. Our weekly shopping usually adds up to less than $20.
How We Make a Menu Plan
I've read about several different methods of building a menu plan (links below), but here's ours. We're not consistent about how far out we plan, but it's usually around 3 weeks. Each time our current menu plan gets within a couple days of running out, we sit down and plan out the next few weeks. We take a quick inventory of what we have in the cupboards and fridge, and on the pantry shelves in the basement. Then we pull out all our cookbooks and our recipe box for inspiration, and come up with something that looks like this:
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As you can see, we are fairly specific about the main dish. If it uses a specific recipe, we write that down ("Dishing Up Oregon, p. 70). Things like "stir fry" and "burritos" are things we have been making for years and don't use a recipe for. Side dishes include things like "brown rice," "quinoa pilaf," "roasted potatoes," etc. We don't usually get specific about what kind of vegetable we'll have; as you can see, I've usually scribbled down "Salad/veg" or sometimes "steamed veggies." What these actually become gets decided by the weekly shopping or what is currently growing in the garden. We usually buy enough fresh produce to cover about half the week's meals, and use frozen vegetables for the rest, at least during the winter. We try hard to make all of our meals include servings of protein, grains, and vegetables.
As you can see, the weekly shopping plays into menu planning. Our main dishes are planned so they can be made mostly with ingredients we always have on hand- pasta, eggs, frozen fish, stock. Before shopping for the week, we look at the menu to see if there's anything in particular we need, or if we just need to get some vegetables for side dishes. We try to put down at least one new or more complicated recipe each month or so, to make us try something new or go in search of unusual ingredients. One of the reasons I really love having a menu plan is you can make sure you're getting a variety of meal types. If we didn't have a menu plan, we'd probably have a stir-fry every other night and roasted potatoes on the others. We would also probably eat out a lot more than we do. Because the menu plan tells you what you're having, and you know you have the ingredients, it's really hard to say "actually, we're going to go out for dinner tonight." We also can plan for meals that create leftovers, so we almost always can count on that for lunch the next day. If we end up going to a friend's house for dinner, we just cross that meal off or switch it with another if there are specific ingredients that need using. If we have company, we usually just expand on what we were planning to have ourselves.
Some people plan for lunches as well, but we don't find this necessary. Like I said, we usually have leftovers, and we bake two loaves of bread every week so if we aren't eating leftovers lunch can mean sandwiches, steamed veggies and Parmesan toast, or we'll just whip up some quick rice and veggies. Other people get fancier with their menu plans, making several weeklong ones and rotating them, or mapping it all out in Google Calendars or such. We like just writing it down and sticking it to the fridge.
Hopefully some of you find this helpful and useful- I know I always like seeing how different people come up with different methods for things like this. If you want further reading on the subject, here are some really helpful posts on menu planning from some really great blogs:
Down to Earth
Happy menu planning, and happy long weekend to those of you in the U.S.!