Thursday, January 20, 2011

The Power of Menu Planning

I've had this post sitting in my drafts waiting for me to finish it off... a friend needs to do menu planning like NOW and in a big chunk, and hasn't done it before... and once I heard from her that some tips would be helpful, I also found Jamie @ See Jamie Blog looking for meal planning help - so all up, I figured it was time to get this finished and published for the world to see.

There's probably not much new here - there is a lot of menu planning information on the web. Though I must say, not much of it has ever really fit with me. Not the way I'd like it to. So after years of planning and not planning and trial and error I thought it time to pull together my thoughts on the topic. Hopefully you will find something helpful here!

I menu plan for 3 reasons
1. Sanity - knowing what's up for the next meal and never having to gaze into the fridge wondering what's for dinner. It's all too common that I have dinner cooking away, or we've even eaten dinner and friends are muttering on 'chat': What should I make for dinner???
2. Cost - it saves the horror costs of takeaway, my money is usually better used elsewhere. It allows me to make the most of good food prices and save a fair whack there too.
3. Health - if I don't know what we're eating and I'm having to come up with something last minute it would most likely be unhealthy. Most quick things are either takeaway and/or loaded with carbs.

There are two main ways of doing a meal/menu plan.
The first is to make the plan and then do the shopping.
The second is to do the shopping and then make the plan.
Both work, I prefer the second because it's cheaper! Lots cheaper!!

I shop weekly, I usually plan weekly. The two are rarely linked. I shop for the best priced, well balanced healthy foods and then I meal plan around it.

Getting Started
-If you've never done menu planning before, then just start with dinners. The evening meal. The main meal of the day. Leave breakfasts and lunches as something 'standard' till you get the main meal down pat.
-Write a list of all the meals you can think of. Do this in a way that you can add to it. Don't try new meals at this point, just the ones you know and can pull off with ease. This is your Master Meal List. I have mine divided into meat and meal types to make it easy to use. Use this as a reference when dividing up the groceries into the meal plan.
-Go shopping knowing how long you need the meals to last for i.e. is it one week? two? Buy enough meats to fill this time. Meals focused around the meat are healthier. Add in the vegies and a small amount of carbs and you're done.
-Buy the cheapest healthy things you can.
-Forget buying packets. They're not cheap. Even on sale. Even if they were free, they are loaded with chemicals that compromise your health.
-Buy meat. with fat. If you don't believe me, research it for a few hours. Buy enough for the number of meals you are planning. Or a bit more.
-Buy long lasting vegies or plan to shop for vegies more often
-Make use of frozen goods, especially vegies
-Buy for a couple of back up meals that are long lasting and either a)won't matter if not used or b)can be used at the end of the plan. I like tinned tuna in spring water for this.
-Make sure you have 1-2 (or more) super simple meals in the trolley. I'll post a few I use in the coming week - keep an eye out :o)
-Plan a 'guests' meal or two to have on hand, to save another trip out. Extra trips to the supermarket are extra expensive.

Once you've done your shopping, unpack it and carefully store it. Make sure meats are packaged as 'per meal'. Keep potatoes in the dark. Keep dry goods away from little critters - Tupperware is an awesome investment for this purpose!

Now that you have everything in the house, work out your life on paper.
Let's say you're planning for a week, as an example.
Write out the days of the week and make notes about what you need to consider on each day.
For example: One day you might be walking in the door at dinner time, another day you have friends over in the afternoon, right at dinner prep time. Another night family is coming and going at different times. Or you're going out for dinner and only the children need feeding.
Noting these things will help you make a successful plan.

For the night you are going to be walking in the door at dinner hour, this is the night you need to plan on something cold or cold and pre-cooked. or have had the crock pot on the go so it's ready and hot at dinner time with no last minute fussing.
The night family are coming and going, plan something that can either be cooked one by one, something that can be easily reheated in individual portions (No microwaves, thank you. Research it if you don't know why already), or something that doesn't need heating but can easily be served one at a time - like quiche and salad. Or something keeping warm in the crock pot like a soup or casserole.
Use your master meal list to give you ideas on how to use the different foods you bought.

I only plan a week at a time, sometimes less because for me it would be too insane to do it for longer. If I did up a whole month, too much would need chopping and changing as I went. More effort than it's worth. I'm just better off revisiting the planning thing each week.
I also plan according to weather. Here in Melbourne, that can change drastically from one day to the next.
Last night was cold enough that I could have cooked up a roast without an issue. Tonight it's going to be hot, so I don't want the oven on for a couple of hours, so instead have a light soup simmering away in the crock pot.

Can you shop for a month but then plan weekly - sure!! I'd build up though. I reckon it takes practice. It has for me, anyway LOL. If you jump in to do a big chunk all in one go, it can cost a whole lot more than you want it to because of wasted food, or food your family don't actually like!

I'm in the final stages of working out my 'Post baby 6 week menu plan'... a rare time when I will plan first and shop second. I can do this even though it will be slightly more expensive because that slight expense is worth the sanity of having 6 weeks of post baby meals figured out!! The expense of doing it 'backwards' as I call it, won't be too great because I am well practiced at this now and know my prices well, and what the family can eat in what duration of time. I'll share it once I've gotten it typed out - it's in the 'notes on binder paper' format at the moment!

Now because this is something I do with ease these days, I've quiet probably forgotten a bunch of things you want to know if you're just starting out. Ask away in the comments section and I'll be sure to help as I can!

PS: How to go insane with menu planning - just in case you want to do this the hard way
-pick a bunch of new recipes
-plan more than 2 weeks or even a whole month at a time
-go shopping for the exact items needed on your plan
-save planning time and don't match meals and life up as you plan



  1. Interesting reading! I also menu plan for two weeks at a time generally though:)
    Interesting about meat with fat, are you talking about free range / organic meat or just normal meat?

  2. Preferably chemical free, yes.
    Free range is an interesting term I don't fully trust.
    Take chickens for example... free range means can walk around, are not locked up in cages. That's all. It doesn't have to mean free to roam the grassy paddocks and dig for worms and lay eggs on the cycle of the sun vs artificial lighting.
    Eggs from chickens living as God intended ARE different to other eggs, visually and nutrition wise but are hard to find as a general rule.

    Interestingly the fats that cause heart disease etc are the vegetable oils etc we consume. Our bodies need animal fats to make brain cells, decrease asthma and a bunch of other things. The fats are also needed with the meat as one of the benefits of meat is the 'fat soluble vitamins' i.e. they go straight through us unless accompanied by animal fat!!

    Research that says otherwise has been funded by the vegetable oil industry etc - can't get more dodgy than that for research LOL
    I trust the research that is not funded by parties with an invested interest...

  3. Thanks! I obviously have more research to do on this:)

  4. Thanks for the helpful post! I'm doing a little meal planning right now! :)

  5. You won the mumma goodies at $65 for the Flood relief. Just let me know when you have a receipt number, and I'll hand them over :D. Thanks for joining in.

  6. Awesome post~!!

    Totally on board and agree with the meat fat, and microwaves. You go girl~!!

    I'm am still at the stage of trying to get myself to menu plan weekly. :o)

    I really need to get our favourite recipes down on some cards for when I do the planning - so I can pick and choose instead of winging it. LOL

  7. Oh - and Congratulations on winning those mumma goodies too~!!