Finding Your Menu-Planning Groove

This is the signature bumper sticker from the great blog, Dinner A Love Story

I have had several conversations with people lately about MENU PLANNING.  I think people have to find their own personal style and the system that works for them.  We have finally found a system that works for us.  The challenge is staying on my game and being disciplined to keep it in motion. But when I do…boy, does it pay off!

There is nothing more overwhelming than coming home from work/school, getting stuff put away, homework assessed, and then trying to think about WHAT’S FOR DINNER!?!?! If I were left to decide at 5:00 what was for dinner every night, we would be having pasta or cereal or ordering pizza 7 days a week. You too?
Here is my “formula” for successful menu planning:

1.  Do a personal inventory.

I think it’s important that you know your values when it comes to dinner.

Consider what things you value most about meals:
Simplicity (not a lot of complex recipes/ easy to prepare)?
Crowd Pleasing?
Dietary Restrictions- Accommodating?

I have some friends who subscribe to online menu-planning resources and love getting new recipes (with grocery lists included) for each week.   Other friends feel overwhelmed by weekly “risks” and new recipes to navigate.

You have to know yourself and your needs.

Meat-focused meals are not what I desire (for health and budget) and therefore a crockpot type of approach isn’t usually the best for my household.  For others, it is their go-to technique.

You need to consider what your priorities are and let them lead you.

We have made a list of meals that we know “work”, are successful and meet our “qualifications” in our home. We add to that list when we find a new winning meal.  When I feel stuck in meal planning, I look to my list to remind me.

2. Be practical.
I think it’s really important to think about how much time you are able/willing to devote to meal preparation each night. Some evenings I have more time than others.  If I know we have a busy night, or I’m going to be coming home later from work, then I plan to keep it simple.  I am not going to try a new recipe, or plan something that will take a long time to prepare on those nights.  I will plan to have something the night prior that we can have as leftovers, or choose something that is a fast prep (or can be prepped the night before) for the menu.

Also, as another matter of practicality, use things you have on hand.  (This may be obvious, but I have to remind myself to do this). Every week, I go through my refrigerator, freezer and pantry and “take inventory” of what we have and try to plan some upcoming meals to use up what we have on hand.

3.   Let the seasons inspire you.
Not only is produce best when in season (cost, availability, and quality) but the seasons can also inspire what meals sound appealing.  In the winter I make soup.  At least once a week.  And sweet potatoes, and apples inspire dishes in the fall.  In the summer, we have “farmer’s market meals” where we see what’s at the market and create a prep-and-serve meal from it (sliced tomatoes, corn on the cob, melons, grilled zucchini, and fresh peaches and ice cream for dessert)!  And we usually grill at least once a week during warm weather months.




4.  Plan out your meals for the week. (I usually try to do it on Sunday for the week ahead, or at least a tentative plan of the meals I plan to prepare at some point during the week, and make my grocery list based on the plan.)
ThenPOST IT somewhere visible.
my week’s menu plan on the fridge

Place that list where you will see it.  I put it on the dry erase board that hangs on our fridge and by doing this we are all on the same page – people can know ahead of time what’s for dinner, I don’t feel so lost and there is built-in accountability.

I try to cook 3 or 4 meals each week, we eat leftovers at least one night, and eat out (or bring in food from a restaurant) once or twice each week.   I plan according to what we have scheduled for each day of that week – considering when I have more time to prepare, and what perishable ingredients (like produce and meat) that I purchased need to be used more speedily .

On my board I also list recipes that I have been wanting to make, new things to try, and foods I have been craving.

5.  Have your groceries on hand! If you don’t, your motivation to stick to your menu planning will drasticallly dwindle!  I think having your ingredients at home is half the battle won.
A couple of weeks ago, I was having my friend Ashley over for dinner.  She lives in South Africa and is visiting Nashville for several weeks. I wanted to make a meal that was seasonal, fresh, special, but simple. I wanted to be able to focus on her instead of fumbling with new recipes, stressing, preoccupied while she was hanging out.

Our menu was:

Corn on the Cob
Sliced Watermelon
and for dessert- Chewy M & M bars

 I had on my list of “things to make” the Bruschetta that Pioneer Woman had inspired me to make the other day. (My mom TiVoed the episode and showed it to me and it made my mouth water.) I had seen corn on the cob in the store for a good price and we all love corn on the cob at my house, and watermelons have been delicious the past few weeks.  I bought some Salmon, thinking it would make the meal feel special.  I made a batch of the Chewy M & M bars, because I was newly in love with them!

It was a super simple and yummy meal.  Best of all, we got to enjoy focusing on being together.

DISCLAIMER: Please know that though I love to cook (and love to eat even more), and though I have a strategy in motion for menu planning, I don’t have this down pat.  Some weeks we start off whompyjawed and don’t have a good plan.  Sometimes we have lack-luster meals, I’m unmotivated and weary and sometimes we eat out more than we should.  However, I am thankful to have a system that works when we work it!

Find your groove and hopefully take some of the angst out of “what’s for dinner”?


2 thoughts on “Finding Your Menu-Planning Groove

  1. Anonymous says:

    Great suggestions — I love how you start with taking a personal inventory of what's important. So important. I'm great at sticking with the seasonal, but need to get better at the making a plan part. Maybe writing it down like you suggest would help. I also saw that Pioneer Woman episode and completely agree about the bruschetta. I can't wait until tomatoes are ripe here!



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