April 6, 2013

Menu Planning- Save Money and Time!



The teaching profession has a lot of great perks...but the salary is not usually one of them. Through the years, I've learned some tips and tricks that helped me stretch my teacher's salary, all while working around my busy teaching schedule. During this series, I will be sharing them with you! 

Menu Planning
  
This is been the single biggest timesaver for me both during the school year and the summer, as well as a great way to save money on my grocery & eating out budgets

Menu planning can be an intimidating process. When I first started thinking about planning out my menu, I thought: "I don't even know where to start" and "I don't have the time to plan out my menu." If you have those same concerns, this guide will hopefully help make the whole process easy and manageable for you.

First, let me start by saying that everyone has their own system for organizing different parts of their life and this is just works for me.  

Why do I LOVE menu planning?

It saves me a TON of time and stress during the week. This is what my nights used to look like: 
  • "Hmmm, what's for dinner?" (searches cookbooks for 5 minutes)
  • "Ooh this one looks good! Do I have the ingredients?" (goes to pantry) 
  • "Yes. Yup. Good." (goes to fridge)
  • "Got that. Got this. Crud. No peppers. What else could we have instead?" (goes back to cookbook and repeats process five times until I pull a frozen pizza out or declare it a Micky D's night)
Sound familiar? Having a menu planned out allowed me to look at the menu, see what we were having and know that all the ingredients were already there.

It also allowed me to plan ahead. If I knew in the morning that we were having chicken barbecue sandwiches, I could throw all the ingredients in the crockpot before I left for work and have dinner waiting for me when I returned. 

I could also save time by planning meals back-to-back that used leftovers. For example, I could throw some extra chicken in with the barbecue sauce and use the leftovers the next day for quesadillas. Two dinners....one prep time. 

It saves me a lot of money. How many times have you walked through the grocery store and thought "Oh, that looks good...I'm sure that would be great with some dinner this week" only to buy it and never end up using it? Since I know what we are going to be eating for the week, I don't buy a lot of extra food that ends up spoiling in the fridge. This has cut down on our food waste significantly (which equals more money in my pocket too!).

Also, I often gave into the temptation to just avoid the hassel of dinner by declaring it an eat-out night. That happens much less frequently now that preparing a meal takes less thought.

Start Small

I find that planning out my whole month works the best for me. I only have to sit down once every few weeks and plan. However, others find that one or two weeks at a time works better for their schedule. If you are a bit unsure of this whole menu planning thing, start small. Plan one week at a time and if that works, increase it to two. Experiment until you find the plan that works best for you.

Two Ways To Make a Plan
I tend to be very computer-focused. In fact, a friend of mine recently told me that if she could paint a scene that represented my daily life, the picture would have me standing behind the kitchen island, running the world from my computer. So true. I do everything on my computer, including my menu planning. 

There are others, though, who prefer to go the paper-and-pencil route. They like being able to cross things off and add notes.

So, to help out both camps, I am going to show you two different ways you can choose to create your menu plan. 

Option 1: The Paper Plan


Take a set of colored 3x5 cards (or just use different colored highlighters) and assign a meal category for each color. Here are some ideas for categories:
  • chicken
  • pork
  • meat-less
  • egg
  • seafood
  • beef
  • pasta main dish
On the cards designated for chicken, write a meal you make often that has chicken as the main dish. Underline the main dish and write the sides you would normally serve with that dish. You can always change things up and serve different sides...these are just suggestions for those nights when you don't want to think about what you're going to eat. 

Repeat this process for each color card. You want to end up with 15-30 meals (or more, if you have a lot of family favorites). 

Once you have all of your cards done, take 7 small pieces of paper and write one day of the week on each one. Arrange them from left to right on the table in front of you. We are essentially going to create a calendar using one card for each day. 

Shuffling through your recipe cards, choose a meal that you will make for each day and place the card under that day's name. Your table will end up looking something like this:



If you are doing a full month, you will have four cards under each day to designate the four weeks in that month. You may need have multiples of the same card. For example, we usually plan to make pizza for Friday nights, so if I were planning my entire month out, I would need to have four pizza cards to fit under the Friday heading.

When you've filled in each day with a card, double check that you've given yourself a good variety. You don't want six pink ("beef") cards in one week and five green ("seafood") cards the next. Then, get a blank calendar page or a just a quick calendar you've drawn onto a piece of paper. Jot down the meals you've planned on having and return the cards to the stack to use the next time you need to plan. 

You're Done!

Take this one step further: Write the ingredients needed for the recipe on the back of each card. When you have selected your menu for the week and are ready to go shopping, just flip the cards over for a complete list of ingredients you need to buy.

Option 2: The Digital Plan

Create a table in Word that has 7 columns (you may end up changing this number based on your meal categories) and 10 rows. Write the name of one meal category in the top of each column. Some category ideas include:
  • chicken
  • pork
  • meat-less
  • egg/"breakfast for dinner"
  • seafood
  • beef
  • pasta main dish
Using 'chicken' as an example: In the boxes under the chicken column, write a meal you make often that has chicken as the main dish. Include the sides you would normally serve with that dish. You can always change things up and serve different sides...these are just suggestions for those nights when you don't want to think about what you're going to eat. 

Repeat this process for each category. You want to end up witha total of 15-30 meals (or more, if you have a lot of family favorites). 

Once you have all of your meals on your chart, create another new document with another table. This table will need 7 columns (one for each day of the week) and 1-4 rows (one row for each week you will be planning out).

Look at the list of meals you've already made on the first table. Start to copy and paste them into your monthly/weekly plan until you've filled up each day.

When you've filled in each day with a meal, double check that you've given yourself a good variety. One easy way to do this is to use the highlight tool or font color tool to color each category a different color. As you paste meals into your plan, you can quickly scan it to see if you have a variety of colors, which tells you that you have a variety of meal types. 

Save your original meals list so you can use it the next time you plan. You can also add new meal ideas to it as you find ones your family loves.

Print the menu plan or save it to your desktop for easy access.

You're Done!


Take this one step further: Before you start to plug in your meals onto your month/week plan, go through and write a quick note on days that have things that will affect dinner. For example, if you have  an evening event you need to get to, you'll need a quick and easy meal that day. If you have a dinner engagement, you won't need to plan a meal for that night.

Alright. That was a lot of information! I hope this helps you start the process of menu planning. It really IS a freeing and time-saving practice.

Remember, start small. Do a few days or a week at a time. Then work your way up to whatever length of time works for you

Do you already do a menu plan? Do you love it...hate it? What works for you? 

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