10 Tips for Effective Menu Planning at Home

10 Tips for Effective Menu Planning at Home

Casey Slide is a stay-at-home mom who frequently prepares meals for her husband and young son at home. She was formerly an industrial engineer, and is now a finance and lifestyle contributor for Money Crashers Personal Finance.

You know the story all too well: You arrive home after a long day of work and realize there is nothing to make for dinner. Your kids are hungry, your spouse is hungry, and you are hungry.

So what do you do? Maybe you run to the grocery store to gather ingredients to whip up something real quick. Or perhaps you don’t even want to make dinner because it is getting late, so you go through the drive-thru at your favorite fast food restaurant or order a pizza. Eventually, this lack of planning turns into a bad, unhealthy, and expensive habit.

Why Should You Plan Meals?

The only real way to beat this last-minute dinner fix is to engage in family meal planning in advance. Make yourself a grocery list, and schedule a trip to the store to make sure you have everything you need.

By planning your menu, you:

  • Save Time. Although it will take time to plan a menu, in the long run, you will save time by not having to make frequent trips to the store to pick up several items at a time.
  • Save Money. You’ll be able to plan your meals around weekly sales and coupons so that you can save money on groceries.
  • Eat a Variety of Foods. You won’t have to eat your old standby meal if you take the time to plan a variety of meals in advance.
  • Eat a More Balanced Diet. Planning a menu means eating take-out less often. You’ll be able to plan your meals around your nutritional needs.

How to Plan Your Menu

While it will take some effort on your part to plan out your meals, it is time well spent. Fortunately, there are some tricks to make the process less painful.

1. Set Aside Time for Planning
You won’t have time for menu planning unless you make time for it. This can be a challenge if you are trying to balance work with family and life, but do your best to carve out an hour of your time, preferably at least a day before you plan to go shopping.

Use this time to look for new recipes, go through your coupons, and make your shopping list. While I think it is easier to be more disciplined with menu planning if you have a dedicated hour to work, some may find it easier to have menu planning on their “to-do” list or household chore schedule.

2. Go Through Store Ads
If one of your goals is to save money with menu planning, make sure to go through the store ads before you start choosing what you’ll be eating. While going through the ads, take note of what is on sale that week. If chicken is on sale, aim to center some of your recipes around chicken. If broccoli is on sale, consider using it as a side dish ingredient.

3. Ask Your Family for Meal Suggestions
Before I start looking up recipes or thinking about what to eat, I ask my husband and son if there is anything in particular that they would like me to make. While I am the cook of the house and have taken on the role of meal planner, it is nice to get their occasional input. Not only do they appreciate having a voice in the process, it takes a little pressure off of me to come up with all the meals.

Additionally, a great way to teach your child about money management is to not only include them in suggesting meals, but also include them in the entire process of making the grocery list and shopping.

4. Check Your Pantry
Another way to save money is to check your pantry before you start making your list to inventory what you already have stockpiled. For instance, if you have a lot of rice, perhaps consider a recipe with rice as an ingredient. Make a couple of notes about ingredients that you already have, and use that information when you pick recipes.

5. Have a Family Menu
If you are like me, your favorite recipes are spread all over your house: on the fridge, circled in your cookbooks, in your email, bookmarked in your browser. It can be a chore to look in all these places to find recipes that look desirable for the week.

To save time, create a list that includes all your favorite dishes and where to find the recipe, as well as how long it takes to prepare the food. You may also want to include such information as ingredients, possible side dishes, and difficulty level. Use this menu to save time deciding what meals to cook, and remember to update your menu whenever you have a new recipe that you enjoy.

6. Assign Themes to Weeknights
If you really like all your recipes and have a difficult time deciding which to prepare, consider assigning themes to each night of the week. For instance, Monday could be Mexican night, Tuesday could be Italian, Wednesday could be new recipe night, and so on. This is also a great way to get kids excited about dinner and menu planning.

7. Pair Recipes Together
Sometimes you will encounter a recipe that calls for an ingredient (such as a fresh herb) that you will not be able to use completely and will need to discard the remainder.

In those instances, try to find another recipe that also includes that ingredient so it will not go to waste. This will help justify the purchase of the ingredient since it can be used multiple times. Just be sure to make a note in your family menu that these recipes should be made during the same week.

8. Don’t Forget to Plan Sides
I can plan out my main courses fairly well, but I often forget to include sides. A balanced diet must consist of various types of foods, so keep in mind the food pyramid when you are menu planning and be sure to eat enough vegetables and grains. One way to make sure to remember to plan your side dishes and eat enough veggies is to start your own vegetable garden.

9. Save Your Menus
If you served a great week of meals, save your menu! This will allow you to serve the same rotation of food without having to go through the meal planning process again. If you are able to come up with several weeks’ worth of saved menus, you’ll be able to rotate them and save yourself time and trouble.

10. Double Your Menus
If you have the time and the resources, consider doubling your food preparation and freezing half of it. You can then defrost it and serve it on a day that you know you will not be able to serve a proper meal. Not only will this save you time, it will also save you money since ingredients will not have to be purchased twice.

Final Thoughts

Your trips to the grocery store will most likely include foods and goods other than the ones included in your dinner meals. To save time making a grocery list, consider making a standardized shopping list which includes all the items that you purchase on a regular basis.

Also, when creating your shopping list, put the items on the list in order of where you will find them in the store. This will save you time when you are out shopping.

What other tips do you have for menu planning?

Steven Zussino

Steven Zussino is the co-founder of Grocery Alerts Canada. He loves to help Canadians save money on groceries. He also runs the blog, CanadianTravelHacking.com.