Monday, October 10, 2011

Menu Planning: How To

If you aren't sold on the reasons why Menu Planning will turn your household into a Domestic Utopia, I encourage you to do a little research. We'll proceed from the point where you want to Menu Plan, but just can't or don't know how.

I am going to share the easiest method of Menu Planning that I have come across.  This is a low cost, low tech solution for those of us who are short on inspiration and time. It's simple and it works. This method works well whether you purchase all of your groceries from a large chain grocery store, supplement with buying at the local farmers or green market, receive deliveries from a CSA or other local food sources, or rely on the harvest from your own garden.

We are going to start off very simply and as you feel ready, you will be able to achieve the end desired result of your menu planning.  The end desired result of menu planning will pertain to your circumstance.  Your menu planning may seek to address some of the following goals:  (1) menus tailored to a chronic condition or disease, (2) reducing food costs by effectively using the resources you have, (3) increasing balance and/or nutrional value of meals, (4) eating more local fresh foods, (5) reducing number of shopping trips, (4 & 5) reducing your carbon footprint, et cetera. The list of reasons why menu planning is beneficial is as varied as we are as humans, yet it is something that every household can derive benefit from.

The only drawback I have found to Menu Planning is that I hate to do it. I find it daunting and no fun at all; I'd rather be doing just about anything else. This is why I've decided to share the only method that has worked for my household over time. If you can figure out a way to make this simpler, PLEASE share it with me.

This Meal Planning strategy consists of 2 tools used together: The Meal Library cards and the Meal Planner Display.

TOOL:  Your Meal Library

In the beginning, our meal planning will revolve around "Dinner". Once we've mastered "Dinner" you can apply the same method to other meals if you wish. Simply repeat the steps for "Lunch" and/or "Breakfast".

Gather your materials: index cards, pen and/or pencil
  • Set aside 15 minutes and sit down with a small stack of index cards and something to write with.
    • First, decide how many times a week that it is okay for you to go out to eat and how many times a week that it is okay for you to pick up some take out and bring it home. For my example, I will say once a week for each.  That might be too much for you or not enough. 
      • On 1 card, write "Take Out" and on 1 card, write "Dinner Out". You might even want to have one for "Leftovers". Set these cards aside.
    • Second, think back over the meals that you commonly cook.  We all have a group of meals that are our "go-to" meals. You've probably cooked some of them in the previous week.
      • Take an index card and write the name of this meal on the front of the card. Flip the card over and on the back of the card, write the major ingredients for the meal. I usually do not include pantry items that I always have on hand such as butter, flour, dry seasonings, etc.  If my go-to meal were "Spaghetti with Meatballs", on the back of the card I might write "spaghetti", "1 jar spaghetti sauce", "1/2 lb frozen meatballs", "loaf frozen garlic bread"
      • Repeat this until you have filled 5 index cards with "Go-To" meals. Set these cards aside.
  • At this point you have 7 cards with a menu plan. It may not be a thrilling plan or win you any cooking awards, but you have started and done so realistically. We will expand upon your Meal Library later.

TOOL:  The Menu Planner Display Board
You need to come up with a method of displaying the index cards. You can do this any way you like but you need to satisfy the following requirements.
  • 7 index cards need to be displayed. 
    • You should be able to move them freely.  Why?  If you decide on Tuesday that you are just too tired to cook, you can switch your meal planned for that day with the "Take Out" card and your plan is still intact.
    • You should be able to see the entire week at a glance.
    • You should be able to clearly see the Day of the Week.
    • You should be able to clearly see the name of the meal written on the index card.
    • You should be able to display it in the kitchen.
In this way, you keep what you are supposed to be cooking for dinner in the forefront of your mind.  Your family can see what is expected on a given night. It's kind of nice to have the family pile in the door having spent the day looking forward to their favorite meal tonight. It's also a way to compromise across different tastes among multiple family members. I just hope you don't have to cook for more than 7 everyday!

For the simple display demonstrated here, I used materials that I already had in my home. I encourage you to do likewise and improvise your display to fit your materials or your creativity.

Gather your materials:
construction paper
12" x 18"
Clear Pocket Material
  • transparency film 
  • sheet protectors 
  • clear envelopes 
  • storage baggies
  • scissors
  • clear tape
  • index cards
  • markers, pens, pencils

Determine the placement on your background:
layout suggestion
Layout the cards on the construction paper so that you can fit all 7 cards with room around the cards to see the Day of the Week.  Take a look at the finished product to see what the layout could be. You can make this however you like - the only requirement is to see all 7 cards and the Day of the Week; each in an unobstructed manner.

Make the card pockets:
Cut 7 pieces of clear material that are 1/2" wider than your cards. The height of the material is somewhere around 3/4 the height of the cards. The material is wider than the cards and shorter than the cards so that the cards can be easily moved into and out of the pockets.

As you look at the pictures below, the clear material used was transparency film. Because it is so difficult to see the clear material, the photo to the right shows the same size pocket cut out of purple construction paper. The pocket is wider and shorter than the meal card.

clear material, small lines are drawn in an attempt to show the outside edges
Purple construction paper used for pocket for clarity sake
Attach the card pockets to the background.
Cover all edges except for the top with a piece of clear tape. Trim the tape so that no portion of it extends beyond the upper edge of the pocket material; otherwise you are narrowing the pocket. Carefully place the pocket on your background and press into place.  I find it to be helpful to put the card over the pocket so that I can "see" the bottom edge of the pocket for aligning it correctly.

taping down the pocket edge
completed pocket with card inside

Write in the Day of the Week above the card.
You can start the week on any day that works for your schedule. It is helpful to put your cards into the pockets so that you can clearly see where the Day of the Week should be placed so that it is not obstructed. In the right photo, I grabbed some blank address labels for the Day of the Week on my blue background so that I had more contrast.

The finished Meal Planner Display:

I've just taped this one to my fridge.

You can get as fancy as you like with this project. I have done it as simply, cheaply and plainly as possible. The whole project took me 30 minutes to complete and that includes taking pictures. I did not measure, I only eyeballed it.  You can pull out the ruler, the computer, the printer, the labeler, stickers, glitter - you name it.  This is a great project to do with children and for nutrition classes.

As far as using the meal planner, it is great for cooking together. Get your kids to grab today's menu card and gather the ingredients for you that are listed on the back of the card. 

How to Use your Meal Planner:

Step 1: Plan 1 week of meals.

Now let's use the planner we've just created.  Gather your meal cards and stick them in the pockets of your Display. As you put the cards in the pockets, think about what your upcoming week is like. Perhaps "Take Out" on that really busy day? "Dining Out" for dad's birthday on Saturday? 

This is your simplest meal plan because you've used the 7 cards you created at the beginning with only a few go to meals and a couple of cards for days when you don't plan to cook. Now look at what you've accomplished.

You have just planned 1 week of meals in about, oh - 10 seconds, I guess. Not bad, huh? And it probably resembles fairly closely what meals are like in your home week in and week out.

Step 2: Write your grocery list for the planned meals

Now let's get our grocery list together.  Remove all of the cards and sit down with a piece of paper and something to write with. Flip the cards over to the side with the ingredients list and write the ingredients down with the quantities that you need to purchase. Go put the meal cards back into your planner pockets.

You have a grocery list for the week, but I bet we won't actually have to purchase everything on the list.

Step 3: Don't buy anything that you don't need.
Next, let's go grocery shopping in the freezer, fridge and pantry.  If you already have any of these ingredients on hand - mark them off your list. Based on what you find in the crisper drawer, you may want to move these meal cards around to capitalize on what is fresh now. If we wait till the end of the week to look, the crisper may tell another yuckier tale.

You are now holding an abbreviated grocery list in your hand with everything you'll need for the week. You will be able to purchase all of your dry goods in one trip although you may want to make more trips to get your fresh produce as you need it. 

Sticking to the Plan:

One of the advantages of this system is how easy it is to change the plan midstream. Say you come home on Tuesday and are too tired to cook, forgot to take the chicken out the freezer, had something unexpected come up... Well, just trade a card from another pocket - perhaps "Take Out" - and you are still sticking to your menu plan.

If you wind up having to do more "Take Out" this week for some reason (hey, it happens), just keep shifting those unused meal cards into the pocket for the last day of your week. This means that this pocket has more than one meal in it - but on the last day of the week, you will be cooking based on the meal card that is visible, hiding the unused meal cards behind the card in the front.  When you plan next week's menu, you'll pull those hidden cards out (since you've already got the food on hand) and start your week with those meals that didn't get used last week (especially if you've already got the perishable ingredients like produce!).

Next and MOST IMPORTANT steps, The Better Meal Library:

This is where the menu planning really pays off. Once you've got the structure laid out, you can change this up to suit you and your household's goals. We are now going to expand and fine tune your Meal Library.

As you add new meal cards to your library, keeping your extra meal cards organized can be as simple as wrapping a rubber band around them and tossing them on top of the fridge until next week. The only requirement for storing the cards is that the meals cards are stored in close proximity to the Meal Planner Display. Otherwise, you may not use them.

As you go through this process, try to add new meal cards every week. Honestly, I manage to add 1 new card weekly and count myself lucky.  This is why I like this approach; it's all about the babysteps.
  • Focus on your meal planning goals: low sugar, low salt, low price, less red meat, more produce, local food, et cetera. As you slowly add menu cards, write the new meal cards to be in line with your goals. You can weed out those meals that don't support your goals as you go. Or perhaps you can rewrite them so that they DO support your goals. Since you are not trying to do this 30 minutes before a meal is expected on the table, you will be more capable of dictating what those meals should look like.
  • Keep in mind what your family will eat and won't eat.  If you want them to become more adventurous, try adding 1 new taste to the weekly menu at a time.  Ask for input after the meal.  Based on the feedback, you may want to throw that card away or you may want to add notes to it for the next use or even great big stars for new favorites.
  • If you are trying to use produce from CSA's, shares or your home garden harvest effectively, you may find that you want to use entree AND side dish cards, so that you have more than one card in each pocket for each meal.  In this case, sit down with your share harvest and write down individual dishes you can create from the basket. You may want to pull out the recipe books or hit the internet for ideas. Make a couple of cards for each fruit or vegetable so that you have a choice of flavors or preparations when you plan your menu.
  • If you have a crockpot, pull it out and make cards for recipes that can be prepared in it. What a timesaver for a busy household!  A crockpot can really cut down on eating out or picking up takeout.
  • If you are a sale shopper, make sure that your bulk purchases reflect your menu planning.
  • If you keep a well stocked pantry, make sure your cards reflect what you keep on hand and ROTATE those pantry items.
You can also expand this menu planning to lunches and breakfasts.

I hope this approach works as well for your household as it has for mine.

Fancy Cards for the Computer:
You can download a .docx file that has a menu card you can print on your computer. There is room for the recipe on the inside. You can create 2 cards at once. Just fill in the name of the meal, ingredients and the recipe, Print, cut it out and fold in half.  Template for Menu Cards on the Computer