I recently started using a menu for dinners at home again, and have been keeping to it so far. The kids like being able to look at the menu on the fridge and know what’s coming up, and I’m better able to take advantage of store specials. Another bonus I hadn’t thought about is that I’m using less electricity as I’m thawing meat overnight in the fridge rather than pulling it out when I start dinner and thawing it in the microwave. It’s not a ton of electricity, but with the rates as high as they are right now, I’ll take every bit I can get.
It hit me that someone out there may be wanting to do something similar in their own home, but want a bit of guidance as to how to get started. I’m not an expert by any means, but will share what I’ve done and hopefully that will be a help to someone.
First thing to do is to lay out a blank monthly chart. You might draw one up on the computer or by hand, or print out a calendar page. Do what suits your style the best, but I find that a one month page is handiest. If you have recurring activities, keep them in mind or mark them on the calendar so you can take meal prep time into account.
Second is to either think about or list the meals your family enjoys on a regular basis, and if there are any meals which are special treats to rotate in. Plug these into your calendar with enough space between so your family won’t become fatigued with each meal. This may be once a week for some meals, every two weeks, or once a month for others, based on your family’s tastes. Continue filling in until the month is filled, but keep in mind leftovers which will be generated and either plan to use them for lunches or plan them in to the menu. You may also want to leave a couple of slots open for a night to eat up leftovers which you forgot to purposely plan in or even to plan a night to eat out.
Next is to plan your side dishes. I find this helpful as I tend to lean on certain choices in this category as well and can have a side too frequently just as easily as the main dish. I try to plan at least one side in advance, and leave some to plan on a weekly basis, depending on the produce which is on sale each week. For example, a local store just had strawberries for $1 per box last week, so those were on the table three different nights. Also, this is where I need to work on doing more items from scratch (vs. grabbing a box of pasta roni at the last minute) and planning it ahead gives me no excuse to say I don’t have time to make x. If I know it’s coming up, I have to plan in the time to make it. Having the items in writing where the family sees it and counts on it makes me accountable for sticking with the plan, as well.
Lastly, using a menu helps me to plan in recipes I’ve been meaning to try. I pull recipes out of magazines and have page numbers marked in cookbooks, but I return to the tried and true because I know them well enough to pound them out in a reasonable amount of time. The fact is that many of these were in the to-be-tried category at one point and now they’re favorites. Plan it in and make sure you have the ingredients on hand, then try out some of those dishes you’ve been meaning to. Just don’t plan a whole meal of new dishes or you may be sorry. One casserole I tried in the first few months of marriage looked great on paper. In reality, grease dripped off of the fork. We each took one bite then grabbed our coats to go out. It tasted fine, but we couldn’t bring ourselves to eat all that grease.
Lastly, keep a little flexibility in mind with your menu. Something may come up in your schedule for which you may want to shift meals around (if you need a quicker fix meal on the meeting night). You may forget to pull something out to thaw, but the meal planned two nights further down can be made without any thawing. It’s not the end of the world if you need to adjust the plan. It’s your plan for your convenience.