Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Tips & Tricks: Weekly Menus

Did you see Julie & Julia? There's a part in that movie where Amy Adams' character, Julie Powell, states what a comfort it is to cook, knowing that if you combine the right ingredients under the right conditions, you get just the right result.

I know that at the end of a long day of work or school or picking up after little ones it can be really daunting to think of having to put together an evening meal. Some nights I come home after school and work and stare dolefully at the pile of dirty dishes in my messy kitchen and I just feel overwhelmed by the responsibility to feed myself. Still, if I can get myself going, making dinner can be pretty therapeutic. For me, it requires a fair bit of work and organization on my part to make that happen.

My mother taught me the value of making a weekly menu. She did this by example -- and by that what I mean is that we basically starved if she did not make a weekly menu. (Or we went out to eat... a lot.)

Writing out what I want to make during the week is honestly the wheel that keeps our household turning. It keeps us on budget and makes the week much more zen -- I have all the ingredients I need, and I know that I can make the meals I've planned. And I have a ready answer for the dreaded question, "What's for dinner?".

On Sunday night, I start by writing a list of meals that appeal to me. I move all the recipe cards I need to use during the week to the very front of my recipe box so I don't have to dig to find them as I need them. Then I break out my menu planning sheet and write out when I think we'll be making which meal. Then I flip my menu over and write out my grocery list.

And then I post my plan up in the top right corner of my blog. It keeps me honest. :) I also put the menu up on the fridge for easy access, and to help me remember to defrost anything that needs defrosting.

So here are my menu-planning tips:
  • Grab the grocery store ads while you make your menu -- that way you can plan your meals around what's on sale
  • Keep a list of meals that your family consistently likes. You can refer to this list whenever you get stuck deciding which meals to make. I keep mine on the computer and add to it every so often to keep from getting stuck in a rut.
  • Involve the whole family. More input means less work for you, and it means that your fellow diners will eat what you make. I love weeks when I hear P say that he can't wait for meatloaf on Tuesday because it was his request for the week. Makes me smile, and it creates an excitement about mealtime that I find infectious!
  • Plan to have nights when you won't cook. Don't get burned out -- plan nights to order pizza or check out the new Thai place down the street or go on a date with your sweetheart or a night out with friends.
  • Always keep a few things on hand that you can throw together in a pinch. I call these "Pantry Meals", and I'm always on the lookout for more to add to my repetoire. I also grab a freezer meal (I particularly like "Voila" meals from Bird's Eye -- try the Chicken Alfredo) if I know the week is going to be hectic. It's a lifesaver to have a plan B available when life happens, as it inevitably does.
  • Have one night of the week that is set. For example, we usually have breakfast for dinner on Fridays. It's a great way to start a tradition! And if you're always on the lookout for different recipes to try, it will never be boring.
  • Did you plan to make guacamole for taco night on Monday, but your avocados aren't ready yet? No problem. Because you have everything else on hand for meals during the week, you can shift things around as necessary. Just because you said that you're having lasagna on Saturday doesn't mean you have to keep it that way. The point is to use menu planning as a tool to help you manage the task of feeding your family. This is a no-guilt, panic-free zone. So you didn't make that fun recipe you wanted to try this week. No one is keeping score. Make it some other time.
  • If you're not familiar with Robin Miller, I recommend that you check out her cookbooks. Her philosophy, "cook once, use twice",  transforms leftovers from one night's meal into the next night's meal seamlessly. (Psst... they're also pretty healthy. Bonus!)
Do you plan a weekly menu? What are your strategies for getting dinner on the table?


  1. Wow, that was really helpful, thank you.

    No, I have only planned meals about 4 weeks out of my whole married life, but when I did, we saved so much money at the grocery store we were both shocked. And it did sort of carry the week along.

    I am interested to know how much time you spend making dinner at night, even if it is just for yourself.

  2. @ Daisy Dukes: Cooking for one isn't that different than cooking for two, when all is said and done, so the time I spend is about the same.

    I try to plan my meals around our schedule, so when we have lots on the agenda I may make a meal that takes a couple of hours. When we don't have much time, I can usually whip something up in half an hour (sometimes less, if I really have my act together).

    On average, I would say I spend about an hour on dinner every night.


Thanks for your comment. Let's keep things friendly!