Saturday, September 25, 2010

Saturday Throwback: Weekly Menu Planning for Singles, Couples, and Working People

Every Saturday, we post a piece from the CHG archives. This one is from March 2009.

Spend an afternoon perusing family-oriented frugality blogs, you’ll discover there are a few recurring themes. Among them: yard sales, thrift store shopping, a widespread love of free shampoo, and of course, weekly menu planning.

Menu planning, it’s argued, will streamline evenings in the home. Ma and Pa are saved money, time, and mounds of frustration because they know what the brood’s having for dinner days ahead of time. There’s no scrambling in the kitchen or supermarket, since both shopping and cooking are refined to a science. Kids (sometimes) get to have a say in what they eat, too, which makes the whole thing a family activity rather than merely a parental chore.

All in all, it’s a fantastic strategy. Even better, EVERYBODY can use it.

See, while weekly menu planning for non-families is a rare topic around the blogosphere, it’s just as monumentally helpful for post-collegiates, office workers, struggling singles, and young couples. It even offers extra benefits, mostly involving time management. Like:
  • You’re saved from 8pm post-work dinner freakouts, because dinner is ALWAYS planned.
  • Ingredients are guaranteed to be on hand.
  • Cooking goes much faster, since you go in knowing how to prepare a meal (by instinct or through print-out recipes).
  • You eat healthier, as home-cooked meals are generally much more nutritious than calorie-laden takeout or heat-and-eat dinners (Hot Pockets, Hungry Man, etc.).
  • Grocery shopping goes waaaaay faster. You go in knowing exactly what you want, and don’t have to blow an extra half-hour wandering around. Case in point: last night, using my weekly menu plan, I did all my shopping in 59 minutes, door to door, WALKING. In that time, I hit two stores, the further of which is about a half-mile away. Woo!
  • Extra trips to the grocery store are mostly eliminated.
  • You can plan for leftovers for office lunches. This is huge, personally speaking, because turkey sandwiches get tired 40,000 times in a row.
  • You always have food for those bag lunches (the night before, no less), saving you $30 per week, or around $1500 per year.
  • For budgeting purposes, you can pretty much estimate the cost of your bill to the dollar.
  • There’s less food waste, because you’re buying only what you need.
  • It allows for variety during the week, since you’ve got all the ingredients on hand anyway.
But how to begin? How do you organize this stuff? How do you create a weekly menu and grocery list without it taking a billion, gazillion years?

The answer: I don’t know. Everybody has their own system, based on what works best for them. But here’s what The Boyfriend and I do currently:

Create a new word document
This is what you’ll be typing, cutting, and pasting to. It’s much easier than writing everything down, and at the end, you can print out the grocery list, weekly menu, and recipes all at once.

Make a quick grocery list of what you need

What groceries are running low? What foods do you eat regularly from week to week? This is my most recent list:

Deli ham or turkey (for lunches)
Fruit (for breakfast and lunch)
Meat (general)
Yogurt (for lunches)

Brainstorm the dinners you want to eat this week

New dishes? Old favorites? Seasonal experiments? Whatever you’re in the mood for, list ‘em here, with special attention paid to food you need to use up before it goes bad. This is also a good time to take a cursory glance at your local online circulars. Entire menus can be built around loss leaders (biggest bargains).

This week, our dinner list includes:
For the sake of convenience, cut and paste each new recipe IN ITS ENTIRETY into your document. That way, you can print it up and consult it when you’re cooking.

(Note: I cook a lot of new dishes for both Serious Eats and CHG, so chances are your list will be a lot less complicated.)

Make a rough menu

Based on what you have in the fridge, what you’re planning for the week, and what you usually have, create a weekly menu. Take care to note when you won’t be home for a meal. Yours can be simple or complex, but I might start off pretty low-key until you get the hang of it. Here's ours:

Lunch: sandwich, leftovers yogurt, Kix, fruit
Dinner: Spinach Rice Casserole with leftover Irio

Lunch: Leftover casserole, salad, fruit, yogurt
Dinner: The Boyfriend OUT; Me - Chickpea and Bread Soup w/asparagus

Lunch: Leftover soup and/or casserole or sandwiches, fruit, yogurt
Dinner: Both OUT @ comedy show

Brunch: Brunch Clafouti
Dinner: Both OUT @ friends’ house for dinner

Brunch: Omelets, toast, and fruit
Dinner: Spiced Chicken Breast w/tangerine Sauce and Cauliflower-Honey Soup

Lunch: Leftovers, crackers, fruit
Dinner: Pasta with veggies

Lunch: Sandwiches, popcorn, fruit
Dinner: Turkey burgers with rice and frozen veggies

(Note: 90% of our weekday breakfasts consist of cereal [or homemade whatever], so we don’t list them. Also, we keep our beverages limited to coffee, beer, and water. This way, we’re always awake, tipsy, and hydrated, just the way we like it.)

Add additional ingredients to the grocery list
Now that you have a concrete menu, add your new needs to the foods you listed in STEP 1. Mine are at the bottom here, for the recipes I plan to make:

Deli ham or turkey (for lunches)
Eggs (for Clafouti and otherwise)
Fruit (for breakfast and lunch)
Meat (general)
Yogurt (for lunches)
2 15-oz. cans chickpeas (for Chickpea Soup)
4 cups beef stock (for Chickpea Soup)
2 cups low-sodium chicken stock (for Cauliflower Soup and Tangerine Chicken)
3/4 a baguette (for Chickpea Soup)
9 or 10 ounces fresh spinach leaves (for Casserole)
1 1/2 cup fresh fruit (for Clafouti)
4 boneless skinless chicken breast halves (for Tangerine Chicken)
1/2 cup tangerine juice (for Tangerine Chicken)
2 tangerines (for Tangerine Chicken)

Go through circulars (thoroughly this time)

Now that you have a general plan, comb your online (or paper) circular for sale items corresponding to your list. If you have coupons, this is a good time to see if there are any good discounts.

One more thing: if you see something you love but don’t need on mega-sale, go for it. For example, I don’t NEED red peppers this week, but I use them frequently for salads, pastas, and whatnot. So, I’ll probably pick up a few because $1.99 is a good price. If beans were on sale, I’d be all over that, too. But they’re not. Boo.

This week, this was on sale from my list:

Chicken Breast - $1.69/lb (for Tangerine Chicken)
Bananas – 2lb/$1 (for breakfasts/lunches)
La Yogurt – 2/$1 (for lunches)
Oranges – 8/$2 (for breakfasts/lunches)
Red Peppers - $1.99/lb (for whatever)

Cantaloupe - $0.99/ea (for breakfasts/lunches)
Blueberries - $1.99/6oz (1-1/2 cups for Clafouti)
Eggs – 2/$3 (for Clafouti and otherwise)

Finalize the list

Okay, stocks weren’t on sale. Neither were tangerines, chickpeas, baguettes, cold cuts, or spinach. So now, I assign them to a grocery store that I think will have the lower price.

In the end, my list looks like this:

Chicken Breast - $1.69/lb (for Tangerine Chicken)
Bananas – 2lb/$1 (for breakfasts/lunches)
La Yogurt – 2/$1 (for lunches)
Oranges – 8/$2 (for breakfasts/lunches)
Red Peppers - $1.99/lb (for whatever)
2-15 oz. cans chickpeas (for Chickpea Soup)
2 tangerines (for Tangerine Chicken)
1/2 cup tangerine juice (for Tangerine Chicken)

Cantaloupe - $0.99/ea (for breakfast and lunch)
Blueberries - $1.99/6oz (1-1/2 cups for Clafouti)
Eggs – 2/$3 (for Clafouti and otherwise)
Cold cut ham or turkey (for lunches)
4 cups beef stock (for Chickpea Soup)
2 cups low-sodium chicken stock (for Cauliflower Soup and Tangerine Chicken)
3/4 a baguette (for Chickpea Soup)
9 or 10 ounces fresh spinach leaves (for Casserole)

(Note: I get cumin in bulk from an ethnic grocer on the walk home, so it’s not included here.)


And that’s it. Now, after only 40 minutes of planning, I have an exact grocery list AND menu for the whole week. Plus, I’m guaranteed to save money on sale items, prepare healthy foods, and have plenty to bring to the office. And that’s good for everyone involved.

Readers, how about you? Do you menu plan? What’s your plan like? How might you change this one? Fire away in the comments section.

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Anonymous said...

This is similar to what I do, except that I usually look at the ads before planning a menu instead of after. I based our menu off of what items are on sale and what we already have (and also stock up on other sale/coupon items, even if I don't need them right away). We also shop at several stores in the area, and this method helps me determine which 1-2 stores to shop at that week, so I'm not running around too much.

Sarah said...

I am a big fan of menu planning! The way we do ours is just a bit different though.

Step 1 - start with the sales fliers. I like to see what is on sale for the week and start with that.

Step 2 - find recipes I like that go along with the sale items (usually using or Add the recipes to my recipe box to retrieve later.

Step 3 - add the meals to my "shopping list" on those sites. I love it!! I just have to print the list, and cross out what I already have on hand.

Step 4 - take the remaining list plus my price book, and find out which store has the cheapest price for each item I need to buy. Most of the time its 5-6 items per store. If a store only has 1 or 2 items that I need, I see what other stores would have a comparable price and combine with another trip.

We dont assign meals to a certain day, but we do keep track of what meals we have the ingredients for. Then we just pick out what sounds best for that day.

Amy said...

I use Google Calendar to organize my family (each member has their own calendar). I made an additional "Meal Planning" calendar. When I actually sit down and plan menus, I put it in Gcal and set it to repeat yearly. I can put a recipe in the "description" field if I need to.

Someday, after I've been consistent for a year, I will never have to do this again! And my family will never notice that we have spaghetti every September 25th. :)

lesley said...

I have been planning a menu for a while now, but I think only recently have I found a system that works for me. My problem was I hated planning every week, since it takes a while. So, I bought one of those dry-erase calendars that has a whole month on it. I sit down once a month, go through whatever cookbooks/websites I want to use for recipes, and write down what's for dinner for every single day of the month. I write down the page of the cookbook it's in, or I print out the recipe. Then, I make my shopping list by the week or every two weeks or whatever. That way I only have to do the part I really don't like once a month. I don't mind making the lists, shopping, or cooking. I love planning my family's menu because I was wasting a lot of money buying staples such as tomato sauce, cans of beans, etc., with no real direction for how I was going to use them. I agree that planning creates less money and food waste.

lauramich said...

This is similar to my process, right down to composing everything in a Word document. One of the main differences is the sequence—I check the circulars before I plan my meals. I will often plan meals around really good sale items. For example, a killer price on bell peppers last week = Slow Cooker Italian Stuffed Peppers (and with lean ground beef and 2% Italian cheese, I slashed the calorie count down to closer to 300 per serving).

What's in season? When asparagus is in season, we'll eat that a few nights a week. When summer squash was in season, we ate ridiculous amounts of that.

I also factor in the weather—this summer, when it got too $%@$# hot to turn on the oven, or even the stovetop, we'd grill or just have sandwiches or chef salads for dinner. If there's a good chance for rain, on the other hand, then no grilling.

Erin C. said...

I really like these practical tips,
especially the idea of saving money, and energy as well.And yes, we should avoid unnecessary purchases as much as possible. Cheers!

MonsteRawr said...

Or, just cut to the chase and use the Our Groceries app. Not only does it give us all the necessary ingredients for our favorite recipes at the touch of a button, but my husband and I both have the shopping list at hand, and can see each other's updates.

MS said...

I, too, make use of Google Calendar for meal planning. The Hubs shares the calendar with me, so he can see it whenever he wants, but I have primary responsibility for it. Usually sometime on Friday or Saturday, I'll look at what we've got going on in our lives in the coming week, then come up with dinner ideas and put them in the calendar. I then write out my grocery list. I wish I could say I spent more time with the circulars and what's on sale, but I usually just go with my list once I'm in the store, occasionally making substitutions if I spot a sale.