The dreaded hour faithfully arrives each evening when the kids reach their peak of energy at the same time I reach my peak of exhaustion. And in the midst of all of this, I need to prepare dinner! I have played around with weekly menu plans and cooking several meals at a time. But, at the start of 2010 I resolved to find the plan that really worked for me and to stick to it. A monthly menu plan has worked wonderfully for me! I realize it is just the end of February, but a monthly menu plan has made these two months so easy! And, it has been something that I have found easy to stick to and has made grocery shopping much easier as well. So, here is my Menu Planning 101:
1. Find a blank monthly calendar (dry-erase, paper calendar or print a blank calendar from the internet). I print out a blank monthly calendar and then hang it on the side of the refrigerator.
2. Make a list of your family's favorite meals, and add in any recipes that you might have come across that you want to try. If you do not have favorite meals, start talking to friends or perusing some cookbooks. You don't need a long list of meals. You can use one recipe two or three times in a month without it getting too old.
3. Take inventory of your pantry, refrigerator and freezer. Make a list of items that you already have on hand, making note of items that are close to their expiration date. If you have not done this in awhile, you might need to also throw out items that are outdated and clean up! We'll use this list in a bit for making the grocery list.
4. Look over your upcoming activities for the month (any evening meetings, dance classes, soccer practices, etc) and take note of the days that will be more hectic or days that you will be out. Also take note of any days your family will be out of town or might have company over or might be going out to eat. Mark those days on your calendar as you might need a special meal (company coming over) or will not need to cook (going out of town or out to eat). Make note of hectic days/evenings as you'll want a meal that requires little preparation (crockpot night!).
5. Now you can start filling in the rest of your calendar. Some people like to have "theme nights" (chicken night, steak night, fish night, Italian night, Mexican night, etc). If you like that and it's easier for you to assign a theme for each night, then go ahead and make note of that. Mondays might be Italian night, so you can fill in Mondays with spaghetti & meatballs, baked ziti, etc. I typically just like to make sure that I'm not planning 5 chicken meals in one week or other dishes that are too similar.
6. After you have filled in a meal for each night during the month (taking into account eating out, Leftover Nights, pizza nights, going out of town, etc), you're ready to make your grocery list. Go through each recipe and write down the ingredients that you need, making note of the ones that you already have on hand (from your inventory list). Now you have a working list of what you need to buy at the grocery store this month.
**I found that my first step in monthly menu planning was to simply have a plan so that I was not scurrying around trying to throw something together right at the dreaded hour. I have started refining my menu plan by stretching food further, looking at the cost of meat and planning ahead when it's on sale, thereby reducing my grocery costs for the month as well. I will get into that in future posts. But, for now having a plan is the goal!