Creative Dinner Menu Planning

There was a time in the not to distant past when every woman of the house created a menu for the family meals. With the availability of convenience foods, dollar menu at McDonalds, and delivery for pizza or Chinese food, this tradition of planning meals ahead of time has taken a bit of a hit in modern times. But when it comes to home organization for the mommy years, careful menu planning is worth the time. It eliminates the scramble at 5 pm when the kids are saying, “I’m hungry” and your husband is on his way home.

Here are a few approaches I have used for menu planning. You will notice in almost every post about home organization that I have a main principle and several variations. That is because I  get bored easily and change things to keep myself interested. Also, different seasons work well with different approaches. My more naturally organized girlfriends use the same tried and true methods always, varying rarely, which has proved to serve them. Only you know what works best with your personality and family.

How to plan a menu:

1. use your grocery fliers. I do this for meat mostly. I try to find the place that has meat for under $2 per lb. Because I have a family of carnivores, and a husband who views salad with chicken cut up in it a side dish, I have to make the most of sales on meat.  Determine your menu on what is on sale, and what you already have.

2. method #1 : 5 meals. Currently, I take time to plan for five meals. I do not designate days for each meal. I just make them on whatever day they work best. I use a crock pot meal on meeting nights, and if we have a date night, I use convenience food for the kiddos. The other two nights are for leftovers, or dinner at my mom’s or mother-in-law’s.

3. method #2: rotating meal plan. This is the plan where you think of two, three, or four weeks worth of meals (depending on how much variety your family prefers), create the grocery list to go with it, and simply use it over and over again. I like to include one night of “new recipe” in a two week plan. We really are fine with ten to twelve meals being rotated as long as I use one night or so to do something new. I haven’t used this method very often though because of the need for getting meat on sale and not knowing what will be available to me at whatever time.

4. Method #3: theme night meal plans. With this method each day of the week has a theme which makes thinking of the menu easier. For example: Monday is Mexican, Tuesday is new recipe, Wednesday is crock pot, Thursday is casserole, Friday is pizza night, Saturday is meatless, Sunday is leftovers. Other categories can be simply centered around the meats: beef night, chicken night, fish night, etc. You could have Italian, breakfast for dinner night, soup and sandwich night, etc. This is for all you creative gals!

5. Method #4: once a month cooking. This method is a bit daunting, but worth it for seasons that are difficult to manage cooking regularly. I used it for after I had babies, and want to use it for the month of December. (I’ll let you know if I do, and how it goes). Before I explain it, you need to know that this costs a lot in the beginning because you have to buy a month’s worth of groceries all at once.  If you’re interested in trying it, go here.

6. Method #6 bulk cooking. Similar to once a month cooking, bulk cooking  is when you make multiple batches of a meal and freeze the extra for the future. This works great with soup, pasta sauce, chili and the like. This is a method you can use in conjunction with other methods.  A simplified version of this is to prep meat/ veggies ahead of time and freeze them. Brown tons of ground beef and use it later for tacos, meat sauce, shepherd’s pie, etc. Cook chicken and cut it up in pieces to freeze for chicken stir fry, casseroles, salads, etc. Cut up your veggies for the week for easy snacks, and dinner sides. (many children like raw veggies with ranch dressing more than hot veggies…do your cucumber slices, green pepper strips, and mushrooms ahead of time). I do a huge amount of rice in the beginning of the week and use it throughout the week.

Also, these are the “convenience” items you will find in my kitchen to make life easier:

1. ready made spaghetti sauce (I add ground meat to it)

2. frozen chicken nuggets (for date night, lunch, etc.)

3. frozen chopped onions/ green peppers

4. mac n cheese (I love homemade, but my kids like the nasty box mixes!)

5. Lipton onion soup mix/ cream of mushroom and cream of chicken soup

6. every snack the kids eat is store bought (cookies, granola bars, etc.) I simply can’t have home made snacks in the house or I will eat them. for breakfast. okay, for breakfast, lunch and dinner. One day, when I grow up…

There are plenty more depending on what’s on sale. I have said this elsewhere I think, but my husband prefers more time and energy spent on cleaning, less time and energy spent on cooking when we have to choose between the two, which is pretty much every season of motherhood so far. When you go to plan your meals, consider your husband’s preference as well. If you have a new born, PBJ’s are possibly the best meal for your family. No unnecessary guilt ladies. There are enough real sins out there worth feeling guilty over, what you made (or didn’t make) for dinner shouldn’t be one of them 🙂 .

Time for your tips. Please tell us what you do for menu planning. What works? What doesn’t work?

10 thoughts on “Creative Dinner Menu Planning

  1. Right now I mostly do the plan 5 meals method. I have to have my meals planned out so I don’t have to think about it when I get home at 6:30. I usually plan my meals, then my shopping list, and always try to plan a few “nice” meals with “easy” meals in between. Then I write them on a wipe-erase board on my fridge so Josh knows and can sometimes start things before I get home (thanks sweetie!). I also don’t designate days, but pick from the meals I already decided on the day of or night before if I have to defrost somthing. Even though summer is over, we still grill which is wonderful and easy. I do find myself easily bored, like you Laurie, and am always looking for easy new recipes to try. I usually do a “breakfast” night too, once a week, which is simple and healthy.

  2. “my husband prefers more time and energy spent on cleaning, less time and energy spent on cooking when we have to choose between the two, which is pretty much every season of motherhood so far. ”

    Laurie, ditto here. I haven’t hit a “season” yet when cleaning is less important to my hubby than the menu.

    Tidbit about grocery shopping–and this is a fact of life not meant to be a putdown at all. Government checks (soc. sec, welfare) come out between the 1st and 3rd of the month, and most people on fixed incomes shop those days. If you can avoid going out then, you’ll make better time.

    I have a question: is there someone out there who would go grocery shopping for me in exchange for a favor I could do? I’m not to proud to bed, but bartering might be a better solution to the dreaded grocery shopping than simply trying to make do with taco seasoning packs and olive oil.

  3. “No unnecessary guilt ladies. There are enough real sins out there worth feeling guilty over, what you made (or didn’t make) for dinner shouldn’t be one of them”

    I love that emphasis. Thanks for the reminder. I’m not sure I consider a bad/lazy dinner “a sin”, but I often get discouraged when dinners bomb more often than they are hits.

  4. Fishgirly is waiting for my birthday, huh? 🙂

    Hmmm Zoanna, I’ll shop for you if you’ll homeschool my kids 🙂 . Today was pretty brutal and a trip to the store to spend somebody else’s money doesn’t sound so bad!!!

    BTW everyone, it’s going to be $1.00 Happy Meal night (every Wednesday at McD’s on Plumtree for all you local gals) over at the Reyes house tonight. No energy to make the white chicken chili that I had planned on. I have one of those nagging head colds that has me dragging through the day. (Just keepin’ it real!) 🙂

  5. Sorry about the head cold. Hmm, homeschool your kids vs grocery shopping. You drive a hard bargain, but—-okay! (Just keepin’ it real.)

  6. Oh, funny, funny. Y’know what? I’m cracking up. You just gave me my dinner idea for tonight! It was gonna be a whole roasting chicken slowbaked with honey and BBQ sauce, but now it’s white chicken chili (Ben doesn’t care for “sweet meat” and since he gets to be here for dinner and loves white chili, well, there ya go!) That poor bird–I could him him scream as I dropped him by the slimy leg into the big pot of water, “Nooooo! Noooo! Laurie, why’d ya go and give her this idea? I’d rather be slowbaked to death.” (Allright, I know the dumb cluck is already dead, but sometimes my imagination gets carried to morbid places on rainy days.) I almost called you to tell you this, but if you’re enjoying a late afternoon snooze cuz of a head cold, then what kind of friend would I be to wake you up???

  7. This idea came from The Messies Manual. For your first three methods (I’ve used them on and off again) I write the meal plan for each day on an index card then file it in a little box made for storing index cards. Mine has dividers for A-Z so I also stash all those little slips of paper that seem to get lost, ie. Amy’s choir rehersal schedule, phone numbers that I write on a scrap and hope to transfer to the address book someday, etc. I also have been storing ideas for Christmas presents on an index card filed under that person’s name.

    I store all the meal cards in the front that way when I want to use them, they are handy. I took Fishmamma’s advice and made a card up for a breakfast schedule too. It has been very helpful. Thanks for all your good ideas.

  8. If you have online grocery shopping in your area with delivery I highly recommend it for Mom’s with young kids. I do it (I know Danielle I need to do a post) I spend 2.95 on delivery or get it free usually. Which the 2.95 is about a gallon of gas here in CA so I am set plus the bribing toddler food in the store. Anyhow, I plan delivery for a day I am home anyway. The first couple times it takes awhile but now I am done shopping online in about 20 min. They bring the groceries into my kitchen for me. It has been wonderful. Bonus is I can actually menu plan and shop the sales at any hour of the day and my kid’s are not distracting me. I have saved on average 60-100 dollars a shopping visit because I can actually sit down and think. I do this twice a month then hit Trader Joes the other two times…can’t live without my TJ’s and they don’t deliver. Von’s Does delivery here in CA.

    I try to menu plan but have recently discovered Dream Dinners and plan on doing that during this busy holiday season.

  9. Thanks for sharing this! When we were first married I was all domestic and good about meal planning. Busy with college, then work, and now two little boys running around it has meant a lot of mac and cheese and ordering in! I love cooking and once we are settled in after we move I want to get on a routine again involving planning meals. So thanks… I even printed off this post to use!

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