Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Meal Planning for Beginners

How do you make a menu for the week?

I realized, after posting my menu plan on Monday and receiving the following comment from my friend Nzinga, that I've been just assuming meal planning comes easy and is something everyone knows how to do automatically.

"Seeing this post in my inbox today reminded me that I've been meaning to create weekly meal plans for...oh, I dunno, a few years now. It seems way more necessary now that we've got the kidlet and want to spend less on impromptu "missing ingredient trips". Getting started seems a little overwhelming, though."
Clearly I was wrong -- and I should be the first to know this, because when I first started meal planning six years ago, I had no idea where to begin! It was agonizing. I turned to my friends and got ideas from them, and eventually was able to do it all on my own.

So, a step-by-step meal planning tutorial for today!

Meal Planning for Beginners
(so as to avoid the overwhelm)

To begin meal planning without getting totally overwhelmed, we'll stick with the KISS method: Keep It Simple, Stupid. We'll start small with planning for three meals to cook and you can work your way up from there.

1.) Set aside 10 minutes on Sunday or Monday to sit down with a piece of paper and pen.

2.) Think about your week to come -- how many nights do you need to cook? Do you have plans any nights this week that mean you'll be eating out or getting take-out?

3.) Since we're starting small and simply, we'll only meal plan for three nights. Your first meal will be the one that is easiest for you to cook, the one that comes to mind first.

For some people, this is pasta of some sort, either with a simple tomato sauce or dressed with garlic and olive oil. What is it for you? What is the first easy dish that comes to mind? Whatever that is, it is your First Meal. Write that down.

4.) For your Second and Third Meals, do you have any other dishes that spring to mind? If not, you could try:

--- Picking up a bag of frozen potstickers like I mentioned on Monday and adding in one or two veggies for a very simple and inexpensive but filling stirfry.

--- My easy and tasty Sesame-Soy Chicken with a green vegetable on the side (I often serve with chard or kale sauteed with garlic).

--- Healthy and hearty Black Beans & Rice -- this is a one-pot meal that satisfies. And it's really very simple and fast to make. This Cabbage Salad makes a great side if you feel like you need one.

--- Too hot for beans and rice where you are? This Curried Chicken Salad will not disappoint. Steam some artichoke or roast some asparagus (or both, like I often do), and you've got a complete, delicious meal.

5.) Now that you've got three meals written down, you've got your menu!

6.) All you need to do now is figure what ingredients you do not have on hand. I usually look at each meal's recipe individually and figure out what I'll need for each, writing it on my grocery list.

And you're done! Off to the store with you. You are now set for three nights of delicious home-cooked meals. With only ONE trip to the grocery store. How about that!

If you have other ideas or ways about planning out your week's menu, I'd love to hear about them! Please do share!


  1. Thanks Dena! I find that it's also helpful to keep a running tab of staples that need to be picked up at the store. Magnet technology enables us to keep a pad of paper on the frig. When we're running low on cereal, garlic, or whatever, we jot it on the list. Combine this with your meal-planning process above and you've got a complete grocery shopping list ready to go.

  2. Anonymous,

    YES! We do the exact same thing, making use of the highly technical magnet technology. You're right: this simplifies everything.

    We try to be really good about writing on the list AS SOON as we run low on something. In other words, as soon as hubby realizes he's low on yogurt in the morning, he writes it down then and there. Waiting on it usually means it doesn't get on the list.

    Great tip!

  3. WOW! This is GREAT! for me i love doing a plan/list for all the reasons you talk about and others like saving time, food, and money; eating more healthily; portion control, and mixing new and fave dishes. i created a short check-list i can use when doing my plan/list that helps me focus on things we're trying to do: vegetarian meal? different fruits/vegs? brightly-colored fruits/vegs? more legumes? in season? whole-grain? fewer carbs? more fish? lighten/replace? also, (ironically) i do use technology--using a draft gmail for my plan/list so i can access and re-use it from anywhere including my iPhone. and our recent camping trip reminded me that's the ur-menu plan/shopping list experience: you have to have all you need and you don't want unused food or leftovers...

  4. Between my yummy homemade lunch and my lunch break spent perusing your posts, I'm feeling inspired to give meal planning a try. I will let you know how it goes.

  5. Hey D:

    It's fantastic that you are doing this! Sky and I have used a list for years as neither one of us likes to run out of anything although it definitely happens.

    I also bake like a fiend and go through vanilla so fast, that I make my own, starting a new 750 ml bottle when I half way through the bottle I'm using.

    I have a list of staples that gets periodically checked off and we keep a list near the fridge.

    My favorite thing to do re: menu planning is to hit the Farmers Market and plan meals around what is seasonal. The fruits and veggies are far tastier than anything that you can get in the store.

    The local FM has had red bell peppers at $2.50 per pound as opposed to per pepper, so roasted peppers are something that we always have on hand. Looking forward to cherry season which should be right around the corner.

    Looking forward to recipe exchanges.

  6. Chef2B: OMG homemade vanilla? Would you be willing to share the recipe? That sounds utterly divine.

    It's also so funny you mention the Farmer's Market-based meal plan -- we are so doing that these days too. (See here, here, and here.)

    And Nzinga -- I love that you're inspired. I would love love love to post your easiest, most go-to recipe if you're willing! Want to hear how your meal planning goes!

  7. I love that you did this! I started meal planning - and I use an excel sheet I print out and fill in. We just started getting the box of organic produce delivered cause I feel like I need to expand my vegetables. But I feel like I get bored of what I cook - how do you keep variety & ease?

  8. Lola Moco - I use an Excel spreadsheet to keep track of all the recipes I know and like to make. SO helpful, no?

    I love doing the CSA thing and getting the box of organic veggies. But the repetition and boredom can be a real problem. The way I've combated it in the past is a) to try new recipes (that you find on websites like this one!) b) try new vegetables that I otherwise wouldn't have picked out at the store but come in the box and c) hope that with seasonality, new veggies will come soon and allow an opportunity to mix it up.

    Let me know if there's a specific vegetable you need help with!


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