Hey Laura, help me start menu planning

Michelle writes:

Preface:  I don’t know how to cook, I am not creative in the kitchen.  I need someone/something to tell me what to do and how to do it.  I can prepare food and am good at following directions :)

Planning dinner around my house can get stressful and often times leads to just going out to avoid the whole process - what do we have?  what do people want to eat?  what do I know how to cook?  what can be made in the next 5 min since I’ve put this off until 5:30/6 and now everyone is starving and cranky?! (okay, deep cleansing breath . . . )

I know meal planning is key to avoid the last minute panic, but I know I can’t do it on my own.  So, I am looking into meal planning help :)  I have talked to a friend that uses Relish! (www.relishrelish.com) and have also looked a little bit into 6 o’clock Scramble (www.thescramble.com).  After a quick google search trying to compare the 2 (without much luck), I came across a code for 2 free weeks with Relish!, so that’s where I’m starting this week.  I’ve definitely made the first step, but would love suggestions as to what meal planning help (website subscription or whatever) might be best for a “cook” like me, and for a family with recovering picky eaters that wants to eat healthfully.

I followed up with Michelle after her two week trial with Relish! was up, and here’s what she said:

Overall the trial was great - it did exactly what I wanted in terms of all but eliminating the panicky feeling around dinner time.  I have cooked more than I even have in my entire life & am constantly making things I never tried before.

I’ve found that I do not need to select and plan out 7 or even 5 meals a week for my family…

Their vegetarian options are lacking and usually consist of pasta…

Waste and reuse of ingredients…I would love a way to find how to combine recipes for the week better to avoid this, or have some sort of note in the recipes for the next week to say something like “if you made X last week, try Y this week to use the rest of your onion.”

I have such a love-hate relationship with weekly menu planning. On the one hand, when I do it consistently, I can cut my grocery budget nearly in half. I only buy exactly what I need for the week and avoid fun impulse buys. On the other hand, I love cooking; it is my therapy. So menu planning can feel like a real drag to me; when I’m stuck to a schedule and a shopping list, my creative outlet feels abandoned.

Furthermore, I have the same issue as Michelle - most menu plans involve way too much meat for my family, but most vegetarian meal plans are so pasta and cheese based (two things we hardly consume in this house), that none of the menu planning subscription programs have ever been tempting to me.

With all of Michelle’s needs and feedback in mind, I’ve compiled some helpful hints (most of them from other, far more experienced sources!) regarding meal planning.


Are subscription plans really worth it?
They could be. If you want to pay someone $5 a month to think for you and just deliver your instructions, you can’t really beat a menu planning service. You’ll get the grocery list, the instructions, and never have to cook the same thing twice if you don’t want to.

I think they definitely play an important role in eliminating the intimidation factor. Once you’ve had the service show you the ropes, even the most culinarily disinclined can probably figure out how to replicate the process.



How to start menu planning “on your own”
The very aptly named Meal Planning 101 site has a great resource page for getting started with meal planning. She also posts her personal weekly menus, many with step-by-step instructions and color-coded grocery lists. For free!

Simple Mom  has another method for meal planning that involves her Google Calendar and other online tools. A quick site search led me to this useful set of instructions for easy menus and batch cooking for the hectic weeks before Christmas. The Month Long Menu Plan uses a daily theme (Monday = Mexican) to help simplify things, and has a nice list of Menu Planning Resources that clarify her technique. I only just discovered SimpleMom and the other Simple Living Media network websites, but I am really loving them already!



Use others for inspiration
There are so many bloggers out there who not only menu plan, but post their plans online for everyone else to view and enjoy. Check out OrgJunkie’s Menu Plan Monday carnival which acts as an aggregator for lots of others’ menu plans. There are no less than 262 participants this week. That’s between 1310 and 1834 dinner ideas at your fingertips!

It may be overwhelming at first, but if you search through systematically, you may find a menu planning blogger out there who has similar tastes as your family; then you can just subscribe to her blog and piggyback on her ideas! Pay special attention to the domain names. A lot of time you’ll get a hint of what to expect in their menus when you read something like GlutenFreeMama or HealthyVegetarianFamily or AllMeatAllTheTime. :)

If you’re just looking for pictorial inspiration, TasteSpotting.com and FoodGawker.com are “visual potlucks” that are somewhat akin to thumbing through every cookbook at your local bookstore. You can run a search for a particular theme or ingredient, or just watch the new entries arrive by the minute.

Check back through my list of favorite food blogs. I subscribe to many of these, and they give me daily inspiration. I bookmark anything that looks interesting, so I can quickly find it again.



How I menu plan
I’ve already given away part of my strategy above: I keep an ongoing file of “to-try” recipes in my laptop bookmark folder. I suppose I should probably organize them somehow, but right now they’re just in a jumble (I can search the folder for keywords, anyway!).

When I’m ready to menu plan, I open my inspiration folder and look through the titles for anything that looks good. I’m also keeping in mind what is in my fridge and pantry that might need to be used up. For instance, this week I had a red bell pepper, a few green onions, some cilantro, and plenty of cans of coconut milk available. I definitely needed to use that produce before it went south and I’ve been itching for another meat-making adventure, so I was delighted to find this recipe for Broiled Tilapia in Thai Coconut-Curry Sauce that used all of my available ingredients. (I made it for supper on Saturday and it was soooo good!)

I knew I would have some leftover sauce from the Tilapia, so I pencilled in one of my favorite standbys, “Big Curry Noodle Pot” for later in the week, if needed. It has practically the exact same ingredients, so I knew I could use up the rest of my can of coconut milk and cilantro that way. (I will post the recipe when I make it, because I’ve made quite a number of improvements to the original, I think!)

I decided to be super adventurous this week and cook three kinds of meat. That about triples our meat intake over the last 5 months! I asked my husband how he wanted the pound of 100% grass-fed ground beef I’d snagged and frozen last week, and he said “Haystacks!” (That’s taco salad, to most of you.) Perfect; I have a small cabbage that I need to use up, so I’ll shred some of it to top our ‘stacks. Cabbage great just marinated in lime juice, a bit of sugar, and some chili powder.

The leftover beef will be a great filling for pupusas (I’ll mix it up with carmelized onions and green chilis, if I haven’t already), and I’ll serve with tomato and roasted bell pepper soup.

I’ll use the rest of the cabbage later in the week as an Asian style coleslaw side for our Teriyaki Chicken Skewers (see the comments in my recent chicken post).

Because we’ll probably be rather meated out by the end of the week, I’ve got this delicious Easy Winter Grain Salad planned - a family favorite. I’ll serve that with a big green salad.

That’s how I strategize my weekly menu plan (I usually only plan for 5 meals). Yes, I sort of delegate one recipe per day (I write it all out in pencil on my pad from MommyTrackd.com called The Eat Sheet - Amazon.com a few other options and Lobotome.com does too), but I usually end up switching things around depending on my mood, regardless of my “plan.” Sometimes I’ll even end up making one of the planned recipes for lunch instead of dinner - but my family’s schedule and availability is super flexible that way!

If a new recipe is a total keeper (like the fish was!), I print it out and put it in my recipe binder that lives with my cookbooks in the kitchen.

My system is pretty simple and footloose. I’m an accomplished enough cook that I don’t need (or want!) a program breathing down my neck about what I ought to be prepping or shopping for. Just writing something down is all I need to really stay on track.


Some online meal plan collections
If you need more structure but don’t want to shell out for a subscription plan, here are some alternatives.

EatingWell has a variety of plans for special diets including Heart Healthy Meal Plans, Vegetarian Meal Plans, and Diabetes Meal Plans.

RealSimple.com offers Your Four Week Dinner Plan, complete with shopping lists.

Actually, RealSimple.com is a great place to browse for recipes. They utilize fresh, healthy ingredients and are definitely geared toward the busy working mom set: unfussy and fast.

Here’s a collection called A Month of Dinners. It’s only 6 basic recipes with three extra variations apiece.

A similar idea with different recipes is called 10 Ingredients, 10 Menus. They give you a list of standard pantry items to procure (milk, broccoli, oranges) and offer recipes that utilize them. Each “menu” includes an entree (most are meat-based), a side, and a dessert.

Again with groups of 10, there is a whole series called “10 things to do with…” one common ingredient like ground beef, pizza dough, potatoes, and flank steak. There’s a little bit of overlap in some of the recipes, but not a whole lot.

For easy, short-cut recipes, check out the “Fake it, Don’t Make it” page.

MyRecipes.com is an aggregator for recipes from Cooking Light, Southern Living, Sunset, Real Simple, and Health magazines. I discovered it during my blogging of this post, and I’m definitely going to refer back to it! With the exception of Southern Living, most of the recipes in the magazines listed are the type I’d be drawn to trying.


Eliminating waste
As you get more practiced at cooking, you’ll gain more intuition on how to use up leftover ingredients.

Bits of veggies that start getting too weird before you can eat them should go in the stock bag in your freezer. Other odds and ends can take on new life as Roasted Veg.

Dinner Spinner Pro, a $2.99 app for iPhone and iTouch (and I think they have an Android version too, now), allows you to search the entire library of AllRecipes.com, including and excluding up to eight ingredients. So, for instance, you could select for a recipe that uses up that half an onion and bit of cilantro - and come up with a great Pico de Gallo recipe!

BigOven.com and SuperCook.com do just about the same thing, and I think they might even have apps now, too. I haven’t played around with, though!


I hope that helps, Michelle! My best advice is to just keep at it. You will get better and more confident - both with planning to cook and actually cooking! - with time. And if you keep track of your grocery spending, you should get some great incentive when you watch your grocery bill drop! Oh, and also? Involve your kids in the process! Teach them the ropes in the kitchen now so they won’t feel helpless when they are grown up and running their own households! :)

Hey Laura, I think... Hey Laura, help me start menu planning

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