Menu planning may not sound like an urban homesteading skill, but I assure you it is. It is something that, like a budget, takes thoughtful time and effort and doesn’t come naturally to many of us. Our family would never stay within our food budget if we didn’t do it, however. It saves us time, money and helps us waste less.
Menu planning saves time. When I sit down for fifteen or so minutes and make a plan for the week, I am gaining loads of time before dinner. I can plan to eat something quick on the nights Henry has a violin lesson, and I can plan something that can keep cooking for a while on the nights that Rick could get home late or early. I know the answer to, “What’s for dinner, Honey?” There is no standing in front of the fridge trying to figure out what to throw together last-minute.
It saves time at the grocery store too. If I know what we need for the week, and have a list, I don’t need to wander down every aisle. I can just grab what’s on the list and get out of there. And anyone with kids knows that the grocery store can be a time sink. Trust me, a plan saves time.
Menu planning saves money. If you don’t know what you need for the week, you are going to spend a lot more money at the grocery store too. You will need to wander around looking for what you think you might need or use, and you’ll probably buy more or less than is necessary. Buying more isn’t tragic (unless what you bought will spoil), but not buying enough will kill your food bill, because then you’ll be heading back to the store for convenience trips. Those convenience trip add a lot to your bill. I don’t know how many times I’ve run into the store for one or two things and come out with my pocket fifty dollars lighter. We always find a few extras that we “needed” during those quick trips. For the most part though, sticking to the plan prevents those.
Menu planning also saves us from the days when we are exhausted before dinner time and too tired to think of what to make. Somehow, just having it written down already makes it manageable enough to happen. So instead of being tired and saying “I don’t know what’s for dinner. Let just get take out,” we have a plan and can throw together the dinner we have planned. That mental energy seems to be a tipping point for us. If there is no plan, we eat out a lot more. And if our food budget ever gets blown, it’s due to one pizza order too many.
Menu planning keeps waste down. When we know what to buy at the store and what we’re making each night for dinner, we rarely have any food waste. I tend to remember the celery or kale and use it before it spoils, I don’t buy as many things that I don’t know if I’ll need or not, because I know what I need. We eat more regularly from our stored food in the freezer and pantry, and things don’t go bad in the abyss of food storage any more.
I’ve written about menu planning in the past. While that post is still valid, I have changed the way we plan our menus from monthly to weekly. The main reasons I plan weekly instead of monthly now is we have gotten in the habit of eating from the freezer in the winter, there is no longer any mystery food in there; and in the summer, our CSA picks our vegetables for the week and I don’t want them going to waste. Plus it is a lot less daunting to plan a week’s worth of food than a month’s worth.
So, how to plan. Remember, this is boot camp – the very basics. If you know how to plan already, make sure I haven’t missed anything. If not, here is how we throw down a plan on our homestead.
- What do you have?
This week, I planned our menu on Sunday night. I sat and thought a moment about what we had in the icebox to use up, what was in the freezer and pantry, and how much money we had left in our budget for the month. In the freezer, we have elk, green chiles, corn, asparagus and tomatoes. In the pantry, there are still hard squashes, black beans, rice and pasta. And it’s the end of the month, so we need to use what we have as much as we can, since I don’t want to blow the budget in the last week.
- What do you need to use first?
Is there a little left over from last week that needs to get used up? Did you get too much of something out of the freezer? Use those things first. If you are planning on eating greens, use them right away so they don’t go bad before the day you’re supposed to eat them. Last night, Rick got eggplant down from the freezer, and then decided not to use it last-minute. That means, tonight, eggplant is on the menu.
- Look at your schedule.
Do you need something quick on Tuesday? Are you having family over Friday? What day are you going to the market? Figure out what kinds of meals you need. We are shopping on Wednesday this week.
- Make the plan.
Monday: Eggplant and tomato pasta bake with olives
Tuesday: Ham and Egg Fried Rice
Wednesday: Spinach and black bean enchiladas
Thursday: Asparagus soup with cheesy bread
Friday: Mexican elk steak with tomato, onion, chile sauce over rice
Saturday: Pumpkin Coconut Curry
Sunday: Bacon and tomato pasta with roasted asparagus
- Make the grocery list.
While you are making your grocery list, keep in mind breakfast and lunch too. This week, we need: milk, spinach, lemons, limes, avocado, onions, buttermilk, cheese, butter, nuts (for granola), fruit (for lunches), white wine and bread.
Simple enough, right? In the summer time, the only difference is, I wait to plan our weekly menu until the day we pick up our CSA share, so I can see what produce we have for the week and plan around that.
Do you plan menus? Does you method look similar or different from mine?