- Written by Lara Krupicka, Photo: Jupiterimages/Pixland/Thinkstock
“What's for dinner?” It’s the question that begs to be answered night after night, whether you want it to or not. And that's where it becomes a problem for many parents. But with one simple tool, which you can create for yourself, you can answer that question tonight and the next night and the next with relative ease. You'll be able to see at a glance the recipes you use most often and develop a meal plan from there. Here's how you can create your own monthly menu-planning tool.
Step 1: Simplify using categories. It's easy to come up with 30 (or more) recipes you regularly use when you brainstorm in categories. To start your menu plan, you'll want to consider which categories of meals your family eats most frequently. Categories can include ethnic types of foods, such as Italian, Mexican and Asian. Or group recipes by cooking method: crock pot meals, grill recipes, stovetop or oven cooking. If the man in your house is anything like mine, he'll want to eat meat at most meals. Then you could group your recipes by protein type: chicken, beef, pork, fish, beans.
Brainstorm categories until you've found seven you could comfortably serve once a week. My menu categories are: Italian, crock pot/casserole, Mexican, meat and potatoes, soup, pizza night, and grill/quick & easy. The category ‘pizza night’ in my plan reflects our family's tradition of making homemade pizza on Friday nights. If your family has a tradition like this, include it in your categories. It will simplify your menu planning with a weekly “gimme.”
Step 2: Play favorites. Under each of the categories, list as many as you can of your favorite recipes (aim for five to nine for each). Take out the cookbooks and recipes you use most. Then find the meals you know your family enjoys. You'll find the 80/20 rule applies here: you probably use 20 per cent (or less) of the recipes you have 80 per cent of the time. That's okay. List those recipes first.
If you're coming up short in any of the categories, flip through your cookbooks or untested recipe files for new dishes to try. But be careful to put only a few on your list. You don't want to be surprising your family with something unfamiliar more than once a week. If you have more new ideas you'd like to try, set them aside to include in next month's plan. As you experiment using new dishes, mark on your menu plan whether they were a success or not. Those that are a hit with your family can become permanent additions to your list. Those that aren't, put in the trash or mark with a notation warning you not to use them again.
Once you've created your lists under each category, you should have more than 30 recipes to choose from. If you're one who likes to keep things loose, you can stop here and simply use your lists as a ‘recipes at a glance’ tool for deciding what to cook each night. But if you prefer to plan ahead, take heart. You're more than halfway to mapping out a month's worth of dinners.
Step 3: Create a basic plan. You'll want to create your menu plan on a computer in order to save and reuse it each month. A spreadsheet works best. But if you're more comfortable using a word processor, you can set up your plan there instead.
I use a spreadsheet. Across the top, list the name of the category. Simply create seven category columns with category labels. Next, create blocks of rows to represent the weeks of the month. To fit my spreadsheet setup, I've found nine rows in each block works well. On the right-hand most column, you can list the dates for the given week (e.g. January 16 to 22). Then under each category, enter the lists you created in step two. Duplicate each list for the successive weeks, filling in the entire spreadsheet for the month.
Once you've created your basic menu-planning chart, you can insert and remove meals depending on the season or changes in preferences. And you can change up the dates for the new month before you begin planning.
Step 4: Select this month's meals. With your chart in front of you listing the meals your family enjoys, you're ready to select a month's worth of meals. Using a highlighter or pen, highlight or circle one meal from each category for week one. Then move on to week two and select those meals, being careful to vary the selections from week one. If you prefer, you can work your way down each category, selecting a different recipe for each week until you've picked a variety of meals from each category.
There you go! You’ve planned a month's worth of meals. Using this plan, you can create a grocery list. Once you have on hand everything necessary for your chosen meals (I find it easiest to shop for two weeks at once, but you could do one week at a time or shop for the whole month in one trip), you'll be able to effortlessly answer the “what’s for dinner” question. And when schedules change, you’ll be able to adapt on the fly.
Happy menu planning!
Lara is a freelance writer who loves finding ways to simplify her everyday tasks, like menu planning.