Menu Planning for Sanity’s Sake

It feels sometimes like our lives are held together by duct tape and menu planning. Without the weekly menu plan routine, we’d most certainly overspend on groceries, waste food, and end up ordering in most nights anyway. I say that with certainty because it’s how we operated up until E got to be old enough for us to start feeding him from our plates.

By no means did we start out with this all figured out, and there are weeks where it doesn’t go as planned still. But generally we manage to not end up at the grocery store on weekends and spend about $100 a week on groceries while making sure all three of us have 3 meals and snacks that come from the fridge and are as homemade as my energy levels allow this time of year.

Menu Plan Process

Here’s how it works: on a Tuesday or Thursday lunch break I take a look at the weather forecast for the following week, as well as the Google calendar my husband and I share where we put any events and meetings we will undoubtedly forget to tell each other about.

In that calendar, I schedule dinners for Friday of the current week through Thursday of that next week as all day events. Every Friday night we make homemade pizza, so that really means I’m only planning out 6 dinners ahead.

menu planning using Google calendar

If it’s dinner made from a recipe I found online, I put the recipe in the event description and (R) after the name of the meal so if my husband is cooking that night he knows to find the recipe right there. If it’s leftovers in the freezer, I note that, too.

On nights when one of us will be home and the other will be out at a meeting, I plan for something easy, because cooking with a toddler running around isn’t.

On nights when the weather is sure to be crappy and cold, I try to schedule comfort food, because commuting in the city in the winter sucks and the slow cooker just makes it all better.

Each time I schedule a dinner, I put the ingredients we’ll need to make it in our shared ZipList. After each item I put the meal it’ll be used for in parentheses. Sounds redundant, but it helps me make sure I list everything needed and helps my husband, who does the grocery shopping every Friday, make quick decisions about substitutes if he can’t find the item on the list.

ZipList for menu planning

In general I think of ways to stretch meals, or make them big enough to put leftovers in the freezer for another week when things are busy. I try to think of ways to add a fruit or vegetable to just about everything. I think about the budget – if we have a big cut of meat for Sunday supper, I compensate with beans or leftovers during the rest of the week. I consider things E can eat with his hands because his fork form needs some work, and things I know he likes.

Secrets of Success

It took us a few months to find our groove, and now that we have I’m not shy about sharing the reasons that we did:

1. Trader Joe’s

We’ve shopped around different stores and for how we eat, no one touches the prices and selection we get at Trader Joe’s. They offer a good variety of organic and all natural meats, and a lot of it is packaged for convenience. We like cheese sticks, cereal bars, and yogurt for E’s daycare snacks, and their bags of frozen chicken thighs are a staple in our freezer. I’ll admit that if the location we went to carried booze and wine it might be harder to stay in the $100 budget.

2. Russo’s

This one’s harder to replicate unless you live in the Boston area. Russo’s has an unbelievable variety of fruits and vegetables, as well as cheeses, prepared foods, a great deli and on-site bakery. We can’t get everything we need there, but the prices are so low that we can fill a shopping basket with fresh produce for less than $50, something we can’t do anywhere else.

3. Flexible schedule

We were doing these trips on Saturday mornings, which was eating into the little time we have to relax and do things as a family. It also got hard to juggle when E was taking swim class on Saturday mornings. Moving the grocery shopping to Friday resulted in shorter lines for a faster trip, and a less harried weekend.

4. Good eaters

I’ve had parents ask me how I get E to eat vegetables, or talk to me about how their kids will only eat chicken nuggets and pizza. It’s tough territory for me, because the truth is we’ve never given him chicken nuggets and he’s loved spinach and peas since the steam-and-puree days. I don’t judge how you feed your kids, because I’ve had nights where yogurt and a mini pita is dinner because he won’t eat what’s in front of him and I don’t want to be woken in the night by a hungry kid. I just don’t know how to say, “He’s never had chicken nuggets.” or “I don’t know, we haven’t experienced that.” without it sound like I’m crapping on your choices. I’m not. I am lucky to have two guys at home that seem to eat 90% of what I put in front of them without complaint. For now…

5. A love of cooking

I really enjoy cooking, and I wish I had more time to do it. My least favorite time to cook is after a long busy day and when I only have limited time to produce a meal before the little one goes bonkers with hunger, but I still enjoy doing it. I don’t mind being in the kitchen, but if you do and you don’t genuinely like cooking then this is going to be tough to carry out in your own home. But don’t let me or anyone else tell you what your priorities should be. If you hate to cook, spend your food budget on a meal delivery service.

Do you menu plan? How do you do it? What do you struggle with most in feeding your family – time? money? healthy choices?


Categorized as Family, Food

By Jennifer Spencer

I'm a storyteller, food lover, book collector, and a Southerner at heart. I love connecting people.