6 Tips for Menu Planning That Works

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You arrive home late from work. You’re hungry and have no idea what to cook. You stand around, aimlessly looking through the cupboards trying to find inspiration. You really don’t want to give into take away again cause this will be the third night this week and it’s a record you don’t want to hold onto.

“What’s for dinner?” says your husband/child/flatmate.

Just when you’re about to shrug your shoulders and admit defeat, the corner of a piece of paper catches your eye. Heading over to the refrigerator door you take a closer look. You remember that piece of paper and you recognise those few letters peeping out from behind the overdue electricity bill (oops, better do something about that one too!).

Oh yeah. It’s that menu plan you made a few weeks ago when you were all enthusiastic, but you didn’t stick to it.

So many of us have good intentions for the foods we want to eat and prepare for the following week. We want to cook healthy and nutritious meals and we have dreams of finally being the Masterchef of our own kitchen. Some of us even get those ideas down on paper and into a loose menu plan. Some of us just get stuck reading the cookbooks for hours and end up getting take away for dinner as the afternoon has suddenly disappeared into a haze of culinary dreams…

Well, I’m here to help you get a menu plan going and to actually use it.

The key is planning (as with everything in life, and yes, it’s a pain in the butt, but you do need to plan ahead if you want your dreams to come true – sorry). Menu planning is an important part of being a home cook, and having the plan made ahead of time allows you to get through the myriad of other things that need your attention over the week. If you set yourself up with a healthy diet and set aside some time to prepare those meals, then you’ll have the energy you need to do everything else, as well as not feel so stressed each evening about coming home to cook.

Menu planning for me has made a huge difference in what I can achieve in a night and has allowed me to eat well while still getting home from work and the gym after 7:30pm each night. I am usually starving after the gym and knowing what I need to cook means I can usually last until the food is cooked and not snack on unhealthy foods because I’m still trying to figure out what to make (and inevitably it becomes breakfast cereal for dinner on those nights).

Menu planning will help you save time, save money, save so much food wasted, as well as help your waistline. Try it this week and let me know how you went (leave me a comment below).

Image courtesy of ‘nuttakit’ / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Here are my 6 tips for menu planning:

1. Check the cupboards

Do a quick stock take (or a long one if you have time, where you write out how much of each ingredient you have or the dates things need using by) to gauge what’s in your cupboards and the fridge and freezer. What needs to be used sooner? What have you got a lot of that you could use in a few different ways? For instance, if you have a lot of potatoes you could use them as chips one night and as a potato salad on another night, and the leftover potato salad could be turned into a potato omelette for breakfast the next morning and you’ve got part of a plan already!

2. Plan the protein first

I do this in conjunction with my husband. He’ll tell me which protein he wants on which night and I also make sure a few nights will be vegetarian. I ask my husband what he prefers because he doesn’t like the same protein 2 nights in a row, whereas I don’t mind. It also means you spread out your nutrients this way so it’s a good habit to get into. Don’t forget to plan in the nights you’ll be out or if you need quicker meals during the week, pick faster cooking proteins such as a minute steak or quick mince burgers rather than a casserole, which takes more time and is better cooked on a weekend (especially a Sunday if you want a fuss free lunch on Monday).

3. Think about the carbs

In an effort to reduce my weekly shopping bills I consider all the carb options I already have in my cupboards. I currently have basmati rice, risotto rice, potatoes, sweet potatoes, couscous, polenta, pearl barley, bulgar wheat as well as pasta. That’s 9 different options when I only need 7 this week.

4. Mental recipes

Make a list of all the recipes you could use for the proteins and carbs you just found in the steps above, mixing and matching the combinations till you find the ones you like and have the ingredients for. For instance, I could make tuna pasta on Monday night as my husband wants fish on Monday and I have plenty of pasta and these two items pair well together. But I also have white fish fillets in the freezer and I could make this into crumbed or spiced fish which I could pair with sweet potato chips. Neither of these requires a recipe as I’ve made them plenty of times before.

5. Check the cookbooks

If you have the time flick through some cookbooks or look online for some inspiration. Particularly look for recipes for the foods you have on hand but aren’t so familiar with. For instance, I have plenty of beef recipes in my head as we use beef fairly often. However I don’t really have that much idea on what to do with salmon so I’ll use the cookbooks to find new ways of cooking salmon. Don’t forget to also look for inspiration for vegetable sides, as the same veggies cooked the same way each night (while stress free and convenient) might not give you the variety of nutrients you need or might make you so bored you start leaving veggies off the menu, and we don’t want that in a healthy diet.

6. Plan in a few treats

Plan in a couple of nice desserts or a lazy Sunday brunch as well. Fancy desserts don’t need to be only for the weekend, but if you’re keen to try something that takes time, save it for Saturday to prepare. But something simple like a baked apple with cream in winter is easy to put in the oven and forget while you’re washing up after dinner or preparing things for the next day and makes a more decadent treat during the week. Or try making parfaits using the fruits, yoghurt or ice cream and nuts or chocolate topping or honey you already have at home. Takes no time but is a really nice treat on a weekday evening. Having a treat planned in makes it easier to stick to the plan as well as makes me motivated to try new things.

Of course, at the end of it all, you need to make sure you have all the ingredients on hand, otherwise you’ll have to go to the shops and you’ll get distracted and you’ll come home with something to throw in the oven or that take away anyway!

So, only go shopping once you’ve made the menu plan and only get the ingredients you really need.

Happy planning this week.

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