Menu planning. You’re going to do it—for real this time. You know it will help you meet your nutrition goals, save you money, and perhaps best of all, reduce stress. Unless . . . menu planning itself is stressful. Oy, now that’s a pickle!
May I share 3 ways you’re making it harder than it needs to be?
I know because I’ve been there myself. I, the inefficient menu planner, the stressed one, the on again-off again one. I’ve come a long way!
Mistake #1: You reinvent the wheel every week and get overwhelmed.
You sit down at the computer with all of Pinterest, the Internet, and 20 cookbooks at your fingertips. You search, you scan, you fret. An hour ticks by. Finally, you have a plan . . . for one week. And then next Sunday, you glue yourself to a chair for another torture session. Sound familiar?
There is another way!
Fix: Choose a simple template to guide you.
You could take this several directions.
- By theme nights. Say, every week you want to have a Tex-Mex night, a stir fry night, a soup night, a salad night, and a pizza night. Each theme can have a regular night (e.g., Wednesday is stirfry night), or let it flex each week. Either way, your menu planning decisions just got a lot smaller. This is perfect for a family who likes a balance of predictability and variety.
- By nutritional or main-ingredient goals. This is my personal favorite. We shoot for 1 salmon/sardine meal, 1 shellfish or white fish meal, 1 whole chicken meal (I use the bones for broth afterward), 1 roast or stew, 1 “easy Sunday dinner,” and 1 steak or chop meal every week. I add to this a weekly batch of liver pate to eat for snacks and vegetable soup to make with beef bone broth. This kind of plan is ideal for people who need lots of variety in cuisines and flavors, who have particular nutritional goals, or who need to eat up a half steer or whole lamb. I fit all three of those criteria.
- Streamlined prep method. A friend recently sent me a gorgeous example of this. She does crockpot meals 3 days per week—Monday, Wednesday, and Saturday. Tuesday is salad night. Thursday leftovers. Friday eating out. Breakfast is the same every day. Dinner crockpot meal and veggies are prepped at breakfast time. So what does she have to plan? Just 3 crockpot meals and 1 salad per week, and she plans only twice a month. The prep is the same no matter what. This kind of plan is ideal for the ultra-busy mom who can sacrifice a little variety for the sake of sanity.
Once you decide on a template, you can tag, pin, or file recipes you run across or already have according to the “slot” they match. Then, when you’re looking for a Tex-Mex recipe or a roast recipe, you’re perusing at a limited pool of possibilities.
Mistake #2: You don’t have a Plan B.
Scenario A: You make a glorious menu plan, scheduling your family favorite Moroccan crockpot stew for Wednesday. But when Wednesday rolls around, you forget to pop the food into the slow cooker before leaving for a whole day of appointments and errands. Doh!
Scenario B: You plan a 30-minute dinner for Thursday night, which seems perfectly reasonable on Saturday morning, but by 2pm on Thursday you’ve already hit your limit. After a long day with a teething toddler, you can only glare at the stove and shake your fist at your shiny menu plan.
Fix: Make a Plan B and post it inside a kitchen cabinet door.
These are your easiest, fastest meals for the crazy or exhausted days. Maybe they’re not your favorite, maybe they’re not “perfect” nutritionally. But when the space between you and takeout or a bowl of cereal for the kids—again—is only this big, they’re downright awesome.
- Buckwheat pancakes
- Tuna/Salmon Curry with Peas
- Tuna melts (use a bell pepper instead of bread to make it grain-free)
- Tuna or salmon cakes with baked potatoes
- Ground meat + jar of spaghetti sauce + rice pasta or spaghetti squash
- Sausages, baked sweet potatoes, & frozen green beans
- Sardines and fresh veggies
- Rotisserie chicken from the store + baby greens + homemade vinaigrette
You get the idea. But don’t forget to write or type your list and post it in the kitchen somewhere! Have compassion on that frazzled, fatigued version of yourself that will need this list. Make it easy on her (or him)—no extra thinking, no extra work. Just realistic solutions.
Mistake #3: You get too rigid.
Maybe you serve the menu plan instead of letting it serve you. You obey it as Law and punish yourself when you fall short. Taco salad on Monday night didn’t happen? Eternal damnation.
Or, maybe you get stuck thinking there’s one right way to menu plan or can’t give up the Menu Planning Method That’s Always Worked Before. Life is unpredictable and you can’t roll with the punches, so you burn out. This, for the record, is my personal weakness.
Or, perhaps you feel too restricted. There’s not enough variety! What if you don’t feel like chicken cacciatore on Tuesday? Oh wait, this is me too.
Fix: Loosen up! Let meals float around and ingredients rearrange themselves, and use the menu planning tools that fit your current season.
Like my mom says, there’s more than one way to skin a cat. In my postpartum period, I was thrilled to use a pre-packaged freezer meal menu plan. Then I switched to a weekly menu planning service for a while. During our move to New Mexico, I came up with the simplest possible 2 week plan that we repeated a few times while we got settled. Recently, my brain was too fried to do my favorite kind of menu planning, so I copied one from someone else’s blog post and followed it to the letter.
Is any of those options my ideal? No. But I’m learning that the key to long-term meal sanity is to whip out the best tool for the job in front of me, rather than getting stuck on my favorite wrench.
In the coming weeks, I hope to share about not only my favorite menu planning wrench, but also how to stock a menu planning toolbox that will serve you well through many seasons.
So, do you menu plan? Do you want to? What’s your biggest struggle?