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Weekly Menu Planning - Do you plan?

I often hear about people who plan out and prepare their menu for the week and I'm insanely envious of these people.

I've trying to organize my time and budget better and was wondering how many of you plan your weekly menu and/or prepare it beforehand so it's ready to go in the evenings. Any tips and tricks on getting started or favorite menu ideas?

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  1. I do it sometimes but I find the plan always goes awry somewhere. It actually seems to work better if I plan say 4 meals for 5 days, then I can accomodate unexpected changes in plans.
    Once I was exceptionally (for me!) organized and I cooked the onions for two dishes together -that felt really efficient, truly like I prepared two unique meals in not much more time than one!
    Otherwise - it's usually plans like: make a large batch of meat sauce (freeze some for a future meal), have spaghetti dinner one night and spaghetti pie for another meal. Or just have spaghetti again, but with the addition of garlic bread :)
    Or make Artisan Bread in 5 basic dough and have pizza, nan (with a simple shrimp curry) and savoury strudel that week - which can quickly start to feel like a lot of bread; my family is content with that but I feel like it's not a healthy variety.
    I have looked at OAMC (Once A Month Cooking) websites but they seem to rely very heavily on processed foods, cream-of-mushroom casseroles and the like. I am more interested in a Once a Week Cooking model, looking forward to other responses.

    1. I do plan, but not to the degree others do. Working full time and having a toddler, I find this is the only way to make sure we're not ordering takeout or pizza or something all the time. If there's cooked, ready to heat and eat food in the fridge, we eat it.

      One day on the weekend, usually on Saturdays (like today), a chunk of time is devoted to shopping and cooking. As we're more foodie than perhaps others who might menu plan, this involves going to several different stores. The "conventional" grocery for various paper products or canned goods or staples. The farmer's market for produce (when in season), the local meat market for meats. We do have a couple of "crunchy" groceries that sell acceptable meat, which are around 40 mins away - I might go to one of those instead of the multiple stops that are closer by since I can get almost everything there.

      I buy based on what looks good and fresh and what may go with some things I already have at home. If I have cabbage and potatoes at home, I might buy some smoked sausage, so that's one dinner. I usually buy some canned Tonno tuna in olive oil or canned chicken breast to make a quick capered tuna or chicken salad for dinner one night, which we'll have with whatever tapas things are around - crackers, grapes, homemade pickles, roasted red peppers, etc. I buy a variety of other stuff depending on what looks good - beef to grind to make hamburgers or to grind and use in a casserole, steaks, whole chicken or chicken thighs, a couple of turkey legs, a pork tenderloin, whatever. I still start meal planning based around the protein, so I usually make sure there's some protein base for each dinner. We do eat a veg. dinner once a week as well, something with beans and rice and veg usually.

      I try to think of what will go well with each thing and make a few sides, but they often interchange or get eaten for multiple dishes. Like I might take my homemade chicken broth and cook a batch of noodles in it, that's a side dish for at least a couple of meals. Or I'll make a big thing of white or brown rice or plain spaghetti and that's a side. Or the spagh will be topped with sauce and served with garlic bread for our veg meal that week.

      I get everything home and usually start cooking right away. It only takes a couple of hours. One thing I''ll throw in the crockpot, something else in the oven, something else on the stovetop, and as things get finished, they go into the fridge. Then we're set for the week.
      I also make food for lunches.

      1. I do not plan at all. I have no idea what I will be hungry for on any given day. I got to the store every day, but I don't mind one bit. The only thing I'll plan in advance for is dinner that I'll be cooking for company or something that have to be marinated overnight, etc.

        1 Reply
        1. re: alliegator

          Alliegator and I are on the same wave length. We do have a Farmers' Market on Tuesdays, so I always figure Tuesday's dinner will come from there. I also try to have one dinner a week based on what's in the frig and pantry without going to the grocery.

        2. Yes and no. I plan to make one dish everyday for work and that rarely ever changes primarily because of time, space and odor limitations.
          For dinner, i stop at a Grocery store on my way home and get something to make.

          1. I plan now more than I ever did. I look at the store circular and then decide what to cook based on some of the sales. I don't do it for all the days of the week, but I do find that some of what I cook lasts more than 1 meal. It it the only way I know we will have dinner on the table without it being fast food. I also cook on weekends or use my crockpot so dinner will be ready at a decent time.

            1. Funny, you envy people who plan a week's worth of meals at a time, I pity them. Such behaviour seems so terribly anti-hound.

              No pre-planning for me, unless it's a special occassion and ingredients I need require a long drive or mail order. Otherwise, I shop for food/drink items practically everyday. Sometimes a stop at a local supermarket, or the fish monger, or a butcher shop, or a farm market, etc. I'm an unrepentant food geek, so how else should I spend my time???

              After all, "Mentsch tracht. Gott lacht."

              8 Replies
              1. re: MGZ

                I think the whole point of the thread is to help out those of us who have many other demands on our time & money but would still like to eat well, at home. If I can't shop the markets every day should I just give up and eat Lean Cuisine?

                1. re: julesrules

                  You plan, I don't. The OP inquired and got answers. We all establish our priorities and make choices (Lean Cuisine, however, seems like a bad idea).

                2. re: MGZ

                  I'm a food geek as well, however by the time I finish work, stores and markets are closed around here - so daily trips to the market are out of the question for me. But thanks for the holier than thou advice. Next time I'll keep my anti-hound questions to myself...or maybe I'll go ask around at some Kraft forums, is that better for you?

                  1. re: rockability

                    Glad to see someone standing up for themselves when a poster chooses to be snarky for no good reason.

                    1. re: escondido123

                      Obviously MGZ either doesn't have a family or doesn't mind making them wait to eat while stops at the store are made every night. I'd rather not spend what little free time I have each night shouldering through crowds at stores or driving on a bunch of trips that I don't need to take if I had gotten them all done at the end of the week.

                      I don't see what cooking ahead for the week has to do with not being chow-ish at ALL, that is just stupid. Our food is plenty chowish. I'm definitely a hound and I enjoy shopping, but after working and commuting both ways to work, I don't want to spend another hour of the sliver of time I have walking around in any kind of store, be it an artisan butcher or a place at the mall. I want to eat, play with my kid, give him a bath, put him to bed, relax/read a book/go to the gym, whatever.

                      Edited to add: it's also MUCH more cost conscious to plan ahead and make some foods that can be used over a couple of meals each week instead of buying something every night, but perhaps cost is not an issue for MGZ either, just like a family. Must be nice to have unlimited time and income, but most of us don't.

                      1. re: escondido123

                        I second that! We all share a common passion, so why be rude? As a non-planner, I have a ton of repect for anybody that is organized enough to do so. For me--I don't have kids so I can do as I please, but a lot of people are on a time crunch and dealing with a family, and getting things all sorted out for a week takes a lot of effort!

                      2. re: rockability

                        No snark or disrespect intended. The question of "Do you plan?" was posed and I, like others, answered in the negative. Living requires achieving balance, one learns to find it in accordance with their priorities. I'm sorry if my philosophy, or manner of expressing it, is not to your liking. I wish you well in your attempts to find your life's solutions.

                        1. re: MGZ

                          No, you didn't just answer in the negative. "I don't like to plan" is answering in the negative. You stated that you "pity" people who plan and call them "anti-hound." Planning is pro-hound for me. I work until 6 or 6:30 each day, and even if I went to the closest store (which is not that impressive) it would be unlikely that I would get there, in, and out, in less than half an hour. If I started dinner at 7 for 3 people (one of whom is a high school athlete who could probably eat half his body weight on a daily basis) we would be eating raw baby carrots and chicken breast seasoned with salt and pepper every day.

                          If I think about what we want to eat for the week, I can get a variety of things from several stores, maybe make a sauce or casserole on a weekend day, and still have a little flexibility from day to day. So I purchased cauliflower as a side for one day-it can be steamed or roasted, with about 50 different seasonings or condiments. It's not like I'm making one big pot of gruel every weekend and eating it three meals a day.

                    2. Generally plan several days meals, if not a full week. It wouldnt be worth going to the supermarket otherwise. And it makes sure we have an interesting and varied set of meals.

                      1. I do not plan weekly or daily meals. However I do keep a full freezer of a variety of meats, & frozen veggies. And I buy a lot of fresh veggies, potatoes, onions, salad fixins, and use them as I feel hunger for them. Hubby shops with me, or is it I with him? so he knows what is in the freezer and refrig, and I often ask him what he feels like on that day. I love to cook, just hate to figure out WHAT to cook. We eat well and will eat the freezer and pantry down to very little left, then do another big shopping or 3 and replenish.
                        We are retired now, but this is the way I have cooked & shopped for almost 45 years, next month. It works for us. DH made a list of entres that we like, and sometimes we will refer to it for something I have forgotten, or just hadn't cooked recently. Many of them are from our years raising children when $$ was scarce!!! Good healthy frugal cooking, and all 3 of our kids know how to cook on a dime too.
                        Right now I'm into trying new food items I've never had.....like Kale. Had it last week for the first time, and I'm 67, imagine that, and we really liked it. Might try some other greens next week. I have to keep it fresh somehow.

                        1. I like to plan about 5 meals a week, that leaves me with rom to change my mind at the market. I do try and think about utilizing any leftovers in other meals, or have them for lunch or breakfast. For instance I am going to do pork tenderloin tonight, 1 with grill seasonings and 1 with asian marinade. That way I can make a Thai salad with the marinated one the next day. I am excited to see how this years FIRST vegetable garden will change our menus. I think we will just keep more proteins in the Freezer and go from there.

                          1. I have a 'system' that really works for me - Each day has a theme with a list of meals that my family likes ie Sundays - Roast (Lamb, chicken, fish etc)
                            Monday - Quick and Easy (usually with leftovers or pre-prepared food)
                            Tuesday - Pasta dishes
                            Wednesday - Pulses, rice
                            Thursday - Meat (chops, sausages Mince etc)
                            Friday - Fish
                            Saturday - Take -outs or home-made 'junk food' (Pizza, Chinese etc)
                            This allows flexibility, depending on whats fresh at the grocery store but I don['t have that - "what do I cook tonite" dilemma, and I know that over a week the family are eating a well- balanced menu. It keeps meat to a once or twice a week minimum.
                            With each days selection I have also listed a dessert and salad that matches ie light meal - heavier dessert and vice versa.
                            Hope this all makes sense!!!

                            1 Reply
                            1. re: justlizikaria

                              I think you have found a great way to plan ahead, save money and keep a family well fed. I have the luxury of time and only two people to cook for--we're retired--so my methods are totally different. But it sounds like you have a wonderful system.

                            2. Yes, we plan weekly menus....Sometimes we even follow them ~~ Swapping one day for another is not uncommon...Sometimes a complete change of plans are called for.

                              1. Meal planning can seem overwhelming when you first start, but even partial success will save significant money, shopping time, and cut down markedly on waste.

                                One way to start is to list out a bunch of things you and your household like to cook/eat, then assign them to days.. Have a calendar close at hand to help take into account things that affect the schedule (evening commitments, e.g.), so you can pair the menus with the least last-minute prep to event-filled days.. Once you have four meals for five days (v worthwhile tip from julesrules), list out the ingredients, check the fridge and pantry, and prepare a shopping list. You can use the shopping to build pantry reserves for things you make regularly so you'll never have to run out just for a couple of items.

                                If farmer's market shopping is a regular thing, you may want to make the plan for the coming week when you get home from that, so you can incorporate your purchases.

                                Don't beat yourself up for not sticking to the plan -- it's a framework, not a mandate. And even a little bit of pre-planning can make a positive difference. Try three days at a time if a week seems unwieldy.

                                One of the biggest helps to me in this process has been the freezer log. I started by inventorying the freezer (a two-person job; one pulls out and calls off items and their dates, the other writes down. Switch halfway when the puller gets cranky.). Then I cross things off as I use them, and write down things as I add them. [The inventory made me get religion about labeling and dating EVERYTHING that goes in. I keep a sharpie and masking tape right nearby.] As I sit down to think about menus for the upcoming week, I try to work in using up one of the older items in the freezer. That way there's always room in the freezer [we only have the one that's part of the fridge] for cook-ahead dishes, on-sale big cuts of meat, etc.

                                1. Yes, I plan too. My spouse is also my practice partner and we do emergency work several nights a week. I could never just "wing it" and eat well -or spend my time at a grocery store daily.

                                  I keep a well stocked freezer.

                                  I choose my proteins for the week, then plan for two or three nights to be vegetarian nights. I plan a crock pot meal, a braised meat meal (Sunday night for Monday feast), a soup/salad/sandwich meal, a bistro style meal, and a pasta meal. Then I work loosely within those parameters (e.g. the pasta could be a stir fry, a bow tie or a gnocchi or cous cous). Bistro night might be a vegetarian tart or pizza, might be thai chicken wrap, might be an interesting buffalo burger. Crockpot meal is typically involving chicken, then I can incorporate the leftovers into other nights.

                                  I collect ideas from restaurant websites menus from all over the states. I re-engineer things for my weeknights. It is a quick way for inspiration and cohesion rather than just collecting recipes to try for the week.

                                  1. Another point - As you plan out several days' worth of dinners, note on the meal calendar the day you need to do them tasks to prepare for upcoming meals (e.g., one or two days before roasting, take a frozen chicken out of the freezer into the fridge to defrost; marinate something overnight for cooking the following day, etc.). As you consider recipes you've not cooked before, read them with that in mind and note the possibilities for making ahead. You'll get a lot better at this as you put the meal plan into practice over a few cycles.

                                    Planning using as a base the meals you're experienced with and confident about works best to start, but there's no reason you can't also use it to plan in first-time dishes -- so your repertoire will build and build...

                                    1. I do, but I don't plan by day, just for the week. I do tend to have more veggie heavy meals earlier on so they don't go bad. I wouldn't know what to buy if I didn't plan.

                                      1 Reply
                                      1. re: sisterfunkhaus

                                        Yes, I actually do this too and it works very well. Plan for the week, but I'm not wedded to particular meals on particular days. Perishable things get eaten earlier in the week, but there is still a fair amount of wiggle room to switch up days or even decide "oh, the beets were to have with the XXX, but I'm not in the mood-maybe I change the seasoning and have them with yyy and maybe make some glazed carrots tonight."

                                      2. Being a bachelor, it seems kind of tricky to plan sometimes. Some dishes, like spaghetti or chili are just easier to make in large batches (seems kind of silly to have a bunch of opened, half-used packages of pasta lying around). I will usually plan 2-3 large dinners a week, use leftovers for lunch and freeze sometimes. I have yet to figure out how to make a single portion of sausage gravy, etc. I allow an extra day between cooking these meals in case I have more than I can finish in 2 days. If I could cook full course meals every night and not waste any (like if I was cooking for a family) I sure would love to enjoy more variety as I love to cook.

                                        5 Replies
                                        1. re: LorenM

                                          Look around and you might well find other people who would love to cook more if there was someone else to cook for. It doesn't have to be a love interest...maybe a neighbor or an aquaintance from work. Food tastes good when eaten in company and I think many of us don't do that often enough.

                                          1. re: escondido123

                                            Thanks for the encouragement! Very kind of you to say. I agree food is better when sharing. I work until 8pm for a good chunk of the year so when I finally get home and cook on weeknights, it is sometimes 11pm or later that I actually eat, making dinner dates difficult for most people during the week. I am however known at work for bringing in really yummy leftovers for co-workers and potlucks are a stage for me. I recently won a chili cookoff at work by making my famous green chile! (I won some fancy, new age oven mitts and bamboo utensils, a thing called a crema (sp?) used to clean up crumbs or something and a bottle of Malbec wine)!

                                            1. re: LorenM

                                              Congrats on the cookoff win! So maybe have someone over on the weekends? You cook, they bring a bottle of wine/six pack and everybody's happy. It truly will make you happier.

                                          2. re: LorenM

                                            "seems kind of silly to have a bunch of opened, half-used packages of pasta lying around"

                                            Yes...and I'm guilty of that to a ridiculous degree. I must have four or five packages of different pasta opened in my cupboard at any given time..and of course I always forget the box of spaghetti is already opened..grab it from the wrong end and wind up having to pick up spaghetti from the floor.

                                            1. re: rockability

                                              Only four or five opened packages? We just cleaned out our pantry and were aghast to find 36 (mostly unopened, about 20 different kinds) packages of dry pasta. We are suckers for bringing back specialty pastas from Italy on our travels. And as I usually make fresh pasta anyway there all 36 bags/boxes sat unopened, ignored, unused.

                                              As I can no longer eat gluten we took the unopened stuff to the food bank. My husband can still use the opened packages but only when I am not home!

                                          3. Planning is in my nature so yes, I plan ahead for the week. However, I also enjoy spontaneity so my planning is not necessarily rigid. If I happen across unctuous foie gras for example I will grab that up and immediately re-plan things.

                                            I also have an ongoing list of unusual ingredients in my fridge/pantry that I need to use up and plan accordingly. For example, this week black garlic will feature.

                                            In order to take advantage of peace and quiet I get my groceries early in the morning (between 7 and 8 AM). I take my time and really enjoy it.

                                            4 Replies
                                            1. re: chefathome

                                              I also shop at about 8 am. I feel like the whole store is mine, bwuhahaha! But truly, it's great--almost like a very relaxing way to start a day off. I just enjoy wandering, choosing the best looking ingredients and getting ideas for the day's meals.

                                              1. re: alliegator

                                                Totally! Sometimes I almost feel as though I must push my cart quietly without making a sound because it is that still.

                                                1. re: alliegator

                                                  The early morning shop is great. I don't usually get my bum in gear to do it but sometimes my stepson has early practice on a Saturday morning and I go after I drop him-it's a whole different experience in the stores at 7 or 8 in the morning. No lines, very few screeching children.

                                                2. re: chefathome

                                                  I plan in the same way that you do. I'll decide that chicken is on the menu for a Tuesday night and have it defrosting, but I won't firm up a recipe till I'm on the way home from work.

                                                  Shopping has never been so peacful for me! I work full time, and husband hates when I go out at night alone to the supermarket, so it's usually Sunday afternoons for me. Now that I'm working only 3 days/week (baby on the way) I have more time to shop.

                                                3. I plan in that I keep coordinateable ingredients around, and try to account for things like roasts, where I know I will have more leftovers than can be had for lunch that I will have to account for. Luckily I make kick-a$$ shepherd's pie and pot pie. When you start them with a really good roast or stew that was great the first time around, you are almost guaranteed a good pie :D

                                                  So usually when I "plan" I plan so far as "chicken breasts and spinach were on sale this week here is a list of the things we have that I can work them in to" so I guess it boils down to my having a weekly menu of things I know we have everything (or mostly so) to make, which is then decided on at the last minute (or day ahead as the dish calls for, such as in the case of marination). Generally this list is way longer than there are days in the week.

                                                  All in all I'd say I do a rough draft/sketch of the week, rather than a plan.

                                                  1. I plan out a week's dinner menu every Saturday. I also plan out my exercise for the week. Then I mail it to my work email and my home email so that I don't have any excuse for not knowing what the weekly plan is.

                                                    I started doing this a few years ago when I realized that I wasn't getting enough exercise and I was eating crap because I wasn't planning ahead. On a night that I go to the gym, I won't have time to roast a chicken, so I need to have leftovers available or something I can make fast, like pork chops. Otherwise, I'll get take away and it always has more calories, way more salt, and less vegetables than what I make myself.