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Weekly menu planning, how do you go about it?

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Senkimekia Nov 21, 2011 07:11 AM

Hello all at CH this is my first official post after lurking forever and ever, I just love this site! I've finally broke out of my shell enough to make this post because I am desperate for input lol.

I know some of you do weekly meal planning and it is something I've been wanting to get started for quite some time now. I was just looking to see how some of you do it and hopefully gleam good tips from people that know the ins and outs of meal planning. I want to know your thought processes that go behind planning your meals, how do you utilize your books and online media, do you have tools such as software or a notebook to help you plan it out, what are your main go to resources, what factors have an impact on the menu you plan, do you ever incorporate themes, do you plan once a week or more, how often do you deviate from your plan, etc. I will take any info you're willing to share! My menu planning will consist of a hybrid of make ahead batch meals and individual nightly meals depending on my schedule. I expect to be getting less hours this time of year so I should have time to cook more (and desire to). I'm a decent (average) cook but I've reached a point where I want to expand my horizons and step it up to the next level. I am looking for an organized way to track my plan week by week so very curious to see what you all use to track yours, wether it be software, an app, paper, notebook, calendar, word doc, or a combination of more than one. What is your system and how does it work for you?

Also, I've amassed a lot of cookbooks in the past year (is this a diagnosable illness? Lol) and where I used to have like 20 cookbooks I am now approaching 200. Any chowhounders out there with some advice/tips on how I can incorporate them more into my menu planning? I know it sounds a little odd, but I just feel like I have so many now in such a short amount of time I don't even know where to begin.... I did join EYB (learned that from a discussion on this site as well :D ) but I just need a kick to go from just browsing my books to actually USING THEM.

Thanks again in advance!

  1. Cremon Nov 28, 2011 09:40 AM

    My wife does most of the "planning". I do most of the cooking though we generally take turns. But our planning comes mostly for cravings for things we have not had in a long time. I will generally have 20-50 lbs of uncooked rice on hand and we have a nice rice cooker so 2-3 meals a week will include rice. But my wife will look at what meats and fish are on sale at the grocer - go with those and then as she gets them, she is already thinking about how they will be prepared and will get stuff for sides for them too, etc. I will help plan when I go shopping with her but truth is - I will plan maybe 1 (on rare occasions, 2) meal a week while she plans the other 6. She knows where each of our strengths are in the kitchen and takes all that into account as she gbuys everything. But we have no spreadsheets or schedules. We will plan all 7 meals for the week but what we don't plan is WHEN we will have each meal. The decision on what to cook for that particular day will come about 1-4 hours before dinner time.

    1. o
      onrushpam Nov 22, 2011 08:46 PM

      Wow! Y'all are so organized! DH and I both work full time, with a 1 hr each way commute (in opposite directions). And, we run a greyhound adoption program as our 2nd jobs (all volunteer). Yet, I love to cook and can't abide having processed/nuked food. (Oh, and we live in the boonies, so calling out for delivery isn't an option and we are 20 miles from the nearest grocery store.)
      I check the ads when they come out on Thursday and pick a couple of proteins for the week... most frequently chicken thighs , pork tenderloin, chuck roast in winter, sometimes steak in summer. And, I pick a few veg, knowing I'll probably add to that at the farmers mkt on the weekend. So, I plan 2-3 meals off the grocery ad (usually done on my lunch break on Thursday). I have a few websites I often use for inspiration, along with the ads. I shop on my way home from work Thurs. night. If it's the week I get my "fur" done, shopping has to wait until Sat. <g>

      Sat. mornings, I go to a Tai Chi class, then to the farmers mkt and the fish mkt. We usually have some sort of fish or seafood on Sat. night and sometimes also on Sun., or we'll have fish one night and a veggie feast the other, depending on the season and what's good at the mkt.

      I guess I'm not so much a planner as a picker... :-)

      1. m
        megjp Nov 22, 2011 07:11 PM

        I keep a table of what to eat for lunch and dinner every day, and try to figure out at least 3/4 of it Sunday afternoon for the week ahead. This is after having done a relatively major shop Friday or Saturday, with top-ups feasible during the week as I have a (slightly expensive) grocery store very near my office and greengrocers near my apartment. We are two in this household, and I do almost 100% of the cooking.

        Now, I don't eat gluten or much dairy, raw veg, or red meat, because I have digestive trouble. I can't give up most of these things altogether, so I try to plan in a way that leaves things relatively balanced: if I have one 'danger' item today, I won't have it for a little while. I try not to eat meat at all more than once a day.

        With all this in mind, I do work hard to vary things. Thankfully I love beans and peas, and chicken thighs, and nearly every vegetable (not cauliflower! :).

        I shop sales, and I buy in bulk when I can. Most of my produce is as local as it can get for as much of the year as possible, thus also cheaper while providing me an interesting challenge (if the best I can get is X item, I have to figure out how to make it good). I always have rice and diced tomatoes and eggs and butter, and I often carry a notebook for ideas -- many food ideas make their way in there, as I'm certifiably obsessed. I bookmark things on the internet, both on my computer and on my phone as sites like thekitchn.com are in an aggregate reader app I use. I read these fine people's posts, and a number of blogs. I have cookbooks but consult them relatively rarely, saving more time-intensive things for weekends. Finally, I try to make at least one soup every weekend for lunches in case my dinners don't stretch for leftovers.

        Now I'm freaking hungry, and it's after ten!

        1. s
          saintp Nov 22, 2011 06:18 AM

          Great ideas. I love seeing what other people do!
          I plan for the entire week, for our family of 4 (2 girls, 5 and 7). Usually on Saturday or Sunday morning I will sit down with a few cookbooks or I will look at my list of fave recipes that I keep taped inside my spice cabinet....these give me a bit of inspiration. I try to cook at least 5-6 nights a week. So last week this is what we ate: Spaghetti and Meatballs with sauce that was in the freezer (I make a huge batch every 6-8 weeks), Tortilla Pie, using chicken from a roasted chicken, Beef and Veg. Stir fry, Lemon Chicken Soup (using the remainder of the chicken), Tacos with ground turkey, homemade Pizza on Friday (Pizza Movie night or Pizza Game night with the kids, every friday).
          I try to vary the menu week by week so that we're not doing too many repeats. I would love to cook more vegetarian meals, but my husband really loves a meat component. At least we don't eat red meat too often.

          At the store, I stick to my list as best as I can, unless I see a good sale on pantry items that I know I will use (like my preferred brand of canned tomatoes or Rotel or black beans....).

          One more thing, I think the biggest help has been the list that is inside my cabinet....it's divided into categories: chicken, pasta, soups, meat, misc, and things that take longer to cook or are more difficult. When I find a recipe that really works, I just jot it down. That way, if i know i need a meal to use up some chicken or certain ingredients, I can just check there for ideas. Some people probably have a file like this on the computer, but I think this works best for me. I often pop up during dinner to jot things down on the list!

          Good luck!

          1. h
            haiku. Nov 22, 2011 05:53 AM

            I do the meat shopping once a month, as the place I like to get my meat from is far away. That all goes into the freezer, and I take it out to defrost as needed. I do the grocery shopping once a week, on a Saturday or Sunday.

            Before doing the weekly grocery shopping, I make up the week's dinner menu. It's just easier than trying to figure out what to make every day.
            I have a standard order: Monday - Vegetarian; Tuesday - Fresh fish; Wednesday - Chicken dish; Thursday - frozen boxed fish and frozen veg in the oven; Friday - Any other meat; Saturday - go out; Sunday - something that I can't make any of the other days because it takes a while to prepare/cook. Every day includes vegetables and sometimes a starch.

            I make up the list of what we'll be having that week (in a notebook, with the dates, and I can refer back to see what I'd made previously for ideas). I try to keep it interesting, so I try out new things all the time. I bookmark interesting recipes when I see them online, and when I'm deciding on the Wednesday meal, for example, I'll look in the Chicken bookmarked folder to see what I have there. You can follow the same principle with cookbooks - I just don't have many, so I use the Internet a lot more. I also like that someone else has tried out the recipe and talks about what works for them.
            And I really dislike leftovers or having the same thing too often, so this really is a great way for me to do it.

            I make up the shopping list based on what we're having for the week. That also ensures that I only buy what I need, and there's no extra vegetables going to waste because I haven't found a use for it yet.

            If I find something really seasonable and that looks fantastic in the store, I'm flexible enough to buy it and adjust the menu for it.

            1. l
              laliz Nov 21, 2011 12:23 PM

              I try to shop once a week, and I am a single household.
              I like to make soup(s) on Sunday ~~ and often have that for dinner. I freeze individual portions so I don't have to have repetitive meals.
              I buy cottage cheese and greek yogurt every week and use them as protein with a salad or veggie.
              I shop from the market, as others have said, depending on what is good and what is on special.
              I carry my lunch every day, usually a fruit and a protein (this week it is deli turkey, dressing w/raisins & nuts) and cranberry sauce sandwich w/a honey crisp apple. I made the sandwiches this a.m. for the week.
              I need something easy to reheat after work, hence the soups, cottage cheese, etc. (depeinding on the season)
              NOT planning leads to a very poor choice or eating out more than I should, so I do plan and shop for the week. I don't know if I'm much help to you though.

              1 Reply
              1. re: laliz
                s
                Senkimekia Nov 21, 2011 01:08 PM

                I like your suggestion about freezing this and that so there's some variety to choose from. You nail it right on the head when you said poor planning leads to poor choices, this is a big reason why I want to start planning. You said you made sandwiches this a.m. for the week, you make them all the same day? I've tried making them all at once for my hubby but they got a little icky sitting prepared, any advice there?

              2. g
                gourmanda Nov 21, 2011 10:28 AM

                Wow! Some of you are serious planners--I'm impressed! For us (2) I work full time andn do all of the dinner cooking and want dinner on the table within an hour of getting home if it all possible. To make that happen I find it essential to make a menu and coordinating grocery list for the upcoming week, usually do this on Saturday. I don't save the menu from week to week. Saturday night is pizza night, Friday is either leftovers (usually) or going out to dinner (maybe once a month). If I can get to the fish monger on Saturday then we plan on fish for Sunday and Monday. The rest of the week is usually meatless dishes. Pasta is one night; in the summer salad is another night while in the winter it might be vegetable omelettes or soup. What I make exactly depends first and foremost what is in the freezer and/or the cupboard. I try and plan around that for mains and sides. For recipes and ideas I have a categorized binder that holds recipes I've cut out of the paper/magazine or I thumb through a considerable number of cookbooks for inspiration--rarely do I follow a recipe exactly. Like many othes I try and do one shopping trip per week.

                1. Peg Nov 21, 2011 10:23 AM

                  I live alone and eat no meat and very little bread, so I'm not sure if my method will be of any use to you. (I do not eat breakfast).
                  I work long hours 4 days a week (M - Th). On these 4 days I take lunch (salad or nukable) to work and on 3 of the days I need something ready to serve cold or to nuke when I get home. To that end I cook one or 2 dishes in multi-portion quantities at the weekend and freeze them. I choose what to make after checking the pantry to see what is in stock (grains, nuts and pulses) then with knowledge of what vegetables are in season I use cookbooks and the web to come up with a few options. Only when I see what veg is actually looking good in the grocer do I decide what I'll cook. I generally freeze 4 portions at a time - but sometimes I make as many as 12 portions of something that I can jazz up with chilli sauce/curry paste according to mood.
                  I keep track of how many 'nukable' meals are in the freezer, and using a spreadsheet calendar I note when I plan to eat 'nuked' food (normally not for more than 3 meals in a row). I also note when I will be eating out; I 'fill' the remaining meals with salads which I aim to eat at least 3 meals a week, and I use cookbooks for salad inspiration.
                  Salad ingredients tend to be the only fresh foods in the house, as I generally cook on the day I shop so everything else gets frozen immediately.
                  If something is looking particularly good at the grocer and is a bargain I will cook extra unplanned dishes - so sometimes the freezer is very full. Then I get a week or two off cooking as I use up the backlog!

                  Thursday nights (when my weekend starts) if I am not eating out then all planning goes out the window and I buy and eat whatever I feel like.

                  If, unusually, I want to eat fresh fish - then I do so on the day before the kitchen waste is collected for recycling - otherwise the fish bones get very smelly! Because the fishmonger visits on Fridays, and the recycling is on Wednesdays, I freeze fish as soon as I have bought it. It is then added to my spreadsheet plan on the following (or a subsequent) Tuesday evening.

                  If I am entertaining then planning takes place in a book - I have a large notebook that has details of all the meals I have entertained back to 1994! In this I note rough ideas, proposed and actual menus, detailed shopping lists and cooking timings - and often drawings of ideas.

                  All of which written down makes me sound very anal!

                  1 Reply
                  1. re: Peg
                    Siobhan Nov 22, 2011 08:24 PM

                    You are my idol. Your planning is amazing!

                  2. Passadumkeg Nov 21, 2011 09:43 AM

                    What meat is on sale? What veggies are on sale? Then I get creative.

                    3 Replies
                    1. re: Passadumkeg
                      hotoynoodle Nov 21, 2011 10:36 AM

                      this is what i do too. years ago, because of the variability of what may be found in market, i stopped planning weekly menus. yes, world-wide year-long shipping means i can still have tomatoes in february, but they are so craptastically flavorless i don't want them.

                      generally i'll cook a package of chicken thighs each sunday, flavored various ways, for my b/f to munch all week. he works from home so i stock him up. this sunday i also made him a big pot of sausage and peppers/onions and a pile of heartily seasoned taco meat, some of which went in the freezer. also a bowl of basmati rice. so with all this, he can make chicken salad, have a sausage sandwich or scramble some eggs over the sausage and have the taco meat over a salad or in a tortilla. we also eat lots of eggs.

                      i do lots of braises in winter, so we get several meals out of those.

                      about 6 years ago, i moved from a 3 bedroom house to a loft and donated over 800 books to charity, many of which were cookbooks. most of them were simply collecting dust. if you enjoy having them, reading them as food porn, that's one thing, but if you don't use them, or if they are in a niche that's not for you, you may want to reconsider and edit. also, there is SO much on the net now, i find cookbooks are often superfluous. i use them for baking and some old favorites as references.

                      however, i do keep word documents and files of every party i give, including guests attending. i keep recipes attached to that too and try not to repeat except for certain things my guests howl when i don't make them, lol.

                      1. re: hotoynoodle
                        Passadumkeg Nov 21, 2011 12:01 PM

                        I do much of the same. It makes the work week easier.

                        1. re: hotoynoodle
                          s
                          Senkimekia Nov 21, 2011 01:15 PM

                          LOVE the idea of buying one giant pack of chicken but flavoring them in various ways- that will be added to my methodology on the weeks where I work a lot of hours and won't have time to make something complicated every night. I love the concept of batch cooking, but I like variety and that takes care of it nicely.

                      2. egbluesuede Nov 21, 2011 09:37 AM

                        I do all of the mean planning for my family of 4. We do the shopping only once a week, so I try to be very organized to plan ahead, and make sure we have everything we need. My planning document is a #11 envelope. I buy a box of 50, and then run them through my printer. On the front, I've created lines organized into areas of my favorite grocery store. I use this side for my grocery list, and I write down the things I need by department so I do need to do a lot of backtracking and don't forget anything while I shop. On the back of the envelope, I have the days of the week, and an area for breakfast items, and lunch items. (you can also use the envelope to hold coupons if you shop that way) Using my calendar as a guide, I plan the meals around our schedule for the week, and somtimes even check the weather forecast if I think there is a chance to cook outdoors. Some tips I've learned... plan your means with the fresh ingredients earlier in the week. Plan subsequent meals to use up leftovers or ingredients from previous meals, plan lunches around left overs, and plan for flexibility. I know things tend to change, so I usually leave one day unplanned. Invariable, our schedule changes, and I don't cook everything in the order it was planned. If for some reason, the week goes entirely as planned, I'll grab carryout or go out to dinner at the end of the week.

                        To decide what meals I want to prepare, I have a list of many of our favorites. These are the ones that we go back to over and over again. For the rest of the week, I usually have ideas in my head from watching TV, reading a mag or chowhound, or seeing some seasonal item that I just want to use. By planning out the whole week, I can also try to incorporate variety. Mix up the proteins, mix up the ethnicity, etc so that dinner time doesn't become boring. It's very systematic, but I don't have a lot of free time, and enjoy cooking, so I try to make sure I have a plan for the week so I don't spend a lot of time at the store, and know what needs to happen as soon as I get home from work.

                        1. r
                          raisa Nov 21, 2011 09:00 AM

                          I always plan my week around what I can find fresh in the market. I love those meals that leave a left over that can be turned into a carriable lunch next day. I usually pick two types protein for the week. Then try to vary the carb and veg around them. I plan while I shop. Like, hey this salmon looks good. I'll make some carpaccio with this tonight while it's still fresh. Poach some tomorrow, bake/roast some on wednesday. Instantly like that. It didn't help much, right?

                          1. j
                            jarona Nov 21, 2011 08:28 AM

                            Well, right now it is the two of us at home...(daughter may have a job transfer which will be bringing her back home for a while)...so I try to plan my weekly menus around two things--our schedules and the "weekly" shopping on the weekend.
                            I'm a huge Wegman's fan. My fiance loves pork. I'm not that crazy about it. So...I pick up the "big" pack of about 9 bonless, thick pork chops--that's about two weeks worth of pork.
                            I'll pick up some fish and chicken. Our staples at home are always Cous-cous--and Rotel-canned tomatoes with chilis. Pasta. lots of veg. Eggs. We both have one day of the week where we work later--it just happens to be the same day for us. So..on that given day it is eggs for dinner. He usually has 'em fried while I just make an egg-white omelet with veg. I save the yolks for creme caramel or a custard based dessert later on in the week. When we roast a whole chicken--we will have "rests" or leftovers from that. I will usually serve the chicken cold and have a salad with it. Our Friday meal is usually a make-shift thing I kind of devised. I get fresh pita bread from a local persian cafe, and mix up some chicken with spices and saute onion and top with cheese...put it in the oven to heat--kinda like a persian pizza of sorts. Saturday is always a special meal. Appetizers...full dinner..maybe a roast or something that we can have during the week. During the winter I like winter veg roasted...like squash, brussels sprouts....as we get further into winter, I like to do one-dish things like tagines or a beef bourgineoun (my spelling is atricious) or a gumbo. This way during the dark days of winter, when I come back from work..I can just eat and hibernate. One thing we do plan though..we ALWAYS have dinner together. During the week, we will casual it out in front of the tv but on weekends we always sit at the dining table with a fully-dressed table.
                            It's funny--but I have so many cookbooks and the only ones I use time after time after time are Joy, Martha Stewart, Ina Garten, and this french cookbook I picked up at Borders years ago. I actually ended up spotting the french book recently at another store and bought it b/c the original one is soooooooooo messy from use. Oh..and I use America's Test Kitchen book for reference and good tips.
                            Best of luck--I hope I helped you in some sort of way.

                            1. a
                              amyatkendall Nov 21, 2011 08:18 AM

                              I have a spreadsheet that I use every week with columns for the days and rows for the meals, including b/l/d, snacks and any speciality seasonal baking I want to do each week. I start a new spreadsheet for each week and then once the week is over I store it in a folder on my laptop designated for weekly menus so I can look back and see what seasonal dishes I made this time last year.

                              My husband and I both work full-time, so during the week we eat simply: on M,W,F we eat salmon and seasonal veggies and on T and TH we eat roasted chicken thighs with seasonal veggies. I only really use recipes that take more time on the weekends. Every Sunday I decide which seasonal dishes I want to cook/bake on the following weekend and I pull out my cookbooks and online recipe files (I have folders on my laptop for each season with recipes that I've stored online). I look at my calendar and see if there are any holidays or special occasions, or fun things like football games when I make chili and incorporate those events into my menu planning spreadsheet.

                              I love menu planning! I hope you find a system that works for you!

                              1 Reply
                              1. re: amyatkendall
                                s
                                Senkimekia Nov 21, 2011 01:22 PM

                                Oh nice, I love your idea of keeping track of your recipes by season, great idea. I'm pretty bad about remembering what is what at times, so I think I will adopt your idea where you keep a past record of seasonal recipes so you can go back and check and also already have a repertoire for each season ready to draw from. Thanks!

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