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Menu Planning

Fellow chowhounds who participate in COTM (cookbook of the month) are chatting away on a separate thread about some of their favourite recipes. Many have realized that their home cooking/cookbook "obsession" has led them to spend very little time doing repeats, and lots of time trying new things. I am one of these people who try's something new most nights, and while I find this fun and challenging, I do find that the menu planning can be complicated, and a little less rewarding. Of course I like to have a week of new meals ahead of me, and of course I love browsing my books, but at some point I actually have to sit down and plan the darned menu and make a grocery list.

So I am wondering, how do the rest of you plan a menu. I grew up in a house where my mother somehow did most of the shopping without a list, had a standard rotation of tasty meals made from a stock list of items that she pretty much always had on hand, which meant that she could decide the morning of what the plan was for dinner. I definitely see the advantage of this, but I do yearn for variety, challenge, and new dishes.

For me the solution is that I spend about 1.5 hours a week with a pile of books, my iPad, the EYB site, and my menu planning/grocery list app, and I create a menu of mostly new meal items, aiming to have meat no more than 4 times per week (that is our goal), which means usually one fish/seafood night, and 2 vegetarian nights. I often plan some left over heavy meals early in the week (pasta/stews etc) so that we can have lunches, and will usually plan for a bit of advance or project (involved) cooking on Sunday.

The grocery list becomes essential because I am mostly making new things so I rely heavily on my shopping list as I don't know off the top of my head what is going into tomorrow's phat tai for example.

So what do you all do, are you mostly planning, flying by the seat of your pants, a mix? Have you abandoned attempts at new dishes based on the effort to get it all planned out?

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  1. I haven't used a recipe in years. I've even started baking and just rely on ratios for weight.

    As far as shopping goes I just write down the items that are on sale.

    5 Replies
    1. re: carrytheone

      Well, whether you use "recipes" or not has been and is constantly discussed here. And "ratios" are probably the ultimate "recipe." But if you write down what's on sale, don't you also write down any ingredients that you will need to make a specific dish? As delys said, if you're regularly making new dishes as the COTMers are, seems like it would be a necessity.

      1. re: carrytheone

        Cool, do you plan meals based on what's on sale or do you just buy on sale and then sort out what to make on the day?

        1. re: delys77

          I'll try to answer you and c oliver. I don't write down items I'll need that aren't on sale. I can run the recipe through my head in the store.

          Mostly I plan meals based on whats for sale, unless I have a request for a meal or theme.

          I pretty much wing new meals and try to apply techniques I've worked on in other dishes. All my recent 'new to me' recipes are classics that need 3 to 4 ingredients. Ie bread pasta doughs. I've been doing well with them so I'll probably spend another 6 months to a year exhausting my patience to master the technique. By then I'll get on to the next thing I've always wanted to cook. Just running out of cuisines!

          1. re: delys77

            For me, the answer could be either if I had mental note of what would be on sale the following week. The local market I frequent most makes the next week's circular available on Saturday....the new deals start on Sunday. That gives me the option of holding off on purchasing any items I know will be cheaper next week.

            As a general rule, I purchase meats only on sale., especially Beef. Pork and Chicken can always be had at reasonable pricing. As for menu planning, I cook the meat once and use leftover for other meals, which could include sandwiches, salads, topping for soup and sliced meat for mains.

            For example, I know if I find a turkey breast on sale, the first meal would be a traditional dinner....followed immediately by a Club Sandwich for the next meal...or a topping for something like a Cobb salad.

          2. This thread is very timely as I am trying to become more organized and less wasteful with my cooking. I'm single and I spend far too much money on food because I don't plan ahead and I talk myself out of cooking with stuff I have on hand. This leads to lunches out and numerous trips to the grocery store so I can make what I "really" want. Looking forward to the discussion!

            4 Replies
            1. re: gemvt

              I could probably waste less if I had more structure as well. I always think I could eat purely off my pantry and freezer for 5 to 7 weeks with maybe $30 of eggs/milk over the time. But for some reason I'm always indulging on more impulse buys!

              1. re: gemvt

                I am also single and have been using pantry finds for lunches lately. For example i had a bizarre amount of lentils and coconut milk- a quick look through bookmarked recipes and some websites and i made an amazing coconut milk lentil curry with what i had! All i needed to buy was scallions. I ate two servings for lunches and froze the rest for the next time i'm tempted by delivery because there is "nothing to eat". My five jars of nut butters are turning into an ongoing project..... ;)

                1. re: Ttrockwood

                  My weakness is vinegars. I have nine, all different. Yikes.

                2. re: gemvt

                  i fully support eating what you "reallly" want.
                  often it costs no more than whatever you have sitting in your pantry and you will get so much more pleasure and satiety from it.
                  life is too short to eat what you don't "really" want.
                  (unless, of course, all you want to eat is caviar and lobster with truffles)

                3. I do menu planning to cover meals for about a week and a half for my husband and I. I sit down at my computer and browse different websites, mostly skinnytaste.com since we're trying to eat healthy. I usually plan for about 4 meals, with leftovers planned. I write what meals I'm making at the top of my list, and then write next to those meals what ingredients I need that I don't already have on hand. From there, I divide my list into the following categories: Produce, Dairy, Meat, Dry Goods, Frozen, and Misc. That way, when I do my shopping, I'm not running back and forth all over the store. I usually plan for at least one new meal a week and at least 1 soup per week to take for lunches.

                  1 Reply
                  1. re: Oboegal

                    Sounds very well planned. I definitely agree that a well segmented list makes things much easier at the store.

                  2. I just want to add that we still need to plan for 1 more trip to the store for things we run out of, such as bread, milk, eggs, etc. But at least we're not going to the store every other day like a lot of people do.

                    5 Replies
                    1. re: Oboegal

                      I go grocery shopping once a week. I keep a list during the week of things we have run out of, etc. I plan what to get based on the store ads that week, what is on sale, and markdowns I find at the store. I have a plan for dinners for the week, including leftovers and one or two nights eating out, as that is our schedule. I have several favorite recipes I rotate, and my freezer and pantry is well-stocked so I can typically make most things without having to run to the store during the week.

                      1. re: Oboegal

                        I plan for the week, knowing that I will stop mid-way through the week for things that need to be very fresh during Lulu's ballet class. But I tell you, when I go out of the store with 4-5 bags full of groceries, sometimes I get the oddest (to me) comments. Things like "you think you can eat all that?" or "Geez, you havin' a party or something?" I mean, is it really that rare for someone to shop for (most of) the entire upcoming week?

                        1. re: LulusMom

                          Uh that doesn't seem odd to me :) I usually leave with a ton of bags. As I kid we'd leave the store with the back of a wagon full of bags and I'm an only child.

                          1. re: fldhkybnva

                            Thank you! I'm always sort of mystified by these comments. Then again I live in a town of college students and retirees, so maybe they usually only shop for one or two meals at a time?

                          2. re: LulusMom

                            What a strange comment! I usually have 3-5 bags and my cart is NEVER full. I look like I am buying nothing compared to most folks.

                            I hate when people comment on how much food someone is buying.

                        2. I am like many COTMers a recipe follower generally. My "menu planning" generally consists taking some "protein" out of the freezer, looking to see if I have other things to make dish. If not, I make a list and off to the grocery. The great news about a well-stocked pantry is the shopping list is generally VERY small.

                          Tonight's dinner was not a recipe. Sand dabs that I dusted with flour and cooked quickly in butter. Made a little 'sauce' of butter, white wine and lime juice (didn't have any lemon). Steamed spinach and some corn cut off the cob from last summer. So I'd say, generally, the protein drives the menu. But not always :)

                          6 Replies
                              1. re: c oliver

                                How is taste or texture any different from a Flounder or Grey Sole?

                            1. re: c oliver

                              My parents are on a constant quest for sand dabs! They won't make them at home due to all the tiny bones (i don't understand either) but are always checking restaurant menus looking for the best ones.....

                              1. re: Ttrockwood

                                I found them at WF in Reno some months ago. I wrapped them, two to a pack, in plastic wrap and then vacuum sealed. Ate the last two tonight.

                                @four, here's a link:

                                http://articles.latimes.com/1985-05-1...

                                They're SUCH a CA fish. And considered pretty special. I was pleased to find them at WF.

                              2. re: c oliver

                                How could it be not a recipe? Just kidding.