The saving money part is logical - if you know what you're cooking you buy exactly what you need and don't end up turfing out limp lettuce or droopy carrots at the end of the week. It becomes easier to make shopping lists and easier to stick to them (no point being tempted by some exotic new foodstuff if it's not on the menu - but if you're keen enough you can put it on the roster for the next round).
There are tons of different ways of planning your meals - you can do a week, fortnight or month in advance; you can plan new meals all the time, one or two new meals a week, or stick with family favourites; you can record your meals on paper, on a snazzy fridge chart, or electronically... Pretty much you can do what suits you.
We have planned our meals loosely for the last couple of years, by thinking of vague ideas of what we will eat over the next week when we make our shopping list. This didn't work as well for us for a couple of reasons. For one, we usually only shopped for 5-6 dinners, and though we do eat out sometimes, once a week is more than our optimal frequency - so we'd end up eating junk at the end of the week or revisiting the supermarket. Also, without specific meals mapped to days I would often come home from work at 5.30pm hoping Mr Cake would acquiesce to some unhealthy substitute in order to avoid cooking. Weak! So I decided we were going to get serious. Not that serious, but you know, a little bit serious. Here is what I reckon you need to do to make this work:
Step 1 - List your meals
Our meal planning is electronic, so I created a Google spreadsheet and listed all the meals we usually make for dinner. I find that this makes it easier to choose meals for a given day, since they're all listed. I try to choose a red meat meal for each week to make sure I get enough iron, and then just to get a reasonable variety. My sister has a prettier system - fridge magnets for each meal they have often. She does her planning monthly, so puts a printed calendar of the month on the fridge and sticks the magnets to the days.
|Sister Cake's excellent magnet system|
Working out which day of the week you eat each meal is also important - you probably want to make sure that veggies that benefit from quick turnaround (like the bok choi we have on hand for tomorrow's Thai green curry) get used early in the cycle. Also, you probably want to make sure you're not going to wind up with really similar meals grouped together. This is the putting-the-magnets-on-the-calendar part - we don't have magnets, but a Google calendar. This has the added bonus of me being able to check the menu before I leave work so I can psych myself into the cooking process. ;-) I also spied this simple but effective peg system on Pinterest the other day, which might suit some of you.
Step 3 - Shop
Self-explanatory, really - the only notable part of shopping is that you should now only need to buy the ingredients for what is on the list for dinners, and hopefully you'll end up with a lower grocery bill (we've easily carved $20-30 a week off ours, which, ahem, may have been a bit on the generous side). We do our main groceries fortnightly via Countdown online shopping, but buy our produce ourselves weekly (cheaper and we can perform quality control).
Step 4 - Cook
And the final part - making the food. Unfortunately there's no magic to this part (I'd love if fairies came and made my dinner sometimes, after a long day at work), but at least you shouldn't need any panic supermarket trips before you get into the cooking.
Do you plan your menu in advance, or do you prefer to cook on a whim?