Sunday, April 29, 2012

Tips for the Time-Poor - Menu Planning

I'm probably not as time-poor as some of you, but still struggle to fit everything I want to into the constraint of the 24-hour day. And let's be honest, it's not just about time - it's also about motivation. Both of these things have been affecting my presence here, but they affect other things too - like how healthily we eat. A recent revelation to me is that planning your menu precisely not only saves you money but also makes cooking easier.

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
Step 2 - Plan when you'll eat what
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?


  1. My system is based around my fortnightly organic veg box. I unpack the box and make a meal plan based on what needs to be used up first and what will last a litle longer. Then I go shopping to buy the cupboard/fridge bits and pieces I need.

    I generally leave a bit of flexibility for spontaneous dinners out or nights I'm just not that hungry. And there's some stuff I always have on hand, like halloumi which lasts quite a long time in the fridge and makes a good quick meal with maybe some tomatoes or roast pepper.

  2. I'm all for menu planning. Used to just shop for groceries without even as much as a shopping list for necessities. Then we started making lists just for the necessities, which helped with the money. But when I started menu planning - the savings were pretty substantial. And I totally agree with you - planning this way have also made us eat healthier. And I'm actually cooking meals from the numerous cookbooks I've sunk money into!

    We plan for every fortnight - but do leave a bit of room for eating out so that we don't start to feel resentful and break our menu planning and home cooking habit.

  3. We cook on a whim, but we have a big garden. Most nights we look in the fridge and garden, see what is about to expire or what we have a current glut of, and start thinking fast on our feet.

    Years of practice have taught me to cook two-night meals, and save half. Also that it's very handy to have a large fruit salad and some frozen soup on hand at all times for those too-exhausted-to-cook nights. That way at least you still get your five a day and have no need to call on Mr Hell or Mr P Hut.

  4. Sarah, I'd love to get a veg box but just can't where we live at the moment. But that sounds like a great system. Have to disagree about haloumi lasting in the fridge though... Ours never sticks around for long. ;-)

    Shirleen, I think my next step is working in more creativity - working in new recipes. I'm not so good at that, too much a creature of habit. Flexibility is definitely important, too.

    Daleaway, totally with you on two-night meals! We do that heaps too. We keep a bag of Hot Bandito wedges in the freezer for when we really get the takeaway cravings. Not healthy... But quicker and cheaper than Hell. :-)

  5. Mrs Cake's MotherMay 2, 2012 at 7:48 AM

    Somebody removed our supermarket - I miss meeting your grandmother there every night about 5pm - so meal planning has become far more dependent on what meat is in the freezer.A handful of junk bacon and lots of fresh random stir fry veges is easy and quick. This is a good time of year, when the potatoes are in a bucket at the door and I dont have to get muddy feet digging them, just pull up carrots and snap off silver beet. Best cost cutting exercise is to marry off children so that meals now frequently stretch to two nights!

  6. Life in the kitchen is much happier when I have planned the menus and being able to wander around the garden and see what's coming up is a big driver for what we have. I thought this post was really interesting though as I am working with a young woman on budget meal planning and we're trying to work out a simple and cheap way of her having a planning system like this.

  7. Mum, that's all well and good until we descend on your house with our even hungrier partners. ;-)

    Julie, I hope something helped. It really is amazing what a difference it makes to the budget - just being a bit organised. :-)

  8. I mostly cook on a whim, mainly due to being on a budget. My meals depend on what meat or vege I have bought on special that week. I find it's good for my brain to figure out how to make the best use of everything, plus I enjoy coming up with new variations on meals. I'm not hugely pressed for time in the evenings though so that makes it easier.

  9. Linno, it sounds like you live in my ideal world! I'd love to be more creative in my everyday cooking but just fail at that on working days. Using what's on special makes a lot of sense if you can work it that way. :-)

  10. Oh gosh, you sound so organized (and your sister super-organized with magnets!). I really need to do this too as I get to mid-week and haven't a clue what we'll eat and there's nothing in the fridge/pantry. Having just got back from a trip home I haven't been cooking much which seems to have made the "what's for dinner" choice even worse.

  11. Wow! I really admire how organised you are. I barely plan, in fact I Buy ingredients and then work out what I'm going to make. GG

  12. GG, that's how we used to do it... But too often it resulted in unused veges languishing in the fridge and/or reaching for takeaways in desperation late in the week. It's taken a while to get it together. :-)


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