Meal planning is a valuable habit to get into for many reasons. Having a list at the store means that I buy what I need to cook all the meals I want to make and tends to prevent me from buying extraneous junk that will just go to waste or waist. It also means that I’m never left figuring out what the heck to cook on any given night which drastically reduces the likelihood that I’ll eat out or order in – both of which damage the budget and our health when done in excess.
My basic technique for meal planning has been refined over the years and I’d like to think that it’s now a smooth and easy process. Between you and me, meal planning is my least favorite part of the entire cooking process.
Step 1: Figure out how many dinners I need to make during the week and who will be eating.
I only plan dinners during the week because we all tend to eat leftovers for breakfast and lunch. On rare occasions we will plan a proper breakfast or lunch, but that mainly happens when we’ve got company coming over. Otherwise, leftovers are always around, easy, and delicious.
I also take into account who will be eating each night. If Lance is away, I can plan meals with nuts. If Art is away, I can experiment in the realm of fish cookery.
Step 2: Decide if there are any unusual circumstances that will affect dinners during the week.
Most of the time, unusual circumstances are time-related. For example, I have voice lessons and choir most Mondays so Monday is leftover night for the guys and I grab a bite to eat at Panera in between my two commitments.
Step 2.5: Figure out what ingredients need to be used.
This step is most important during the market season when we try to get as many vegetables as possible at the farmers market every week. It also comes into account since we buy meat in bulk and I try to ensure we'll be on track to exhaust our cow and pig supplies within the year of purchase.
Step 3: Pick a cookbook. (Or peruse google bookmarks.)
I have an insane number of cookbooks; there really is no other way to put it. I also love to experiment and try new recipes, styles and cuisines. To encourage this experimentation, I make it a goal to pick a cookbook each week and choose at least three recipes for the week’s meals from that cookbook. Sometimes, if I don’t already have a cookbook in mind when menu planning day rolls around, Art is charged with the duty of choosing one. This helps me to keep a fair amount of variety in our diet.
Sometimes I am too lazy to deal with a cookbook (because cookbooks require me to type recipes into my software) so I just pick new recipes from my google bookmarks or by searching my favorite cooking sites.
Step 4: Enter recipes into the computer.
I struggled for many years with recipe organization and finally figuring it out is the number one thing that makes meal planning easier for me. When I only had two cookbooks to my name, and no internet, it was easy to find every recipe I had. There were only two places to look! Now I’ve got over a hundred cookbooks and all the recipes of the web at my fingertips. That’s a lot of recipes.
I started out using MasterCook to catalog my recipes but switched over to BigOven in 2008. (BigOven is supported, MasterCook seems to be abandoned.) This software allows me to set up “recipe boxes” which match the recipe categories on this site. In addition, I have a box set aside for the recipes I’ll be using during the week and use google bookmarks for all the recipes I’ve found online that I want to get around to trying at some point. When I select a recipe from a cookbook, I type it into BigOven so that I’ll be able to easily find it in the future and not have to remember which cookbook something came from when I want to make it again. This makes it easy for me to find all the recipes I’ve tried before and also makes it a simple thing to share those recipes with a quick copy/paste.
Step 5: Write out menu.
I have a file on my desktop called menu.doc. At the top of the page I list out how many dinners I need to prepare during the week and note any special circumstance as detailed in steps one and two. I also make a note of what veggies I have to use up from the farmers market that week, if any. Then I start to fill those spots in with recipe names of every dish that I’ll be serving. Aside from days with special circumstances, I tend to avoid planning meals for specific days because I’ve found that having some flexibility during the week makes it much more likely that I’ll stick to my menu instead of deciding not to cook for whatever reason. I don’t do very well with being locked in to what I have to make each night because some days I just don’t feel like chicken. Or cow. Or whatever. Choice is good.
In theory part of this step should be asking Art and Lance if they have any special requests, but they rarely do, so I ask out of habit more than anything else.
Step 6: Write out grocery list.
Underneath the menu, I start to type out the grocery list. Keeping this file on my desktop at all times means that it's always easy to jot down notes. If I run out of something while cooking, it’s not unusual for me to say, “Hey Lance/Art! Can you send me an IM that says ‘AP flour’ please?” Then, on menu day, I just go through all my recipes planned for the week and write down ingredients in the file. I tend to remember what I do and don’t have in the pantry, but if I’m not sure I’ll bold the item so that I remember to check for its existence before leaving the house.
Then, because I’m anal, I drag things around so the list is in the same order as the grocery store...
I also list anything needed from the butcher, market, or other random stores at the very bottom, since we tend to stop by those places on the way home from the grocery store.
Step 7+: Shop, cook, eat.
This step is pretty self explanatory. And delicious.