The Art of Menu-Planning

Nearly every Sunday morning, I sit down with the grocery store flyers that were in the paper, a large pad of paper and my coupon book. I take a look at the great deals and start to imagine how I might best take advantage of them. And, before you know it, I've got my grocery list written out and about a week's worth of meals planned. It takes about an hour or so and probably saves my so much more than that.

Taking a bit of time out of an otherwise lazy day gives me a chance to think about the upcoming week and how I can save time when I need to most. For example, if I know that I want to pick up some boneless, skinless chicken breasts while they are priced at $1.99 a pound, I can make sure that I plan to have a couple of chicken-based meals during the week. Maybe I'll grill all of them one night, have about half sliced thin for fajitas -- to be served with those great red peppers I found on sale -- and shred the remainder for a simple, creamy chicken salad to be served in pita pockets and served alongside a cup of lentil soup, which was leftover from a larger meal the night before!

If you find yourself running to the grocery store several times a week or, worse yet, every day, you really need to spend a little time planning ahead. It doesn't need to be as strict as determining exactly what you will be eating on every particular night. Simply putting together, say, five meals that are quick, simple and play off each other well will help you a lot. If you have to chop onions for three of those meals, save yourself some time and only chop those onions once. Set aside the remainder for those other meals and they come together in no time.

Here are some great tips to save you time, effort and money when planning your menus:

  • Take advantage of great deals at your grocery store. If the family pack of pork chops saves you money, make it save you time too by slicing some of that pork into strips for stir-fry, planning a stuffing for some baked chops and making sure you have garlic and lemon juice for a marinade when it comes time to grill.
  • Let a side dish play center stage another night or the main course take a supporting role. Add smoked sausage and shredded chicken to leftover rice as you transform it to a jambalaya that will impress. Slice last night's grilled chicken over greens for a special salad.
  • Make sure you give yourself enough leeway that you can change your mind. If you had planned a chicken salad tonight, but want something warm instead, toss the chicken on a pizza and call it a day.
  • While I like to plan about five meals a week, I don't like to dictate which meals will be on which days. I also like to leave a couple days free for inspiration to strike or to go out to a restaurant or spend time with family or friends.
  • Making sure your meals don't generally consist of a piece of meat with a couple of sides will give you a lot of flexibility. Main dish salads, casseroles, stir-fries and such make using small amounts of meat with a lot of other ingredients mean you can avoid monotony at the dinner table.
  • Be flexible enough to try something different. Thought you had water chestnuts in the pantry, but didn't? Try slicing a couple of radishes thin and tossing them in a stir-fry. They're crunchy and a bit spicy!
There you have it. A few thoughts on how spending some time early in the week can have the rest of your weekly dinner times moving along smoothly. And remember, when life's really rough, just rely on the leftovers, whatever the freezer has in store for you, or a reliable restaurant!

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