Monday, November 5, 2012

How I Plan Menus

First of all, you should know that I do really enjoy planning menus.  I got to do that for a cookbook at work, and I was over the moon with excitement.  So, take this post with a grain of salt if you are not a happy menu planner.

Ben helps to mix up a Wacky Cake

I plan loose supper menus every week.  If there is a breakfast or lunch dish that I want to remember to make, I jot that down as well so I don't forget.

Unless I want a specific meal on a specific day (if my husband is cooking or we're hosting someone or we need a super-fast supper before evening activities),  I just list the menus.  Sometimes I only write down a main dish, knowing I have several vegetables on hand to fill out the menu depending on my mood (read:  cravings).  I try to have protein, carbs, and vegetables/fruit at every meal.  Other people I know aim for a balanced day.

I usually scribble one or two menus at the beginning of the week.  Without fail, we shop at the farmer's market on Tuesday.  I buy fruit, vegetables, and dairy for the week.  I plan some more menus after I see what's good at market.

I shop at a regular store when my list is long enough or has several urgent items on it and I can combine it with other errands.  I have an extensive pantry and no plans to reduce it; it would appear that I lived through the Great Depression and turned into a hoarder.  I am exaggerating, but I am a better cook and better shopper when I do it this way.

I get the vibe of the week as it progresses, so I add to the menu list as we approach the weekend. I take Sunday dinner pretty seriously, so I like to plan that, and then Friday and Saturday fall into line to use up the rest of the produce. I never write down 7 menus at the beginning of the week (but I was raised by a mother who did).

art in the sink after a busy cooking session

However, my biggest resource for menu planning is my supper notebook, where I (most of the time) jot down what we ate for supper and where the recipes came from. I highly recommend a supper notebook to anyone who wants to plan menus!

Sometimes I get menu block; I start flipping through the supper notebook, and pretty soon I come up several possibilities.  The notebook shows me our seasonal eating patterns, gives me the source book or website for recipes we liked, reminds me of good menus for company or carried-out meals, and gives me a sense of accomplishment and rich family life.  I started this notebook in 2008 a few months after Ben was born.  It's priceless.  It has been such a help in my kitchen. 

Wouldn't it be clever if I could condense this post into a tidy outline? I can't. It's a frank overview of how I really, actually, menu-plan, and I wrote it in reponse to a reader request.

But here are the main points of my menu planning style:
1. loose plans
2. with backup plans
3. extensive pantry
4. the supper notebook 

Anything you want me to explain more?  And,  how do you decide what to eat at your house?


Sew Blessed Maw [Judy] said...

Margo, you amaze me at how organized you are.. How fantastic.
I love your menu planning. And the idea of the supper notebook is such a great idea.. Just think, if you continue this.. When your kids are grown, and look at this book or books, and see all the little notes [that I am sure you add to it], and the suppers you fixed.It will be a treasure to them.
I don't do a menu plan.Wish I did.It would be so much better.
I do however, have a very stocked pantry. I don't like to have to run to the store, every time I want to cook a dish. I am a couponer. I cut my coupons, and I stock my pantry.. I rarely have to go to the store for a particular item. I think my children would tell you, I am a "hoarder of food" ha.
Thank you for sharing.. so interesting.

BLD in MT said...

A supper notebook is brilliant. I should do this. I always save the menus I plan, but this is even better and then I won't be trying to keep track of little scraps of paper!

Jennifer Jo said...

This is so interesting. I'm feeling very disorganized today. Can't get my cooking mojo on. So I'm baking a squash and one solitary sweet potato, and I just mixed up a double batch of peanut butter granola. Lunch will be greens and polenta. I can't seem to move beyond that...but you've given me something to stew over. Maybe I'll get my act together in a few hours/days/weeks. (Or maybe I'll just leave the country instead.)

Polly said...

This is interesting and much closer to my way of doing things than not, too...(and thank you, since I think it was my request!!). I do write down the 7 suppers in detail at the start of the week--actually sometimes (if I feel I'm in a rut) I make a spreadsheet with ALL meals. This is due in part to needing to make sure we're balanced enough, what with the gluten-free aspects of life and two small children, but also it helps me think outside the box a bit. In general I repeat breakfasts, though, and lunches, and just plan suppers. But I do it in detail.

I will be pleased when I can stock my pantry! I don't have a pantry yet--we're waiting for it be built. Just a small one, but a place I can squirrel away food without my husband getting irritated (our kitchen is very small and he does NOT like an overcrowded fridge or freezer or cabinet).

I've been toying with the idea of more bulk pantry purchases. So I'm intrigued as to what sorts of things you stock in your pantry. I read a few 'frugal' blogs/sites where the writers are whizzes at stocking their pantries but they also are clearly not as invested in local foods as I am. I do order sucanat, brown rice flour and gluten-free oats in bulk....once my pantry is done maybe I can add the dried beans we eat most frequently.....

So what sorts of things are in your fully-stocked pantry? And are they mostly things you have preserved yourself?

My little pantry dream is to have it so well-stocked that I can forgo a shopping trip for a week or two if I want it. As it stands now, that's a tough proposition. Ultimately I want to do more of my own preserving of food. In other words, I want to lessen my reliance on good old Kroger.

My menus tend to revolve around what's in the freezer, what's in season, what we have that needs to be used, and what we all like. I like to challenge myself to cook from the freezer/pantry a lot. I try to avoid buying certain things at the grocery store--meats, dairy, produce (yet today I bought parsley, broccoli, lemons, garlic (which I can totally buy locally), bananas all at the grocery store--so I don't avoid it altogether). Still I tend to waltz out of the grocery store with all sorts of things that seem Oh So Expensive--olive oil, chocolate chips...and today, whipping cream and cheddar cheese.....

This comment is way too long!

Polly said...

Okay, and here's a secondary question--when it comes to wintering, do you stock up on bulk veggies? we have the option of ordering extra vegs at our market, but I've not done much venturing into that except with, I think, butternut squash one year. I'm always so afraid it will all go bad before I'm able to use it, and the market is open through winter, so I sort of hedge my bets.

Margo said...

Polly, to answer your first question: I buy bulk grains, beans, butter, cheese, and baking supplies (oil, sugar, flour, etc.). I keep lots of condiments/pickles/relishes on hand. We buy part of a local beef, so that's bulk, too, and the rest of the meat I just buy as needed. There is all the produce I put up - canning and freezing. Then every week I shop for fresh fruits and veggies and milk. I do have 2 freezers which allows me to buy in bulk, although my pantry is less than ideal (open shelving); my husband has plans to build a real one!

My pantry-stocking principle is that I replace the spare. For example, I have 2 cans of baking powder: one I'm using and the other in storage. When one is used up and I start using the storage one, I put baking powder on my grocery list so there's a spare again.

Does that help to answer your question?

Margo said...

Polly, your other question, about bulk veggies: I have stocked up on winter squash because I have a good place to store them ( I would like to try cold-cellaring root vegetables and apples. But I'm like you, with a handy farmers' market all winter long!

Polly said...

Aye, yes, that helps! I'm always interested in what other people consider pantry staples and how they keep them. Such minor details that so many people don't even both with anymore but things I find both fascinating and worthwhile. Because you can LEARN from others. So much!

jenny_o said...

I find it so interesting to read your methods and tips, because it makes me realize how narrow my thinking has always been, and comforts me to see there is more than one or two rigid ways to plan meals.

I used to use a combination of my parents' style (basically the same seven supper meals, repeated every week) and what I have read about menu planning, which is the full 21-meal planning that I am not organized enough to do. Now that there are just my husband and me at home, meals are very simple - I buy two or three selections of meats and vegetables, and we eat those all week, interspersed with egg dishes or pancakes or even sandwiches. We eat fruit for snacks. It helps that my husband will eat anything put in front of him and like it. When our children were young they were picky eaters and I dreaded meal preparation!

Lisa said...

I find menu-planning is so helpful that when I (rarely) don't do it, I'm usually sorry afterward. I often refer to my list of favorites (Leila's idea), and that helps, although the planning part is time consuming.

I had intended to write down our dinners last January, but the idea fizzled out - you have convinced me to try again.

Sarah Barry said...

I so enjoying hearing how others meal plan, and I am intrigued by your system. I too keep a pretty loose plan with back up, and I would be so stressed without this built in flexibility.

I really like how you shop mostly at the farmers market. That is my dream!!! Summer I could make it work, but winter would be tough.

Also, the book I linked to in my last post - Dinner a Love Story - the author keeps a dinner diary much like your notebook. Makes me want to start one! I do think it would help me with menu block. And it would just be fun to have a written record of what we eat.

Margo said...

Sarah, I need to check that book out.