Learn How to Menu Plan (part 2)

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Dear Home Ec 101,

I need to get our food budget under control. We spend a ton of money eating out.  It’s starting to cause fights.  I can’t cook, I can’t plan, and even if I could, I wouldn’t know where to start.


Hopeless in Hopeswell

Welcome to part two of this series on meal planning. Part 1 focused on finding the dining room (or kitchen) table and getting into the habit of eating at home, whatever it took.

I want to clear this misconception up right now: a habit is not the same as a rut. The habit helps break the cycle of relying on the drive-through for sustenance. Without introducing new foods, the idea of repetitively cycling through eight meals of convenience food becomes depressing, and once again, the take-out option becomes appealing. To prevent the rut, you must be brave and experiment.

Two facts about your meal planning journey:

1. As a cook, it is not your job to please everyone.

I take requests, but they must be reasonable. Don’t cook to irk your family purposely, but do not cater to overly picky palates, either. The planner’s perk is that your whims are the first to be accommodated after allergies and dietary restrictions.

2. Accept that there are times when you will screw up or be disappointed.*

It’s not the end of the world. It’s one meal,

Salvage the night by making popcorn or some other treat. Be careful, though; some of the more inventive family members out there could figure out your plan and sabotage future efforts.

Ten tips to successfully expand your menu:

  1. If you cook for others, don’t push your luck, only introduce one new food item per week.
  2. Pay attention to the reactions of your audience. For example, if they hate the black bean dish you tried this week, try a different main ingredient next time.
  3. Be open to suggestions.
  4. Ask friends with similar family situations for suggestions if you have young children.
  5. Different marinades make similar meals feel quite varied. For example, grilled chicken with barbecue sauce is nothing like chicken served with an Asian-style marinade. Additionally, using the same marinade on various meats can also liven up a menu.
  6. Vary your sides. Similar entrees can feel entirely different if they are served with noodles instead of mashed potatoes or sweet potatoes instead of broccoli.
  7. Learn to make soup. It’s simple and economical, and hundreds of variations can be created from ingredients found in the average fridge, freezer, and pantry. It also is a fabulous way to use up leftovers.
  8. If you are new to cooking, avoid fancy cooking magazines. Some are great, but others call for exotic ingredients that a beginner cook may not have.,and in rural areas, some of the ingredients may be difficult to find. In the past, I have recommended Taste of Home for straightforward, tried, and true recipes. However, I haven’t looked at the magazine in years, so I cannot vouch for it at this time.
  9. Peruse other menus.
  10. Finally, think of your favorite menu items when eating out. Set a goal to master a similar recipe. Even a beginner cook can quickly learn to outdo many middle-of-the-road chain restaurants.

*True story, a few weeks ago, I burned garlic bread in front of the company. I’m not being modest and trying to call it slightly overdone burnt. I, honest to God, completely forgot about it and scorched it badly enough I was worried the fire alarm would start and add another layer of embarrassment to the evening.

Check out the whole meal planning series:

How to Menu Plan

The Home-Ec 101 Introduction to menu planning

menu planning part two - chalkboard on table with fork and knife that says menu planning part two

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5 thoughts on “Learn How to Menu Plan (part 2)”

  1. I think it is a great idea to include everyone in the planning…….kids may ask for hot dogs and chips, mac and cheese, then they see that planning does go into the process and that they are heard. I always let them help with he tasks that they can do, like setting the table at first. Streching time by doing things like putting a whole chicken in a crock pot, boning it, then removing enough for chicken and noodles and holding some for chicken salad or chicken quasadies. Pam, South Bend

  2. Hi Heather, I wanted to thank you for the comment you left me on my blog.
    I also agree that including the children in the planning and even the making of the meals is a good idea. I taught all 4 of mine to cook at a young age and now I am enjoying teaching my grandchildren. They love to help me in the kitchen.

  3. Ellyn Satter’s book “Secrets of Feeding a Healthy Family” includes a 3 week cycle menu with recipes and gives instructions on how to create your own cycle menu. It’s a great book with very basic but good food. The book also includes tips for letting kids help and for getting prepared the night before.

    A long time ago, I found 5 weeks of menus and shopping lists at the North Dakota Extension Service. 3 meals a day plus a snack to feed a family of 4. It’s cheap, nutritionally balanced, and 5 weeks of time to get your act together or take a break. Extension services are a great resource.
    Eating Well…While Spending Less
    http://www.ag.ndsu.edu/pubs/foods.html (you’ll need to scroll down a bit)

    I like both these resources because they include sides and sometimes desserts as well as the main dish to give you a balanced meal.

  4. Canned fruit is your friend. No matter what the kids ask for, throw some canned fruit on the table. Mine love peaches or fruit cocktail.

    Veggies do not have to be grown in your garden to be good for you (though the fresher the better). Throw on a can of green beans with that hot dog and you have at least got them to eat some veggies.

    Eating at home does not have to be fancy. Just because you are eating at home doesn’t mean you can’t have what you like. If you’d rather be eating at McDonalds, then why not cut up some chicken breasts in small pieces, fry those suckers up, toss some french fries in and open a can of peaches. Dinner at home, cheap, and we at some fruit.

    Ranch dip is your friend. Most kids will eat ANYTHING covered in Ranch Dip. Thankfully their tummies can remove the ranch dip from the broccoli, cauliflower, carrots, ham, green beans, (well you get the idea) and remove the hidden nutrients. Who cares if they eat everything covered in Ketchup if they EAT it. 🙂 (Besides Ketchup is a veggie, didn’t you know that).

    And then there’s my mom’s trick. Make only enough for one (have extra hidden away). Set down to eat it ALL BY YOURSELF, with a good book and a nice glass of tea. Be prepared for the can I have a bite? Share grudgenly. The next time you prepare that dish, remind them how good it was when they ate yours.

    Despite what most people think, fruits and veggies are cheaper than chips. A 13 ounce bag of chips has 13 servings in it. Did you realize that? Frankly at my house, it has 3. For the same $3-4, I can buy enough bananas to last a week. Enough strawberries for several breakfasts or deserts. Or enough oranges for two weeks. You do the math. Buy that same 13 ounces of chips at a restaurant, and be prepared to spend $13! That will purchase enough fruit to last a family of three almost a month.

  5. As I work from home a lot of the time, I tend to do most of the cooking during the week at least. I don’t want to wait for my wife to come home, and then have to wait longer still while she cooks a meal.

    I tend to cook stuff that requires minimal preparation, and minimal watching.

    A crockpot is invaluable, as I can spend a few minutes putting the ingredients for dinner in it during the morning, and then simply leave it all day!

    We eat a lot of fresh vegetables, which are generally easy to prepare and cook – either in the microwave or steamer.

    Often I’ll cook a double amount, and freeze half, so it’s a ready meal a few days or weeks later.

    We rarely eat out.

    We used to at one point, and then I did one of these budget exercises where to catalog everything you spend for a month, and it was frightening how much we spent eating out!

    Two meals for two buys a whole weeks worth of groceries, and you eat more wholesome foods when you cook at home, as you control what and how much of whatever you put in your meals.

    Another point about eating out. We tended to do it, when we were both out all day, as we didn’t want to go home and cook, and didn’t want to wait long to eat either. Thing is, unless you buy junk food at the drive through (which we don’t anyway), by the time you sit down at a restuarant, and order your food, and it’s in front of you, and you’re eating it, isn’t so far removed in time from going home, getting straight into the kitchen and cooking something yourself. I’ve timed it!

    I seldom plan meals in advance. I tend to look in the refrigerator/freezer and decide at some point in teh morning, what I’m going to cook that evening. Obviously sometimes we do find a nice recipe and plan ahead, but that’s more likely to be on a weekend when we’ve got more time.


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