Dear Home Ec 101,
I need to get our food budget under control, and 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 would just quit.
Can you teach me how to menu plan? Can you teach me how to follow a menu plan and stick to it? I know this would help a lot, I just don’t know where to even start when I’ve screwed it all up so many times before.
Hopeless in Hopeswell
We have all been there. Please don’t be too hard on yourself.
Why did menu planning fail before?
First, you need to figure out menu planning has failed you in the past. By the way, did you happen to notice that I said, that the plan failed you?
Was the plan too sudden of a shift from drive-through windows to four-course dinners? Couch potatoes don’t turn into marathon runners overnight, and it would be difficult to completely change course in a short period of time.
When I am training my colleague, I often ask him to find out our client’s end goal rather than what they are trying to do in the moment. If I understand your email correctly, you have two achievable goals:
- Stop eating out.
- Save money spent on food.
Learning how to menu plan will help you accomplish both goals.
Achievable goals are SMART
Learn how to plan your very first weekly menu
The first two weeks of your menu planning endeavor are spent getting used to eating at your table.
Yes, that thing buried underneath the bills and overdue library books.
Ready for your first mission? You are going to set yourself up for success. To get started meal planning you will:
- Clear the table
- Get a piece of paper
- Get a writing utensil of your choice
- Sit down for ten minutes.
- List the days of the week and any activities that may make meal preparation difficult.
What do I mean by activities that make meal preparation difficult? Do you have kids? They make meal preparation difficult by default when they are really little. The more you can involve them, the earlier, the easier things get later, BUT that early step required a herculean effort on my part. (I also don’t think they hand out parenting awards for martyrdom. If you don’t have the patience to deal with a toddler and dinner preparation, hand the toddler a safe activity, yes, even screen time, and do what you need to do, with your sanity intact.
Do you have activities that interfere with dinner timing: class, work, meeting friends for a drink, church, etc. Those things all can have an effect on when meals are served and whether or not you have time to prepare them. Plan accordingly.
In our case,
our family deals with joint custody based on a rotating shift, Most of the kids are home all of the time now, but our difficult nights still vary from week to week.
Allow one night for leftovers. We call it CORN: Clean Out Refrigerator Night, and one night that is a complete break from cooking. As you gain experience with learning how to plan your menu, the night off could be a meal pulled from the freezer, but for now a frozen pizza or lasagna, sandwiches, or even bougied up Lunchables aka charcuterie fits the bill. Heck, even regular Lunchables work and are still cheaper per person than the drive-through.
Look at that, meeting both goals. How SMART.
Remember, these first two weeks are only about getting used to being in the kitchen and dining room. Try not to overthink things like nutrition. Food is food. Of course, if you have allergies or intolerances, you have to keep those in mind, but when you are learning how to menu plan and learning how to stick to a menu plan, you start with the very basics and keep the plan as simple as possible.
This is just your first step.
If you can read (and you are right now, so don’t lie), you can handle making spaghetti with jarred sauce.
Bake a couple of frozen chicken patties sprinkle on some parmesan cheese and you have a cheater’s chicken Parmesan.
Pre-made salads can be jazzed up with hard-boiled eggs, canned tuna, or grilled chicken and shrimp.
Ground beef and brown gravy (yes, use a jar or packet if you want) which can be served over egg noodles or instant mashed potatoes with corn or green beans. All of these meals can be put together in about twenty minutes.
Baked potatoes with chili or omelets (or why frustrate yourself, just scramble those bad boys) with fruit.
Grilled cheese with a can of tomato soup.
Will these meals be served at the Four Seasons?
No, but they are edible and won’t break the bank as you find your kitchen legs. You only need ten to get you through the first two weeks of your first menu plans. I have faith that you can do this.
List your plan by day and remember that it is simply a guide to help you avoid the drive-through. If you change your mind and opt to eat something else from the fridge or pantry, that is still a success.
Each night before bed, glance at your menu and make sure nothing needs to be done the night before. There have been many days where I have kicked myself for forgetting to get meat from the freezer or place beans to soak. Sure, the world doesn’t stop, but it’s just one more thing to deal with.
Bonus Tip: If you have any dinner successes, write the name on the front of an index card. On the back, list key ingredients that you will probably need from the grocery store and where you put the recipe. Then, punch a hole in the corner of the card and add it to a loose-leaf binder ring (also called a book ring).
Next, I’ll cover the next step, adding variety. Hint hint, that tip about saving the ideas that work, will come in handy.
Have a domestic question? Please send it to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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