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 to follow a menu plan and stick to it?
I know this would help a lot, I just don’t know where even to start when I’ve screwed it 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 why 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? A couch potato doesn’t turn into a marathon runner overnight. It takes time, effort, and a plan.
Eating at home every night sounds simple, but it’s really a lot of changes in habits and practices. To meet your goal, you’re going to have to break it down into something more manageable.
At my day job, when I am training my colleagues, I often ask them to find out our client’s end goal rather than what they are trying to do in that 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
So to set your first SMART goal, you could plan to eat at home for at least five nights for each of the next two weeks. Your stretch goal(s) could be to have leftovers on night six and then some kind of treat for night seven.
Do you see how this is specific? Eat five meals at home.
Measurable? Did you eat five meals or not?
Attainable? Yes, as we go over planning your first weekly menu, you are not going to plan crazy complicated meals this week. Simple is the name of the game.
Time-bound? One week.
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 that is 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 with 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.
Here is our printable menu planner to make life easier. (It’s one sheet)
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 can affect when meals are served and how much time you have time to prepare them.
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. Even regular Lunchables work and are cheaper per person than the drive-through.
Look at that, meeting both goals. How SMART.
Remember, these first two weeks are about getting used to being in the kitchen and dining room.
Try not to overthink things like nutrition. Remember that perfect is the enemy of the good, and that food is food.
Of course, if you have allergies or intolerances, you have to keep those in mind, but right now, when you are just learning how to menu plan, you will need to give yourself some grace and not try to be perfect in every way. You aren’t Mary Poppins; you don’t have support staff. You are just learning a new skill. To get into the habit of cooking at home and sticking to a menu plan, you will need to start with the basics and keep the plan as simple as possible at first.
Remember, this is just your first step.
What are some ideas for your first menu plan?
If you can read (and you are right now, so quit playing), you can handle making spaghetti with jarred sauce.
Not enough? You could 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) can be served over egg noodles or instant mashed potatoes with corn or green beans.
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.
Are these fancy meals? No, but no one needs fancy to survive.
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. Just shuffle your plan accordingly. Nothing has been lost. You did not fail.
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 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).
Check out the entire meal planning series:
Have a domestic question? Please send it to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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