Menu Planning From a Seasoned Pro (see what I did there?)

Menu Planning From a Seasoned Pro (see what I did there?)

Posted on October 9, 2019. Last updated on May 19, 2020
Alyssa a registered dietitian
Written by Alyssa

Happy Monday all. Oh wait, it’s not Monday… oh man since I started staying at home with the kids my days all blend and meld together. I hardly know what month it is let alone what day it is… Josh and I were just talking about how in an office you have funny sayings to help you get through the week like “case of the Monday’s” and “hump day” and “Friday eve” and then of course “Fri-yay” why isn’t there one for Tuesdays? Maybe there is an I just don’t know about it…? Hmm let me know. I guess “Monday’s hangover” haha.

Anyways, with staying at home full time none of these mean anything to me anymore because staying at home with the kids is obviously round the clock and year round. So any work that I do end up doing (outside of parenting) is during nap time or after bed time or maybe if they’re entertaining themselves for a few quick minutes. Anyways all this to say is that it FEELS like Monday because that’s usually when I work on my menu for the week and go grocery shopping to get what I need for the upcoming week.

So I was going through my process on not-Monday and thought I would share it with you because it’s taken me SEVERAL years to perfect. Or rather, make serious progress. When I got married at 21 I knew very little about cooking, menu planning, sticking to a budget or how to make something out of nothing (something I feel like all moms are notorious for). I was overwhelmed. I started out small. I would cook only when I felt like it and usually I would find a recipe on Pinterest I liked or email my mom for the recipe to something she makes that I like (hi mom!), then I would write out the ingredients, go to the store and buy exactly what I needed for that meal.

Now, this isn’t a bad thing but it get’s expensive to buy ALL the ingredients for one meal in one go every time you want to cook not to mention the exhaustion of going to the store several times a week. The time used to look up the recipe, write out ingredients, go to the store, buy the ingredients, come home, unload groceries, start cooking and then eat (and hopefully clean up right away) is SOOOOOO long. Likely well over 3 hours! I mean I like to cook but that is too long in the kitchen for me. I have a pretty strict rule that I don’t make anything that takes longer than 45 minutes in the kitchen – if it’s longer than that I either prep it one day and finish it the next, save it for a holiday or its just not for me! haha.

So here’s my process now since I’m so stingy with my time in the kitchen.

  1. I inventory my pantry, fridge, and freezer (usually just in my head but you can write it out if you need to – that is nice because then you can update your list in real time as you use up or buy more ingredients)
  2. I look at the weather and think what kinds of dishes I would like to make – My appetite is VERY affected by the weather so if it’s a chilly night I might choose to make a pasta, if it’s rainy I may opt for a soup, if its hot and sunny I might choose a salad or something on the grill get my drift?
  3. I remember any requests from family. Yes, even my toddler get’s to make his requests. It may not be all I make or I may not make it that night but it gets my consideration, so if he asks for edamame I may make it as a side one night. Or if he asks for mac and cheese the whole family will enjoy it with sides I choose. This also helps the dilemma of when I’m serving dinner and my todder says “NO!! I WANT MAC AND CHEESE” I can calmly tell him “Oh! What a great idea, I will put it on the menu for next week!” this will usually appease him. But remember you have to follow through on that promise at some point otherwise they won’t trust you when you say it next time 😉  
  4. Once I know what kinds of dishes I want to make I look at the ingredients on hand and review my LONG list of favorite recipes that are tried and true and see if I have more than 50% of the ingredients needed to make any of those dishes. This makes for a smaller grocery bill and more space in my budget for stocking up on items or for fun snack foods
  5. I leave 1-2 nights open for leftovers and Saturdays are always for eating out (my husband and I go on date nights either alone or with friends every other Saturday, then the other Saturdays in the month are family dates)
  6. I look at our schedule and decide (while also keeping in mind the weather) which meal should go on which night based on the amount of time we will have to prepare and eat – ex. if we have soccer practice one night we might do something quick and painless and easy to eat in the car if our toddler takes his time (which happens often haha). If we have friends coming over I might cook something that makes more portions and is less hands on time while being easy to clean up so I have more time to socialize. If we have no plans I might try out a new recipe since I’ll have more time to learn. If Josh is coming home from work late I might try to make something that only requires one hand to make, flip or pull out of the oven! haha
  7. I have a standing note in my iPhone with the days of the week written out and I just enter which meal I’m making which day and make changes throughout the week as needed
  8. I make my grocery list based on what ingredients I am missing and then shop 🙂 While I shop I keep an eye out for sales. If I planned broccoli as a side one night but asparagus is cheaper I make the switch right then and there no problem
  9. I * try* to look at it every night before I go to bed to see if there is something I need to take out of the freezer to thaw
  10. Bonus tip: I only ever schedule for one MAYBE two new recipes to try out a week (and some weeks I don’t do anything new). New recipes are fun but with kids running around who go to dangerous places if not fed on time it’s not as fun as it used to be so having more than one new recipe to try out a week gets a little stressful
  11. Bonus bonus tip: if you’re really struggling to figure out what to serve each day without getting bored or repetitive make a rule like Monday is Italian night, Tuesdays are for Mexican food, Wednesdays are leftovers, Thursdays are for soups and salads, Fridays are for Asian dishes, Saturday we eat out and Sundays are for good old American fare. This helps narrow down your options without being too strict. Some people also keep to a menu rotation which is what we did in the hospital with menus. You build out a menu for the week and then three more weeks without repeating a dish then you cycle through the menus over and over. It cuts down on the work, makes it VERY predictable and easy to shop for. Plus it may sound repetitive but if it’s been one full month since you had enchiladas you’ll be ready for them again 😉 You can always mix it up and do different variations of the same foods (ie. green sauce enchiladas vs red sauce, or chicken tacos vs beef tacos etc etc) that will keep it interesting for a loooong time
  12. Tripple bonus tip: I made it a habit to go grocery shopping at only one store, once a week. This saves me a TON of $$ since that’s where I usually blow our budget but it also makes me accountable to menu plan and use what I have on hand. If we run out of something I substitute, borrow from my mom or neighbor, or go without. Say you run out of fresh onion, use the chopped onion spice. Say you run out of milk, lucky kids get juice for the rest of the week. Say you run out of an eggs, flax seeds work magically as a sub in baking. Your subs are just a google search away!

Alright that’s pretty much it for my process. It seems like a lot but it’s helpful to keep this checklist in mind. It makes making dinner wayyyyy less stressful because I’ve already factored in weather, how much time I have to cook, other people’s requests so I know they’ll enjoy it, budget, and what I might have a taste for. I hope this was helpful for you!

Let me know if you would like a peek at my list of dinners that are tried and true! Do you have a list like this? Somewhere written out? I find I forget some if I keep them in my head or they get lost on Pinterest over time. I have a document on my computer that I update regularly. I even put super simple meals on there like quesadillas or frozen pasta so I don’t forget those are always an option if I’m in a pinch.

Thanks for reading – if you want to see more menu planning tips and tricks find me on instagram where I share recipes, menu planning, meal prepping and mom life content. See you there!

Alyssa Miller picky eating dietitian
Hi there! My name is Alyssa

I'm a registered dietitian and picky eating specialist with nearly a decade of experience, mom of three, and the founder of Nutrition for Littles. I'm dedicated to making mealtimes enjoyable and nutritious for families.

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