When the clock approaches 5:00 p.m., do you start worrying about what to have for dinner? Are you tired of using fast food as the answer? If so, try this old-school trick that's back in fashion — menu planning.
Menu planning is a great way to make sure you're eating a balanced diet and meeting your nutritional needs. And, as every frugal cook knows, menu planning can save you time and money.
You can have a big impact on your health — and your budget — just by eating at home more often. With menu planning you know what your meals will look like and what you need to buy. That makes grocery shopping more efficient and cuts down on unplanned trips to buy one or two items. And with a grocery list in hand — a byproduct of good menu planning — it's easier to resist impulse purchases.
Menu planning doesn't have to be complicated. To get started, jot down some of your favorite meals. Cooking for a family? Ask them to suggest menu ideas, too.
For more inspiration, flip through cookbooks or check out recipe websites. You can even find sample menus and menu-planning apps online.
Plan a week of meals at a time. Be sure to include side dishes as well as entrees and some healthy desserts, too. When you have your menu plan filled in, create a shopping list of the ingredients you'll need.
Some things to consider as you contemplate menu options:
- Calendar check. Determine what nights you'll have time to cook and what nights you'll only have time to reheat leftovers.
- Look for sales. What's on sale this week at the supermarket?
- Shop your pantry. That can of beans at the back of the cabinet could be the starting point for any number of healthy meals.
- Think seasonal. What fresh produce is available this time of year? Is it salad season or soup weather?
- Mix things up. Keep the menu interesting by planning some meatless meals or substituting a breakfast for a dinner. Alternate new recipes and old favorites.
- Picture the plate. As you plan each meal, keep in mind that vegetables and fruits should cover half your plate, lean protein should cover a quarter, and the rest of your plate should be grains, preferably whole grains.
Like any new habit, menu planning gets easier with practice. Over time, you'll figure out ways to make the process work for you. In the meantime, here are some tips and tricks from seasoned menu planners:
- Try a theme or two. Don't start from scratch every week. For example, designate Mondays as pasta nights and Thursdays as chicken nights. Plan to try new recipes on these nights to mix things up a bit.
- Plan for and polish off leftovers. Have extra pasta on Monday? That can be reheated for lunch on Tuesday. Leftover chicken on Thursday? Use it to top a salad, fill a sandwich or add to a soup on the weekend.
- Recycle your menus. Don't throw away your menu plan at the end of the week. Instead, hold on to it and reuse it later.
- Be flexible. Your menu isn't written in stone. Feel free to swap things around. Or designate one night as "cook's choice" and use that night to clear out the refrigerator by making omelets, a casserole, stir-fry or chef salad.
Take a moment to feel good knowing that menu planning is making it easier for you to eat a healthy diet. And give yourself an extra pat on the back for saving money while you're at it.