Menu Planning, or, How to Use Up Everything in the Fridge Before it Goes Bad

So, how do I decide what to make for dinner? More importantly, how do I avoid buying some obscure ingredient for one recipe, using a very small portion of said ingredient, and then discarding the molding remnants from the fridge two weeks later?

I use a menu planner. Right now it’s just a piece of paper I pull out of our recycling bin, but you might use something snazzier like a mini chalkboard or bulletin board (check out this cool idea, too!), white erase board, iPad…the possibilities are nearly endless. But whatever it looks like, the purpose of a menu planner is tri-fold: to know what you’re going to make for dinner (or breakfast or lunch) each day, to help take inventory of the foods and ingredients you already have, and to empower you to use the foods and ingredients you purchase while they’re still fresh.

When I plan, I start at the end of the week. That’s because Friday is always pizza night. If you come over on Friday for dinner, we’ll be having pizza. I always have a batch of olive oil dough sitting in the fridge, so when I’m ready, all I have to do is roll out the dough, top with some store-bought tomato sauce, some cheese, plus any other toppings of chopped veggies or meats that may be leftover from other meals. I also start at the end of the week because our big farmer’s market happens on Saturday mornings. And when you’re trying to eat seasonally and locally, the farmer’s market is the place to be.

What I mean is, farmers bring you what they’ve got when they’ve got it. Don’t expect large heirloom tomatoes and sweet, ripe peaches in April, and don’t expect fantastic asparagus and rhubarb in September. So, part of going to the farmer’s market is an adventure. Sure, I usually go with a list of items I’m looking for in hand, but more often than not I come home with something different. Sometimes a beautiful selection of cheese will catch my attention. Other times the peach sample I had at another farmer’s tent is the sweetest I’ve ever tasted and I’ll come home with a half-bushel.

So after I come home with my loot on Saturday, I’ll sit down, take inventory, flip through my cookbooks and ask Alex for his request for the week (review procedure here) and draw up a menu for the week that looks something like this:

And my thought process for this particular menu went a little something like this: Friday, pizza, done. Saturday is date night, Alex’s choice this week and he’ll probably want to go out somewhere, so I’ll skip that for now…Alex! Isn’t this eggplant beautiful?!? (Alex, from afar: I don’t think I like eggplant.) That’s okay. Hmm…I’ve also got some squash and peppers. Oh wait, isn’t this classic ratatouille ingredients? That sounds like a good meal for Tuesday night since I’ll have more time to make it that evening. Maybe I’ll dig into Julia Child’s recipe. I know I have some canned tomatoes in the pantry. And we’ll want something to go with it so I’ll make a loaf of bread–a focaccia maybe–so Tuesday’s done. Sunday I usually make some sort of roast so I’ll thaw two of those chicken breasts sitting in the freezer and stuff the lemon and basil leftover from that dish last week inside the chicken skin. And while I’m roasting I’ll add some roasted potatoes too, and I’ll make a small salad with that goat cheese Alex loves. And if we don’t eat all the chicken we can use leftovers for sandwiches this week…Monday we’ll get home late because of our class at the gym, but maybe I’ll make Alex’s request for the week (turkey lettuce wraps) since it will be pretty light and relatively simple to make. So far so good. That leaves Wednesday and Thursday. I’ve got four eggs left from earlier this week… Wednesday I know I’ll be tired from the gym again… oh yeah, there was a breakfast pita suggestion in Whole Foods‘s coupon book this week! I’ll make a batch of light wheat bread dough Wednesday morning and make the pitas when we get home since they’re quick, and I’ll stuff them with scrambled eggs…oh crap I forgot I had all this spinach! Well, I guess we’ll also stuff the pitas with some sauteed spinach…fry up some bacon…and while we’re having breakfast, might as well go all out with some hash browns. Eh and what the heck how about another side salad with that tomato from the market that was hiding so well on my windowsill. Okay, that leaves Thursday. Well, I’m pretty much out. Except for that spinach…namuhl will be an easy solution. And to go with that…eh, I’ll decide that later in the week.

So this thought process demonstrated to me that I could probably get away with not going to the store until Thursday, in which case I would need to pick up something to eat for Thursday’s meal, at the least. And, as you probably saw from my previous post, Thursday’s meal involved going to my local fish market and picking up some large shrimp. So this week, after the market, I only went to the store once, for the shrimp. (Okay, okay, I also went again to get milk because I didn’t realize we were out, and Alex is a soggy-cereal man). But, I used everything I had: the fresh ingredients and the stuff I had on hand in my pantry. Yay!

When I first started making menu plans, I followed more of a grid/chart pattern with breakfast, lunch, and dinner as the rows and the day of the week as the columns. This helped me with my grocery list: I was able to determine what ingredients I’d need to buy for a particular recipe, and then I could see on the paper that I’d be stuck with extra of that ingredient and would need another recipe that included it later in the week. I could also see what I’d need to get for breakfast foods, and whether I could get by that week without getting sandwich stuff for lunches by eating dinner leftovers instead. Once I figured out how often I actually need to go to the store, and what things I like to keep in the pantry, I’ve been able to think about just the dinners, thus streamlining my menu paper. But if you’ve never tried this before, consider planning every meal, especially if it’s just you and one other person. For larger families it probably gets more complicated because some people might snack in between meals or before practices or whatever. Still, posting a menu might help keep inquiring minds informed.

Another perk about menu planning that I haven’t yet mentioned is the way it saves you money. Seriously! How many times do you go to the grocery store (especially when you’re hungry), and you know what you need to get but oh, look at this crazy looking cheese! ooOOoo samples…yum! Let’s get some! or man, I haven’t eaten Lucky Charms since I was a kid, oh look it’s on sale! or any other impulsive, subconscious train of thought that we board while grocery shopping? When you’ve got your meals planned out for the week, it’s difficult to justify buying “extra” stuff, especially when you know that you haven’t got the space for it, at least not this week. And if you think about it, this strategy also has the potential to prevent you from snacking on empty calories, thereby helping you watch your weight (if that’s something you’re concerned about).

Now, don’t get me wrong. The menu can certainly change. Purchasing occasional “treats” is allowed (I’m a sucker for soft caramel candies with sea salt which I can buy by the piece at the checkout counter of one of my favorite small grocery stores). And social engagements come up which might mean going out to eat or bringing a side dish to a family reunion picnic. But I still find that having a space to plan my food for the week keeps my budget under control and prevents me from spending precious time wondering what I should cook for dinner and then having to wait hours for something to thaw or discovering that I’m missing a key ingredient.

And you can do it too! Here’s my advice for starting your own menu planner:

1. Designate a space. Find a place in your kitchen where you can post the menu. Or maybe it’s not in your kitchen. Maybe it’s by your front door so everyone can see it when they come in. Maybe you want it to be part of your living room decor. Wherever it is, be consistent about updating it. Which brings me to…
2. Designate a time to sit down and spend time thinking about food, flipping through your cookbooks, asking your friends or family for suggestions, and writing down what you want to eat. As you do, your grocery list will basically write itself. I like to do this on the weekends after I’ve returned from the market so I’ve got extra time to re-read recipes if I want to or catch up on my recorded cooking shows for inspiring new ideas.
3. Challenge yourself by visiting a farmer’s market or choosing foods that are in season. If only eggplant is available, then by golly try a new recipe that uses eggplant. (Luckily, I can’t think of a time when that would ever be the case). Or, if you have a day of the week that you always make a certain dish, say, spaghetti, mix it up a little by adding an ingredient or two that you picked up (with spaghetti you could chop up a lovely handful of basil to add to the sauce, or fashion some meatballs, or make the sauce yourself with fresh tomatoes, or add a splash of cream to the tomato sauce). Be brave.
4. Stick to the routine. If you’ve never done this before, it can seem overwhelming at first. But my best advice is to just keep trying. Remember that social engagements might come up, but otherwise if you plan to eat something, then eat it! Otherwise you might contract stinky-fridge syndrome or I’ll-make-it-later-itis.

So, that’s pretty much how I decide what to eat each week. What about you? Are you more of a planner or an improviser? Is your menu posted publicly or does it simmer away inside your head? Are you cooking your way through a cookbook or are you eating out every night? Whatever your meal-planning savvy might be, I’d love to hear how you manage it chez vous. Post a comment and let us know!

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One thought on “Menu Planning, or, How to Use Up Everything in the Fridge Before it Goes Bad

  1. […] know, I know, I should listen to my own advice and plan out the entire week’s menu so I won’t get caught in these types of situations. But a mini kitchen remodel tends to throw […]

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