Monday, February 15, 2010

Be a Menu Master

One of the most important skills a home cook can learn is how to menu plan for the week.  Thoughtful planning will save you time and money, and it will keep you from ordering bad takeout just because you're too tired to do anything else.  It's especially important for anyone trying to follow a diet or eating plan, as it will set you up to eat the things you want to eat, and not just the snacks that are easy and quick.

As any employees at the Ralph's in Westwood can confirm, in college I had my fair share of clueless shopping trips that looked something like this: wander through the store for 45 minutes, spend $75, and get home with some Pirate's Booty, ice cream bars, yogurt, and wine.  And no ingredients for an actual meal.  Sound familiar?  Here are some tips to avoid getting sucked into the grocery store vortex:

1.  What are you doing this week?  Look at your schedule for the week, and let it dictate the kinds of meals you'll cook.  I find that I always end up having meetings and activities on Tuesday and Wednesday nights, so I use those evenings for crock pot dinners, make-ahead casseroles, and quick paninis.  Fancier or more labor-intensive meals are saved for evenings when I know I'm coming straight home from work.

2.  Do a pantry check.  Save some big cash by doing a quick inventory of food that you already have.  At one point, I had seven different boxes of pasta because I kept buying new boxes and then only using half the noodles.  Sometimes I'll make a list and realize that I have the components for a whole meal, and won't need to buy a thing.  This is also a great way to ensure that you use all of your fresh produce before it goes bad.

3.  Get inspired.  For a lot of us, cooking dinner is one more thing that has to get done before you can put on your pajamas and watch Mad Men.  But take a moment and ask yourself this:  if someone else was cooking your meal, what would you want to eat?  Try and work those dishes into your repertoire.  I get bored easily, so I'm constantly reading cookbooks, food blogs and magazines.  Another great source of inspiration is restaurant food.  Think about your favorite restaurant meal, and look for recipes that use similar ingredients, flavors, and cooking techniques.
4.  Organize your list.  Hello my name is Mary and I have a Type A personality.  I like an organized shopping list.  I split my list into columns for fruit/vegetables, meat, dairy, dry goods, and miscellaneous (things like dish soap, deodorant, and birthday cards).  That way, I don't end up doing laps around the store because I forgot to get arugula when I was in the produce section.  Another tip that I swear by: carry a small pen with your list so that you can check items off as you go.

5.  Don't shop hungry.  Ask me about my cooking philosophy, and I'll tell you that I'm all about baked goods from scratch and healthy vegetable-forward main courses.  Ask me that same question when I haven't eaten in four hours, and I'll tell you that Golden Oreos are a perfectly suitable and delicious dinner.  Eat a snack before you go to the store, and then stick to your list.  

6.  Leftovers rule.  I generally don't menu plan my lunches, because we have a household of two and most recipes serve four.  Invest in a set of tupperware, and stretch your dinner into tomorrow's lunch.  You can also make your main courses do double duty.  Tonight I roasted a chicken, and the leftovers will be great in a Greek salad later on in the week.

7.  Show me the menu.  Write your menu plan in a visible location.  I use a wall chalkboard from Pottery Barn, but a piece of paper on the fridge works just as well.  Having the menu visible keeps me on track during busy weeks, and makes it easier to stick to when I feel like ordering pizza.  It's also a convenient place to jot down items to buy on your next shopping trip.

Happy shopping!  Please share your menu planning tips in the comments!


  1. I suck at menu planning. I do have a tip for you though (and people who know me will be surprised that I actually do this)... I have a list of what spices, vinegars, etc. that I keep in the pantry and the list is taped to the inside of the pantry door. That way, if I want to make something I don't have to dig around to see if I have all of the necessary spices or whatever and I don't waste money and pantry space on three bottles of paprika.

  2. Great post. Pa-pree-ka! What are golden oreos? I wish you had a pic of the wall chalkboard when I created your weekly menu for you! I followed your lead and recently got a little dry erase easel thing for my menus. On Saturday night we had people over and I had the menu charmingly displayed on my easel. When I realized we were behind schedule halfway through dinner prep (and after guests were actually here), I crossed the dessert (baked apples) off the menu. While the guests were watching. I know my limits.


Related Posts with Thumbnails