Monday, November 7, 2011

How to make a massive menu plan

I find menu planning to be extremely helpful when it comes to running my household. However, for the past couple months my menu planning has been off. I got out of the habit when we were in the moving process and hadn't gotten fully back into it. I was still planning for most weeknights, but I hadn't been including the weekends, so we were often running out to pick something up. I also needed to reevaluate the best time to do my grocery shopping. I had been doing it on Monday mornings, but that wasn't working because we started swimming lessons at that time. I'd also realized that the produce I was getting was still picked over from the weekend and wasn't really great by Friday. I needed a change.

So when I saw the 6 week long Plan It - Don't Panic menu planning series at Keeper of the Home I was inspired. What if I made six weeks of menus to cycle through?

That wasn't their specific challenge, but I decided it needed to be mine. I read some great posts on the topic of larger menu planning, and two in particular inspired me to plan for more than a week at a time.
Menu Planning Resources: Two Week Rotation (from Simple Mom)
Simplifying Grocery Shopping and the Benefits of Monthly Menu Planning (from Passionate Homemaking)

So I pulled out my cookbooks and started a spreadsheet. It was time to take my menu planning to the next level. (You can read through my drawn-out process here, or just skip to the simple solution below.)

Three Steps to Creating a Massive Menu Plan

1. Know what works for you and your family.
I know some people are great about using the internet for all their recipes and even for their planning. I am not one of those people. I make such a mess when I cook that my computer cannot be anywhere near me, and I don't want to keep running back and forth to the desk to see how many teaspoons of which spice go in this? But if that works for you, more power to you! There are lots of posts out there on how to make the most of that.

When I was evaluating our family's eating habits, I noted the following things:
  • Our end of the (shopping) week meals will probably need to have frozen or canned produce instead of fresh. So for example if I decide to do the grocery shopping on Wednesday, Monday and Tuesday night's veggies are probably not going to be fresh.
  • I get bored having the same meat a couple nights in a row, so I want to make sure and mix up the meats so we don't end up with chicken three nights in a row.
  • We do vegetarian Fridays. So not only do I need to plan a bean-based meal for Friday night, but I also have to make sure we have no or very few main dish leftovers from Thursday night's meal.
  • I don't worry about planning breakfasts or lunches. I tend to either make a ton of waffles on the weekend or muffins during the week and that gets us through for breakfasts, along with fruit. Lunch is almost always leftovers; sometimes on the weekend it'll be salad and macaroni and cheese or grilled cheese. No need to plan that.

An un-staged glimpse into our pantry. You're supposed to be looking at my cookbooks, but I got a kick out of looking at the shelf above. Do you like how the chocolate hard shell is blocking out all the organic veggies? I've got a long ways to go.

2. Go through your cookbooks and pull out your favorite recipes, along with any new recipes you'd like to try.
This part took me the longest - I have a lot of cookbooks and enjoy slowly paging through them. I compiled the recipes in a spreadsheet that noted the main ingredient, whether it went in the slow cooker, and most importantly the cookbook and page number.

3. Start putting weekly menus together. 
Now is the time to decide if you'd like to do a weekly rotation like the ladies I linked to above suggested. This would make it pretty simple. At first that's what I was going to do.

But then when I started to put the menus together, I found that to feel more restricting than freeing. So I scrapped that and just started pulling out our favorite meals and tossing them onto different days and weeks.

It was fairly easy to fill in the first three weeks, but I found it tougher to fill in as I went on. I thought about going back and spacing out our favorites by inserting several new meals to try. For now, though, I just condensed the menu from six weeks to five. If I feel like mixing it up and trying something new, I can easily replace one of our stand-bys. But seeing as the holidays are coming up, I think it's in my best interest to stick with foods we love (and I already know how to make) for the next ten weeks. Come January, perhaps I'll spice things up with those new recipes on the spreadsheet.

The Easy Way
Now is where I have to confess that I got sidetracked and a bit overwhelmed at step two above. For (wince) six weeks in a row. Perhaps going through all my cookbooks was overdoing it just a bit. More importantly, after all that I later realized there was an easier way to make several weeks of menu plans. Just do your menu planning one week at a time, as usual, and (this is the important part) keep those scraps of paper that you wrote the menus and grocery lists on. After six weeks, compile what you already have, and voila! Your massive menu the easy way, complete with shopping lists!

Here's my finished product. (Sorry it's tough to see - click to enlarge.) You may notice that I did leave Saturdays blank. That's in case we want to go out to eat or visit family or something. If we are home every night that week, I'll just pull something out of the freezer. (Or give in and get grocery store fried chicken. So unhealthy. So tasty.)

Have you ever tried planning more than a week of menus at a time?

For more menu planning goodness, go check out six weeks of menus at the Plan It - Don't Panic series.


  1. I have wanted to try this, but I shop from the grocery ads. I do buy meat when it's on sale and freeze it, so there is always a selection of pork, chicken and beef in the freezer, as well as some sausages and bacon. etc. But veggies often change from week to week-like if the mushrooms are on sale, we might eat a mushroom based dish twice in a week, and the next week, eat no mushrooms. Same with broccoli. Also, some dishes take more time than others and given that our meal must be on the table by 2pm-no exceptions- what I cook on a given day is greatly influenced by what activities I engage in. Like today, when I went to the midwives and then raked leaves, all we had was potato-broccoli soup, salad and biscuits.
    Still, I'm interested to see how this works. Please do update and tell us if you are sticking to it and how it's working for you!

  2. I need to get SO much better at menu planning... right now, there is pretty much none!

    Thank goodness for family & friends who have brought meals to us to get us through these first couple weeks of life with another newborn... hopefully I can get into some sort of routine before I go back to work in January!

  3. I've always been good with my shopping list, but I've been wanting to get on the meal planning bandwagon for awhile - looks like I've got some work to do! Thanks for the info!

  4. At the moment I plan two weeks at a time. Normally my plan started on a Friday and then went two weeks ending on a Wednesday. I am working on having a menu done at least 2 or 3 weeks in advance, so I can take advantage of sales and coupons when shopping, but I am not there yet.

    This cycles was weird because I am in the process of transitioning everything(schedules, planners, menus, shopping schedules, etc.) so that come the new year everything starts on Monday. So this cycles goes till the end of thanksgiving weekend (although I didn't plan the wednesday-sunday part of thanksgiving week because we are going out of town so it needs a different plan). So after thanksgiving it will start on Monday.

    Unlike you, I don't worry about my cookbooks. I have a ton and a ton of printed out recipes I have collected from magazines and blogs and such, but at the moment they are a mess and I need to sit down and organize them before I use them. For now I mostly use stuff I have collected on pinterest (and there's a lot!).

    We have usually 4 or 5 snacks we rotate every day, 4 or 5 pre made breakfasts we rotate every day and then I just plan dinners/lunches. Whatever we have for dinner... we have for lunch the next day too. (I actually found its easier making 8 servings than 4). About half my dinners are homemade and half are premade. This is purely for time reasons. My household is crazy (four adults all on different schedules, 3 who work full time and myself who works part time and has school part time) so there is little time for cooking right now. Planning with all that in mind can sometimes be a challenge, a challenge which I didn't realize till I blogged about my process! LOL (

    I will say that menu planning is a big time saver and money saver and I love hearing how people do their planning, to get ideas of how to make mine better.

    I have bookmarked this post so that I can use or adapt if need be your idea about what you did with your cookbooks... I see a project in my future... I like the idea of marking the main ingredient, special features (crock pot) and cookbook/page number in an excel document that I can then have when it comes time to menu plan... maybe I will actually use my tons of cookbooks that are filled with yummy recipes! Thanks for the idea!

  5. I love menu planning! It saves so much money. We are able to eat good wholesome food for a lot less because I menu plan. I have no idea how our budget would function if we didn't menu plan.

    How many weeks I do at a time varies. In the summer during the Farmer's market, I planned every week because the produce would rotate so much, now that it's fall/winter I can plan for longer stretches. It also depends on if I know we'll be traveling or not. Once you get to know the availability of foods and how the sales run in your area (watch the circulars--they are awesome!) then it is easier to plan.

    One thing I also recommend to help plan meals and save money is to plan meals in a week (or stretch) that use a lot of the same ingredients. For example: carrots, parsley, celery, cilantro, potatoes, spinach. These ingredients are cheaper when you buy them in bags together (vs. individually). If you are only using them for one recipe they might go bad before you use it all and then it would be a waste of money. Also I've gotten in the habit of roasting a chicken about once a week and using the left overs to make two more meals and the bones to make chicken stock (and a few soups). So we end up getting at least 3 sometimes 4 meals out of one chicken.

    I can't wait to hear more about your meal planning adventures! It's one of the things I love doing, but then again, I also love finding ways to be creative with food!

  6. Thanks for sharing! I do menu planning on a weekly basis as we try to get to a farmer's market/grocery once a week. Also, if I tried to do one longer in advance than that, I'd probably not stick to it. I get so bored with menus, and often will decide on a whim to make something other than what I'd planned because "I feel like it".

    But I'd love to get better at making my menu plan at the same time each week, which for us means Friday night, because the farmer's market we go to is on Saturday. Then it's easy enough to change the menu plans around if they have something we didn't plan for, or don't have something we wanted.

    I'm hoping to consolidate and update my recipe book soon. Thanks for the motivation!


Comments make my day! Thanks for joining the conversation!