I have tried various methods of creating a menu. I have planned out a menu for an entire month. Created menus before each weekly shopping trip. Even lived without a menu plan. What works great for us is following a weekly pattern. It allows me flexibility to purchase foods on sale, and keeps my grocery list consistent. We purchase the same foods regularly. I just cook them differently on a weekly basis.
Through my figuring out a method of meal planning, various items have become non-existent to meniscal parts of our menu. I am not saying we never have a meal from the freezer, eat leftovers, or go to a restaurant. But on my regular menu plan, those types of meals do not hold a regular place.
My decision for not using prepared meals, leftover meals, or restaurant dinners is based on cost, quality, and nutrition. Made from scratch meals are the most efficient, healthy, and best quality meals when compared to other meal options.
This is my reasoning for not cooking or purchasing manufactured food, and why I don’t often prepare meals ahead to freeze.
Make Ahead Freezer Meals: Many people find prepping and freezing meals to be a favorite. I have done that in the past. I did not find it saved time. It certainly did not save money, because I was not purchasing my food according to the sales, but according to my grocery list for each recipe. And well…I have found a fresh meal is better quality than anything frozen. The less fresh food is, the more nutrition and flavor is lost. I am not willing to make that sacrifice a regular part of our menu. Note that I do on occasion freeze food, but it is not a part of my regular menu.
Prepared Foods: I don’t use or purchase freezer meals from the store, or prepared foods. I don’t buy canned soups, hamburger helper, chicken nuggets, and such. The only two items I buy from the freezer section are fish sticks and Tyson’s chicken fingers. My husband likes the chicken fingers for a snacky dinner. And my girls love fish sticks. I try to buy the ones with ingredients that I know. Trader Joe’s has really good fish sticks. But overall, frozen foods are simply expensive, unhealthy, and secondary in taste and quality to food made from fresh scratch ingredients at home.
Take-out/restaurant food: It is the most expensive way to eat. Eating out can also be unpleasant with children. It is hard to truly enjoy a meal while ordering and helping children with their food. And they never eat as much food as we purchase. The quality, cleanliness, and nutrition of restaurant food is also questionable unless you want to go to a pricier restaurant. If a homemaker allows herself time to become comfortable in her kitchen, she will find that she cooks far better than a restaurant chef. Therefore, I like to reserve eating out for an evening out with my Beloved. Aside from a rare treat, it is not generally a family affair.
Leftovers: Really? I am not at all wasteful, but we don’t eat leftovers much. I figured out how to utilize my food, so that there are either no leftovers after dinner, or I can re-purpose my main dishes into a new dish for the next evening.
My meal pattern is very simple, and allows a lot of variety into our life for meals, while keeping to a structure that allows me flexibility to purchase the meat and produce that is on sale, as well as utilize my leftover foods easily.
Okay…so what do I do?
My Meal Pattern
Monday Meat Day Meat/starch/veggies-this is my big dinner of the week. It is nice to get the first working day off to a strong start. Generally, I cook a whole chicken, but on a rare occasion, I will splurge for a beef or pork roast and we will eat that. Potatoes or a form of grain like rice or couscous accompany the meat. And I like to have two sides of vegetables, a salad and a cooked vegetable.
Tuesday: Monday’s Dinner Reincarnate This is my day to re-purpose the leftovers from Monday. Cooked chicken becomes chicken casserole, chicken soup, chicken fettuccine, or chicken salad. Roast beef becomes stroganoff or stew. A pork roast can be turned into pulled pork sandwiches with barbeque sauce. All I do is use the cooked meat in a recipe that already uses cooked meat. Often the vegetables can be added to the soup or casserole as well. If not, we have them for lunch.
Wednesday: Ethnic Appreciation Day We usually end up eating Italian, spaghetti, in particular because it is cheap and easy. But we also enjoy sweet and sour chicken, Asian chicken salad, German sausage, apples, and potatoes, spaetzle, or something new. If there are leftovers, there are usually just enough for lunch the next day.
Thursday: Salmon or Breakfast for Dinner? Salmon and salad is my typical Thursday dinner. If I am out of salmon, we have breakfast for dinner. Pancakes, omelets, quiche, French toast, or waffles can be a great comfort meal for dinner…add some bacon and who needs anything else? I try to plan to buy enough salmon to have once a week so we get fish into our diet weekly. But since it is a pricer food, there are times I cannot afford it. So, I don’t give myself guilt. I do the best we can.
Friday: Let’s Do Mexican! Generally we end up having tacos or taco salad, but sometimes I will make enchiladas or another variety of Mexican. In the colder months, a pot of chili with a side of cornbread…. yummy. We often have guests on Friday evenings, so this is a great meal when having company because it is easy and quick, cheap, and easy to prepare. Food I don’t have to cook right before serving allows more relaxed visiting before dinner. Mexican food is a favorite for most people. And having a meal like tacos allows options for those with food dislikes and allergies. For my friends who can’t have gluten, I can use corn tortillas or corn chips, for vegetarians, beans and cheese instead of meat…it is an easy meal to flex. And I often add a side of a fruit that is in season.
Saturday: American Casual Hot dogs (I know some people are grossed out by them, but they are essentially a kind of sausage, and there are plenty of healthy options available), hamburgers, ham, meatloaf, frozen fish sticks (on occasion), or a pot of home-made mac’n cheese. Often the children get peanut-butter-play dough. This day is our flex day. I don’t always plan a meal. But I have options to offer. Usually, the children eat early and bathe for bed. Jim and I eat together later. My go-to is a bowl of pasta or a salad, and his favorite is cheese quesadillas with taco sauce. So I just keep those ingredients on hand.
Simple on Sunday I firmly believe Sunday is a sacred day of rest from our regular work. So I do not do support the traditional “Big Sunday Dinner” in our home. Mama’s need a day of rest and renewal too. For lunch, we often have sandwiches or something I put in the crock the night before like chili. I might use a meal from my freezer on a Sunday. Basically something that takes no time or thought to prepare. And it is important that my clean up after meals is simple too. I don’t want a lot of work in the kitchen. In the evening we don’t have a meal. We just eat snacks like popcorn, cheese, yogurt, crackers, cut fruit and veggies, and ice cream or cookies for our evening meal.
I love this method of meal planning. I have used it for over ten years very effectively. It is methodical, and yet I feel it has enough room for variety. I always have a plan of what to have each day, as well as a general idea of what staples to keep on hand. So there is never a last-minute panic, which is the cause of many expensive or unhealthy dinners. My grocery list looks about the same from week to week, but I am able to flex with what is on sale. For instance, if chicken legs are on sale for .89 a lb, I will purchase a few packs. Generally, a whole chicken is .89-.90 a pound, so I usually buy a few of those a month. I roast, grill, bake, or stew chicken. I know we will have a vegetable and a salad with most meals, so I always buy a lot of lettuce and spinach or baby kale for salads. I also purchase fruits and vegetables on sale in their season.
Here is a downloadable sample of what a week of meals might look like in our home. It is a meal pattern that can be tweeked to meet the likes and nutritional needs of any family. Sample Menu Plan