Food & Drink Magazine

Need a Week of Great Meals?

By Thecookspyjamas @thecookspyjamas

Menu Planning: 5 Simple Tricks for a Week of Great Meals

You will be familiar with this scenario. It’s 6pm, everybody is starving, and you have no idea what to cook for dinner. You start pulling cookbooks off the shelf or frantically Googling, trying to find something that can be on the table in 30 minutes. You settle on your recipe, start to pull out ingredients, then discover either you’re missing something crucial or you re-read the final paragraph that says “Place in the oven for three hours”. This is the point at which you give up and eat toast (if you have bread) or get take-away.

This was once me. If we ate before 8.30pm it was a good night. The other thing I should probably tell you is that I love cookbooks, so despite having shelves of cooking inspiration I still couldn’t get it together. After yet another rushed and deeply unsatisfying meal, I decided it was pointless having all those books if I never actually cooked from them.  I started to select a few recipes a week I wanted to try and the change this made to my life was amazing.  Suddenly I knew which ingredients I needed for each meal, how much time things needed to cook and I could prep some meals in advance.  I no longer spent my days obsessing about the evening meal, and it wasn’t long before I was planning dinner for the entire week.  I haven’t stopped since.

Most people when they find out I menu plan invariably respond with “Oh you are so good. I just don’t have time to do that.” This response always puzzles me because people appear to have hours to spend wondering what to make for dinner or browsing the grocery aisles for inspiration, but don’t appear to have time to jot a few potential meals on a piece of paper. Menu plans don’t need to be detailed and complex to be effective.

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I plan my weekly menus on Thursday night, which enables me to take advantage of the Friday vegetable markets and the weekend farmers markets. By planning before I shop, I know exactly what produce to look  for. I only consider dinners in my planning as we are all in different locations for lunch and all have different breakfast ideas.  I also don’t normally plan for Friday and Saturday evenings as we either eat something easy, catch up with friends or go out.   When planning for the week, I always try to consider these points:

  • Variety & Nutrition:   To ensure we don’t just eat pasta and chicken for every meal, I attempt to slot at least one vegetarian meal, one pasta dish, and one fish dish into my weekly menus.  The rest of the menu is peppered with other meats or dishes that I want to try.  I aim to build in different legumes, grains and vegetables through my plan to ensure we are eating a wide range of nutritious foods.
  • Seasonal Produce:  We grow a some of our own vegetables, so if something is flourishing in the garden it will find its way into the weekly menu.  The cry of “not zucchini again” was common over summer.  I also purchase seasonal vegetables as this helps reduce grocery costs.  Vegetables in season are always cheaper than imported produce.
  • Our Weekly Schedule:  Some days are busier than others, which will dictate what I can realistically cook.  The slow cooker will be pressed into action on days we will be late home, soups and curries can be quickly reheated, and large main meal salads that can be prepared in advance are good for summer days.
  • Weather:  I know this sounds nerdy (and it is) but I always look at the weather for the coming week, more so in summer.  I don’t want to plan a meal that will see me slaving over a hot stove on a 40C day when a BBQ would have been a better option.  I am less concerned about the weather in winter, but still keep an eye on it so I can plan something hearty on extremely cold days.
  • Make 1, Freeze 1:  A spare meal in the freezer is kitchen gold.  There will always days when there is no time to cook, when illness strikes or when you want to go out but still need to feed the family.  I always look for an opportunity to make extra so I can freeze for another time.  Double the soup recipe, fill up the slow cooker or make extra schnitzel.

To plan my menu, I go through my cookbooks, my Pinterest boards and any food magazines I have picked up and find recipes that fit these criteria.  I work out the ingredients I already have in the pantry and what I need to buy.  The task is made easier these days using my Eat Your Books library.  It doesn’t take me long to do and frees me from the angst of having to get something on the table at a set time.

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The biggest incentive for me to menu plan, however, is the simple fact that I save money.  I now only buy ingredients that I need and my grocery bills have dropped dramatically.  As I make many of my own staples, or buy from local farmers markets, I usually only visit the bigger supermarkets when I have run out of toothpaste.  The weekly shop where I would always spend far too much is a thing of the past.

Irrespective of how well you plan, there will be days when things go pear shaped or you don’t feel like the dish you excitedly selected the week before.  It is important to have a couple of store-cupboard recipes up your sleeve for such moments.  These should be recipes that you can make in your sleep from ingredients that you always have on hand.  My two standby store cupboard recipes are Lemon Tuna Pasta and Slow Cooked Tomato Sauce over pasta, and are routinely pulled out when emergencies strike (or when I’m feeling lazy … mostly when I’m feeling lazy).

So if you haven’t already tried it, why not give menu planning a go.  Even if you only plan one or two meals a week to start with, I guarantee you will be hooked before too long.  If you are interested, I can post my weekly menu plans to give you some ideas of what we eat each week.  Let me know in the comments below if this is something you think would be helpful.

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