What’s for Dinner? How often does that question cross your mind? Imagine stepping into the kitchen at the end of the day with a plan already in place, and an answer to your question. Menu planning is the key to less stress at dinnertime, more money in your pocket, and more health in your diet. Check out the menu planning steps below to get started.
BEFORE YOU PLAN
Before you can start picking recipes and putting menus together, you need to know what you have to work with. Will you be budgeting cash for groceries? Do you receive SNAP benefits (food stamps), or WIC vouchers? Take a tally of what is available for you to use for groceries. Once you know what you have to work with, you can decide how you want to divide it up. Think about how often you want to do your shopping. Does weekly work best for you? What about bi-weekly or monthly? Whichever you chose, divide you money and/or benefits up accordingly.
WHILE YOU PLAN
Now it is time to pick recipes and plan out menus. It is usually best to plan the evening meal first. It seems to be the hardest one to conquer. With dinner out of the way, planning breakfast and lunch will be a breeze!
The first thing you want to do is survey your kitchen to see what you already have on hand. Make a list of what is in your pantry, refrigerator, and freezer. Before you purchase new ingredients, use up these items you have at home. This will help reduce food waste and keep more money in your pocket. Next, take a look at your local grocery store ads. Planning recipes and menus around what is currently on sale is another way to keep more money in your pocket.
With a list of foods you have on hand, and a list of what’s on sale, you are ready to pick your recipes! Start with family favorites first. Consider making an extra batch of one or two recipes to use as planned left overs another night of the week. Also consider expanding your horizons and try a new recipe. Once you have decided what your main dish will be, compare it to MyPlate. How does it measure up? Does it have include fruits and veggies, whole grains, lean protein, and low-fat dairy? Most recipes include some of these food groups, but not all of them. Serve whatever is missing as your side dish. Ingredients for a green salad, canned fruits and vegetables, whole-wheat dinner rolls, or a glass of milk are great items to add to your grocery list. They are quick and easy to serve as a side dish to complete MyPlate.
With dinner out of the way, it is time to think about breakfast and lunch. Think about your family’s daily schedules. Do you sit down and eat breakfast as a family? Or do you each grab something quick as you are rushing out the door? Are you together for lunch? Or does each person eat lunch on their own? Add breakfast and lunch items to your shopping list that will coordinate well with your family’s daily schedule.
Don’t forget about snacks. Snacks are a great way to supplement your nutrition. They provide an opportunity to add to your diet important items you may be missing at meals. Fresh fruits and veggies, string cheese, almonds, yogurt, and whole-wheat crackers are just a few items that make great snacks and can be added to your shopping list.
AFTER YOU PLAN
You’ve surveyed your kitchen and checked the grocery store ads. You’ve picked your recipes and made your shopping list. Now it is time to shop. To make the whole process easier the next time you plan, consider implementing these steps after you have done your shopping:
- Decide which recipe you are going to make each night. Some recipes might take more time than others. Use that one on a night that is less busy for your family. Some nights you might not have time to cook. To solve this problem, make extra food the day before to use as planned overs.
- Consider saving the menu you created. Grocery store ads tend to work in cycles, having the same items on sale every few weeks. When that happens, you can check back to the menu you used the last time these items were on sale and re-use it, saving yourself time.
- Sit back and pat yourself on the back for a job well done!
To get started with menu planning, consider trying one of these crock pot chicken recipes. With only a few ingredients, they are very simple to make. Cook a large batch and serve it several different ways throughout the week. Each recipe works well on top of a bed of rice, rolled up in a tortilla, or as a topping for a salad. You can cook an even larger batch, portion out individual serving sizes, and stick them in the freezer to use later. Enjoy!
Certified Nutrition Education Assistant