A few weeks ago a friend asked me to explain my menu planning system, so here goes. First a little history...
My mom was blind so I started doing a lot of the family cooking when I was in high school. I think it was her that taught me to figure out what we would eat for a week, then make a list so that we weren't going to the store every other day and getting stuff we wouldn't use. I did that system when I got married and up until the birth of our 3rd blessing, Dasher. That's when I realized that the day I would sit down to figure out what we were eating was always a tough one and I had one of those days every week. So I switched to doing a menu planning/shopping day every two weeks. This worked good, but I still couldn't just visit the store only twice a month because we like fresh vegetables and milk. So I was still at the store once a week but menu planning every two weeks. Enter child #4 and that much more laundry, homeschooling and housework. At that point I had toyed with the idea of doing a massive monthly shopping/meal list but her birth definitely pushed me that way and that is when it started.
So what I do is this: First step, jot down what things we would like to eat each night. (I only plan out dinners. Breakfast is most always cereal, granola or toast, lunch is leftovers or sandwiches. Easy peasy.) I start thinking of things a few days before The Big Shopping Day. Sometimes it is a recipe I see on Tasty Kitchen, or one that a friend gave me or a child's request. Since I don't like pressure, I usually sit down the day before and figure out the menu. I write down all the days, having my calendar nearby so I can see if we have been invited to dinner, are having a church function or something else that would make dinner unique a certain night. Some days I plan for certain things; Fridays are usually pizza nights, Wednesdays with co-op are crock pot nights and Saturdays are sometimes fun food. To help me, I have made a list of family favorite meals that are in a Word document and I turn to this when my brain starts freezing up.
As you can see I also plan all the side dishes I would have that night too. I also tell where the recipe is found...CL means Cooking Light and JOC means Joy of Cooking. I list the magazine issue and page number to make it real easy on me.
After the menu is complete I start at the beginning and work my way down, looking at each recipe and ingredient list. I have two lists I am making, my Monthly Main List and my Weekly List. I make shopping lists for Costco, Winco, Trader Joes and Target on the Monthly Main List. For the first week of the menu everything goes on the Monthly Main.
Then when I get to the second week of the menu I only put things on the Monthly Main that are non perishable, and then start my Weekly List with the perishable things I need to buy. I always go shopping on Fridays, so every Friday is the start of a new 'week' on my menu and shopping list. On this list I might put what the item is for in parenthesis; bread can mean french, sandwich, baguette or rolls, so I make sure it is clear. (My Weekly List is in my purse, hence the folded paper below.)
I have a master shopping list on Word that lists everything we buy with regularity, toothpaste, baking powder, shaving cream, bird seed.....etc. I check our supplies and put on the Monthly Main List things that we are low on. I also have on the side of the fridge an ongoing list that, when someone notices that we are low on something, they write it there and then I know to stick it on the list.
So the picture-perfect way it should go is like this: I spend a day or two visiting those 4 stores, buying all non-perishables I need plus the fruits and veggies for that week. Then each Friday I pull my handy Weekly List out of my purse and buy what is on that for the week, usually at Trader Joe's and Winco. I add to that list through the week; if we need an extra gallon of milk, or if the kids ate all the Costco goldfish the first week (which happens more than I like).
As you can see above on my menu, I like to cook and I like to experiment on my family. (I am not sure how those Grilled Tomato and Brie Sandwiches will go over with the kids, but my Sweetie and I will probably love them.) This system can work even if you don't like to vary from the 10-14 dishes you might prepare for your family; just make out the top portion of your monthly menu, then repeat the recipes in the second half. And a lot of times I do all the menu planning, get to all the stores, and then the next week realize I forgot that very important can of chipotle peppers that has to go into the chili. So I do have emergency store trips, but not too often.
This was overwhelming the first few months I did this and I would spread the entire process over 3 or 4 days. But now I can usually do the menu/list planning in the morning, then hit the stores and see how far I can get. We usually get 3 stores in that afternoon, then one more the next day. But the best thing about this is that I only have to do this 12 times a year and that makes it totally worth it for me.
I would love to hear what you all do or if you have any suggestions for me. I am always looking to improve how I do it....