Saturday, September 11, 2010

balance, pt. 2: menu planning

I plan a series of posts about my attempts (on-going and not 100% successful) to create life balance. For me, the key to balance is organization. Truth is, I am an extreme and pathological organizer (which is not the same thing as being an organized person. I over-organize and then hope to actually follow at least 75% of my plans and schedules). I'm sure someone with annoying tendencies toward pop psychology (like me!) would consider this an indication of control problems. Personally, I find hyperorganizing helps me to identify my priorities and make sure they aren't lost amid quotidian minutia (or random crap, if you prefer).

One of our family's top priorities is to cook healthy, fresh meals on a daily basis. Hence menu planning. At the end of a long day, with two kids needing attention, and an evening of work ahead of us, it is too easy to say "Hell, let's just nuke a frozen pizza." Menu planning helps us avoid that in two ways: 1) cooking dinner doesn't seem such a daunting task when we have all the ingredients, and some part of the meal may even be pre-prepped; and 2) it short-circuits those conversations that start with "Honey, what should we make for dinner?" "I dunno", and all too often devolve into "Hell, let's just nuke a frozen pizza."

There are a lot of Mommy Blogs out there with information about menu planning. (Try this one, for example. She runs a Menu Planning Monday on her blog). I've been playing with menu planning for about a year and a half, and I've tweaked a lot to find a system that works for our family. Our current system is working fairly well, so far.

Our menu planning system is a bit different from the "standard". We have a three-ring binder with four weeks worth of recipes and notes in plastic page protectors. When we've made it through the four weeks, we start over from the beginning. We like to eat a lot of the same foods over and over, so this works for us. At the beginning of the semester, we arranged the weekly recipes so that we have fast-prep dinners on busy days and the more complex cooking takes place on weekends and slower days. On Sunday afternoon, we shop and pre-cook some items that can then be used throughout the week. Pre-cooking greatly increases compliance.

The recipes/notes/etc. are printed from a Word document that I'm constantly updating/changing. Here's an example:

Week 1:

Sunday afternoon preparations:
Chop vegetables for stir-fry, soup, and fried rice (store in fridge)
Make spaghetti sauce (or thaw some from freezer)
Shop for all ingredients

Sunday dinner: Roast chicken, served with roasted vegetables
(the actual recipe for roasting the chicken is printed on the page)
Pull all remaining meat off chicken, chop and store in fridge
Overnight, make stock from the chicken carcass and roast vegetable odds and ends

Monday: Chicken stir-fry (using left-over roast chicken and pre-chopped veggies)
(again, the actual recipe is printed on the page)

Tuesday: Vegetable soup (using stock made from the chicken carcass and the pre-chopped veggies), served with brown rice
(again, the actual recipe is printed on the page)
There is also a note on the page to make some extra brown rice, which can be used for fried rice the next day

Wednesday: Chicken fried rice (using left-over roast chicken, pre-chopped vegetables, and leftover brown rice from Tuesday)
(actual recipe printed here)

Thursday: Spaghetti (using pre-made sauce), served with a green vegetable
There is also a note here to buy one pound of pork for next week's meals, since we usually buy organic pork, which comes frozen and must be thawed.

Friday: We don't plan a meal for Friday, because there is often a faculty party or we get together with friends

Saturday: Shrimp fajitas with corn tortillas, sour cream, and chopped tomatoes
(recipe printed here)

You get the idea. Many of our recipes have some flexibility in the ingredients or spices (like the stir-fry or soup, which could be made with any combination of vegetables), so we don't find this system too constricting. Also, I'm developing alternatives that use similar ingredients, to increase the diversity. For example, vegetable pot pie could be an alternative to the soup.

As an added bonus, this system has helped us to reduce our meat consumption, not that you can tell from this particular example. We buy a pound of pork or chicken breasts on Sunday, cut it into pieces, and cook the meat. Then we can pull a bit of the meat for each meal throughout the week, just enough to add protein and flavor. A pound of meat per week for the entire family isn't too bad, especially considering our many, many dietary restrictions (a topic for another post).


  1. This is amazing!! All of the upfront work must really pay off. I imagine careful planning is extra-important with dietary restrictions.

    I also admire your Sunday grocery shopping and prepping food on Sunday. I really hate grocery shopping. It is hard for us to avoid going to multiple places to get everything (the co-op as your sole source will bankrupt you). We usually start the week with SOMETHING missing. Ugh.


  2. We have the advantage of being in easy walking distance to the co-op and the grocery store. Right at the moment, we're swimming in CSA veggies, so we don't need to get much/any produce, and we're trying to cut way back on meat. That basically leaves us with milk, cereal, bread, peanut butter and a few other basics that we have to buy on a regular basis. One thing I forgot to mention in the post is that our fridge and pantry are pretty bare most of the time, because we're whittling away at the unplanned foods and using leftovers more efficiently. We have the ingredients we need for our planned menus, some basic snacks and lunch items, and not a lot more.

  3. Thanks for sharing this. I don't know what effect your kids have had on your system, but I have higher standards for O. than myself! That means springing for organic dairy and certain fruits and vegetables, when I was not regularly compelled to pay for them before, and not serving processed foods (to which we were no strangers in earlier days). Frustratingly, our a. co-op and farmer's market and b. grocery of choice are in opposite directions (and the very close grocery has terrible produce). If you post again on this topic, could you talk about your use of CSA produce in this system? We joined one when we first moved but quit because we struggled to plan around what we got. --MB

  4. We're the same, we're buying a lot more organic foods, including milk and meat. I'm particularly concerned about the hormones in "regular" animal products. The kids are the major push behind the menu planning system. We're trying to provide our kids with real food, sensu Michael Pollan. So, we're trying not to buy anything with unpronounceable ingredients, chemicals, dyes, preservatives, etc., etc. The only way we can do that is by being organized.

    As for the CSA: We don't really plan around it. We have a lot of meals that call for random combinations of vegetables (soups, stir-fries, casseroles). For those, we just use whatever we have. We also will quick-steam or nuke a side dish of vegetables to go along with our main meal, and that too can be anything that happened to arrive in the CSA box. I try to use other types of veggies, like cucumbers, as snacks during the day or packed for lunch. We can't use all of the veggies, but I've been blanching and freezing a lot of beans, peppers, and carrots.

    I'll admit, we do have some waste. Dr. Mr. Palimpsest doesn't like zucchini, and I'm not a big fan of eggplant. Those don't freeze, and don't make good, easy snacks. Theoretically, we take them into the department office to be given away. In truth, a lot of them end up in the compost. Doh!