Menu Planning

Howdy, strangers! The past two weeks have been a whirlwind of events, from a snowy long weekend in fabulous Kansas City, to zooming down the groomed trails of Bridger Bowl (OK, more like cautiously wedging), to bathing in the healing waters of Boiling River in Yellowstone, to making cozy dinners at the cutest cottage Bozeman has to offer – and back home again to furiously catch up after a week away from the office. I have finally emerged from the post-vacation work apocalypse, (relatively) unscathed! Now, let’s talk some food.

This past weekend, as I was rummaging through my pile of food magazines, gathering recipes for this week’s menu, a light bulb went off: Why not write a column about menu planning? For the past couple of years, I have prepared a weekly dinner menu every Saturday morning for the following week. This executive decision was made after becoming increasingly weary of the daily nagging question, “What should we have for dinner tonight?” – it also reduces the risk of Running for the Border due to lack of initiative or motivation. I simply flip through my latest food magazines for ideas and inspiration – sometimes I use a recipe verbatim, and other times I use a recipe as a vague guideline for my own version of a dish. I make a list of the recipes I want to make for the week, and assign each recipe to a weeknight. Easy squeezy.

Blanched Green Beans

I try to use up ingredients I already have on hand – I take a brief inventory of my staples and any leftovers I may have, and use those first. Have a box of spaghetti? Use it that week in a simple garlic and goat cheese pasta! Got half a dozen eggs? Make a quiche one night! Don’t let your on-hand ingredients go ignored – it’ll save you time and money.

I jot down all the items I’ll need for the week, and then transfer them to my master list, which I organize by store section to make my shopping trip quick, easy and fluid. Once the list is done, it’s off to the store. I have a rule of keeping strictly to the list, and rarely do I stray (unless, of course, they’re having a 2-for-1 special on Ben & Jerry’s – Sorry, self-control. I’ll be back later.) As a recovering rabid impulse buyer, I can attest to the grocery list keeping me focused and goal-oriented – I remember many times in years past where I was mystified at how I had just spent $100 at the grocery store, but had nothing to eat – how is that even possible?! Alas, it bafflingly is.

But the planning doesn’t stop there. To make my life even easier, I devote a few hours Sunday afternoon to preparing parts of the meals for the upcoming week. Even if it’s just a small step – blanching veggies, assembling casseroles, slicing meats – I’ll do whatever it takes to make my weeknight dinners just a little easier. This weekend, for example, I mixed and wrapped meatloaf, blanched some green beans, toasted pecans for our daily breakfasts, and roasted tomatoes. Nothing huge, here – I’m not making and freezing our meals ahead of time by any means – just giving myself a little helping hand. I know Wednesday night’s frazzled Laura will certainly appreciate my efforts.

Roasted Tomatoes

If you’ll look at my most recent menu, you’ll see I designate one night as a “leftover night” almost every week. Because Hubby and I don’t eat everything I cook every night, it’s important – and frugal – to keep up with what’s left over. Never having been too keen on leftovers myself (I know, I know…), I find it helpful to reinvent leftovers, making them into something new – leftover frittata becomes breakfast burritos, for instance; leftover mashed potatoes go into a creamy potato soup; leftover meatloaf makes delicious sandwiches. Take stock of what you’ve got in those Tupperware containers in the fridge, and before they become next week’s science project, get creative and use them for dinner on leftover night.

Menu planning really is a great way to save some time, energy and money. And I know the tips and techniques don’t end here – what methods do you use at home to plan the week’s meals? Share your ideas! I always love to hear what y’all are up to.

If the above slide show doesn’t load, visit all the photos on Flickr.

Laura Hobbs is a regular contributor for the Fayetteville Flyer. She was born and raised in Fayetteville. She is a self-proclaimed foodie and avid cook. For more of Laura’s contributions, visit her author page.