How I plan a weekly menu

Every week I post my menu plan here on Frugal Upstate, and I have talked many times about the benefits–in both time and money–to using a menu plan. I figure it’s about time that I go into detail about the planning process itself.

Photo by Jen Maiser

There are many ways to go about menu planning. Some folks have a list of recipes that they love to use. Others look at the weekly grocery fliers and build their menu around what items are on sale. Even others use a daily “theme” to make their menus–for example Italian on Mon, Fish on Tues, Mexican on Wed.

Me? Well I’m a “What do I need to use up/shop from the pantry” kind of gal.  Here are the steps I use to put together my menu plan each week.

Step 1: Look at your life.

We ALWAYS have stuff going on. Don't you?

The first thing I do when planning my menu is open up my calendar. I keep the family calendar in Google Calendar-actually it’s my calendar, Yankee Bill’s calendar, my editorial calendar and my work calendar all overlaid in various colors. I take a look at what we’ve got scheduled to figure out who will be present each night for dinner, how much time I will have to cook, and if there are any other plans that will effect the week’s meals.

Here are some examples of items I frequently have to take into account and what the implications are:

Kids Evening Sports — If practices or games start at 6, and the kids go to bed at 8 that means that either I have to cook very early so they can eat before they go, I have to pack a “picnic” style meal to bring along, or I have to cook ahead/use the crockpot to have a meal that is hot & ready for them to eat when we all walk through the door.

Evening Meetings — This puts a time constraint on dinner-it has to be finished before whoever has the meeting (Yankee Bill or I) heads out the door. Sometimes it means Yankee Bill won’t be home for supper at all, so less food can be prepared or we can eat something he isn’t fond of that the kiddos love, like breakfast for dinner.

Away from Home for the Day — If we are going to be home for dinner, but not around most of the day then my meal preparation time could be limited. I also might be tired and not feel like cooking-and a complicated meal preparation might just push me over the edge into “order out for pizza”. On those type of days it’s best to either cook ahead, use the crockpot or else have a very simple quick to prepare meal planned-like sausages on the grill or spaghetti with storebought sauce.

Step 2: Look in your fridge

Photo by Dutch Astrid

As a frugal gal my goal is to get the most bang for my buck in all ways possible.  So you can just imagine how I feel about throwing out food that I’ve paid perfectly good money for just because I forgot I had it!  That’s why checking the fridge to see what I’ve got to use up is the next step.

I pop open the fridge and peruse the contents.  Are there leftovers that can be reworked as an ingredient in this weeks menu?  Vegetables in the crisper that are starting to wither?  Milk products sneaking up on their expiration date?  Meat that really really has to be used in the next two days or you’ll have to throw it out?

Just make a list-on paper or mentally-and incorporate those items into your plan.

Note:  There are four great ways I have found to use up odd little bits and pieces of leftovers-you know, 2 tablespoons of corn, a few noodles, some chicken that isn’t enough for anything else, salad that is starting to look wilty.  I either incorporate it into  my This and That Curry, make stone soup, add it to a stirfry, or use it in a casserole

Step 3: Poke around in the pantry

Photo by EvelynGiggles

Now that you know what you have to use up it’s time to take a look at what else you have on hand.  Check out the contents of your pantry and open the freezer.  You don’t have to do a full inventory or anything, just take a quick look to see what other recipe ingredients you have on hand.  It’s always better, to my mind at least, to cook from what you’ve got on hand rather than running out to the store to buy a lot of ingredients.

Step 4: Consider your goals.

Long time readers of Frugal Upstate know I have 3 weekly goals that I try to incorporate into our menu planning.  A fish/seafood based meal, a meatless meal and a venison meal.

Now you may not have any particular goals, other than getting a nutritious meal on the table.  That’s fine!  But maybe there are some things you’ve been thinking about, like introducing your kids to more new foods, incorporating whole grains into your diet, having friends over to eat more often, cooking double meals occasionally so you have things in the fridge, saving money by eating more beans.  Whatever they are-this is the time to think about working them in.

And just in case you are interested:

Fish: I chose fish as a weekly goal because you just read more and more about the fact that seafood has all sorts of good things in it for you.  I also personally believe that the more varied your diet the better it is for you-you get lots of different vitamins, minerals, oils, etc that way.  Although buying things like scallops, shrimp or even fresh fish fillets can be expensive sometimes we even out the cost with our frugal goals by buying frozen, using the much more frugal canned (tuna & salmon), and even going fishing for fresh (which combines food with having fun!).

Meatless: There are many, many articles that suggest that Americans eat far more meat than is necessary.  Meat is also typically the most expensive ingredient in any meal~so incorporating a meatless (or mostly meatless) meal into our menu each week saves us money.  Many of the meatless meals rely on beans for their protien-so I am upping our fiber content and minerals when I cook meatless.  I also am teaching my kids to eat a wider variety of food and, God forbid, if we ever suffered a huge reversal in fortune and had to rely on beans much more than meat for our protien the kids would be used to eating them.

Venison: My husband is a hunter, so we typically have a freezer full of delicious, low fat, wild venison meat.  Mmmm!  After several years of eating venison almost every night in the fall to make room for the new batch coming in from hunting season I realized that it made far more sense to make sure we ate some each week all year :)

Step 5: Pull out your recipes and make your plan.

Photo by PinkPollyanna

This is the time to put the ingredients you have on hand together with your schedule and your goals.  I actual create my menu plan each week as I write the menu plan post.  I list out the days of the week and start plugging things in.

Honestly, I’ve been doing this so long that I very rarely have to pull out a recipe book to come up with an idea of what to serve.  Occasionally I’ll think “hmmm, I need a crockpot recipe for Tuesday, and I have that pork to use up” and have to go pull out my Crockpot Cookbook or hit one of my favorite recipe sites like

That’s all there is to it!

Menu planning is such a stress reliever (no more 5pm panic), a time saver (you can plan ahead), a money saver (no drive through trap) and a creativity booster (no more spaghetti twice in one week).

If you’d like to see the entire process in action-check out my weekly Menu Plan Monday posts!

Do you use a menu plan?  How do you make YOUR plan?

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    • Jenn @ Frugal Upstate says

      It is good stuff! Of course, if you add up all Yankee Bill has spent over the years on hunting gear, food, trips etc. . . well it may not be as frugal as we like to think. But he’d go hunting anyway so I’m glad to get the delicious meat out of it!

  1. Amyrlin says

    Jenn- I have to plan two menus a week, one for work and one for home. I do not believe I could effectively shop without out one. I need to stick to my budget and with a list and menu hand in hand I save extra money on my groceries. Now I do bring the menu for my home with me when I shop, often I find a good deal while shopping and may adjust what night for what or maybe something I planned does not look appealling on the store and I substitute (frequently with fresh fruit and veggies). I try to go to a farmer’s market when I can and if I find a great bargain I will incorporate that into our menu. Thanks for the great article, I know your menus have inspired me when I run out of inspiration, and the lunch box report has helped me off and on through the years!!- Heather

  2. Zoie says

    I do a three week plan since I hate thinking about what to make. I’m not the best cook in the house but my husband works nights, so it’s left to me to cook for me, a 3 year old and have enough leftovers for my husband to take to work for meals. We are still working out the bugs but it has helped with the amount of food that goes bad in the frig.

  3. Lorrie says

    Great article! I’ve been in a slump lately and not doing proper meal planning – and therefore – cooking. Need to get back on track so we can eat better. (But if there’s any advantage to not cooking, it’s that the kitchen stays cleaner! :-)


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