First, let me preface this post by saying that I definitely do not claim to be an expert on any of this, but at the request of what few readers I do have, I will share my tips and process for cooking and menu planning!
Really, the first and most important thing is to commit to doing this. I have said forever that I want to menu plan, and even halfway did it for awhile... jotting down meal ideas and trying to shop for those items at the store. But, as usual, doing anything halfway really isn't worth doing at all. We would end up being "in the mood" for something else, or eating out if the few "go-to" meals we had planned didn't sound all that great at the time. With me being as OCD as I am, sticking to my typed-out menu gives me the greatest satisfaction, and so far it is working like a charm!
So, how did I do this? What I did was sit down, armed with my laptop (access to my fav food blogs!!) and some of my favorite cookbooks, and went to work. The process for the whole month of March didn't take me more than 30 minutes, and it is already saving me TONS of time!
*I made the actual menu with some digital scrapbooking software I have called Printmaster. But there are TONS of monthly templates online you could print out and handwrite it in, and I am sure there are other programs that have the ability to create a calendar.*
First, make a mental catalog of your favorite "go-to" meals... you know, the ones that your family loves... that you can throw together without a recipe or too much thinking. We have several of these, but I didn't want to exhaust them all in one month, so I picked at least one night each week for a "go-to" recipe. David and I LOVE making Mexican and Italian food... so I set aside one night every week for both. I also assigned Thursday night as a "new recipe" night... so I can take all the goodies that I find on Food Network and food blogs and start to incorporate them into my monthly cooking. I also made sure that I had a big meal planned for both Sunday and Monday nights, so Tuesday could be our official "leftover" night, yet we would still have choices. I set aside Friday night as our "date night", since we usually go out to eat together after a long work week. Saturday I dubbed as our "grill night" or "craving night"..this night is for the hubby. ;) If he mentions something throughout the week that he is really wanting, I will jot it in for a Saturday. He also loves Food Network and finding new recipes to try, so he can also take over cooking on Saturday. Especially now that it is Spring and we will be grilling more, if we find something that looks fresh and yummy to grill on our Saturday morning shopping trip, we will pencil that in for the evening.
Whew...okay. So now you have the basic structure set out out for every month, and all you have to do is plug in the recipes. :) I will save each month on my laptop, to help me make sure I mix it up instead of using the same recipes every month (Of course, we do have our favorites that I am sure will make their way into every month).
Where do I get my recipes? Various places. Many of them are ones that my mama taught me or Dave learned from his mother. My favorite cookbook is my Weight Watcher's Pure Comfort: 150 All-Time Feel-Good Recipes. Lots of great "comfort foods" made healthy. I also have several other "cooking light" type cookbooks and a few different Rachel Ray's 30-minute cookbooks as well. One of my favorite food blogs is Gina's Skinny Taste. I DO alter her recipes a bit to make them my own, but some of my new favorites lately have ALL come from something I saw on her site. I adore finding new food blogs, so please share if you know of a good one! Finally, as stated before, the hubs and I are both Food Network fanatics. :)
Another great tip that helps me quite a bit... have a few good basic recipes that you can just change the ingredients to. For example, I have a meatloaf recipe that I use... I made a mushroom and spinach version the other night, but by using tri-color diced bell peppers and some cumin instead, it becomes a "southwest" meatloaf. I also use the same basic lasagna recipe, sometimes making it a veggie lasagna, other times using italian sausage and basil to make a more traditional one.
It's also important to still have a degree of flexibility. If there is a night I am just TOO exhausted to cook, I may make sandwiches instead of the planned meal. That's okay, as long as I don't let it happen too often, and as long as I make that meal on Friday or Saturday instead. In doing this, my real goal is not to waste ANY of the produce and groceries I bought for the week. D and I were shocked when paying for our groceries last week... we couldn't believe how much produce we bought... over $20 for the 2 of us for the week! But you know what? I used every. single. bit. of it. :)
How does this affect my weekly shopping?? As the end of the week approaches, whenever I have a few spare minutes, I use my menu for the next week and peruse through my kitchen... compiling a list of ingredients I will need for next week's meals. We do all of our grocery shopping on Saturday mornings, and having my menu already planned REALLY helps focus my list and significantly cuts down on the time it usually takes me to work out a grocery list. I also haven't had to make a single mid-week trip to the grocery store since I started all this... sweet. :)
It really is worth the half hour (perhaps a little longer the first time you sit down to organize all of this) that it takes to make the dreaded "What's for dinner?" question a non-event. This is only my first month of getting it all on paper, but I can't wait until it becomes just another part of my routine! Cooking is definitely one of my favorite hobbies, and I am excited for all the variety that this new little tool will bring to it!