Thursday, March 23, 2017

Menu Planning FAQs {Free Printable}

I am one of those people who probably wakes up thinking about what I'm going to eat for dinner.  I love food. I love the process of making food and then sharing it with others.  I am reading Bread and Wine by Shauna Niequist and her love of food and Jesus and what happens around the table just makes my heart leap for joy.  Someday, I'm going to be BFF's with her.  You should read the book.  Really.

But, thinking about what's for dinner is work.  It takes time, planning, budgeting, and creativity.  I wouldn't even say it's easy and if you have kids. . . sometimes it's a game of Risk wondering if what you fix for dinner is even going to be a hit with your kids. . . even though they liked it last week.  It can honestly be enough to throw your hands up in the air and just feed your kids chicken nuggets every night.

Before you click off this page because you think I have it all together, please know that:
:: I don't have this menu planning thing all perfect. I am constantly learning new things and adjusting my style. 
:: A child left our table crying because he didn't want what I made for dinner. . . last night.  It happens.
 :: I may be a SAHM, but life is busy just the same and sometimes there just isn't time to cook a big meal.  
:: You aren't alone.

 I wrote a post back in 2013 (I feel like this was just last year!) about menu planning and there are some very helpful tips back there.  You can find it here.
Now fast forward to 2017 and things have changed a bit and some have stayed the same.  I asked people to write some questions that they wanted answered and so I will do my best. 
How do I menu plan?
I menu plan at the end of every week for the following week.  I first move over the meals that we did not get to the previous week and give them new "homes."  I also look at our weekly calendar to decide what night's would be best to have a meal that was leftovers or if we are going to need to go out any night.  Now that our kids are older, we have to consider sport's practice and other activities that might take place in the afternoons or evenings.  Life is busy and we can't always eat out.  I post my weekly menu plan to my instagram account here.  My goal is to try one new recipe each week so menu planning doesn't get boring.

Our menu plan sits near our kitchen attached to our Family Command Center.  It's a laminated sheet I designed and use Ultra Fine Dry Erase Markers to write on.

I also write my grocery list as I menu plan so I know what I need.

How far do I plan out?
Honestly, I feel like I am menu planning every chance I find myself diving into a magazine or perusing Pinterest.  When I find a recipe that interests me, I pin it to my food board on Pinterest and when I go menu planning, I have it all there.  I do formally menu plan a few days out.   I like to do my grocery shopping at the end of the week, so I try to get this done before I go.  If it's not done, I try not to go major grocery shopping or my budget is gone before I menu plan.

 Do you have any cheater meals?
I like to keep a bag of Trader Joe's Orange Chicken, a box of Trader Joe's rice, and Indian Simmer Sauces in the freezer.  Monday Night's I go easy so it's usually one of these because I also do a lot of baking for the week and prepping for other meals.

How do the dynamics of your family impact the way you menu plan?
We are a family of four.  Four very different eaters.

 Jon I wouldn't say is very picky (ask me that question 12  years ago and I would have a different answer!).  He doesn't do anything eggy or white that may possibly have mayo our sour cream in it.   I made the mistake of making my favorite ranch chicken wraps before we were married for dinner one night and he refused to eat it.  oops.

Ethan is growing into a little foodie.  I think it helps that he likes to watch all the food network jr. shows and help in the kitchen.  He will eat just about anything that I make. . . with a few exceptions.  But, he's 8 and slowly growing into who he is.  It's fun watching this process.

Weston is 5 and his pallet is slowly expanding.  He has a dairy and soy allergy so that makes it more difficult to plan things.  He also could live off of hot dogs and burger king chicken nuggets.  Only recently, has his meat pallet expanded to include hamburgers and dinosaur nuggets.  However, we are constantly trying new things and non-dairy food products to broaden his pallet.

And finally, me.  I've mentioned before that I, also have a dairy allergy which can be a real pain in the rear.  But, sharing it with Weston and finding new products that are healthy and delicious is quite the adventure.  We've learned a lot.  I pretty much eat anything.  Except sushi.  Ever since I was pregnant with Ethan and the thought of sushi grossed me out, and I still can't get past it.

All these things take part in my menu planning.  I know that I can't please everyone, but it's my responsibility as a parent to broaden my child's tastes and give them new opportunities to grow as an eater.  They may not like it the first, second or third time they eat something. But, someday, I make something and it will get eaten. . . and my husband and I will mouth to each other "don't say anything" and then do a quiet happy dance.  Every dinner I make doesn't have to please everyone.  And that is okay.

What is your food budget?
Our food budget is 850 dollars a month.  I most often go over.  For four people this might seem high, but we also buy specialty items that are more expensive and dairy  and soy free.  We also make a lot of things from scratch and buy a lot of produce.  We don't purchase a lot of processed foods because a. fresh just tastes better and b. most processed things have soy in them.  This also includes our eating out money, zip lock bags, paper plates, etc.

Where do I shop?
I find that because we have allergies we shop at a variety of places.  There is no way I can get everything in one place.  So, here's a quick overview of the places I shop, but that is not every week.

Trader Joe's - I can get a lot of things here at really reasonable prices.  It's small and takes me 15 minutes max to get in and out with a lot of our groceries.  This is actually where the majority of our groceries come from.

Target - I am here all.the.time.  They have some of the best deals on a lot of their food compared to big name grocery stores.  I won't lie, I am pretty impressed with their prices.  Plus, if you remember to use cartwheel, sometimes you can find things for even cheaper.  Not to mention, they've been doing a really good job increasing their specialty foods like adding kite hill yogurt!  One of my favorite things is watching for when the meat has 2 and 3 dollar off coupons on it.  This is when I stock up on chicken tenders, pork chops, and ground beef.  Some stores only let you get 4, so stock wisely.

Whole Foods - This is a once a month trip.  If I went more, it would just be dangerous and we would have no food money left.  This is like a happy place for foodies.  They have ingredients I can't always find anywhere else, they sell most of Kite Hill products and a bunch of other amazing non dairy options.  I also treat myself to a spindrift drink and a couple of macarons when I am here.  It's a guilty habit.

Meat Market - The Meat Market is a local meat store in town and I love it.  I can't go with kids because their are wine bottles everywhere.  There meat is amazing and I know I can get good prices on it.  They sell pre marinated chicken for quick meals and their lunch meat is less expensive than grocery store prices.

Sprouts - We are kind of new to Sprouts but it is the best.  It has a great selection of fresh food and some of the best deals on produce around.  We can also find a lot of non-dairy non soy items which on some weeks, makes this the only place I need to go.

Local grocery store - our local grocery store is generally more expensive than all these other places.  I try to only go when I need something that I forgot or needed really quick. We do, however, go here to get our milk and chocolate milk.  We love the freshly bottled milk from our local dairies.

Costco - This is a once a month trip and sometimes twice a month.  We buy our bread, chips, indian simmer sauces, and a few other things here.

Do I coupon?
I don't coupon.  I just don't really see the point since coupons are generally for things I don't need or need 5 of. I will use cartwheel when I remember, but that's about it.  Oh, and if the item I am buying as a coupon for what I am already buying.

How do I plan what meals I will make each week?
I mentioned earlier that I plan towards the end of the week for the following week.  Through Pinterest, I keep track of recipes that I want to try.  I also look at our schedule to gage busy nights as opposed to easy nights.

Each week I aim for:
:: One meal that is completely new to us.
:: A meal that will guarantee leftovers.
:: Easy Night (Monday's) Indian Chicken or some sort of Trader Joes's chinese food.
:: And then I fill in with some of our favorites like spaghetti, tacos, paninis, etc.

Things I consider:
Is their a meal that I really want to make, but I know the boys aren't' going to dig it?  What are they going to eat instead.  Not everything I make is kid friendly.  Also, when we eat Chinese food, Weston can't have it because it has soy. . . so there are always options for the kids.

Is my menu plan flexible?
Yes.  Life happens and there sometimes isn't time for making dinner.  Or sometimes, I am just pooped (I mean, I don't just sit around eating chocolate and watching chick flicks!).  So, sometimes the menu gets moved around or we just have grilled cheese and call it a night.  It's okay.  Flexibility is so important. 

Do you fight your kids to eat?
No.  I'm not saying that there aren't tears.  But, on night's where everyone is offered the same thing, they are required to try it.  If they don't like, they don't have to eat it.  They just don't get their after dinner treat.  If they didn't get enough to eat from their dinner, they can make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich (this rarely happens), but they still don't get dessert.

I want my kids to enjoy food and forcing them to sit at the table until they eat something that they might possibly actually not like, just doesn't help that.  Remember when you introduce food to babies they usually don't like a lot of things the first few times, but the common advice is keep feeding it to them and eventually they will grow to like it. . . maybe.  I think the same advice holds true here.  As they get older, their pallet expands and dinners become easier.  And sometimes, they just won't like it.  My husband hates tuna casserole.  He hated it as a kid (probably went hungry once a week) and still hates it.  That's okay.  Don't let the pickiness of your children and spouse rob you of your joy in the kitchen.  Find a way to make it work.

Do I do freezer meals?
Yes and no.  When I meal plan, I try to make a soup or something that part of it can be frozen for a later meal.  We eat a lot of fresh produce, so it's just not the same once it's been frozen.  I also like to think about what chicken recipes I might be making and make the marinades right after I buy the meat and then freeze it with the marinade.  That eliminates the step and the night before, all you have to do is take it out of the freezer and come home and cook it up.

Wow!  This was a really long post.  I know I haven't answered all of your questions, but am already planning another post in the near future.

In the meantime, here is a menu plan sheet to get you in the right direction. I printed mine on cardstock and then laminated it.  I also use the ULTRA fine dry erase markers to write on it. There is also a "we're out of" sheet to put on the fridge to keep track of those times you are out of ketchup or milk.

Click here to download.

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