Options-based menu planning

Do you want to start menu planning, but worried it's too restrictive?

Are one of those people who shudder at the thought of having your whole week planned out, or whose life moves too fast to do this? 

Do you wish you could reap the benefits of menu planning, but reluctant to give it a go because you want the freedom to be spontaneous, or your diary changes too quickly to lock in on Monday, what you will be eating Friday?

If so, this post is for you. Read on!

This is an alternative to 'classic' menu planning and useful if you:

  • hate making decisions about what you will eat a week out and want options
  • you are not sure how your week will pan out and what nights you will have time to cook
  • want to be free to choose what to eat each night based on how you feel - e.g. you know that some nights you might feel like comfort food, another night during the week light and fresh might be it. Similarly some nights you want to be in and out of the kitchen as fast as possible, whilst another  cooking might be your creative outlet for the day.

What's different. How Options Based Menu Planning is different to Classic Menu Planning

This main difference between this approach to menu planning and the Classic Approach is step 5. Instead of having your meals planned out for each night of the week you work out:

  1. number of meals you want to eat at home during the week
  2. a list of things you might like to eat during the week.  
  • Your list has more options than you need and ideally it contains a variety of types of meals

'How is this menu planning?' I hear you say!

It's menu planning, because you put a bit of time and effort into working out a list of meals and ingredients that would work with each other and use it as the basis for your shopping list so that you ensure that you have everything on hand to cook anything on your list, and that the ingredients 'mix and match' so you are not stuck with leftovers, thus reaping the benefits of menu planning.


  • comfort knowing that when faced with the dreaded 'what will I cook tonight?' question - you have a pre-determined set of options to choose from and have all the ingredients on hand
  • all the benefits of traditional menu planning:
    • money saving
    • less waste
    • less stress
    • less time needed in the kitchen
    • healthier food choices

My story and how I came to this approach to menu planning

I've normally used the 'Classic' approach to menu planning. But have struggled to actually do any proper menu planning since the start of the year. I seem to be going to the supermarket each evening, or else skipping dinner or having an egg on toast because I haven't quite got it together to plan out what I want to eat, do a shopping list and stick to the plan.

I've been getting stuck at the planning part because I haven't been quite sure how my week will pan out. 

So last Sunday, as I was sitting in front of another blank piece of paper with 'Menu Plan' at the top.  I'd found some gorgeous new recipes, all zingy, healthy and colourful and made a list of all the new meals I wanted to fit into my week.

But when I went to plot these into my calendar of what I would cook I realised that I really wouldn't have the time or energy to focus on cooking during the week, and it was the wrong week to try new things. Even the thought of looking at the recipes and trying to scale them down for one person was too hard.

I knew that anything I wrote down was not really going to pan out. But not wanting to face another week of unhealthy eating and bad food choices, I thought 'something  needs to change.' The traditional approach to menu planning that has always worked for me, was not longer cutting it.

I was spending more money than I needed to and the scales were going in the wrong direction!

But my normal method of menu planning was seeming too complicated and overwhelming. I needed a planning method that suited my where my energy levels and head space was at, but would still allow me to eat well.

The new approach I worked out still means I have to invest some time and energy into thinking about meals I could eat, make a shopping list and go to the supermarket - but it is so much easier and incredibly liberating. 

Read below for steps in the process and see here where I show it in action.

Options-based Menu Planning for One Person

Steps in the Process

Many of the steps are the same as the Classic Approach, but simpler. 

1. Do a 'fridge & pantry 'audit'

i.e. work out what you have on hand, paying attention to what is in danger of perishing, or needs to be used up soon

2. Review your calendar and work out:

a.)  roughly how many meals you think you will need to eat at home

b.)  how much time you have available for cooking

3. Identify your 'Drivers'

This is the somewhat 'airy - fairy' part of this approach to menu planning! But it's the vital step that determines whether the time you invest in menu planning serves you well or whether you end up with a crisper of rotting vegetables, throwing away expensive food and still reaching for the takeaway menu.

Answering the questions below helps you close the gap between your best intentions and the somewhat idealised vision of the week ahead that we all have on a Sunday and what your week will actually be like.

'Drivers' might be anything from 'it's going to be a tough week, I'll need comfort food' to 'I have start eating more nutritious food' to 'I am craving variety' or I have 4 late afternoon meetings, I will be home late and won't have long to cook.

This step is the key to creating a menu plan that you will stick to.

It involves including your feelings and trying to project what you will feel like during the week. It's  no use building a plan full of healthy eating choices when you know you will be tired, or the weather will be cold and you will be more in the mood for comfort food.

  • For example my drivers last week were:
    •  'I don't have time to invest in cooking new things, I want simple and fast, but nutritious and healthy
    • I want the meals to be familiar so I can cook it without having to think
    • I want it to be economical
    • e.g.the list of recipes I originally looked at included things like pine nuts and fetta cheese - and I realised that a.) I needed to be more budget conscious (have you seen the price of pinenuts!) and b.) I didn't want to expend mental energy working up how to use up half opened packets of things such as Fetta cheese.

"If you don't take this step, menu planning can be a bit like making new year's resolutions - all good intentions, but not particularly realistic."

So the types of questions to ask yourself are:

  • What type of food am I likely to crave in the week. What is likely to affect this (weather, work stress, energy levels etc.)
  • How much time do I want to spend cooking
  • How important is variety and trying new things to me this week? e.g some weeks one of your drivers might be expanding your repertoire of meals, and trying new recipes. Alternatively they mayt be, "I don't want to spend much time in the kitchen" - so you want your menu plan to be made up of meals you know how to cook

4.  Brainstorm what meals to include in your menu plan for the week

Review steps 1, 2 & 3 to brainstorm a list of possible meal options for the week. Do this by thinking of things you usually cook and like, or if you are wanting to experiment, flicking through your favourite blogs and cookbooks. (Or if you are like me, the huge pile of recipes you have torn out of newspapers and magazines over the years!)

Tips to help brainstorming

If you do not feel confident staring in the fridge or looking at your list of ingredients on hand and 'conjuring up' meal ideas another approach is to use Google and type in the main ingredients you want to use up and find recipes that suit.

Alternatively, if your mind is a blank and you can't think of any meals you would like to eat for the week, here are some ways to jumpstart your thinking process:

  • Choose a theme. Think of meals you have cooked or eaten in the past that fit the theme, e.g. healthy, indulgent, comfort food, vegetarian, budget
  • Go international. Think of a range of meals from a particular country, e.g. make it Mexican Week, or Italian week etc. (I wonder if anyone ever choose 'Icelandic Week'!)
  • Want variety? Think of a meals by choosing one based on each of: fish, meat, pasta, or one each of fish, pork, lamb,  beef, chicken, vegetarian
  • Choose a cooking style. Think of what to make based on how it is cooked e.g. one pan, stove top, salad or oven-based. e.g. I find oven-based and roasting suits weeks when I am time poor but craving comfort food, but want to be relatively healthy.  
  • What's on special. An option that allows you to choose what looks most appealing or is a bargain at the supermarket is to decide on a protein, e.g. chicken and a style of cooking, e.g. stirfry and roasting and then choose the vegetables based on what you see when you get to the supermarket or market.  
  • 'Go-to' Menu Plan. A fail-safe option, though one that can lose it's lustre if used too often is to make and then dig out when needed a 'standard' menu plan. e.g. a menu plan that is full of meals you know that you like, can cook easily and have a ready-made shopping list handy.

5. Make your menu plan

This is where Options-Based menu planning really departs from the Classic approach.  If you were using the Classic approach, this step would involve plotting what meal you will eat on what day of the week and determining any advance meal prep that needs to be done.

Using the Options-Based approach it means:

  1. reviewing the list you brainstormed to see if the meals on the list match your drivers for the week
  2. listing out what meals to keep on the list
  • Quite often the Options-Based menu plan will include more meals than than you need for the week. This is because the same ingredients can be combined in different ways to create different meals.
  • You list the different types of meals that can be made, so you do indeed have options!

Examples of creating options

Base ingredients: salmon, sweet potato and coriander / cilantro: 

  • salmon patties
  • roasted sweet potato with sheet pan salmon
  • steamed salmon and vegetables
  • combining with coconut milk and spices to make a simple curry.

Base ingredients: chicken, broccoli, green beans, garlic & ginger:

  • healthy butter chicken by adding canned tomatoes & spices
  • a decadent chicken laksa using coconut milk
  • super speedy and healthy stir fry by stirfrying the chicken and vegetables with with garlic and ginger then squeezing over lemon juice

If these were indeed items on your menu plan for the week, the key would be ensuring that your pantry is stocked with canned tomatoes & coconut milk. As these items are not perishable and don't have a long shelf life, if you end up just doing stir fried chicken and steamed salmon, they can simply be kept in the pantry.

6. Make a shopping list

The key to making this form of menu planning work, e.g. saving money and minimising food waste is to make sure that you have enough fresh produce and meat / proteins for the minimum number of meals you think you will need during the week.

Options are then created by making sure your pantry is stocked with non-perishable items that will help you use the same produce to create a variety of meals, e.g. you don't buy extra fresh produce to create options, as that will just lead to waste as it won't all get used.

To actually make your shopping list:

  • Review the final list of meals and look at recipes, or mentally make a list of what ingredients are required to make each meal
  • From this actual, or mental list, review it against your fridge and pantry audit to determine what ingredients you need to purchase

7. Unpack your groceries & do any pre-prep

This is a good time to review your fridge & pantry audit and note any items that are perishable or needed to be used quickly. You can then prioritise these meals to make early in the week.

The x factor

The x factor is what determines whether this approach to menu planning will work in helping prevent you reaching for Uber Eats or the takeaway menu. 

The x factor means you need to give some thought to how you are likely to really feel during the week.  You need to be honest and make a plan that is based on how your week will really play out.

For instance when making the menu plan I use to showcase this approach, I initially started off with a list of super healthy, absolutely gorgeous recipes from the food blog of a nutritionist I discovered.  But looking at the list a bit more critically I realised as much as I wanted to try new recipes and eat those delicious meals, this week I had to concentrate on work and needed to make dinner about being quick, simple and nutritious, not trying new recipes.


Let me know what would be useful

More than anything I want to help you be successful at menu planning. I am sure there are some resources, whether it be tip sheets, 'how-to' guides or Q&As that would I could create that would help you.

To help me prioritise and create items that would be most useful - use the comments section to let me know what would help you.

Related links

Menu plans based on the Options-Based approach