'Classic' Approach to Menu Planning

There are so many ways that a person can menu plan, but in general they are all a variation of what I call the 'Classic Approach'.

If you are reading this I am assuming you are already convinced of the benefits of menu planning and want to try it so I leap straight into talking about the steps involved.  However if you still need convincing or want extra tips and tools, I have a ton of resources to support you be successful at menu planning.  Check out: 

  • information about the benefits of menu planning
  • why it is important or how to be successful at it
  • also if you read to the end there are links to example menu plans, my weekly menu plan, menu plans with shopping lists etc.

About the Classic Approach to Menu Planning

This is what I call the 'original' or comprehensive approach to menu planning. 

In essence it means that you end up with a list of what meal you will eat on what night for all seven days of the week. From this list you then create a shopping list and identify any pre-prep that can be done on the weekend or at the beginning of the week to make it easier to stay on track during the week.

The basic premise of menu planning is that the investment of time and effort up front pays you back in terms of less time and effort required to get dinner organised during the week.

Done well it means you are no more faced with the 'what will I have for dinner tonight' question and can result in significant savings in time and $ and be very beneficial for your health and ensuring you eat well.

It does generally require being organised and works best when it becomes a habit.  But if you are not that sort of person, don't let it put you off Menu Planning. Either give it and go and try it, knowing you don't need to be perfect, or take a look at the other approaches to Menu Planning that I've written about to find one that works for you.

This approach may take a bit of time, but it is comprehensive and will make a difference to your shopping trips and each night's meal preparation.

It is particularly helpful for people cooking for one, as it is so easy to end up with lots of leftover ingredients.  Menu planning is designed to help people cooking for one cut down on waste and is also a good discipline to make sure you are looking at how well balanced your meals are and whether you are meeting the recommended requirements for the number of serves of vegetables eaten. Something that recent research has shown, people living alone often don't do.

Steps in the Process

1. Do a 'fridge & pantry 'audit'

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

2. Look at your diary and work out your commitments for the week and the number of meals you will eat at home. Identify any nights when you might be home late and won't have time to cook.

3. Stop & think! 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 are investing 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 these questions help you close the gap between the best intentions that we all start off with at the beginning of the week!

'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 whilst other weeks, you just want to cook known recipes as you have too many things on your mind to bother trying new recipes.

    4. Look at your drivers and then make a list of the types of meals or dinners that would fit

    Do this by reviewing steps 1 - 3 e.g. thinking of:

    Step 1: items that need to be used up and therefore incorporated into the meals you cook this week.

    Step 2: your calendar, the number of meals you need and how much time you will have to devote to cooking

    Step 3: your drivers for the week, e.g the types of meals you want to eat. e.g There is no use brainstorming ideas for healthy meals when you have identified it is going to be the type of week you are will be wanting to eat hearty, comfort food style meals.

    There are a number of ways to come up with ideas for meals to include in your menu plan. Ways include: 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.

    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 and 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 or Mediterranean style etc.  (I wonder if anyone ever chooses '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
    • Use cooking style to think of what to make, 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.  I can make a sheet-pan style dish, that requires little prep that is delicious, but seems to have a comfort food element just because it was roasted.

    5. Review the list of meals you have come up with again the 'drivers' and constraint's that you listed to see if it is a realistic list - e.g. does it cover all the types of meals you are likely to want to eat. Does it fit with the drivers for your week and the amount of time you want to spend in the kitchen.

    For example when I put together a menu plan recently I realised that although I thought I wanted it to be healthy Winter was really about to kick in and by mid week I was bound to want more comfort style foods to eat.

      For me this meant substituting my 'go to health-kick meal' - salmon and steamed vegetables for roasted salmon and roasted vegetables - still healthy and one pan, but a bit more 'comfort food style' because of the glorious caremlisation of roasted vegetables - and having the food available in case i wanted to repeat the same meal a couple of times.

      6. Write down what meal you will eat on what day and identify what preparation can be grouped together

      There are many fancy worksheets and templates available to do this and I am sure just as many apps on your phone.  Choose what works for you. I either use a menu planning pad I was given as a gift from Kikki-K years ago or simply find an A4 piece of paper and draw up a grid and use that.

      After writing down what meal will be eaten when, then look through the recipe for each meal, or if it is something you will 'throw together as you go' (like most of my meals) look at what pre-prep can be done. e.g. if you are roasting vegetable for a dish on Monday night, and need roasted vegetables for a dish on Thursday they can all be prepared and cooked on Monday so the vegetables are in the fridge and ready to re-heat and use on Thursday. 

      Some weeks you might cook whole meals in advance, others you might just wash and chop vegetables so during the week you just need to cook them.

      Similarly if you are having rice, pasta or other grains or carbs a couple of times in one week, look at cooking a double batch the first night you cook that ingredient so you just need to do the cooking and washing up for it once.

      7. Look at your list of meal ideas and recipes and use that to write a list of ingredients. Don't add, or check off as a final step, ingredients that you already have in fridge or pantry.