Meal Planning II: Creating a Personalized Master Plan

So, you’ve decided to give a meal plan a go, but what’s the best way to get started? While it is possible to find ready-made menu plans online or in books, these off-the-shelf plans won’t reflect your family’s preferences and needs. Several in my family have problems digesting dairy products, so I have to modify or eliminate many common dishes. As a wife, I want to incorporate dinners that please my husband, and as a mom I want to plan entrees that have a moderate amount of kid-appeal while still stretching their palates and helping them learn to eat a wide variety of flavors, textures, and cuisines without complaining. Besides this, each cook has her own style and level of convenience foods she does or doesn’t want to include. For these reasons, I’ve found that trying to use someone else’s menu plan results in frustration or requires a lot of adaptation.

To create your own personalized menu plan, set aside a few hours to sit with pen, paper, and your favorite cookbooks. Start brainstorming dinners you like to cook and those your household enjoys eating. Consider what aspects are most important for you in the meals you serve. I consider myself a functional cook and not a fussy one. My requirements are that my dinners be nutritious, feed a crowd inexpensively, and be able to be prepared in less than an hour. Make various lists as you brainstorm, categorizing your meals by the type of meat (ground beef, chicken, pork, vegetarian, etc.) You might also want other groups for dinner soups, salads, and crock-pot meals. I make shorthand notes of the location of the recipes for those that are not in my brain.

Next, decide how frequently you will revisit meals. I go with a four week rotation, but you might prefer a three or even six week pattern. Then using a blank grid, either with pen and paper or on a spreadsheet, begin to plug in your dinner ideas. At this point it becomes a jigsaw puzzle, trying to best fit in the dinner ideas in a pleasing order. I try to not repeat meats two days in a row, and I also think about what type of starch (rice, potatoes, pasta, or bread) accompanies each meal, spacing those out as well. Keep in mind the way your life runs. If you know you are out late every Thursday, maybe you want to plan a crock-pot dinner for that night. Think carefully about what meals will work best for Sunday dinners, either something that can cook slowly for hours in the oven, something that can be prepared ahead and stored in the frig for rapid assembly, or another slow-cooker meal. If you like to try new recipes regularly, plan in some nights for “New Recipe.” For each entrée include the recipe location so you won’t be scrambling when it comes time to make that dish. It may take a bit of juggling, but after a while you will find a workable arrangement.

If you have more than 28 meal ideas on your list you can start doubling up similar dishes so you have multiple choices in some grid squares. This is not necessary at the start, but if you already have sufficient dinner recipes this gives you more flexibility. I often have two, three, or even four options for a given night on the rotation, and when I try something new that we like, I find a spot to slide it into the rotation so I won’t forget it.

I find adding side dishes to be pretty routine, so I don’t include these on my plan. This way I can stock up on in season vegetables and use up what I have on hand rather than limiting myself to very specific sides. But if you would find it helpful to include veggies, fruit, various breads, or other auxiliary dishes, by all means write those on your planner!

Here's my current winter master menu plan, just to give you an idea what I'm talking about. I've tried every which way to format it so it shows up fully, but I can't figure it out, but you can get the gist of things. (Sorry, dear Saturday!) Note how the plan reflects our life. Sunday meals now are very simple soups because most weeks we eat supper with our small group. On Friday afternoons I'm out late running one girl to piano lessons, so I want something that's easy to prepare. And so on. The key is to make your plan reflect your life and preferences!  Finally, remember - you only need ONE entree in each spot on the grid to start with. You can add more later as you like. The crazy little notes (SD15, etc.) are references to specific cookbooks.

In the next piece I'll explain how I put my master plan in action each week, building in flexibility to take advantage of sales and seasonal offerings and also keeping the level of novelty high enough that I don't decide to chuck the whole system!


Sunday (Noon)
SOUPS
Monday
Tuesday

Kids cook
Wednesday

Crockpot
Thursday

.
Friday

quick-
Saturday
 Minestrone ch. (180CFG),

Bacon/veggie soup

Potato soup
Ch w/ toasted couscous (229 SD)

Ch/gn beans/pot,
Hamburgers,

“Salis. Steak” (13SD1),

BBQ gyros (246 SD)
Crockpot:
Beef/noodles,

Swedish Beef (255SD)

Stir-fry (beef or ch.)
147, 184 CFG

Asp. Beef stir-fry (100,’04)

Chinese Chick stir-fry 235 SD
Taco salad,

Taco pie,

Mex. Pizza,

CP Taco  Chicken – 125 SD

SW sausage,

Lettuce wrap-ups,

Apple chicken 5SD
Tortilla soup;

Taste of China soup – DD

Chick/rice chowder 13 SD
Maple BBQ ch.,

Asian Honey ch. (34 SD)
Sloppy J (220,’03),

Sloppy Janes 192 DD

(Hoagy buns)
It. Gr. Beef sand

Crockpot:
Cr. Tom. Ch.,

Apricot chicken

CP Beef sand 17SD

Mock Pot Roast (176 Slow Cooker ckbk)

Spaghetti – tomato, regular, pie, or ziti

Chicken-potato broil,

 Smothered ch. (QC’07)

Chili: regular or white
(DASH 189)

Pot/leek/spin soup - printed
Parm. Ch.,

Ch. Scallopine,

Rest. Style Chinese Ch (203SD)
Shepherd’s skillet 58SD

Jambalaya 87SD

Chinese burritos (65 CFG)
Indonesian Chicken (190 SD)

Stew
Baked ch/rice,

Ch/asparagus,

Corny chicken (’05)
Taco soup

Hard tacos

Beany burritos 8SD

Ham’n egg sand

Quiche (spin. + cheeseburger)

Red beans and rice (kielbasa) 16SD

Chunky ch. Soup (61’03)

Beef barley soup (7CFG)
Strog. on bun

Meatballs

Meatloaf

Sesame or Bombay ch.

Sw/sour ch.

Teriyaki ch

Ch. Lo Mein (194 CFG or 226SD)
Taco stack

CP BBQ ch.,
Thai Pork Salad (286 CFG)

Potato crusted fish (212 SD)

Fish – baked, Florentine (86,’03)
212 SD; 114CFG

Span. Rice/beans

CP apricot chicken

Enchilada cass 92SD

Enchiladas
Moroccan Chicken (152 SD)

Pizza
3 Responses
  1. Emily B Says:

    Thanks so much for doing all this, Anne! The most helpful part to me (which is pretty embarassing to admit) was the fact that you said to set aside a few HOURS to make the menu. I never take a a few "hours" to do ANYTHING! So, I blocked out that time tonight and then ran into another snag: I only know how to cook about 15 meals! Combine that with the fact that three of us are gluten-free and two of us are gluten-, dairy-, soy-, color-, and preservative-free has shed light on why cooking has become something I hate. Needless to say, it is going to take more than the few hours I planned tonight to straighten everything out, but I am on the right road and excited once again about feeding everybody!
    Thanks again and much love,
    Emily B


  2. Anne Says:

    Emily -

    I'm so glad it makes sense and is helpful! You're keeping me honest here - I rarely find several hours at a time to do one thing, too! (Elders' meetings nights, are the best bet, though. :) ) So, another way to do this is to collect your cookbooks, pad of paper/notebook, and anything else you might need into a tote bag. Then, grab a few minutes at a time to work on a meal plan until you are finished. I think most things I've done over the past 20 years or so have been in lots of little snatches of time. I do the same for lesson planning and any number of other tasks. It's only recently, with my youngest 7, that I am sometimes now able to find longer periods of time to work on one thing. Good thing, too, because my brain is so fried, I have enough trouble corralling it without splintering every task into a zillion pieces.

    As for having only 15 meals that work for your family's dietary needs - start with those, and slowly add more as you find other things that work. Before I started writing down meal plans, I used to discover something we liked, but I would forget about it or where the recipe was located before I could use it again.

    Love to you and your dear family!


  3. SarahD Says:

    Well now I'm hungry (literally!) to know some of the recipes on your menu. There are some tasty sounding dishes on your rotation that I have never heard of before. Thanks for taking the time to post this. We've used a similar system for several years now, but it's always refreshing to get ideas from another woman.