Successful meals begin long before you address knife to vegetable or pour oil into the sauté pan. Although it can be tedious, I’ve found that menu planning is the foundation of provident eating. When I plan menus I succeed in getting dinner on the table even on time crunch days, thereby avoiding financially and calorically expensive take-out. Menu planning also allows me to consider my own food goals and actually put them into practice. Finally, I find that I waste much less food, thereby saving even more money, when I plan menus.
The most critical element of menu planning has nothing to do with the food itself. This element is scheduling. My husband and I come to a Sunday evening meeting together with our schedules for the coming week in mind. We resolve conflicts and clarify outside obligations. Armed with this information I avoid the disappointment of learning of an evening meeting just as I am preparing to plate a particularly time-intensive dinner. By utilizing this information in my menu planning I can tailor the menus to the variable circumstances of each day and prepare menu components in advance as necessary.
When you know how your day is going to flow you can plan how meal preparation is going to fit into it. If you are going to be busy in the morning but relatively free in the late afternoon you could prepare a meal that requires more attention immediately prior to serving. If you expect to be busier right before dinner hour then a slowly cooking or quick preparation meal may be the best option.
Another benefit to menu planning is that it allows me to thoughtfully plan meals that reflect my own culinary ideology and goals, a difficult task to accomplish on the fly with limited time. Consider your nutritional goals, your honest feelings about food and food production, your budget, and your time; then, incorporate these goals into your weekly plan. For instance, imagine that you have decided to replace one meat-centric meal per week with a vegetarian meal; if you have planned in advance you will be more likely to succeed with this goal.
Planning menus is a great way to encourage yourself to try new foods or recipes that you would likely pass over if you were pressed for time and hungry. If you are trying to include more greens in your diet you could plan to make kale chips one night instead of serving potato chips with the hot dogs. Perhaps the next week you could add a second green, and so on. As far as I am concerned, dietary changes meet with less resistance when you allow yourself to make them gradually.
Finally, planning menus allows you to take advantage of sales, remember important holidays and family anniversaries, and avoid the frustration of missing just one or two ingredients or having excess ingredients languish in your refrigerator.
© Katherine C. Otterstrom, June 2012