Effective menu planning is rewarding in terms of time and money, especially given how little effort it takes. Those who do it well seem to have internalized its rules. The good news: The rest of us can learn, too. We asked three food experts to share their menu-planning strategies―from shopping savvy to using ingredients wisely. Here are their tips for success.
1. Resolve to make the effort. As with any goal―losing weight, exercising, or eating healthier―the first step is making a commitment, says Susan Nicholson, who writes the syndicated newspaper column 7 Day Menu Planner. Just decide you’re going to do it. Involve those who eat with you by asking what they do and don’t like to eat―even kids as young as five or six can be included―then factor their preferences into your plans.
2. Pick a planning style to suit your personality. “I love the ‘cook once, eat twice’ strategy,” says Ellie Krieger, RD, host of Healthy Appetite on the Food Network and author of The Food You Crave.
“I plan my weekly meals by first deciding what three major proteins I’m going to eat, then I make them do double duty. If I buy a rotisserie chicken, I prepare a salad one night and chicken tacos the next. If I’m making roasted pork loin with veggies on Monday, I may use the leftover for pulled-pork sandwiches Wednesday night.”
Nicholson maps out four weeks of menus on a calendar or grid. For each day, she lists an entrée, sides, and dessert, making sure to mark out days she routinely eats away from home. “Most of us have at least 10 favorite meals. If you’re a beginner, it’s simple to fill in those 10, then repeat them until the grid is full.” When you’re ready, begin adding new recipes or tweak your menu to keep things fresh.
3. Make a shopping list. Keep a generic list on hand that includes things you buy frequently (such as milk, eggs, chicken breasts), then add extras so you don’t have to start from scratch each week, Nicholson says. She puts a shopping-list template on her computer and arranges ingredients in sections corresponding with the layout of her favorite supermarket to make shopping easier.
4. Shop strategically. “Shop on a day that works best for you,” says Toni Lydecker, author of Serves One: Simple Meals to Savor When You’re on Your Own. Consider your market’s schedule by asking when it receives fresh shipments from vendors. Be flexible with your list, too: If you’re planning to cook asparagus one night but the green beans look better, go with the beans.
5. Cook perishables first. “Cook with perishables like fresh fish or salad greens early in the week,” Lydecker says. “Then later you can rely on staples: a simple omelet or pasta dish.”
Krieger likes to balance her market basket with a mix of fresh and frozen produce. “It’s easy to overdo it on the fresh produce and end up throwing out extras,” she says. She buys frozen vegetables like peas, spinach, and corn to use on days when her supplies of fresh produce have run low.
6. Grade your efforts. “Every time you finish a meal, critique it,” Nicholson says. “When a meal works, give it a gold star.” Build a collection of gold-star meals so menu planning takes less time. In only a few weeks, you’ll have a complete collection of time-tested and family-approved meals.