In honor of the ongoing input about menu planning going on over at Faith and Family (where Arwen blogs) I thought I'd have today's post touch on this topic. When it comes to meal planning, most women either love it or hate it, and since I've been in both categories, I'm hoping I have something helpful to say!
I was raised in a family that operated on the "pantry principle"; that is, there was always a substantial stock of assorted raw ingredients on hand (frozen meat, canned and dry goods) and each day's meal was concocted from items on hand. Weekly shopping trips were for perishables (dairy, produce, bread) and to restock items that had fallen below a certain threshold. The money-saving trick was never to replenish at full price if you could help it. That is, in the week chicken is on super sale, you buy enough chicken to last until the next sale rolls around. You have the money for this because this week you're eating the beef that you bought when it was on sale.
The catch to this system, of course, is the start-up. I was blessed that when Roger and I got married my mother took me out and stocked a basic pantry. (This was in addition to the awesome shower gift from some friends -- a laundry basket full of spices and baking items.) I'm glad I was able to do the same for my married daughters. I still work on a modified version of this principle, and consequently in 28 years of marriage have never raised my grocery budget above the government's "thrifty" spending level. (Click on the second bullet, and then the month. It's a pdf.)
The only glitch in this approach to food shopping is the day-to-day "cook what you feel like from stock on hand". When I was pregnant I was blessed to never actually get sick, but NOTHING ever sounded good. If Roger told me what he wanted I could cook it, and eat it when it was done, but he very quickly got tired of coming home from work wanting dinner and being asked "what do you want?" So for the sake of marital harmony, I began planning menus.
There are several possible approaches to menu planning. One is the "thumb through all your recipes and pick some out" technique. The one I tried first was the "master list." I listed all the main and side dishes my family liked, sorted by main ingredient -- pork, potatoes, pasta, whatever. Then I'd put together a week's worth of plans based on the lists. I still do a variation of this, but I've found that I can be more frugal if I do an alternation of a "big" shopping week -- sometimes hitting as many as eight stores -- with a "fill-in" week for milk and produce. So I plan several weeks at a time.
If you don't have as big a repertoire as I do, but would like to expand it, try this variation. Assign each day of the week a main food: Monday -- pasta, Tuesday -- hamburger, Wednesday -- chicken, and so forth. Then make old standbys some weeks, especially when things are busy, and try something new (or a variation, like making your own spaghetti sauce) when you have a little more breathing room. And if you and your family are happy with pasta and jarred sauce every week, don't feel like you have to insert variety all the time!
I have a hard deadline for doing something else now, so I'm going to go ahead and post this even though I could say much more. But if you have any questions, leave them in the comments and I'll try to answer.