May 22, 2006

Menu Planning 101

Grocery shopping becomes more efficient, faster, and cheaper when you plan your week's meals in advance. Your family's health gets a boost, too, if you include a focus on nutrition as you plan. The problem: it's hard to do, and it takes time. The good news? Life can become more balanced, and simpler, once you conquer weekly menu plans.

Considerations include cost, time, your level of cooking expertise, and overlapping nutrition concerns with all of these as well as your family's taste preferences. Nutritional factors include things like the American Heart Association's daily requirements (6-11 servings of bread, pasta, and starchy vegetables) or the American Diabetes Association's Pyramid - which is slightly different than the Department of Agriculture's new MyPyramid. There are others: South Beach, etc.

Once you have your nutritional parameters determined, you're ready to plan. For one week, you will need 7 breakfasts, 7 lunches, 7 dinners. 21 meals.

They don't all have to be that different. Plan a basic smoothie recipe, and then have a variety of frozen fruit to use during the week for variety. Breakfast is done for most of the week. Salads for dinner: have several salad bags in the fridge, with a variety of "inserts" -- chicken, nuts, egg, cheese, mandarin oranges, cranberries, carrots, tomatoes, avocado, etc. Ditto for pasta. On Sunday afternoon, cook a casserole or two and many of your week's meals are ready for you: leftovers are great comfort food. Remember gooey sandwiches are great: improvise. Meatloaf for dinner is a meatloaf sandwich lunch. Grilled chicken breasts for dinner can be a great honey-mustard chicken sandwich the next day. Get a slow cooker and you've got several meals at the ready.

Don't make menu planning harder than it is ... strive for excellence, not perfection.

For serious planning, Meals.com is a free site dedicated solely to meal planning. Susan Nicholson offers weekly plans, for free, with recipes and grocery lists, at uexpress.com. So does LightandTasty.com. ArcaMax delivers 7-day menu plans to your email inbox each week, but no grocery list. Pinespring offers a nice option: you input a food item, and it returns with various recipes to make with the item.

Finally, there's the paperwork. OrganizedHome offers a great selection of free downloads: from "freezer inventory" to "shopping list" to weekly and monthly planner sheets.

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