Wednesday, June 2, 2010

The Making of a Menu

A list, a plan, a tool. A menu is all of these things. It can be as simple as a general idea in your head of what you are making tonight and tomorrow, or it can be very formal with breakfast, lunch and dinner planned out for a month in advance. The menus I make fall somewhere in between, but I thought I'd share my menu making process, and maybe glean ideas from anyone else who would like to share.

First, I do plan for breakfast and lunch, but the menus here are general. I have a list of items I keep on hand for breakfasts: cold and hot cereal with milk, bread for toast and jam, yogurt, syrup for pancakes, muffin mixes etc. I will make a big family breakfast every chance I get, because I love breakfast, but I don’t get that many chances. On a regular school day, people leave the house at four different times for various school and work schedules, so breakfast is a grab and growl affair. Lunch is pretty informal too. Sandwiches, leftovers, a salad and bread, are all options. My little children love macaroni and cheese or Ramen noodles for lunch too. Many times I use leftovers to make a stir fry. Just relaxed, but I still have a certain list of items that I keep on hand, therefore, it hits the shopping list, but I don’t usually write down a week of lunch and breakfast menus.

Dinner is a different story. I once made a list of 18 weeks of dinner menus with shopping lists attached. I look back on that and wonder, "Why did I do that?" Not that it wasn't useful, but with the variety of life and my love of new recipes, I really have never used them as I originally planned. I do still refer to the stack if I am at a loss for a menu item, so they were not a waste of time, but life is not static enough for me to follow such a plan.

Now I make my menu a week at a time. I start out by looking in my refrigerator. Any items needing immediate attention get jotted on a bit of paper. For instance, today I have 1 cooked chicken breast, 1 banana squash, and the makings of a green salad that need to be on my radar as I plan. Also some whipped cream in a can that I found on a good deal, but is something I don't usually have on hand, so I add it to the list. The next thing to consult is my stack of recipes to try. I usually try a couple each week, so if there are special or specific ingredients they need to be noted on the shopping list. Then it is time to consult the ads for this week’s grocery deals. I always shop at the store where milk is cheapest for the week, because it is such a huge part of my grocery budget, so I start by consulting the ad with the best milk prices. If something fresh is on sale, I make a note of it on my list.

Then, I have a system that I use to keep us eating a variety of foods and rotating through our food storage. I have categories of meals, loosely grouped, and I choose one from each every week. For instance, I want to have one chicken meal, one beef meal, one rice, one potato, one bean dish, one soup night, and one with pasta—you get the idea. You can see that these overlap a bunch which is why I say they are loosely grouped. I use it as a guide for plugging recipes in for the week. I also plan to use leftovers. Say my ground beef recipe at the beginning of the week is sloppy joes, the leftover meat makes a perfect base for chili at the end of the week. My family will never recognize them as leftovers! It is now a completely different meal. Last, but not least, I ask myself or my family, what do you want for dinner this week?  I usually get at least one or two reqests.

I only plan five dinners, and I do not usually assign them a date, just sometime this week. I find that at least one night a week is freezer special; pulling out a bag of French fries and corn dogs etc. The other tends to be filled up with something that just comes up. I don’t know why…I used to plan 7 menus, but I found they always lasted into next week. So I quit. You can do just like you want. If you are using this site for menus, take your list of foods to use to the recipes tab and search under ingredients, or by category. I believe in menus, they keep me sane in the face of the dinner rush and help me make sense at the grocery store. I’d love to hear how you put yours together too!

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If you are visiting, welcome! I am in the process of a Vulcan Mind Meld with my computer to put all of my right hand recipes for feeding my family on here as fast as possible. Please come back often and stay awhile. There are so many exciting things to come!

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A clearing house for all my favorite recipes. All my food musings. All my favorite cookbooks and kitchen gadgets. If you enjoy it here, and find it useful, welcome!