Weekly Dinner Plans

"The thing about cooking...I think the big misapprehension that people have is that cooking is time consuming. The shopping part is the time consuming . I mean, the part where you're sitting around saying what are we going to have for dinner tonight is very time consuming. I mean, if it's 4 o'clock and you're in your office and you haven't figured out what you're having for dinner tonight, the battle's half lost."

Ruth Reichl, interview with Terry Gross on Fresh Air [npr.org]

Exactly! The key to cooking dinner every night is planning your meals in advance.  Every Saturday morning, I sit down with the flyer from my local grocery store and plan out that week's menu based on what's on sale.  I make a grid in my cooking notebook, Saturday to Friday, with four columns.  Column 1 is the protein, columns 2 and 3 are the vegetables, and column 4 is the starch.*  Once I've made my plan, I make the shopping list for it on the rest of the page.  It takes some effort; I usually wind up scratching my head over a few of the days, trying to come up with some ideas for what to make that we haven't done recently.  But the benefits are amazing.
*When you're starting out, go with three columns: Protein, Veg, Starch.  I do the two vegetables to make my meals healthier, and get me to think about not making the protein the focus of the meal.  When you're starting out, setting up the menu plan is more important than making sure you get your extra veggies.  Once you've been doing it for a while, you can expand to two vegetables if you want to.

Don't think.  Just cook: Now, when I do get home on a busy Thursday, I can immediately start cooking, instead of trying to work through "OK, what do I cook now?" That is the key to cooking at home every night.  If I have to think about it, as Ruth says, the battle's half lost.  Thoughts about heading over to Tres Portrillos for a margarita and carnitas start to creep in, and it's all over.

There's nothing to cook: Another benefit is avoiding "I don't have anything to cook" incidents.  You bought everything you need when you were shopping.  Now you won't look in your fridge and find a collection of foods that don't really make a meal.

Saves money, too: It's also a good way to keep your grocery bills down.  By planning with the weekly sales right in front of you, it's easy to center your meals around what's on sale.  And, even if you don't follow the sales flyer, it is still cheaper to cook at home than it is to eat out.  Don't get me started about how much more expensive it gets when you give in to the siren song of a fast casual restaurant.

Setting up your meal plan:
Here's my general plan of attack.

Weekend: adventurous cooking
  • If I'm making something that goes bad quickly, like fresh fish, it's Saturday dinner.  Otherwise, Saturday is probably a new recipe that I want to try out.
  • Make a big roast or stew on Sunday, and plan a second meal later in the week around the leftovers.
*These two are the recipes that usually wind up on the blog, unless I'm focusing on a weeknight dish.


Then I pick a collection of weeknight friendly recipes for the rest of the week, usually from the following list:
  • Soup and Salad night
  • Sandwich and Salad night (great if you're in a hurry, and a good way to use up the weekend roast)
  • Big Salad with a loaf of bread night (also great if you're in a hurry)
  • Grilled/Sauteed protein with side of grilled/steamed vegetables, salad and quick starch
Most of my meals fall in this last category of protein with 2 veg and a starch.  Some examples of this, spread across different ethnic cuisines:
  1. American Grilled: Grilled chicken breasts with grilled asparagus, salad and a side of rice
  2. American Roast: Sear-Roast chicken pieces with frozen peas, salad and roast new potatoes 
  3. American Saute: Pork Chop Saute with steamed green beans, salad and a side of orzo
  4. Chinese: Stir fried chicken with stir fried broccoli, stir fried cabbage and a side of rice
  5. Mexican: Grilled flank steak with salsa, black beans and tortillas
  6. Italian: Italian Sausage with quick pasta sauce, steamed broccoli and spaghetti
  7. Greek: Grilled Lamb Shoulder steaks with steamed green beans, shredded carrot salad and couscous
  8. French: Seared steak with herb butter with steamed asparagus, salad and roast fingerling potatoes

...the variations are endless.  I just came up with these off the top of my head over the last five minutes.  *Of course, if you've read my blog for any length of time, you know I lean heavily on the grill side of this list, particularly during the summer.

Um.  Well.  OK, I'll admit it.  When we're really in a hurry:  hot dogs with frozen corn and canned baked beans.
*The kids love it.  Hey, they can't all be gourmet meals...

And finally, when I need a break, Diane pitches in with Pizza night.
*She makes a great homemade pizza dough.
**Yes, I married well.  Love you, dear!

I tend to think of the plan as:
  • New Recipe Saturday
  • Sunday Roast
  • Sandwich and/or Soup and/or Salad day
  • American #1 day
  • Stir Fry day or Pasta day
  • American #2 day
  • Mexican day

...but I shuffle it around quite a bit, depending on our schedule, what's on sale, and what looks good in the grocery store flyer

Notes:
*I stuck with a four week meal plan when Diane was on bed rest with our youngest, and I was both DadCooksDinner and Mr. Mom for six months.  I didn't have the energy to figure out a new meal plan every week from scratch.  Nowadays, I'm too adventurous a cook to stick with the same plan month after month.  I always have some new recipe I want to give a try, and a rotating schedule felt too restrictive.

*Sticking with a meal plan, with some slight variations, will also make you a better cook.  You'll start to internalize the techniques and ingredients you need.  This is how I learned to cook, really.  I made sautes a couple of times a week with different pan sauces, then once I had the technique internalized, I moved on to something else.

*It's tough to tell from all that protein I have listed above, but I try to do one soup/salad meal a week, and one vegetarian meal a week.

*I get my CSA box every other Friday in the summer.  That's usually where the vegetables come from when we're in season.  If I'm going to the farmer's market, I fill out the plan as best I can, then put things in general terms in the shopping list.  Like: "veg for stir fry, veg for roast".  Then I fill in at the market.

*Also, once you're comfortable with the general process, don't be afraid to improvise at the store.  Green beans look bad?  Unadvertised special?  Swap something else out.

*Lean on what you know, and what you like.  Chicken Tuesdays?  Chili Thursdays?  Make-your-own-monster-burger-Monday?  Go for it.

So, how about you?  Do you plan your meals for the week?  Any other tips or tricks I didn't mention?  Any go-to weeknight meals, for when you're desperate?  Let me know in the comments, below.

Inspired by:
Ellyn Satter's Secrets of Feeding a Healthy Family: Orchestrating and Enjoying the Family Meal


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15 comments:

Beth said...

I love doing the menu planning every weekend! My day is usually Sunday. And since I'm married to your CSA farmer, and also a farmers' market manager, my main guide for planning is what is in season (ie, what my hubby brings home or the other farmers have) and what we have in the freezer. I then fill in what's missing from the grocery store- usually milk, tortillas and the like.

This has saved me so much time, stress and money over the years! And I'm like you in that the more adventurous cooking happens on weekends, and quick fixes like frittatas and chops, etc. are for weeknight meals.

Thanks for sharing your strategy! It's always good to see someone else's technique for meal planning.

MikeV @ DadCooksDinner said...

Beth,

Thank you! Like you, I try to cook more seasonally now than when I started meal planning. Now that I have a feel for what's in season, I find that it helps me come up with ideas when I'm making my plan.

I love getting that big box from the CSA; it gives me so many ideas for what to cook for the next week or two. And your farmer's market is dangerous for my wallet, but in a good way. I always buy more than I plan to, because I see something that looks too delicious to pass up. Usually, a bunch of somethings. (Like this weekend, when I'll be at the winter market. I'm already planning to pick up some lamb, eggs, buffalo, potatoes, carrots, sausage, lettuce, goat cheese...and whatever else catches my eye.)

And, thank you, and Tim, for all your hard work, providing me and my family (and the rest of us here in Northeast Ohio) with farm fresh food all year round. My cooking wouldn't be as tasty as it is without all the wonderful meat, eggs and produce that I get from you two!

A Year on the Grill said...

I did real well this year for a month on menu planning. then, sadly, all went to heck when the move was planned... now I am just using up pantry foods,

MikeV @ DadCooksDinner said...

@AYOTG:
I'll cut you a break - I can only imagine what moving to the Virgin Islands would do to my menu planning!

Debbie said...

I'm also a menu planner but can be more flexible now that there are only two of us at home. With a busy family, I think menu planning is always a wise, economical and less hectic way to get the family together. I enjoyed reading your great suggestions. You had some good ideas to share. Do you post to Menu Plan Monday? If not, I think you should. Go check it out at I'm An Organizing Junkie. I host a weekly blog event called Crock Pot Wednesday if you ever want to join in for that.

MikeV @ DadCooksDinner said...

@Debbie: Thanks! I'll take a look.

Denise said...

Mike, I found your blog through SeriousEats! I've been menu planning for years. But I can see now that I have been over-thinking it for just as long!
Thank you for the meal grid. It's going to save me sooo much time.
Cheers!
Denise
Ontario, Canada

MikeV @ DadCooksDinner said...

@Denise:

You're welcome. I'm glad I can help!

Lauren said...

I menu plan in advance, but I'm not always great about the whole "follow through" thing. But I'm working on it! If I try to wing it, the battle isn't half lost...it's totally over. I usually just do one veggie and a starch or two veggies with no starch. It's only the two of us so I guess that makes a difference.

Lynn said...

I used to plan weekly menus, but then got out of the habit. When I did, though, I used a grid I put together on my computer and printed out. Because our schedule varies so much, I had a slot for who would be home when, as well as one for the weather forecast. The weather one developed the day I'd planned a big, hot, all-day-in-the-kitchen meal and it turned out to be 95* outside. I didn't want to cook, and no one else wanted to eat.

Chris Lukowski said...

Mike, given you shop only once a week I imagine at least some of your meat is stored in the freezer and thawed out later in the week. In your experience, is there any noticeable deterioration in quality in meat (either red meat or poultry) that's been frozen and thawed in the refrigerator? Do certain types of meat take to this treatment better than others? Also how long would you keep fresh meat in the fridge before deciding to either cook it or freeze it? Thanks!

Mike V @ DadCooksDinner said...

I do keep some of my meat in the freezer - I try to save that kind of meal for later in the week, and leave the stuff I'm using earlier in the week in the refrigerator.

The less oxygen in the package, the longer the meat lasts in the freezer, because they don't get freezer burn, and that seems to affect the meat more than anything else. Cryovaced meats will last for a long time; I've also had good luck with meat wrapped by my butcher for freezing in tight packaging, and meat I've put in zip log bags and squeezed all the air out. I also buy a lot of meat from my farmers market, pre-frozen, to get things like sausage and free-range ground beef.

I keep meet for ridiculously long times in the freezer. I think the FDA says it shouldn't be longer than six months; I've let it go longer than that. But, usually, by that point the freezer burn has set in and I wind up tossing it.

bridgette said...

Thanks so much for this outline mike! I work late hours and my husband is home with our 21month old daughter... this will be a big help to him (and me!) So we can get dinner before 8pm!

Mike V @ DadCooksDinner said...

You're welcome - I'm glad I can help get dinner on the table.

Ched said...

Great site Mike. I use it as a reference all the time for grilling times and techniques. I've been working my way through the recipes as well and have yet to be disappointed.


I've been planning meals for years and if I don't we end up loosing the battle as Ruth points out. We put the meals up on the white board so they're plain to see for all. No excuses!


When I'm desperate (read lazy) bacon and tomato sandwiches with julienne carrots, cucumbers and hummus hit the table or breakfast for dinner!! I also make beef and ground chicken burgers and make at least one batch to freeze for those nights we need a quick meal. Other good meals we make in advance in large batches and freeze are empanadas and spaghetti sauce.


Keep up the great work and thanks!!


Brian

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