How to Plan a Week of Menus

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It's the million-dollar question: What's for dinner? When you plan
ahead, there's no need to stare with glazed eyes into the refrigerator
hoping for divine inspiration. Make grocery shopping a snap, eat more
satisfying meals and always know what's for dinner--with just a little
advanced planning.

Things You'll Need

  • VCRs
  • Set aside time to plan your menu. Saturday or Sunday afternoons are a good time to think about the week ahead. If you stick to a routine, you're more likely to be successful in continuing with your menus.

  • Check your family's weekly schedule to find out how many nights and eaters you need to plan for. See 266 Coordinate a Family Calendar.

  • Match the time needed to prepare specific dinners to your family's schedule: On lazy Sundays you'll have time for a slow-cooked pork roast while jam-packed Wednesdays might mean throwing stew ingredients into a crock pot before leaving the house in the morning. Some nights, you may only have time to pick up a pizza between shuttling the kids from practice to piano lessons.

  • Be realistic: On weeknights, plan quick and easy meals that can be prepared ahead or cooked quickly. Simple meals can be delicious--such as goat cheese and herb omelets or angel hair pasta with olive oil, fresh tomatoes and Parmesan cheese.

  • Build dinners around tried-and-true recipes for the least resistance from picky eaters. You don't need to reinvent the wheel every time you sit down to plan your menus.

  • Focus on the main dish first: grilled fish, broiled steaks, marinated pork tenderloin, roasted chicken or pasta primavera. Build in salads and side dishes to round out the meal.

  • Try at least one new dish each month--it might become your family's next favorite. Use family dinners as a menu-testing laboratory and cultivate adventurous eaters.

  • Get inspiration for new recipes from cooking magazines, cookbooks, your newspaper's weekly food section or Web sites such as Epicurious.com and Williams-Sonoma.com. Check out software, such as the one from LivingCookbook.com that has a meal-planning calendar that accesses your saved recipes.

  • Scan the advertised specials in the newspaper and incorporate budget items into your weekly menu. Find a deal on filet mignon? Make that the star of your menu one night.

  • Take inventory of your pantry and fridge for any produce or perishable items that need to be used. Incorporate them into your menus.

  • Spice up your die-hard dinners. Try fajitas instead of burgers, couscous instead of white rice, bok choy instead of broccoli or Indian-spiced ground beef instead of meat loaf.

  • Behold the humble casserole. It's not the most glamorous entre'e, but for a no-fuss meal--be it Mexican tortilla, shepherd's pie or homemade mac and cheese--it's tasty, it can be assembled in advance, and it doesn't need a side dish, except perhaps a simple salad. Freeze the remainder for a quick meal later in the week.

  • Plan for speedy leftovers. For instance, grill extra chicken breasts on Monday for a quick chicken Caesar on Wednesday. Poach additional salmon on Tuesday for easy omelets with chives and goat cheese on Thursday. Triple a recipe of black bean chili-- use the leftovers to top baked potatoes the next day and freeze the rest. Check out sources such as RealSimple.com for more multiple day recipes.

  • Store your weekly menus in your computer, or in a file folder or three-ring binder that you keep in your kitchen. That way, you can easily access old meals that were a hit.

Tips & Warnings

  • Keep an envelope of takeout menus in your household organizer for easy reference-- even staunch menu planners need a break sometimes. See 265 Create a Household Organizer.
  • Use sticky notes to mark intriguing recipes in your cookbooks. When you're stuck, you can always crack one open for easy inspiration. See 300 Organize Recipes and Cookbooks.
  • Before heading to the market, chop up leftovers for fried rice. Steak or chicken, veggies, frozen peas and green onions can be saute'ed with soy sauce and cooked white rice--stir in an egg to bind it together and a dollop of oyster sauce for an authentic zing.
  • Keep a quick meal on hand for nights when you're not in the mood to cook. After all, anyone can whip up spaghetti with jarred sauce in less than 15 minutes (see 309 Organize the Pantry).
  • Stock up on frozen vegetables such as peas, corn, spinach, green beans and julienned bell peppers-- they're just as nutritious as fresh ones, and they make last-minute cooking a snap. See 306 Efficiently Use the Refrigerator and Freezer and 303 Cook Ahead.
  • Instead of spending precious minutes baking a dessert (who has the time?), stock no-cook sweets such as frozen yogurt and sorbet. One night a week, when time allows, treat your clan to an easy homemade apple crumble or store-bought pound cake topped with berries and whipped cream.
  • Post your menu on the refrigerator or kitchen bulletin board and your family can always have the answer to "What's for dinner?"

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