I’m taking a few days “off” this week to work on a book. A “real” one that will never get written if I don’t make it a priority. I love this guest post from Sara of Weekend Shakeups showcasing her inCREDibly creative take on menu planning! (Haven’t I mentioned before how people like us are creative??!!)
“What do you want for dinner?”
My brain initiates total shutdown. My husband’s eyes glaze over. We lamely fumble through ideas, then eat junk while our fresh food wastes away. The solution advocated by almost every blogger ever, including Nony? Menu planning. Sigh. Menu planning is great; we notice a big difference in our stress levels, budget, and food quality when we make one. But when we sit down to plan, my brain still stops working.
I try to get ideas from our recipe box and cookbooks, but there are too many options and not enough structure for me. We plan complicated dishes, then go off-menu when life happens. We make more junk…or we throw in the towel and go out to eat. I love eating out. Big restaurant menus are so pleasant to flip through, and I end up having to narrow down between several choices that all sound great. If only menu planning could be more like ordering at a restaurant.
That thought got my creative juices flowing. I found a bistro menu template and adapted it as my idea took shape. I started with our breakfast foods. For this section, I focused on reminders to add healthy and/or hearty sides to our favorite breakfasts, and I added enough detail that guests could easily figure things out.
Our recipe binder is from Costco. We love using index cards to cook because we can stick them right where we need them, and it made sense to add my menu right in.
I moved on to some of our favorite dinner foods, changing the layout and categories as I developed my idea. I started each category with the broadest variants and ingredient lists, then added specific dishes we’ve enjoyed several times. I used my best “snooty upscale dining” voice and named each dish. My Indian American husband’s favorite veggie sandwich with ketchup, mustard, and a masala blend became the “Happy Indian.” His aunt’s signature Tex-Mex dish was re-christened “Burritochilada.” Say it out loud, giggle, and then read my description:
Burritochilada – classic burrito with an enchilada-style sauce; large flour tortilla filled with hand-mashed refried kidney bean and shredded four-cheese blend, ladled with an enchilada-style sauce of diced tomato, bell pepper, and onion and topped with a dollop of sour cream
Sorry for the terrible lighting. I always get crafty when it’s dark out. Burritochilada is third from the bottom on the left-hand page.
On the last page, I listed our favorite lunch foods, including sandwiches and other basics, simple dishes from other categories, freezer foods, and leftovers that reheat well. I also listed snacks, sides, and beverages that we often keep on hand. I put a copy of the lunch and breakfast pages (which snooty me called “Mid-Day Favorites” and “Day-Starters”) on the fridge as a quick reminder of all the options we have. So far, we’ve been using these pages with success, meaning we often look at it and say, “Oh yeah, I’ll have that!”
I would like it if the columns were more tidy, but I care more about it being functional!
A week after I drafted my menu, I put it to the test with overnight guests. Before their visit, I emailed them a pdf of our menu, and they chose lasagna rolls for dinner and pancakes with fruit for breakfast. There was none of the usual hemming and hawing of them not wanting to ask for specific things or us worrying that they wouldn’t like our food. One of them (who loves all things organization) even called my menu “an exquisite piece of art.”
And…as I have seen Nony do so many times…the commitment of writing about something was enough of a push to actually do the thing (because it takes, like, 2 minutes). After almost 2 weeks of avoiding it, I menu-planned. I flipped around my menu—ok, first I took time to assemble my menu by sticking the printouts in page protectors in my recipe card binder, then I started flipping—until I found inspiration. And I really did find inspiration! And I got overly ambitious, but I figure that a plan that we’ll stick to for a few days is much better than no plan at all.
What I love most about my restaurant-style menu is its flexibility. We can add new dishes or add-ons like calorie counts and per-serving prices, and we can send the whole thing to guests or copy-and-paste a few options. It’s a level of structure that works well for me: broken into categories, but still compact enough to browse quickly. And I can post the breakfast and lunch pages in pretty photo frames as daily reminders of our many options. Ok, they’re in page protectors on the fridge now, but they could be in pretty frames. (Excuse of the day for not doing a 5 minute frame project: We’re moving in a month and aren’t allowed to hang anything in this apartment.)
If you want to make your own restaurant-style menu, try starting with one category. List the foods your family eats most often, then add a few related meals you’d like to each more of. Choose a theme, then name and describe your dishes in that style. Adjust the level of detail to your needs. Do you want to remind yourself of everything to add to the grocery list or just list your favorite meals in a quick-scan format? Keep the fonts easy-to-read with plenty of white space, and add a few more dishes every time you menu-plan.
If that’s way too much structure for you, then start a running list of dishes each time you plan your week’s meals and snacks. After a few weeks, you might try to divide it into categories, starting simple (breakfast, lunch, dinner main dish, dinner side dish, snacks). Do this for a few weeks each season, and you’ll have a pretty comprehensive list of your meals.
Ultimately, make sure any menu you make is usable. I love having a digital copy, but menu planning is overwhelming for me. I avoided it until I could physically flip the pages back and forth. So even if you only have a section or two finished, print them out or do whatever you need to do to make them work for you.
Sara is a recovering slob whose love of organizing was usually buried under clutter. After peeling layers of stuff for over a decade, she decided to ditch the crafts and refocus her creative energy on her home and recreation. She loves low-key travel on a tight budget and shares tips and planning methods at Weekend Shakeups.--Nony