Learn How to Menu Plan

Dear Home Ec 101,

I need to get our food budget under control, we spend a ton of money eating out.  It’s starting to cause fights.  I can’t cook, I can’t plan, and even if I could I wouldn’t know where to start.


Hopeless in Hopeswell

Menu planning saves time, energy, and money. You don't have to wait until you are an accomplished cook to start. This is the couch 2 5k of feeding yourself healthy, budget conscious food.


Heather says:

First you need to decide why menu planning has failed in the past.  Was the plan too sudden of a shift from drive through windows to four course dinners?  Couch potatoes don’t turn into marathon runners overnight and it would be difficult to completely change course in a short period of time.  The health gurus and frugal queens may jump down my throat for this advice, but so be it.  If you are new to cooking, but must put a stop to the fast food habit use convenience foods.  Did you hear that? I just recommended dinners like Hamburger Helper or Taco Kits.

The first two weeks of your menu planning endeavor is spent getting used to eating at your table.  Yes, that thing buried underneath the bills and overdue library books.  Your first mission is to clean it off, get a piece of paper, a writing utensil of your choice, and sit down for ten minutes.  List the days of the week and any activities that may make meal preparation difficult.  Our family deals with joint custody based on a rotating shift, so our difficult nights vary from week to week.  Allow one night for leftovers, we call it CORN: Clean Out Refrigerator Night and one night that is a complete break from cooking.  As you gain experience with menu planning the night off may be a meal pulled from the freezer, but for now frozen pizza or sandwiches will fit the bill.

This leaves a maximum of five dinners to plan.  Remember, these first two weeks are only about getting used to being in the kitchen and dining room.  Don’t worry if the nutrition isn’t perfectly balanced.  This is just your first step.  If you can read (and you are right now, so don’t lie) you can handle making spaghetti with jarred sauce.  Add a couple frozen chicken patties and you have a cheater’s chicken Parmesan.   Pre-made salads can be jazzed up with hard boiled eggs, canned tuna, or grilled chicken and shrimp.  Ground beef and a packet of brown gravy can be served over egg noodles or instant mashed potatoes with corn or green beans.  Any of these meals can be put together in under twenty minutes and are simply a matter of following the directions on the packages.

Will these meals be served at the Four Seasons? No, but they are edible and won’t break the bank as you find your kitchen legs.  Next Friday I’ll cover your next step adding variety.

List your plan and remember that it is simply a guide to help you avoid the drive through.  Each night before bed glance at your menu and make sure nothing needs to be done the night before.  There have been many days where I have kicked myself for forgetting to get meat from the freezer or place beans to soak.  Sure, the world doesn’t stop, but it’s just one more thing to deal with.  As you become acquainted with your kitchen you don’t need any unnecessary hassle.

Don’t forget to check out Learn How to Menu Plan (Part 2) and Learn How to Menu Plan (Part 3).

Have a domestic question? Please send it to helpme@home-ec101.com.

PS If you know someone who would find this handy, there is an option to email this post directly to them.


  1. Alyssa J on September 8, 2015 at 5:55 pm

    I absolutely have to agree with this, although I currently don’t have a real dining room or table at the moment. In undergraduate, meal planning was a lifesaver for my roommates and I. As a graduate student, I just can’t express how useful and wonderful having a menu for a week is. @Learning the ropes, those are fantastic ideas. Raw foods are absolutely perfect for killing those hunger pains and even for actual meals.

  2. Cathy D on September 13, 2010 at 6:11 pm

    I’d love to see the advice you sent to the new mom whose toddler has food allergies because I am in the EXACT same boat here!!

    Thanks 🙂

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  6. Faith on July 22, 2008 at 4:54 pm

    I would like to get into menu planning again. We got away from it for a few reasons: 1) Hubby travels alot. 2) Karate and theater practices – so meals I have are “too heavy” or there isn’t enough time to make & eat before it’s time to go. 3) Fussy eaters – I’m talking all three of us here. There are nights, even if I buy something everyone likes, that we (or someone) just doesn’t want that particular thing. HELP!

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  8. tink on July 20, 2008 at 1:50 pm

    Rapunzel and Learning: Great idea on the raw food.

    I actually took mine out of the crisper (where I had a tendency to forget about it) and stuck “munchies” in a glass bowl on the top shelf. That way it’s in my face every time I open the fridge.

    Actually helped my food budget since things didn’t get forgotten about nearly as often.

  9. anonymous on July 19, 2008 at 8:02 pm

    Heather, you’re the greatest. Thanks for the encouragement.

  10. Jane on July 19, 2008 at 9:07 am

    Dear Helpless: Get your husband in the kitchen. It’s fun to cook together. Take a cooking class with your guy. Make it a hobby. Look at making dinner as a nice way to chill out after the day. Good conversation, time to communicate, a glass of wine….. Hope he’ll cooperate. I’ll get into a meditative zen state chopping vegetables, setting the table, doing the whole thing. Not so good on the cleaning up, though. Ask the meat department in your favorite supermarket when they mark down their meat. My market cuts the price early in the morning, and late afternoon. If I’m there, sometimes I can score steaks for half price. Careful of the dates, though.

    • blessedmomof9 on August 27, 2010 at 11:07 am

      The mark down meat idea is one I have been using for the last 20 years. My mother taught me this trick. As soon as I buy the mark down meat, I freeze it and I can serve top dollar meats for half the cost or less weeks and months later. Really helps my food dollar go further in this time of economic decline.

  11. Mom of three on July 19, 2008 at 8:26 am

    Since most of us agree it’s not the cooking we hate, it’s the planning, why do it weekly. I set down with my family and planned out 21 meals that they all like. (Some repeat twice because I have a picky eater-hubby).

    Then I set down in Outlook and I planned out the first week of meals so that they made the best use of our shopping. I created an all day task, for each day and made it that meal. Then I had it repeat every three weeks. I did each of my 21 meals that way. Now all I have to do is when I read my email each morning, is look and see what is on the menu that week. I then lay out the meat to thaw.

    I also got a cheap to do list software off the internet. I made a to do for each meal, making a list of ingredients for that meal. When I go to the store, I check each meal that we are eating for that week and print the to do for that meal. That gives me the grocery list. I then mark off things I still have on hand, and I am off to the store.

    The only problem is you have to follow your plan. And be flexible. Last night we were supposed to have Grilled Chicken Salad. BUt hubby and I haven’t had anytime to ourselves for a while, so we had dinner out, the kids had whatever looked good to them, (pizza).
    If the kids have band practice, then I will move a dinner or two around. Because the meals rotate every three weeks, and they always practice on Tuesdays, our Tuesday meals are easy to fix, don’t require us all to eat together, and can be eaten on the road. (i. e. hotdogs.)
    And like Ivy said, don’t plan 4 course meals. Just because we are planning ahead, doesn’t mean we are different people. Plan meals your family will eat. Don’t have chicken on the plan three nights in a row. While that may be fun the first time, when it repeats three weeks later, your family is going to balk. I promise.
    Our meals are things like pork chops, steak tips, chicken wings, hamburgers, hotdogs, throw in a salad, or a few veggies, and you’ve got a meal that can be fixed in 20 minutes or less, and the planning is done for you.
    If you get sick of a meal, or find you like something else, it’s easy to change the task out and have a new rotation set up in seconds.

  12. rapunzel on July 19, 2008 at 6:42 am

    I agree with the raw foods suggestion, many times I reach for the convenient when I’m hungry and I force myself to stop and open the produce drawer instead. A crisp apple with a smear of cheese is much more satisfying, and healthy, than the handful of chips!

  13. Heather on July 19, 2008 at 6:37 am

    @Jasi I sent you an email. I completely understand your situation. We only have an intolerance and I’m the carnivore, but I get it. Hang in there.

    @Brenda and everyone else, sound advice, thank you for adding to the post. 🙂

  14. learning the ropes on July 18, 2008 at 9:03 pm

    May I add my 2 cents to this awesome advice by Heather – learn to relish raw foods. A whole apple, a handful of cashew and raisins easily tide me over a “need to eat NOW!” phase and give me a chance to fix something in my kitchen instead of driving down that Burger King. there are so many things that can be enjoyed raw or with under a minute of preparation. Chop up a cucumber, peel a banana, microwave a corn-cob, crack open some peanuts, microwave a bowl of sprouts and sprinkle some lemon zest…the possibilities are endless and so is variety.

  15. Jasi on July 18, 2008 at 6:43 pm

    I used to be awesome about cooking, but since my daughter was diagnosed with food allergies I’ve lost my interest in meal planning altogether.

    She can’t eat dairy, nuts, most fruit, eggs and she’s -just- outgrown her wheat allergy (that one was hard). So what do I make? When I love veggies, hubby is a carnivore and picky toddler has food allergies! Oh, and we have a new baby.

    Where’s my phone? I’m hungry…

  16. Brenda on July 18, 2008 at 6:19 pm

    You have given very sound advice to this reader, Heather. I think the suggestion about “getting used to eating at your own table” is probably a good place to begin. At first, it won’t matter as much what is going on the table….just so the meal is being eaten at home. And not all convenience foods are bad. Bagged salads, (as you said) are a great example. A chef’s salad can come together in no time with a few goodies thrown in. Start slow…give yourself time….prepare for a certain amount of failure. I prefer whole meats, like a chicken or roast beef, as a starting place for many meals. You can live off the leftovers for a good 2-3 days.

    I never mentioned it before, but thanks for your e-mail back at the end of April!! What a nice surprise!

    I really enjoy checking this blog….lots of good ideas. :o)

    many thanks, & good luck to Hopeless in Hopeswell,

  17. tink on July 18, 2008 at 4:50 pm

    I used to hate cooking–HATE HATE HATE it.

    I only began to enjoy it recently — believe it or not, it took menu planning to get me to this point.

    In the meantime, honey, I have a hundred different “cheater” meals. Stuff that take few ingredients, few skills, few dollars and a few minutes to throw together.

    NO, they aren’t the healthiest meals in the book, but they are hot, filling and will save you money. Like Heather said, they’ll help to get you to the next step.

    Campbells Soups has some quick recipes on their site. Two of my kids favorites came from the back of soup cans years ago.

    Oh, and Crock pots are lifesavers. These recipes use only 3 ingredients!

    If I can turn into a decent cook, so can you. Good luck!

  18. Marsha on July 18, 2008 at 4:34 pm

    I make the weekly menu on Wednesday. Why Wednesday? Because the grocery ads in my area run from Tuesday to Wednesday. That way if there are good buys I can work them into the menu.

    I also have a column for any holidays, special events and outings that may happen during the week. So if we have a day trip scheduled for one day then I’ll know that I should fire up the slow cooker or make that leftover night.

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