The Agonies, the Ecstasies and the Efficiencies of Menu Planning

The decision to cook at home is not always an easy or evident one, despite the many thousands of Internet commenters who inform you that lentils are always cheaper than—and morally superior to—Big Macs. Small inconveniences and larger questions of food access and kitchen comfort can snowball until preparing your own meals can seem like an insurmountable task.

Once you’ve decided to cook more of your meals at home, or at least determined to start thinking about it, you realize that the project is far from a no-brainer. It’s tempting to discount the role that mental energy, creativity and familiarity with the kitchen play in cooking, framing it instead as a simple question of time. However, an hour or two per week, scheduled at your convenience, can make a world of difference when you ask that age-old question that never stays answered very long: What’s for dinner?

The question is best addressed in advance. The most helpful habit I’ve gotten into is menu planning. When it’s my turn to cook, I derive great comfort from having a battle plan for every night of the week, and knowing that we have all the ingredients on hand. On Sunday morning, I sit down with a few cookbooks and write down anything that sounds appealing. (Breakfast is generally cereal, and lunch is leftovers, so dinner is the only concern at this point.) I write down all the ingredients, add the staples we’re running low on, then arrange the list geographically by supermarket aisle, which makes shopping much faster.

If your main motivation for home cooking is to save money, the next step is to set a budget. How much are you spending on food now, both in- and outside the home? What is a reasonable budget, given your tastes (organic? conventional? artisanal? boxed?) and the availability of food near you? As you start grocery shopping more often, hang onto your receipts and look them over, so you get an idea of how much things cost. This will help you to estimate how much you’ll spend on groceries before you even leave the house. I would suggest making a game of seeing how close your estimate comes to the final bill, but that’s a little nerdy even for me, so I won’t. If you do this, don’t let on that it came from me—I have never gotten a minor thrill from guessing the exact dollar amount, because that would be weird, right?

Even after years of cooking for myself and my husband, there are still lessons to be learned and tips to pick up every week, in the supermarket as well as in the kitchen. Our grocery budget is $300 per month, which might seem lavish or ascetic, depending on your own circumstances. Let’s see how that breaks down on a weekly basis.

(Note: linked recipes are not necessarily my recipes. But they should give you an idea or two.)

Week 1 – $66.10
• Sunday – ziti with broccoli pesto and vegan sausage
• Monday – black beans and rice
• Tuesday – ricotta gnocchi with broccoli pesto
• Wednesday – ziti with tomato sauce and vegan sausage
• Thursday – leftovers
• Friday – ricotta pancakes with cantaloupe and vegan sausage fried in maple syrup
• Saturday – potato & sweet potato pancakes with homemade apple chutney

Supermarket tip: even though the supermarket posts informative signs in each aisle, for some reason management gets very tetchy if you take pictures of them. If you don’t want to be treated like a potential terrorist, ask at the courtesy counter for a list.

Friday/Saturday tip: After you’ve written down five or six meal ideas, let the ingredients dictate how the rest of the week is going to play out. Maybe you’ve realized that you’re going to be left with half a bunch of parsley at the end of the week—think about making tabbouleh salad. Mozzarella? Grilled cheese sandwiches. Ricotta and tomato sauce? Baked ziti.

Breakfast for dinner tip: You know you want to.

Week 2 – $55.81
• Sunday – grilled cheese with broccoli
• Monday – pasta salad
• Tuesday – leftovers
• Wednesday – matzoh brei with braised cabbage
• Thursday – stuffed tomatoes
• Friday – fusilli with roasted red pepper sauce
• Saturday – noodles with ginger-peanut sauce

Cabbage tip: Cabbage has a reputation for being cheap only because a head of cabbage is massive and dense. There is just no way a one-, two- or three-person household is going to eat enough cabbage at once to make it cost-effective. Fortunately, it freezes exceptionally well. Chop up the entire head and throw it in the freezer—et voilà! You’ve basically met your cabbage needs for the next year.

Leftovers tip: Leftovers are the best thing to come home to after a long day (unless it’s your partner’s night to cook). They are also the best thing to bring for lunch. Give yourself a break by planning a dinner of leftovers, and make sure to plan something easily scalable for earlier in the week. (Good: soup. Bad: grilled cheese.)

Snack tip: Include snacks in your meal budget. A bag of chips that you dip into for a salty fix throughout the week, freezer pops to mitigate the oppressive catastrophic climate change heat, baby carrots to crunch on as you cook—this is food that serves a purpose, and it’s way cheaper in the supermarket than elsewhere. Allow yourself treats.

Week 3 – $73.32
• Sunday – curried couscous with veggie burger
• Monday – linguine with lemon cream sauce
• Tuesday – quesadillas with watermelon salad
• Wednesday – bread salad
• Thursday – leftovers
• Friday – otsu noodles
• Saturday – broccoli rabe sandwiches

English muffin tip: Before putting them in your basket, make sure your package of English muffins isn’t covered in blue-green mold, because when it’s 96 degrees out and the supermarket is a 10-minute walk away, and you’re starving, you will not bring them back to the supermarket to get your $1.50 back.

Caper tip: Next to lemons, capers are the most underrated ingredient. (The most overrated is, of course, saffron. What gives?) Briny and adorable, capers take everything you love about olives and fold it into a much cuter package. They’re also surprisingly cheap and keep forever, so keep some on hand for use in just about any Italian dish.

Produce tip: Some vegetables don’t like to be refrigerated but also can’t be left to their own devices for too long (I’m looking at you, tomatoes). Prepare these dishes closer to the shopping date, leaving the hardier veg (broccoli, potatoes, onions) for Friday or Saturday.

Week 4 – $75.79
• Sunday – coconut black beans and rice
• Monday – cucumber & yogurt soup with veggie burger
• Tuesday – coconut curry noodles
• Wednesday – Greek-style macaroni salad
• Thursday – leftovers
• Friday – Greek salad with veggie burger
• Saturday – risotto with peas and dill

Mix & match tip: It’s not exactly fusion cuisine, but if your regular meals are starting to bore you, try making them with ingredients and/or seasoning from a different region. Adding coconut milk, curry and mango to black beans, or making pasta salad with feta cheese, olives and sun-dried tomatoes can bring a whole new dimension to an over-familiar dish.

Mint tip: Remember what I said about the odds of using an entire bunch of parsley without planning for it? Unless you’re throwing a Kentucky Derby party, that goes double for mint. Whenever you come across a recipe that features a little-used herb, consider switching it out with another herb you’ve got on hand or plan to buy for another recipe. That’s one fewer bag of black sludge deliquescing behind the ketchup.

Olive oil tip: If you’re not picky about the brand, you can usually find a bottle that is on sale for 50 percent off. If you’re using it to sauté onions (you are), you don’t need extra-virgin cold-pressed, anyway.

It wasn’t until I laid out my whole system that I realized how many moving parts are involved in a well-oiled dinner routine, but as you begin to plan out your meals, you’ll grow to appreciate the time and money it saves you throughout the week. Whether you follow recipes to the letter or throw ingredients in the pot with Bittman-esque abandon, menu planning is an excellent way to give the food you eat the consideration it deserves.

 

Elise Nussbaum lives in Jersey City with a husband and a cat. She is currently blogging her closet at dressopotamia.blogspot.com.

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46 Comments / Post A Comment

Megano! (#124)

I hope those feed a million people, cuz I can’t afford $75 in groceries a week for myself.
I am so making those sweet potato latkes though.

MissMushkila (#1,044)

@Megano! I spent 50/week when I lived by myself! And I thought I was being conscientous, most of the time. I rarely bought meat, and ate a lot of beans.(although I do buy nice cheese)

My boyfriend spent about 150/two weeks when he lived alone. He bought a lot more meat than I do.

What does everyone else spend? This is something I’ve always wanted to know!

@MissMushkila It depends on what I’m buying that week. About twice a year I declare Pantry Bankruptcy and have to restock all sorts of things (like capers). Those times I’ll spend well over $100 (this last time was $168), but I’m buying all sorts of lasting things, like oils and vinegars and canned ingredients.

Normally a week’s shop for me runs between $40-$60, depending on what’s on sale. I live alone, by the way, but have expensive tastes in coffee and two cats to feed. That amount is going to go up, I fear, because I’ve been told by my doctor to eat red meat.

When I was really poor, I could get by on $15 a week, but that was 20 years ago and I never ate eggs or drank decent coffee.

AnnieNilsson (#406)

@MissMushkila We spend an average of $380 per month. I know this cause I did a spreadsheet. I am fun.
That’s for two people living in Los Angeles. Don’t know if it’s good or what, but it feels OK to us.

@MissMushkila $100 a week, not including the couple of chickens and half a pig and veggie box I buy once a year. But then, I live in a really expensive area (ie a bag of rice, a bottle of soy sauce, a head of broccoli, two apples and two plums cost me $34 last week) so it probably isn’t helpful for comparison.

Blackbird (#2,196)

@MissMushkila I generally spend about $60-80, although this does include (at least in theory) any eating out I do in the week (like getting coffee, or dinner with friends on Friday nights).

It’s all for just myself, but I’m a gluten-free vegetarian, so that tends to drive prices up. On the plus side, no choice paralysis! (“Should I get that? Oh wait, I can’t eat it,” is practically my grocery store mantra now.)

EDIT: My prices might also be a little higher because I live in Orange County, California, which is a pretty expensive place to live. (And I’m getting out of here as soon as I finish college!)

professionalmess (#1,478)

@Megano! I spend like $40-50/week for two people. We eat meat, mostly chicken, because that’s what cheap. I should note that this doesn’t include lunches most days because there’s always free food to be found at school, and my boyfriend usually goes out for his.

Daniel B (#2,486)

@Megano! According to Mint, my wife and I spend 154 bucks a week or so….. That includes things like vitamins and lots of meat, but not booze (which even including bars only comes to around 40-50 a week). The irony of our world is that it costs more to eat healthier….
It would be worse if I didn’t have access to the Army Commissary.

littleoaks (#1,801)

@MissMushkila My grocery bill is reliably right around $40 every weekend. That includes occasional beer and wine but not non-food items (no one ask me what my Fall 2012 total is at CVS already, since I will probably die of shame). I sometimes spend about $10 beyond that during the week–either on extra produce at the farmers market or a mid-week run for a couple of extra grocery items. Also, I usually eat out one lunch during the work week (~$7) and one or two meals on the weekends.

josefinastrummer (#1,850)

@MissMushkila I just started paying attention to this last week! I spent $35 at the Italian Market and made four dishes that lasted me all week for lunch and dinner, including dinner for the boyfriend last night and my roommate dipped into things as well. It’s been all real foods and even included chicken and I am excited to do it again this weekend! And I am really excited to stay out of the grocery store, so I don’t buy junk.
I also started making my own peanut butter which cost about $2 for a bag of peanuts but I’m still working on my recipe. And I get a $17 farm share every Wednesday from a local bakery where I allow myself one sweet and a loaf of good bread. This whole budget/healthy eating is kind of fun!

PrettyNicola (#692)

@MissMushkila We spend about $140 every two weeks for the two of us, and we try to limit our eating out–but to us, that means 3 or 4 times in a two week period. I also suspect my husband does not eat during the day, but this is because he has two months until he officially has a PhD!
But yes, we buy so much meat! And many frozen meals. When I lived alone I bought a pound of chicken to last two weeks, and no frozen things besides ice cream.
My meal planning is basically: oatmeal cups or a Vitatop (if they are on sale ONLY) for breakfast, eat a $2 low-fat frozen meal at lunch, and then whatever I make for dinner. My husband eats leftovers for lunch, or nothing. He won’t tell me which, but he eats a suspicious number of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for dinner. We are fans of pasta dishes and potato dishes with chicken breasts. That is pretty much exclusively what I cook.

sintaxis (#2,363)

I also arrange my grocery lists geographically! I get so much shit for this, it’s not even funny.

Srslythough (#2,483)

@sintaxis I started doing this two weeks ago and it’s amazing!

MissMushkila (#1,044)

My boyfriend and I just moved in together, and this is about what we spend on groceries. Although we still eat out far too often, so we spend way more. Also, I insisted we add up how much we spend on beer last time we were entering and splitting bill costs. We spend A LOT of money on beer. (like 200 a month? omg) (I only drink 1 beer a night! maybe two!) (we buy fancy beer…)

@MissMushkila Oh god I am TERRIFIED to find out how much money we spend on alcohol. It’s not unusual for us to just subtract our alcohol purchases from our grocery bill and “congratulate” ourselves on spending less than $50.

We not only buy fancy beer, but we each like different types, so it’s always AT LEAST two six packs.

hellonheels (#1,407)

@MissMushkila We go through about three 12-packs a week. It was four, but I switched to wine for waistline maintenance reasons. We must spend about $250 a month on wine and beer – and that’s just at the grocery store!

MissMushkila (#1,044)

@hellonheels You guys make me feel significantly better about my beer purchasing habits. Before I moved in with the boyfriend, I mostly drank three buck chuck and it was much harder to run up that kind of monthly tab. I probably went through two bottles of wine a week at about 6 dollars, so maybe 30 a month?

Actually, while cheaper, that is still comparable. I’m just amazed at the portion of my income that apparently goes toward alcohol. Spreadsheets! Don’t do them!

AnnieNilsson (#406)

Even though we cook at home 90% of the time, menu planning is very very difficult for my brain. I dream of being as organized and awesome as you. For now I will simply steal this plan, it looks great, and you’ve done the thinking work for me.

Srslythough (#2,483)

@AnnieNilsson That’s exactly how I used to feel. Too many recipes and I was just overwhelmed and would literally cry at the thought of recipe planning. I started using emeals, and I’m super happy with it. For around $7 a month, they give you a weekly menu and shopping list. We’ve been on it for 2 months and haven’t repeated a recipe so far. Love love love it. Ugh, it is so hard to recommend a product without sounding like you work for the company.
http://emeals.com/account/go.php?r=361971&i=l1

@Srslythough Thanks for the suggestion – I just subscribed.

frenz.lo (#455)

This is really helpful! I love the idea of the geographically arranged list.

hellonheels (#1,407)

I’m curious: when people calculate their grocery budgets, do they include wine/beer/spirits? Because I cook five or six nights a week and spend, I don’t know, $125-150 per week for two of us…but that includes on average three 12-packs of beer and two or three bottles of wine.

Relatedly, I could never do all my grocery shopping in one trip or else I would look like a raging alcoholic.

@hellonheels I usually do (I spend around $60-70 a week, unless I’m stocking up on staples, then $100) and that usually includes $10-20 worth of alcohol (note: does not include BevMo runs). I’m not sure what the standard is, though.

@hellonheels My alcohol budget is separate from my food budget.

@MilesofMountains Oh, and it’s $100/month, but I don’t usually use it all since I found the joys of homebrew wine.

MissMushkila (#1,044)

@hellonheels My grocery and alcohol calculations are separate, because I live in a state with strict Blue laws about where you can purchase alcohol, so I always have to go somewhere separate for booze. Also because I consider food necessary, and booze next to necessary for sanity, but not actually life-sustaining.

I cook a big meal on Sunday which I put in tupperware for lunches. We make dinner most nights, but also eat out way too often. I also separate eating out from my grocery bills.

For two of us, we spend:
50-60 a week on groceries (includes breakfast and lunch item)
40 for eating out
25 at least on beer

So then we’re about the same.

Also, I needed help getting all of the beer I was picking up to the counter once. I was only buying beer for that week (1 12-pack, two 6-packs).

hellonheels (#1,407)

@MissMushkila That totally makes sense. When I lived in Boston…well, if I’d budgeted for food and alcohol at all, I would have budgeted for them separately thanks to those blue laws, but I didn’t, which is why I have to now!

I actually don’t budget specifically for food and alcohol either; I just take $200 in cash out each Friday and that is my money for the week. It’s more than enough most weeks, but if it’s my turn to buy gas (my commute is 40 miles each way, ugh, though I carpool with a coworker in my car and thus only cover one of every three tanks) and I run out of moisturizer or something in the same week, we eat a lot of vegetarian meals and I revert to two buck Chuck. :-)

My mother used to plan out all the meals for the month on an oversized calendar and we (my father and I) would have to tell her prior to weekly food shopping on Thursdays if we’d be gone for any of the meals. I hated it at the time, but now that I find myself running to the grocery store on my way home from work for $30 in groceries, I realize she had it right.

The other dinner lesson from mom was to learn how to use your freezer. We had a separate large freezer in the basement that held chicken, meat, bread – hell, she even freezes milk cartons when she can get them on sale. I don’t know if I can get behind that, but I see where she was going….

@Kara M & Lisa L@twitter I freeze my milk. It’s not so weird, is it? It’s so much cheaper to buy it in large form.

I am an old woman and coupon. I also don’t drink very much. Most of my expenses are bread, chicken, ice cream, cereal, rice, cabbage, diet soda, and chocolate. I actually buy a shit ton of vegetables too. My grocery bill is often around 40$ a week, but I’ve gone higher when I’ve gone out, and gone lower when times are desperate.

I used to spend around 50-60 dollars a week (including a six pack) when I lived alone (I live with family right now, long story) and I have to say, sunday night through friday lunch I ate only food I cooked myself and it’s not that hard. people ask me if i can cook anything and i say not really, but it is so not hard to feed yourself good food with no skill. I would make double size salads (dinner and lunch) with a little (organic) turkey. The same veggies could go in omelettes or with pasta for quick dinners. Keep a few frozen sausages in the fridge for when you need meat (protein!) or beans to add to a veggie stir fry with quinoa or rice. my most ambitious was soup, but not often because nothing makes me go buy prepared food faster than the depressing thought of defrosting a tupperware of homemade soup that i probably messed up on.

edit to add: bread in the freezer, peanut butter, apples= breakfast. i made separate beer runs occasionally, and lived on egg and cheese bagel all weekend visiting friends who lived two hours away.

rahel@twitter (#2,490)

@emmapeterson@twitter this is essentially my menu planning strategy for just myself. $60 in a week, would be the high end (stocking up on condiments items like vinegar/sauces/mustard etc). Big salads for lunch during the week, 1 lunch out (or not, grown people don’t need to eat ALL THE TIME) and MAYBE 2 meals out during the weekends. Whatever veggies are being swapped in for the salad can be used in trumped up ramen or stir frys (paired with brown rice, of which I buy massive amounts), omelets/fritatas. I roast A LOT (hello cheap ass potato filler) and my proteines are mostly of the fake (tofurky) and canned (tuna) variety. My menu is super boring tho and looks pretty much the same week to week. Number one food rule is to USE EVERYTHING. I know it doesn’t help the starving in Africa that I don’t let my onions rot, but it makes me feel better since spending most of my money on consumables is bad enough. Booze is not included since I don’t do much of that at home. That’s in the “going out fund” but other “herbs” should possibly be cited in the grocery/consumable list.

Blondsak (#2,299)

I spend about $50 a week on groceries, plus an extra $20 or so on wine and probably $15 on eating out. So, ~$85 in total; I realize that is WAY too much and completely ridiculous (even in a costly metro area). I think it’s time to go booze-lite again…

Tea'nWineBeMine (#2,441)

@LO Sounds reasonable to me (*especially* in a costly metro area). I spend about $10 on a gigantic bottle o’ wine and it usually lasts me for two weeks (or 1, if it’s a more stressful week). About $75 on groceries for two weeks. The fresher ingredients need to be replenished (like fruits and veggies) but staples like pasta and beans and cheese and tortillas last a long while. I’ve cut down on eating out (hence the grocery bills) but seems like you’re doing pretty reasonably. Cheers!

Jellybish (#560)

Man. I rarely spend less than $150/week on groceries. But that includes stuff for lunch and breakfast, and some non-food items for a family of 3.

iffie (#1,911)

@Jellybish kids change everything. I’m shocked when people say they spend less than $50/week then I remember they’re not feeding a family.

BornSecular (#2,245)

What I want to know is if the author gets help from her partner, and how and in what capacity. I mean, I love my husband, and I can get him to cook dinner pretty frequently, but only if I pick out the recipe and make sure we have every ingredient required already in the house. And like she mentions, even picking out the recipes and going to the store can seem like a huge chore. Also if he can’t see it (i.e. something’s in the fridge or pantry) he forgets it’s there and won’t eat it.

cryptolect (#1,135)

@BornSecular Hi! Elise here. For the purposes of this article, I planned out and cooked a full month, but usually the way we do it is that I cook Sunday, Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday, and he cooks Monday, Wednesday and Friday. He has his own system, such as it is.

hellonheels (#1,407)

@BornSecular This. My boyfriend’s contribution to dinner is that he pays when we get takeout or eat out at a low to mid-range restaurant. That said, he works till 8 PM six nights a week, and I’m the breadwinner by a pretty big margin, so if he took on the cooking duties we would be eating very late at night and very spartanly. Also cooking is my main hobby so it doesn’t bother me much, but it can be a lot of work to do all the shopping and put a decent meal on the table most nights.

cherrispryte (#19)

I find menu planning SO much easier in the fall/winter than I do in summer. Why? Breakfast every day is oatmeal, lunch is a sandwich and fruit, and a big pot of something gets cooked for dinner on Sunday and lasts me through til Wednesday. (Leftovers are portioned and frozen.) Then something else from the freezer or a quicker dish for the rest of the evenings. I spend $30-50 a week on groceries, plus a trader joe’s run every two months or so that runs me about $100.
I’ve got maybe 10 or so recipes for “big pots of something” – chilis, stews, slow-cooker stuff, etc.
This seems to work? I have no idea what to do for the “big pot of something” element in the summer, though. Hooray for weather that allows me to cook what I like!

mishaps (#65)

@cherrispryte this is so true! In the summer, I don’t want to cook, and end up eating out more. Now, though, I’m looking up black bean soup recipes to make this weekend, and I’m looking forward to busting out some of my favorite stews soon.

Fig. 1 (#632)

Breakfast for supper is one of my secrets, especially on Friday. Who doesn’t like pancakes after a long day of work? Racists, that’s who.

I love menu planning! My husband and I live in Canada so food is more expensive than in the States. One thing that has saved me is making a meal that we eat two nights in a row, and having stuff for sandwiches for lunch. Even split between the two of us, the cooking duties felt like too much. We spend about $100 a week on groceries and our diet is heavy on fresh fruit and veggies and low on meat.

hellonheels (#1,407)

Despite loving to cook, I actually find menu planning really difficult because I prefer to center meals around seasonal vegetables, and not only do many vegetables not keep fresh for more than a few days, but sometimes it’s hard to predict whether the grocery is going to have decent chard or fennel or whatever. Or else sometimes I’m at the farmer’s market and see some amazing turnips or mushrooms or lettuce mix with edible flower leaves in it and my plans go out the window because I can’t not buy them. So as a result I wind up shopping for two, maybe three meals at a time, some of which are just improvised for lack of having a recipe in advance. Which is fine, but it definitely makes it difficult to stick to a budget when shopping piecemeal.

fennel (#2,494)

This is a great article. I do find it amazing how differently people eat at home, though!

My husband & I eat fish about 3x a week at least. It makes for a higher bill, but we feel better on more protein (and less pasta!) than this monthly plan suggests.

Also, ha, it can be a wonderful thing to cook an entire cabbage for a single meal! E.g. Caramelize it and an onion together in a pan (both cut into strips), preferably in butter into which you have already melted about 8 anchovy filets; salt it, add thyme and lemon pepper; add cooked pasta (preferably whole-grain farfalle); e basta! Pasta for you, and it will be good leftovers for quite some time. Or, for those who don’t like anchovy: Cabbage and sour cream added at the last minute to become a sauce.

cryptolect (#1,135)

@fennel As I was putting this together, I thought, “This is kind of carb-heavy,” and then I thought, “But I love carbs! So be it.” Will definitely try that cabbage meal! Minus the anchovies. Thanks!

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