Why and How of Menu Planning
This might seem pretty basic -- but planning my menus is the single best way I make the most of what we have and probably saves us the most money.
Here is what I do --
1. At least twice a week I check my fridge, just a quick check to take stock of what we have. Once before I menu plan and once mid-week. Leftovers really shouldn't last in your fridge past a week for safety reasons. (If there is a question about when we had something I can always check the menu plan from the previous week!)
Whole meat peices (things that aren't casseroles or soups) ex: a leftover pork chop get either cut up and served to my toddler for lunch, put into eggs in the morning, or put into a bag labeled "pork" in my freezer inside. ( I usually have bags for all kinds of meats-- beef, pork, chicken, etc...)
Leftover Vegetables like a few green beans leftover from an evening meal get put into a container for garbage soup in the freezer.
Casseroles or soups that are leftover -get pushed to the front of the fridge and either eaten as lunches or if there is enough leftovers I do a leftover smorgasborg night. (Pull all the leftovers out of the fridge and put them on the counter add a veggie or a fruit and everyone chooses whatever they want for dinner) Leftovers from this are usually tossed or if appropriate frozen for individual meals for later.
In addition to checking for leftovers -- I also check the condition of the fresh food. Things like mangos that when I bought them they weren't ripe --but now they are. ( I tell the fruit eaters of the family--"hey there is a mango in there.") If lettuce looks like it only has one day left I put it out that night to go with dinner or have it for lunch, or make tacos that night instead of what is on the menu. If avacados are looking like they need to be used up -- we make guac for snack. Something new I've started doing is making snack plates for the kids. I take a big platter and if the carrots need to be used up --that day I make carrot sticks, rummage through the cabinet and look for other snack items, etc.. so today the kids will come home and the beans leftover from dinner taco night will be on the plate heated up with tortilla chips and salsa, celery sticks, peanut butter for dipping, probably the remainer of the bag of crackers and some yummy white cheddar cheese we got from Thursday shopping and some cut up fresh pears and a cut up mango. That will be snack.
2. I always check my sale ads.
I do this faithfully and watch to see if meats especially are on sale. I refuse to buy meat unless it is a really good sale. In fact I rarely buy anything unless it's on sale to be honest. The key there is that when it is on sale - I buy quite a bit. This is only on things we need and use regularly- tortilla chips, refried beans, canned tomatoes or beans, flour, meat, frozen veggies and juices. Often if an item is on a really good sale--towards the end of the sale the store will run out. If I can't afford very much of the item right then I go ahead and go to the store and then if they are out I get a rain check and go back when we do have money and buy more than I would have.
I keep a good stock of extra meats on hand - and dried and canned goods. If fresh asparagus is on sale that week -- that will be a veggie one night on the menu. I plan around and buy what is in season and on sale.
So-- this week I dug around in my chest freezer and found these dregs --
a bag of beef gravy that was leftover from a meal- pretty old
a ham bone with meat - no date on it
a bag of leftover sweet and sour chicken meat that was slightly dry when I made it originally
From the fridge -
3 packages of celery-ranging in condition from fine and green to yellow and nasty,
2 bags of baby carrots,
lots of pears (they were 2 pounds for $1 this week)
2 older green peppers
a red pepper
a head of green cabbage
a head of red cabbage
3 dried up green onions
half a summer yellow squash
some refried beans
leftover eggplant pie that nobody liked when I made it last week (was going to give it to mom when she came by this week but as it turns out she has a watercolor workshop so she won't be by to get it and it won't freeze well.)
Some leftover meatballs and sauce -enough for Toddler and I to have lunch
some great cheese that is getting old
So-- here's what I'll do with it all.
last night was trash night soo--
I tossed out the eggplant pie in the trash
pushed the refried beans to the front to remind me to get them out for snack
- green bell peppers were cut in half for making stuffed peppers and cleaned of seeds -- put them in my freezer bag so I can use them when I get enough to make a batch of stuffed peppers.
-celery (normally I would chop and freeze but I had two bags of frozen allready) One package got the ends trimmed off and put into aluminum foil in the fridge -it's fine for a week or two. One pack had a couple of yellowish ends--that got turned into celery sticks with the leaves and ends put into my freezer bag of broth making veggies, yellow stuff was cut off and tossed out-could have composted it too. One package was yellow and yucky -- I trimmed off what I could that was still good and put it into my broth making bag. Celery sticks will make it to the snack tray this afternoon- they are in a plastic container in water in the fridge. Might also put them out at dinner for an extra veggie.
-baby carrots will go out onto the snack tray, will also use some in clay pot chicken or the remade sweet and sour chicken on the menu for next week.
green onions -- went to the broth making bag in the freezer
red pepper will be saved for next weeks menu - can be used in the remake of the sweet and sour chicken along with the yellow squash?
leftover meatballs will be lunch for me and Toddler with some rolls from the freezer
cheese will get put out with the kids snacks -- but could just as easily get added to a casserole or put out before dinner as a snack or even cut up and set on the table for snacking during dinner, or --grated and then frozen.
pears will be cut up as they ripen and either eaten as snacks or put out as a side dish for dinner. (If we don't get to that later in the week they can be cut up and frozen for smoothies or pear bread)
The menu next week will include:
some sort of either beef and gravy over toast, rolls, or noodles
or a sheperds pie-- beef gravy, meat and veggies from the freezer or fresh, and then either cornbread or mashed potatoes on top and baked with or without cheese on top.
Ham and bean soup,
Sweet and sour chicken stir fry -- I'll probably add some homemade sweet and sour sauce, some chopped red pepper, some cut up yellow squash, carrots and some ginger and garlic to the chicken in the freezer and serve it over brown rice.
And something that uses cabbage?
As you can see- menu planning allows me to really use what we have on hand to it's maximum potential. Keeping me from wasting food! It's estimated that the average american family throws away about 25% of what they buy in food every year. That may not sound like alot but if you spend $400 a month and you're throwing away $100 of food away every month -- that adds up fast! And if you spend more like $1,000 a month -- well eek! $250 a month that you are tossing in the trashcan.
If I know what is for dinner --I'm much less likely to get to the end of the day 4 or 5 pm and need to go get takeout or go to dinner because everybody's got to run out the door for various events and needs to be fed. Nights where I know we have things during the day or at night I plan easier, frozen meals, crockpot meals,etc and the nights where I know it will be a slow night I can plan more elaborate meals. So I save money that way too.