I never used to worry too much about planning my meals in advance. When I lived with my parents in college, I ate whatever my mom cooked for dinner. (Truly, one of the best perks of living at home for those years…I never had to survive on Ramen noodles or dorm food.) When I moved away to start my first “real” job, I wasn’t under a lot of pressure. I taught myself a lot about cooking that first year for a few different reasons:

  1. I much preferred eating my own home-cooked meals to eating out.
  2. In my small town, there aren’t many options for eating out–one nice restaurant, a couple of diners, and one place that has been Chinese and is now pizza.
  3. As a first year teacher, I couldn’t really afford to eat out much anyways.
  4. Cooking was a good hobby and something to keep me busy. I didn’t have TV and didn’t know very many people, so I needed something to do when I got home from work!

Toward the end of that year, though, I began to get frustrated with the process of coming home from work and staring at the fridge, hoping to think of something interesting to make that wouldn’t take all night. Invariably, just when I thought I had hit on the solution, I’d realize I was lacking some key ingredient and be forced to go back to the drawing board. I also felt like I was continually running to the grocery store (which isn’t quite so bad since it’s less than 5 minutes away, but still not ideal).

I’m wiser now. I had a revelation one day when I was at my sister-in-law’s house (though she wasn’t my sister-in-law yet). She had a notebook open with a little grid for the days of the week and two columns–one for lunch and one for dinner. Underneath was her grocery list.

The light bulb went off in my brain–duh! If I planned my meals in advance, I could buy what I needed for the week and not run out. I’d always know what I was going to cook, and I wouldn’t be stuck waiting for things to thaw out in the microwave because I hadn’t thought to take them out of the freezer the day before.

I pretty much straight-up copied my sister-in-law’s method. Now on Saturday mornings (usually), I sit down with my notebook and my favorite cookbooks and list out meals for the week, then head to the grocery store. It sometimes takes longer than I would like to figure out what I want to make, but I just remind myself that I’d rather get it straightened out then than on Tuesday night when I have to have something ready early so I can go back to school and rehearse my choir. That said, here are my best pointers:

  • Keep your schedule for the week handy, and use it to get ideas. For instance, I try to plan something relatively quick and easy for Tuesdays, when I have evening commitments at school. I try to save stuff that needs extra prep time for the weekend.
  • Try to include a variety of main courses each week.
  • If you like to have leftovers for lunch, make sure you plan to cook enough for that.  I usually have sandwich stuff in the fridge as a back-up.
  • Try to save yourself some effort by planning something you can use twice–for instance, the pot roast and potatoes I made last night are being re-imagined tonight as hash. (That probably doesn’t sound very delicious, but trust me, it will be. I think.)
  • Plan based on what you already have in your fridge/freezer.
  • After you make your list of meals, check for what ingredients you have and what you need to buy.
  • Be flexible. I usually have a plan for what I’m going to cook when, but it frequently changes. Last week the pork chops I had intended to make on Monday got put off two successive nights in a row by spur-of-the-moment plans with my husband. It was fun to do something different those nights, and we still got to eat delicious pork chops on Wednesday. (It actually worked out quite well, since I had run out of ideas when I planned on Saturday and was going to end up winging it on a couple of nights anyways!)
  • Don’t forget to check your list every day. The beauty of knowing that you’re going to make fried chicken tomorrow is that you can take your chicken out of the freezer with enough time to be thawed and ready-to-cook. (I hate thawing in the microwave; it’s hard to get it thawed just right without starting to cook it!)

Since I’ve started doing this, it’s really helped me feel more sane in the kitchen. I let it slide a lot in the summer, when I have more time, but during the school year it’s a must.

Update:  Here’s an example of one of my menu plans. This is by no means a fine art–notice the scribbled notes about other things going on each day. Meeting with students on Monday, lunch duty on Tuesday, home football game on Friday night…all things that might conceivably affect me food plans. For what it’s worth, it’s only Tuesday and this plan has already undergone several mental revisions.