Sunday, May 15, 2011

How to Menu Plan: Inventory Version.

So you already went shopping for groceries and now you want to know what to do with them. Rather than just figure it out as you go (and risk having to run to the store for a missing ingredient or 5), use your inventory to your advantage.

Some may say that it saves more money to make the menu before you go shopping, but all is not lost if you do it in the reverse order. Sometimes the sales aren’t very clear, sometimes you find a great deal on Manager’s Special, and other times you just have to use up the pantry to save a bit more this week. You can still make a Menu and have it save you both time and money. I would even argue that planning after the fact can be more cost-effective if you are the type that will keep a stocked pantry and freezer.

First step is to take an inventory of what you have. If you are a meat-eater and plan your menu around the meat you buy, make a list of what you have in your freezer available to make meals out of. Then check the cupboards for what you have to add to the meat to make well-rounded meals. Though I like to use paper and pencil to write out my inventory, you could also do this on the computer. The benefit to using your own Excel document is that you can get it all out once, then print it off and use that list to mark what you have rather than write it out each week. It can also become a pantry shopping list and if you want to get really detailed you can even add in the price of each item.

Start by listing the meals you have all the ingredients to make. Cross off the meats and other ingredients as you plan to use them to make those meals. This helps prevent “double booking” your food. Once you have figured out the meals you can make without a variation or substitution, start on the next step.

Plan your substitutions. If you see that you have chicken, soy sauce, rice, but no stir-fry veggies, don’t rule out making a stir-fry. See if you have frozen broccoli or leftover veggies from other meals. It may make a different meal than you’re used to, but it will still taste good and fill your family up. Another meal that does well with substitutions is soup.  You can add leftover rice, veggies, and meat with some broth and make another meal. You also don’t have to have every single ingredient on a recipe card, since it is more of a process than a recipe. 

Still need more meal ideas? has an Ingredient Search where you can list what you have on hand (and even some things you want to avoid) and get suggestions.

Write it out. Now that you have made the list of what you can make with what you have on hand, write it out! Sometimes we get busy after planning and then when dinner time comes around we can’t remember everything we planned on making. Writing it down can help prevent this. It can also help avoid making the same meals all the time. You have a list of the stuff you have recently made, and can choose different meals the next time you plan.

I choose to stop there. I have a list of 14 meals to cook for the next 14 days and pick the meal based on what I am able to make on any given day. I like the leeway this allows, since something can come up on a day I planned to make a more time consuming meal and I can just pick one of the quick meals I have on the list and still know that everything is on hand to make it. If you would rather plan your menu to the day, you can go ahead and do that. I tend to pencil in the crock pot meals on days I know I’ll be out of the house a lot, so that I don’t have to worry about coming home and cooking. Also if you plan to go out to eat, eat at a friend’s, or have family over to eat- make sure to add that to your menu as well!

So, now that I've listed my menu-planning process, I am off to make my menu for the next 2 weeks. I'll be posting it tomorrow with a chance for you to link up your Menus as well, so get planning! 

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