Cheat Sheet

7-Day Menu Planner For Dummies

From 7-Day Menu Planner For Dummies by Susan Nicholson, RD/LD

The secret to great meals is in the planning. The truth is, many people think they hate to cook when they just haven’t figured out how to plan what to cook. When you plan your dinner menus ahead of time, you eat healthier, save money, reduce stress, and enjoy delicious meals. Menu planning is not brain surgery. When you see how simple it is to plan your own meals, you’ll be amazed.

Knowing the Benefits of Menu Planning

Maybe you think you don’t have time to sit down and plan two weeks’ worth of meals. But when you plan 14 menus at once, you eliminate the nightly need to figure out what’s for dinner after a hard day at work. Having dinner either cooking (in your slow cooker) or crying out for you in the refrigerator (a leftover) is a way to increase your life span and decrease your heart rate! That sounds a little extreme, but it’s true.

Many people want to save time, but spending a little time at the beginning often pays off. Check out these benefits of menu planning:

  • Taking control of mealtime and your evenings: When you plan your meals a week at a time, you have so much more time to do what you’d really like to be doing, and enthusiasm to present your family with the absolute best meals in town.

  • Improving your family’s health: Menu planning will improve overall health and establish good eating habits for younger children as well as tweak eating habits for the rest of the family. Lowering sodium and saturated fat while increasing fiber in the diet does wonders for overall health and wellness.

  • Saving money: Planning saves money. Who doesn’t want to give the food budget some relief, especially when times are tight? Follow these tips to make your dollars stretch:

    • Take advantage of sales and coupons.

    • Make a list.

    • Don’t overbuy.

    • Make wise use of leftovers.

    • Buy in-season produce.

    • Consider canned and frozen options.

Deciding What’s on the Dinner Menu

A healthy dinner involves more than a piece of meat (or other form of protein) and something to wash it down with. To build a menu, begin with the main course. From there, fill in with different kinds of side dishes (starches, vegetables, and salads), and then wrap up with a dessert (everyone’s favorite part of the meal). Here are some pointers on planning a top-notch meal:

  • Start with the entree: Entrees come in two forms: combination dishes that combine a protein with a starch or vegetable — think casseroles — and plain old protein by itself — think a chicken breast, a slice of roast beef, a pork chop, or a piece of fish.

  • Choose sides: You can add starches, vegetables, and salads to your meal to add nutrients, flavor, and interest. You might want to serve veggies as side dishes because they have so many benefits, including:

    • The different colors look fabulous on your plate, and increase nutrient value.

    • Vegetables are much less expensive than whole proteins.

    • Veggies add all sorts of crunch, texture, and interest to the meal.

    • They’re easy to prepare.

    • Vegetables fill you up so you don’t overeat.

  • Wrap up with dessert: You can have dessert during the week, but keep it simple — a piece of fruit is ideal. The weekend is a good time to have a special sweet.

Creating Your Own Two-Week Menu Plan

When you’re ready to create your own menu plans, start small and plan 14 days’ worth of meals. After you get the hang of menu planning, you can plan more weeks at once.

To start, call a family meeting. When everyone is settled in, pass out notebooks and pencils. Explain the goal — to plan menus as a family for the next two weeks, taking schedules and food likes and dislikes into account.

Next, establish a dinnertime. To determine a time that works best for everyone, give each person a blank two-week grid. Fill in your family’s social, school, church, and other activities (and their times and duration) on the grid.

Now it’s on to food preferences. Allow each person to state two or three dislikes, with the stipulation that the dislikes can’t be all of anything. Instead, make your kids (or spouse) pick the worst of the offending category. You can’t rule out all vegetables, but you can rule out a vegetable that no one likes. After everyone has written down their dislikes, call for a vote. Majority rules.

Now it’s time to choose what you will eat. Decide what entree (beef, pork, chicken, lamb, no-meat, and so on) you’ll have for each of the 14 days. Write those on your master grid.

Then round out each meal with foods to go with the main course. Those dishes may require recipes, or they may be as simple as a salad you have to assemble or a vegetable that requires microwaving.

After you’ve planned each meal, find a recipe for each entree and side dish. Now the only things left to do are to shop for any ingredients you don’t have on hand, prepare each night’s meal, and enjoy it with your family.

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