How to Avoid Getting Fat and Wasting Money With Weekly Dinner Menu Planning

This Sunday before I went grocery shopping, I peeked into the fridge to see what I needed to add to my shopping list. Much to my annoyance, I wound up throwing away a rotting five-pound bag of lettuce and last week’s splurge of some pricey stuffed pork chops from the butcher. I also had to freeze chicken breasts that I was convinced would next see the light of day once they were good and frostbitten and on their way to the trash.

Dinner Blundering: A Big Fat Waste of Money
So what the heck did we eat instead last week? Impulsive choices of pizza and pasta on nights we simply didn’t feel like cooking, or didn’t feel like eating something healthier. These reckless decisions weren’t the greatest for my waistline or my rear, and I’d rather not head into the holiday season facing a losing battle on the diet front.

We had selective memory when it came to our dinner plans, even though I had the best intentions when I grocery shopped. Aside from the fact that this scenario is fattening, it’s not an option for us financially to toss food in the trash while we spend money on takeout.

I hate to admit it, but while this week’s dinner blundering is an extreme example, it’s not the first time something like this has happened. And I’ve spun my wheels when it comes to solving the problem.

The Solution Search
Time and again, I’ve researched different meal planning tools that are already out there.  Unclutterer has a nice, clean chart you can download.

In fact, if you search Google Images for meal planner, you will see a glorious sea of creative ways of laying out your meals for the week.

But for all my searching and fiddling, I’ve never been able to settle on a solution that would actually work for us. Without x-ray vision into the depths of the meat drawer combined with photographic memory, I’ve been at a loss.

My Own Dinner Planning Chart: Download the dinner planner as an Excel spreadsheet template
So today I decided to create my own dinner menu planner that I can display in plain view so we’ll never again have to wonder, “What’s for dinner?”

Now, I don’t know if this sort of thing is widely useful. However, for the first time in my color-coded chart-making history, my husband didn’t imply that this chart was my wacky OCD shining through, and in fact, he said it seems like it’s going to help us with easy planning and follow through.

I put the menu planner in a plastic sheet protector that I can write on with a dry-erase marker. If I don’t need to print out a new planner each week, I’m way more likely to use it to write down our menu and follow it.

Let’s take a tour, shall we?

Theme Nights
I broke the days of the week into themes. Beneath each day and corresponding theme, I put a list of dinner ideas so that when we’re choosing meals in the planning stages, we don’t have to think too hard to come up with something.

This planner serves as guidance, but we’re allowed to veer from the themes. You can see that this week I put “fajitas” on Tuesday, which will usually be our Asian-themed night. The key is following what I write in the blanks, since that’s what came home from the grocery store.

The themes are as follows:

Sunday: Big Batch or Traditional. We’re talking meals like stews or roasts, since those tend to take more time than we’re willing to spare on a weeknight.

Monday: Leftovers from Sunday night’s big batch, or if there are no leftovers, then we’ll wing it. Winging it basically means we’ll forage in the pantry or freezer. This can mean eggs and waffles, chicken patties, grilled cheese and tomato soup – whatever sounds good.

The themes for the other nights of the week are ethnic in nature for variety.

Tuesday: Asian. This means quick, few-ingredient dishes like chicken stir fries with veggies.

Wednesday: Mexican. Again we’re looking at fast and easy fare such as tacos or quesadillas.

Thursday: Italian. Thursday is one of the toughest nights of the week to hold the course on planned meals, since we’re getting tired from the work week by then. Seeing as pizza and pasta are our weaknesses, I might as well purposely designate that day for it. We have a delicious pizza recipe we rely on now that saves us both calories and money.

Friday: Comfort Food. I’m thinking hamburgers, macaroni and cheese, BBQ and the like.

Saturday: Fish or a New Recipe. If I hit the store Saturday we’ll be eating fresh fresh. Or we can try a new recipe that night, since I’ll have the time and energy to create something new.

Keep it Simple
If I make a dinner planner full of elaborate weeknight meals, then the task of making dinner would either consume me or I’m likely to abandon the planner altogether. So instead I made this planner with the attitude that I’m still a working mom.

I’ve made the planning such that I won’t have to change course once I do get a job, and so that currently I’m still free to pursue job leads, blog and take good care of Alex.

In Plain Sight
I placed the planner in a prominent place on the wall next to my desk so that I can always see what’s for dinner that day. Just now, I took that chicken out of the freezer for tomorrow’s fajitas! You have no idea what a victory that is. The effort of using my planner is already paying off.

Download the dinner planner as an Excel spreadsheet template

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7 thoughts on “How to Avoid Getting Fat and Wasting Money With Weekly Dinner Menu Planning

  1. Just found your site via Google. THANKS A MILLION. I have themes for dinner as well, but couldn’t think of a way to put it on paper, you did it! I will be printing and putting it in a frame instead of a plastic cover so that I can use a dry-erase marker. THANKS again for sharing.

  2. I love the theme night idea! Totally stealing that! How smart to have a list of options right there so you’re not scrambling for ideas! Thanks

  3. Agree with above poster – the freezer is your friend. Store up, buy some fresh to go along with the stored stuff, and you’re good to go. If you go to Costco, get a bag of Dorazio frozen stuffed shells. You can use store-bought sauce or make a giant batch and freeze into containers and use it for such an occasion. Pour sauce over frozen shells, stick in oven. Voila. I also make my friend’s brocolli soup recipe once a week. So very health and easy. Add to a pot: a box of Pacific chicken broth, a bag of Whole foods frozen brocolli, handful of baby carrots, 1/3 cup oatmeal, one diced small onion, and salt and pepper. Simmer for 15-20 minutes, then add a little fresh dill and stick a hand blender in the pot to puree. Yummy, easy, healthy, done.

  4. Just various recipes, mostly “whole” recipes where I stole the sauce out and tweaked it. I compiled them into a little book too, so that I wouldn’t forget them – now I mostly know them by heart, but i still like to keep the reference. I’m happy to send them to you if you’re interested!

    The 1 – 2 new recipes a week is actually pretty manageable because the rest of the nights are so easy. Most of the time I’m only really shopping/preping for that one meal, more or less. And I don’t usually pick anything too complicated to begin with…like, for a while we were taking the dog to obedience class, so I just found a new panini recipe to try each week on the night we were home late. Of course, there’s plenty of weeks where I don’t try anything new – mostly because we haven’t gone shopping or because my hub has gone without me (he’s got only limited tolerance for my shopping lists).

    In any case, i do feel a little embarrassed for the book I wrote in the first comment, so thanks for responding! :) I’ve been reading since your original journal from new york – glad you’re back!

  5. Hey there Erin,
    Wow, excellent tips!! Where did you learn those sauces? Just various recipes? Because I’ve been struggling of late with finding some quick, staple chicken or pork dishes and the sauces sound like the solution.

    I think making our own pizza sounds like a fab idea — especially both from a health and money standpoint. So that’s something I’d like to take on weekly.

    I commend you for planning 1 – 2 “new” meals per week. That’s a lot! There have been many times in my life that I thought I would do a new recipe once a week, and then lose steam on that. But I think that’s because I go a bit crazy with the selection process. A blindfold and eeny meeny miney mo would make the process more efficient and would yield better results.

    Thanks for the excellent comment. Glad you’re here.

  6. Just my 2 c…I used to struggle with meals because I’m impulsive, overly ambitious when it comes to cooking, and I don’t have a lot of time (I work a lot and get home late). Here’s what works for us:

    I learned a few good sauces made from “pantry staple” ingredients that didn’t go bad. Like a reduced balsamic vinegar sauce, a good lemon piccata sauce, a reduced cider sauce, alfredo sauce (heavy cream is pretty long lasting and I use it a lot), and a simple tomato sauce using canned tomatoes. Then I buy an assortment of meats, repackage them into single meal portions, and stick them in the freezer. Then, you can basically mix and match your meals. You can make pork with balsamic sauce one night, sausage with tomato sauce another night – or you can make pork parm with tomato sauce and sausage with balsamic sauce. This helps my food-ADD and means I don’t have to plan every night – I’m not good at sticking to plans. It also meant that there were a lot of pantry/freezer options without going to the grocery store.

    In addition to storing meats in the freezer, I keep quick meal staples – frozen perogies, those fresh raviolis, some fresh pastas, bags of peas and corn (separately, not the mushy mix), shrimp and usually a frozen pizza in the freezer. I also always have goat cheese on hand (for topping pizza, using as a base for a pasta sauce, etc) and at least 4 – 5 blocks of cheddar. I also keep frozen slices of artisan bread in the freezer, for making garlic bread, paninis, pairing with meals, or making breadcrumbs.

    Every Friday, I make a simple flatbread pizza dough (basically just yeast, water, and flour), and we have pizza every Friday. I top it with anything fresh left over in the fridge (I usually don’t use sauce). It’s quick (takes about 20 mins total), it’s planned, we look forward to it, and we can relax with a glass of wine at the end of a long week without thinking about cooking. If I’m especially lazy, we’ll pop a frozen pizza in the oven.

    I do love to cook, and I obsessively read cookbooks and cooking blogs, but I only plan 1 – 2 “new” meals per week. If I try to plan too many meals, I generally have grand plans that don’t always pan out because of schedule. Focusing on a new meal each week, which I try to make early in the week (or if it’s a “big batch” meal, on Sunday) keeps it a reasonable task. It helps me to focus and if it gets pushed back a day or two I can adjust my meal schedule without risking ingredients going bad.

    My other secret is I keep a few “fancy” cheeses in the fridge to snack on while I cook – this keeps us from going out to eat just because we’re hungry and impatient. If I get home to late, my husband and I sometimes eat just fancy cheese and crackers/bread for dinner without getting to the real meal.

    Anyway, not sure if that’s helpful or not but I thought I would share! Glad you are back!

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