(sorry about the lack of pictures; technical difficulties!)
I am a big fan of menu/meal planning. I have been watching my mom do this for as long as I can remember, and I started doing my own menu planning while in college. What I like the most about menu planning is that it reduces stress. I don’t have to think, “hmmm….what are we having for dinner tonight?” and then realize that I should have started defrosting the beans hours ago, and oh, we’re out of celery, so that recipe actually won’t work…
Because I know what we are going to eat for the next two weeks, I can shop accordingly. I rarely pick up something from the store that isn’t on the menu plan because I don’t want to pay for something that I am not completely certain we will eat. Now, if our favorite pasta is on sale, yes, I’ll grab extra of that because it has a long enough shelf life. But I am proud to say that we seldom throw away food. You can tell that it is getting close to grocery shopping time because our refrigerator begins to look quite bare!
I do two week long menus, but week long or month long intervals are also popular. If you want more ideas and variations, especially if planning menus in advance is a new thing for you, this is another good source.
Every other Sunday, I sit down and determine what we need for meals for the next two weeks. I shop on Wednesdays, so this gives me a chance to write down anything else I have forgotten to put on the list. I also keep a sheet of paper on the fridge for us to write down things that we have run out of during the week, like coconut oil or tahini or ketchup–items you may not think to check for as you create your menu plan.
Steve eats cereal and milk every day for breakfast. He eats sandwiches almost every day for lunch. So I just make sure to check if we need more cereal, milk, lunchmeat, cheese, and bread. We almost always do, so that is a given on my list. I generally eat oatmeal, yogurt, and fruit every day for breakfast, and leftovers or a simple bean dish for lunch. I generally make a big pot of lentils or something for my lunches for a week. Because I include variety at dinner, we do not mind repetitive breakfasts and lunches. Steve basically doesn’t eat snacks, but I munch on fruit, nuts, nut butters, and veggies, so I make sure we have enough of those things on hand.
To plan dinners, I drag out my recipe binder. I used to have a lot of cookbooks, but I have gotten rid of almost all of them because I prefer to just copy out the recipes that we actually like eating and I like preparing, and then put those in my binder. This binder is divided into breakfast, bread, snack/appetizer, dinner, and dessert portions.
Within a two week span, we usually grill twice, have pizza once, and pasta and sauce once. I do not have recipes for those but I know what we need for each one, so I just go through mentally what ingredients each dish requires. If we need more of that ingredient, it goes on the list.
For all the other meals, I really like to have variety. Beyond that standard list, I do not cook the same thing more than once every month, or even every two months, unless Steve has requested it or it is very much in season. I also try to vary the ethnicty of the food, and the main ingredients. So, we would not have lasagna and pizza in the same week. Instead, we would have lasagna, and then a lentil daal. I also try to alternate a bean dish with an egg or dairy or tofu dish–like the lasanga one night, and the daal the next night.
I then go down the list of ingredients in each recipe, check to see what we need, and put it on the shopping list. I write the list on the back of the menu plan. And I subdivide the list. Produce in the upper left corner, and then it roughly goes from there the way that the grocery store is laid out, so dairy and frozen items are in the bottom right corner of my list, corresponding with their location in the grocery store. Not necessary, but I find it helpful at the store so I am not trekking back to get bananas after I put my frozen peas in the cart.
Because I put a lot of effort into the main dish, as well as making breads and preparing beans in advance throughout the week, etc., I am a minimalist when it comes to vegetables. We eat salad almost every single night, occassionally replaced by peas or broccoli or carrots and cucumbers. If we have something like vegetable curry or stir fry, I don’t make another vegetable dish. Side dishes beyond a grain or starch aren’t really seen at our dinner table, and dessert is only for very special occassions; I do keep the ingredients for banana bread on hand, though!