Better Meals with Better Planning: Plan Menus

Families, Food and Fitness October 27, 2009 Print Friendly and PDF

Menu planning helps you honor your commitment to good nutrition and answer that age-old question, “What’s for supper?” Taking the time to develop a menu and a grocery list will actually save you time, energy, and money in the store and at home in meal preparation.

Here’s how to start:

  • First, consider your family’s schedule. Decide which meals and snacks are to be prepared at home, when meals

will be eaten away from home, and when you might have extra people to prepare for.

  • Plan to accommodate your family’s nutritional and medical needs.
  • Next identify your main meal of the day. Plan around that meal.
  • Simplify your menu writing with a system. Develop a system to accommodate your nutritional needs, your cooking abilities, your schedule, and your budget. Consider the following example and come up with your own:
Sunday Lunch at Grandmother’s
Monday Meatless Monday
Tuesday Dinner in a crock-pot
Wednesday Soup & sandwich
Thursday Pasta night
Friday From the grill
Saturday Leftovers

Use your menu system as long as it works for you. You might want to change it seasonally or with the school year, for example. You can find recipes or menu ideas in your local newspaper or magazines of your family’s favorites. Look for recipes that offer nutrition information and incorporate a variety of foods.

  • Keep menu plans on file in a small recipe or file box, reuse menus, and file favorite recipes to save time another time. Keeping your favorite recipes handy means you don’t waste time looking for them!

With this done, it’s time to start writing your menus. Follow these four steps to menu planning:

  1. Inventory what you have on hand. Check the foods in the cabinets, cupboards, pantry, refrigerator, and in the freezer. Plan to use these foods in your menus to save money at the store. Don’t let foods go to waste!
  2. Check out sale papers or grocery store ads to find out what foods are on sale for the current week. If there are foods that you like or want to try, plan to use them in your menus. Also write in new recipes you want to test out.
  3. Write your plan, starting with the meal that is your family’s main meal of the day. Choose the protein source first; that is your meat or meat substitute. Be sure to consider what you have on hand and what’s on sale. Next choose a grain food (pasta, rice, bread, cereal), followed by the fruit and vegetable side dishes, then the beverages for each meal. Include breakfast foods for each day’s plan, snack foods, and meals to be eaten away from home. Use the handouts for some ideas for these selections.
  4. After you have planned at least seven days’ menus, evaluate your menus for completeness and variety.

The more you plan, the easier this process will become to you. The 10-point checklist makes it easier by helping you see your menus are well balanced and meet the nutritional needs of you and your family. Answer these questions about your menus, and then make the needed adjustments:

  1. Have you included all the necessary food groups for the meals and snacks planned for each day? Compare your menu to the recommended daily allowances.
  2. Do the menus provide the required number of servings for each day?

__ Protein sources (2 per day)
__ Vegetables (3 – 5 per day)
__ Fruits (2 – 4 per day)
__ Enriched or whole grains (6 – 11 per day)
__ Dairy products (2 – 3 per day)

  1. Does each meal include a variety of these?

__ Colors: green, red, yellow, orange, purple, brown, white, blue
__ Flavors: sweet, sour, bland, spicy, savory
__ Textures: crisp, soft, liquid, crunchy, chewy, creamy
__ Temperatures: hot, cold, warm, cool, frozen
__ Shapes, sizes: small, big, round, and square

  1. Do you plan for leftovers?
  2. Are food combinations appealing? Consider flavors, textures, and ease of preparation for the whole meal.
  3. Are foods high in vitamins A, C, and E, and iron?
  4. Have you considered your family’s personal likes and dislikes?
  5. Do the foods vary from day to day or week to week?
  6. Have you included different forms of foods: fresh, canned, frozen, and dried, and different cooking methods to add variety?
  7. Have you included seasonal fruits and vegetables?

Another way to quickly evaluate your meals for completeness is with the 75/25-pie test. Consider each meal separately, thinking of your plate as a pie. To be well-balanced, your plate should contain 75 percent (or three-fourths) plant-based foods. That would be grain products, fruits, and vegetables. The remaining 25 percent should be foods from animal sources or meats, meat substitutes, and dairy foods.

Snacks help to balance out the menu, especially if you are planning for children. Children have small stomachs and require snacks in between meals to provide extra energy and nutrients. A good snack contains two food groups, which help build red blood cells, important in preventing iron-deficiency anemia. A good snack also changes every day and lets you introduce new foods to young children. Avoid letting children have too much fruit juice, which can cause tooth decay and may also keep them from eating enough solid foods.

Planned snacks also help you stay committed to a healthy diet. Don’t go hungry for long periods. You’ll be more likely to crave high carbohydrate foods that are often full of refined sugars, have too much fat, and are low in fiber, like cookies and chips. Write in a good snack every day so you won't be tempted to reach for something that’s not healthy.

Next: Better_Meals_with_Better_Planning:_Plan_a_List >>


Lesson Contents
I. Introduction
II. Plan for Good Nutrition
III. Plan Menus
IV. Plan a List
V. Plan to Shop
VI. Plan to Save Time


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This work is supported by the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture, New Technologies for Ag Extension project.