Dear Daughter,* here’s how you make a menu.

Alternate title: Eating Down the House. (Because menus are key to using up what you have. If you don’t have a well-stocked pantry, build one — and then eat it down.) 

First, assess the food you have. (2-4 minutes)
As you stare and think, and think and stare, constantly ask yourself: what can I make with this? The more specific your ideas, the easier your planning.

Open the cupboard doors. Notice that there’s pasta and brown rice. An excessive amount of crackers. Walnuts from two years ago that are probably rancid. An abundance of chickpeas and cornstarch. A squash that’s going moldy. Molasses and chicken broth and three bottles of barbecue sauce. One box of shredded wheat, tortilla chips, plenty of peanut butter and mayo, coffee, some black olives and canned beans. Don’t forget to look under the counter in the backhall (greening potatoes) or in the downstairs bedroom (eating apples that are going soft). 

Peer into the fridge. Notice the many containers of fresh ricotta, the jars of milk, the eggs. There’s a partial jar of salsa, sourdough discard, random bits of cheese, celery and carrots, 1 yellow pepper, lemons, and ginger. In the freezer compartment: maseca flour, frozen bananas, a half pound of bacon, Korean meatballs that no one liked, two partial containers of wine berries, spinach and sausage filling for a quiche, pepperoni, vanilla ice cream, pie crumbs.

Put on shoes and walk down to the basement. One by one, throw open the freezers: the fruit and veg (and everything else) freezer, the meat freezer, the upright freezer. Dig around, lifting and touching and reading labels, making sure you see everything, not just the things sitting on top. Note the quarts of buttermilk, cheeses and butters, the red raspberries, grape puree, sour and sweet cherries, strawberries. The big container of Italian wedding soup (minus the meatballs), sourdough bread, bags of corn, store peas (tiny are always best), cranberries and rhubarb, bagels. Remind yourself to USE THE BEEF, and there’s still some wedges of pesto torte from two summers ago, cubed ham, Italian sausage, pulled pork from Magpie, lots of pincho sauce. Affectionately pat the bags of raisins and coconut, scan the jars and boxes of pureed squash, strawberry jam, sangria mix, pumpkin pie filling. Glance at the canning on the shelf. They’re dwindling nicely, but the apricots catch your eye — haven’t used any of those yet this winter. And there’s grape syrup and loads of tomato sauce. No more applesauce, though. Dang. Don’t forget about the mostly-empty barn freezer (cider, wedding soups, extra beef) and barn fridge (whipped cream from the wedding, bum cheeses, yogurt, milk, baking apples).

Go back upstairs and REMIND YOURSELF NOT TO BUY GROCERIES FOR A YEAR.

Second, assess the week. (2 minutes) 
This step is two-fold. 1) On a piece of paper, or on the door of your fridge (with a dry erase marker), write down the next five-seven days, and 2) Look at your calendar schedule. Notice which days you’ll be gone, or super busy, or have company. Make notes of the food plans you already have, like “birthday supper” or “small group dinner” or “popcorn movie night” or “out with friends” or “working late”. Days you know you’ll be rushed, plan to make a crock pot meal, or eat leftovers. Don’t forget to consider the weather: if it’s going to be sunny and warm, consider grilled steaks or hot dogs; if there’s a blizzard, make soup. Taking a minute to feel your days in advance makes your menu planning that much more realistic and effective. 

Pro-tip: post the menu front and center. Look at it at least six times a day.

Third, build your menu. (5-8 minutes)
This is where it gets overwhelming, so here are three tricks to help streamline options.

Trick 1: Classify the meals. You can do this however you like, but I tend to think of carbs (bread, pasta, rice, potatoes) and/or protein (beef, chicken, eggs, cheese). The most important thing, though, is to remember what you have AND USE IT. 

Trick 2: Piggyback the meals. One day’s leftovers become the next day’s star ingredient. For example, if Monday night is baked potatoes, corn, and steamed broccoli, the next night is fried potatoes (with the leftover baked potatoes), and maybe some scrambled eggs and fried halloumi, or whatever. Wednesday’s rice and beans turns into Thursday’s stirfry (with the leftover rice from the day before and Monday’s leftover steamed broccoli); add the pulled pork from the freezer, some grated ginger, carrots and onions, etc. Friday is pizza, perhaps, or you could make a chili with the leftover beans from Wednesday’s meal.

Trick 3: Consider your appliances. It sounds weird, but remind yourself of the tools you have — oven, rice maker, immersion blender, fondue pot, Dutch oven, crock pot, ice cream freezer, food processor, instant pot, grill — and the kinds of food you might use them for. This jumpstarts creativity and helps to get you out of a meal rut.

Fourth, fill in the gaps. (2 minutes)
Suppers are just one-third of the meals; you gotta think about breakfasts and snacks, too. While you’re in food-prep mode, jot down some things you want to make and/or use up in the menu margins: ricotta pancakes, oatmeal with canned peaches, grilled cheese, smoothies, peanut butter apples. Having a bunch of ideas in reserve prevents you from feeling adrift at mealtimes, and it provides quick to-do tasks (make granola, cream some butter for cookies) when you’re feeling bored or fuzzy in the head or starving hungry.

Fifth, push through. (1 minute)
Chances are, by this point the ideas are coming thick and fast. Make a weekend menu, and carry on into the next week if you have extra ideas. 

Total Time: 12-16 minutes, once a week. WASN’T THAT EASY?

Bonus Tips

  • As the week unfolds, you may discover you have more leftovers (or less) than you anticipated, or someone gets sick, or you go out with friends. Cross things off, swap days, make additions. No menu is fixed in stone. 
  • Don’t rush to the store when you run out of a standby, like white rice. Instead, switch to the brown. Or cook with pasta and bread for a few days. If you run out of pasta, switch to potatoes. Or make your own pasta because that’s why you have all those bags of semolina, after all.
  • Holding back some store-bought goodies, like chips and boxed cereals and bottled drinks, creates a feeling of abundance, helps lengthen the times between trips to the store, and gives you something to draw on in moments of true desperation.
  • Fresh veggies are fairly cheap and add considerable excitement. A bunch of green onions, some kale, a couple lemons, a red pepper, a cabbage: small things that go a long way!
  • When you think you simply have to go shopping right this minute, wait a day or two. Pull out that random hunk of meat from the freezer. Make a batch of bread. Pop some popcorn. OR, just get the bare necessities — milk, butter, onions — and try to go another week. Necessity is the mother of invention.

Happy Cooking!

*I’m not being sexist. She asked.

This same time, years previous: how we homeschool: Amber, the quotidian (2.10.20), snake cake, the quotidian (2.11.19), bits and bobs, a horse of her own, one-pot macaroni and cheese, potato gnocchi.

10 Comments

  • Juls Owings

    Daughter 4 and her daughter both write the menu on the frig with dry eraser marker. We no longer make menus. Depending on when Hubby gets home from hauling and how my Crohn’s is for the day on what is ate. Worse would be fresh eggs into omelets or frittia with veggies in them(eggs from the Amish), home made bread or homemade biscuits with homemade jam or peach or apple butter.

  • Becky R.

    This is going to sound contrived, but that is exactly how I do it. My biggest problem is pushing those things in the freezer that need to be eaten that I am not crazy about or require a lot of preparation. Your daughter is lucky to get this advice. I had to learn it the hard way over a lifetime.

  • Judith Lehman

    You mention “bum” cheeses. My first thought is to try frying pieces into crisps. Sometimes that makes a disliked cheese into something good. This is a very helpful post!

  • Jenna

    I used to make my weekly meal plan just like you described, but without the gorgeous pantry (so jealous!). This year has been exceptionally challenging on my brain power, and one week when it was time to wipe the past week’s meal plan and start over, I just didn’t erase it. Instead, I cooked the same meals over again all week. Now, months later, it’s been the same pot of beans Monday, Taco Tuesday, etc. Zero minutes of planning and the same groceries are on the shopping list every week. To keep myself interested, the pot of beans won’t be the exact same every week, it’s usually pintos but it could also be black bean soup, or red beans and rice, for example. I’ll probably switch to something more interesting when my life calms down, but for now it keeps the kids fed and me a little less crazy!

  • Cheryl

    Good post, lots of great ideas, thank you!

    I really do not know how my mom did it, feeding 9 people on the daily, never with a menu plan and very rarely leftovers to fall back on. She also worked a full time job managing the deli at Wegmans. A true superwoman she was. Mom did have a bit of a reprieve at lunch time in the summer. We ate tons of tomato sandwiches on toast slathered with Hellmans (.49 a jar back than, and a loaf of bread for a quarter.. lol) and plenty of salt and pepper. Nothing better than zipping out to the garden and grabbing a sun warmed tomato off the vine, ahhh, heaven.

    I menu plan myself, and it’s just my husband and me. Otherwise, I would be clueless!

    You can keep your walnuts fresher in the fridge…I have a bag in my fridge, as we speak.

  • Hattie

    What a comprehensive tutorial! One thing I’ve learned from the past two years is not to rely on the grocery store so much. Before I would follow a recipe to the T even if that meant making a quick run to the store if I needed something. Now I am the queen of subbing. If no rice in the cupboard, I sub grilled polenta, which I buy in the convenient tube. I am trying to be more self sufficient so I refuse to buy granola or bottled salad dressing when I can easily keep the ingredients and make them myself. And instead of waking up and saying “What shall I make for dinner tonight?” I started making menus for half a week and only go to the grocery store once or twice . It’s a start.

    Finally here’s my best pro tip for the kitchen: If you are in the middle of cooking or baking and use something up (say a spice or vanilla extract) stop what you are doing and write it down on a shopping list (which I keep on the side of the refrigerator). You will thank yourself the next time you need that item and are already cooking/baking.

  • Ashleah

    I recently got a meal planning journal and I LOVE it. I’ve been putting my dinners on post-it notes and putting them in that section, so I can more easily move them around. I tend to eat a similar lunch every day, and I make-ahead breakfasts a lot (usually fresh fruit parfaits that I’ll add granola to in the morning). I found this post very helpful!

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