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Why Bother Making a Menu Plan?
Menu Planning is an amazingly productive habit to get into. You may think it takes too much time or just isn't worth the bother, but you will save money and time if you stick to your plan. Imagine only shopping for food one day a week and buying only what you need. No more throwing away limp veggies at the end of the week. Weeknight dinners will no longer be a daunting task, and you may even have leftovers for lunch the next day.
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When Should You Plan?
If you belong to a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture, such as Local Harvest), wait until you get your box of vegetables for the week. Then find recipes that go with the veggies you received.
If you usually shop at the farmer's market, look at a few seasonal recipes before you head out. Then come home and tweak your menu according to what you found. You might come too late to get what you wanted, or mother nature may have decided this isn't the week for fresh tomatoes.
Going to Whole Foods, a co-op, or regular grocery store? Pick out your recipes and make a grocery list from your choices. If you get veggies elsewhere, still make your menu and grocery list before you go. Stick to your list. If something is on sale and will last for awhile, and it's in your budget you can grab it for next week. But try to stick to your list, you'll make your life less cluttered that way.
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Keep It Simple and Interesting
Sounds like a contradiction, but this is one place that you really can have it all. Keeping your plan simple is the best way to start. Plan one week at a time, and if you can, only plan dinners the first month. Once you start cooking 5 - 7 meals a week, you'll have leftovers that make great unplanned lunches. Think of all the money you'll save just by not going out to lunch everyday, not to mention the trash that you won't be sending to the landfills every day.
Don't make the mistake of making one pot of chili to eat on all week. You can make a pot of beans and use them in 2 of your dishes this week, then freeze the rest for next time. Keep the week interesting by adding variety into each meal. You could try planning your menu by country, protein, or by picking a vegetable a day from your CSA box. It's easy to have pasta every Monday if one week you have whole wheat angel hair with marinara sauce, orzo with an arugula pistachio pesto the next, and pumpkin white bean lasagna after that.
Plan a leftover night each week. It gives you a chance to go out if you want without messing up your menu plan, or it gives you a night to relax at home and not cook at all. If you do go out, freeze any leftovers in individual containers to use for lunches, or a dinner one night when you don't feel up to cooking.
Here are a few ideas for your weekly theme template:
- Mon - American, Tues - Chinese, Wed - Italian, Thurs - Thai, Fri - Mexican, Sat - Leftovers, Sun - Indian
- Mon - Tofu, Tues- Chickpeas, Wed - Tempeh, Thurs - Wheat Gluten, Fri - Chickpeas, Sat - , Sun - Leftovers
- Mon - Cabbage, Tues- Green Beans, Wed - Tomatoes, Thurs - Broccoli, Fri - Cauliflower, Sat - Potatoes, Sun - Leftovers
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Making a meal plan can help you be more green and eco-friendly. Think of all the food that won't get forgotten and go to waste. Weekly Menu, Green Menu Planning, Food Waste, Save Money on Groceries, Eco-friendly Menu Planning
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The Most Important Tool - Your Grocery List
Even if you belong to a CSA and get a weekly delivery of veggies, you'll still need some staples from the store or a few extra things that didn't appear in your box that week. Selecting what you are making for dinner for the week allows you to only buy what you need, and keeps you well within your grocery budget.
Making a list keeps you focused, and out of the marketing traps you'll find all over any store. Having a list also makes it harder to forget something and have to go back in a few days again at the last minute. Think of how much time it takes to get one item at the store after work verses when you plan a outing. Time saved is just as good as money saved. Don't waste your own time, save it for something you'd rather do.
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Make Your Meal Planning and Shopping Green
A few of these things you probably already do. Make sure to grab your reusable bags. If you forget, make sure to recycle the plastic ones you end up with. You can even knit or crochet your own reusable bags from the plastic ones you save.
Buy beans and grains in bulk. The bulk bin is your friend. It's cheaper and has little to no extra packaging for you to throw away. I bring my own paper or cloth bags, so I use even less. Don't forget to look for dried herbs and spices in bulk as well. Packaged spices are marked up at an unbelievable rate. This way you can buy small amount of spices at a time so they stay fresh.
Shopping less equals throwing away less. With today's ads bombarding you on every aisle, it's tough not to go overboard. Also it's just easier to forget what's in your fridge if you don't have a plan to look at. We all have busy weeks where cooking seems to slip our minds. And those are usually the weeks that there is extra garbage and rotten food to compost.
Reuse instead throwing out, whenever possible. Save your vegetable trimmings in the freezer until you have enough to make a vegetable broth. After it cools, freeze in ice cube trays to use later in soups or stews. It's a great way to use only what you need. Freeze your leftovers before they go bad. Try to do it on the same night you make the dish, if you know you'll have more than you will use for that week.
Have a dish you weren't fond of? Or perhaps not enough for another meal? Reinvent it. Turn a 1/2 cup of chili into chili pie, make mini Shepard's pie out of left over stew, or make your own healthy hot pockets by wrapping 1/4 cup of leftovers in a homemade whole wheat biscuit dough.
And if you really have a disaster, compost it. If you don't have to have a compost bin, you can set aside a corner of your yard, or even throw it into the woods. As long as there's no meat or dairy you won't draw any unwelcome guests to your house.
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Making a meal plan can help you be more green and eco-friendly. Here's a few places you can get some help. Menu Planning, Weekly Menu, Green Menu Planning, Food Waste, Save Money on Groceries, learn how to plan weekly menus
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Do I Do I Have To Plan It All By Myself?
If it seems overwhelming to plan everything by yourself, use these links to meal planning sites. Eating Well lets you pick from their huge database of recipes, can plan 3 meals a day, and will make a grocery list that you can print out.
Epicurious Weekly Dinner Planners provides a menu that changes weekly. It gives you 5 dinner menus and a shopping list to take with you to the store. It is not always vegetarian friendly, but you can always use fake meat, tofu, or tempeh in place of the protein.
Tasty Planner also has a free weekly menu planner. Search for recipes by category, cuisine, or tag (at the bottom of the page). Add in your own recipes to use now and save for later. Once you find a recipe you can click add to weekly planner, then drag and drop onto the day of the week you want to prepare it. Tasty planner creates a printable grocery list for the menu that you put together. It's interactive, so you get to check off the things you already have. Unlike Eating Well, there is no nutritional information for the recipes. I'm finding more recipes that suit me by using the tags, so you might want to start there yourself.
Feeling a little voyeuristic? Wish you could look at other people's menus? Organizing Junkie has a great blog that hosts Menu Planning Monday. Every Monday 300 + bloggers post links to their weekly menu. Some have recipe links, whole recipes, or just interesting ideas. The menu planners themselves are hugely varied from convenience food junkies to gluten free vegans. Take a look to find a few things that interest or inspire you, but know that some of the menus will not be your cup of tea. And later, when your menus are looking spiffy, you can post your ideas to help others on their quest to find green eco-friendly menus.
Be sure to go by my blog on Monday afternoons and check out the links I list to other vegetarian meal plans for the week.