Brainstorm.....While we were overseas I noticed I was making the same things over and over again. This prompted me to make a list of meals I knew could make with the ingredients we could get. So I got out a piece of paper one day and started jotting down ideas. It developed into a list with several categories CHICKEN, BEEF, MEATLESS, SOUPS, SALADS. Under every category I wrote down all the recipes I knew how to make. Next I highlighted all the recipes that were quick recipes, ready in 30 minutes or less. I also noted recipes that took some time to make. I eventually typed up the list and it was hanging on my fridge, when meal planning time came I grabbed it and was ready to plan. If you are new to meal planning, I suggest you start with this step.
Once a month planning....I plan my meals a month in advance. I am not a natural planner, in fact I hate to be tied down by schedules. So this is very flexible, in fact most of the time my menu has lots of arrows by the end of the month because I switch things up quite a bit and sometimes I don't end up making all of it.
Getting ready to plan.....The month before, I brainstorm ideas. If I think of something that would be good to make, or see a new recipes (usually on a blog) I write it in my notebook that sitting by the computer. This is nice because when I start planning the menu I have something to start with. I love blogs that participate in Meal Plan Mondays because it gives me new ideas, particularly for meatless meals, which often stump me.
Inventory.....Before meal planning I take inventory of my freezer. I try to stock up on meat when I see good sales, or buy meat that has been marked down. I write down a list of all the things I have in my freezer and this is the basis for my meat I use the next month. This way I don't have to run out to buy any meat for a specific recipe. (So the meat I buy in January I won't use until February or possibly March.) Typically I try to have 1 or 2 meatless meals a week for health of our bodies and wallets.
Search for recipes....Once I complete my inventory I dive into cookbooks or search online to find recipes for the meat I have as well as meatless options. I usually make a list of about 20-24 main dishes for the month, this may be more or less depending on your family size and how many times you eat out in a week. We have a family who loves leftovers so this isn't an issue. If you can't stand leftovers, plan more meals and freeze the leftovers for future meals, or make smaller portions. Make sure you know if things freeze well or not, there are some great lists out there of things that freeze well and things that don't.
Special Notes....Once I have my 20-24 meals I note on the left side of the number if it is a crockpot recipe, fast recipe or meatless. When I'm looking at a recipe and I notice there is something I don't usually have I make note of that on the right side so that I can add it to my finished menu. There is nothing worse when you are half way through a recipe and you don't have an ingredient.
Fill in the Date....Next I write down all the dates of the month with spaces in between the weeks. If I know we have a commitment or plans I write that in first, so that I know I'll have to have a fast meal that night, extra for company, etc. etc. I look at my meal ideas and try to get a balance for the week. One red meat, chicken and a few meatless options. This gives us a little diversity and variety, two things I love.
Now it's your turn....So that's my method. There are plenty more out there, it just works for me. It's funny because I usually think of schedules as a constricting thing but it really takes the stress out of what to make for dinner. Before I would plan by what I felt like having and I always felt rushed to get dinner on the table. Now it takes that stress away and by posting my week's menu to this blog helps remind me of the game plan for the week. Happy Meal Planning!