I have gotten more than a few questions from readers wondering how I decide what to make for dinner each night. So I thought I would detail how I make up the weekly menu. I start by knowing what I already have, i.e. the staples. I always have yellow onions, butter (Smart Balance), Lipton onion soup, white whole wheat flour, skim milk, half and half, eggs, peanut butter, applesauce, Italian bread crumbs, oil, cinnamon, cocoa, brown sugar, whole wheat tortillas, yeast, at least a couple of small potatoes, carrots, frozen green peas and butter beans, canned green beans, ketchup, tomato paste, brown rice, beef and chicken bullion, and Cheerios. Our house is never without these items. I keep a magnetic notepad on the side of the fridge and whenever I find that we are running low on something I add it to the list.
I also have an arsenal of dinner recipes that make a regular rotation in our house. Spaghetti sauce, meatloaf, split pea with ham soup, chicken pot pie, roast, macaroni and cheese, chicken fried rice, tuna noodle casserole, lemon chicken, pork loin, chili, chicken casserole, shepherd's pie, pot roast, Brunswick stew, vegetable soup, macaroni stew, pizza, taco soup, and tacos. Whew. :)
But sometimes I get in a rut, so I ask Bubba and the girls if they have any ideas. I don't know why I bother because the answers are always the same. Tink says meatloaf, Goose says tacos, and Bubba says, "whatever you make, I'll eat." :) :) Such sweethearts, but zero help with meal planning.
I go shopping once a week, Sunday or Monday, and get everything I'll need for the week. I actually prefer to go on Monday mornings because it is less crowded at Wally Mart and...well, because I like to clip the Sunday coupons with a cup of coffee and Desperate Housewives on my DVR. :) I grab the list from the magnetic notepad on the fridge, the coupons, a notebook for making my real list, my recipe box, my Cookbook of Awesomeness, and the magnetic wipe-off board.
Some weeks we have more in the budget than other weeks. That's a factor in what I decide to make, but I always use coupons. I save between $5 and $20 every single week just by clipping coupons from Sunday's paper. I go through them each week and set aside the ones I will need. I have found a little bit of zen in the clipping, organizing, and separating of coupons. :)
If I need ideas I go through my recipe box...
and my Tink-titled Cookbook of Awesomeness. It's a hard folder that holds all the recipes I find online. That's a little past time of mine. Don't get Bubba started on the amount of paper and ink I go through! Tink did the drawing on the cover. How cute is that chick with a frying pan?!!
You can see in the next picture that I write on these recipes about the changes I make (because I rarely make a recipe as written). I also spill things all over the paper.
I go through all the recipes, coupons, and write down the week's meal plan. I always try to have at least one recipe that will last for two days, like chili or stew. I organize my list by toiletries, produce, coffee/bread, frozen, meat, dairy, and the middle (which is everything else that's found in the middle of the supermarket).
Then I write the week's meal plan on a magnetic wipe-off board and stick it on the fridge. I started doing that when I got tired of hearing, "what's for dinner?" sixteen times a day. At least it felt like sixteen times. Now the girls don't ask anymore and take turns writing the menu, erasing meals we have finished, and drawing chickens and rabbits on the board. Bubba still asks "what's for dinner?"
I keep Saturdays free for getting pizza, Chinese, or having hodge podge, which is what we call it when we clean out the freezer. The kids absolutely love it. I got them cafeteria trays and each slot gets a totally different food. It's good to keep a bag of tater tots in the freezer to round out hodge podge night.
Whenever possible I try to pick up an extra ground beef or package of chicken to put in the freezer in case of emergencies. Say one night I go to bed and forget to put the leftover stew, spaghetti sauce, etc in the fridge. That's one night without a meal planned. Here's where the staples come in handy. You can cook up some ground beef with potatoes, onions, salt, and pepper and have hash for dinner. If you don't have a ground beef on hand you can always cut up some onions, saute them in butter, then toss them in a pot and cover them with water and a packet of Lipton onion soup. So good! Saute onions, carrots, green peas, add a cup or cup and a half of beef broth (made with the bullion cubes), put the mix in a small casserole dish with some creamed potatoes on top and you have a meatless Shepherd's pie made with just your staples. And any veggies sauteed in butter go great in some brown rice.
Getting into the habit of making a weekly meal plan takes practice. You have to set aside the time and then stick with the plan. It won't be long before it's easy and just how you do things. You'll also collect your own arsenal of dinner meals.
Some great food blogs to check :
Chickens in the Road (my absolute favorite!!)
Tasty Kitchen (The Pioneer Woman's recipe site. I'm not in love with the format--kind of hard to search for recipes like chocolate cake, but all the cooks are experienced and the recipes are fantastic.)
Smitten Kitchen (much more upscale meals than I cook, great for ideas)
All Recipes (Totally awesome. Fabulous recipes of every type from every type of cook with tons of great feedback so you can get ideas on what does and what doesn't work in the recipe)
How to Cook Like Your Grandmother (just like the title implies, this author's recipe are good old-fashioned home cooking! I love them all!)
Hope this answers some of your dinner planning questions!