A meal planning system that actually works!

What's for Dinner?

by Melody Warnick

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Getting a good deal at the grocery store is one thing, but actually turning your raw ingredients into an actual meal (before your kids faint from starvation or the celery goes rotten at the bottom of the crisper drawer) is another matter entirely. Although it's clear that cooking from scratch is both cheaper and healthier than buying prepackaged, ready-to-eat meals or making daily fast-food runs, it does take some effort. And however much you may hate to plan your family's weekly menus, it's a necessary evil if you hope to actually put food on the table with a minimum of time, fuss, and expense.

Until a few months ago, meal planning at our house was haphazard at best. Some weeks, I'd spend hours sifting through piles of cookbooks and reams of clipped recipes, trying to decide what we'd eat for the next few days. Other times, I'd go blindly to the market, throw some food in the cart, and hope it would magically transform itself into a week's worth of delicious, nutritious meals. Neither approach worked well. The first was too time-consuming. The second meant that I either bought too much, so that perishables went bad, or I bought the wrong things, necessitating a midweek run to the store.

But I finally developed a menu-planning system that works for me: a recipe log. It's a simple table in which I keep track of the recipes I've tried and liked according to broad categories, like main dishes, salads, side dishes, breads, and desserts. I divided the table into six columns, as follows:

Column 1 - The name of the recipe, such as baked ziti or pumpkin chip muffins.

Column 2 - The recipe's location, either on a specific page of a cookbook or in my recipe file.

Columns 3 through 5 - Ingredients. Generally I list the ingredients that are perishable or that I may not have on hand, like ricotta cheese or fresh broccoli. If that's not relevant, I list the three ingredients that are called for in large quantities, such as egg noodles, flour, or marshmallows.

Column 6 - Notes. This space allows me to indicate if a recipe is low-fat, especially quick, or a family favorite. I also mark possible uses for leftovers, writing, for instance, that teriyaki chicken makes great stir-fry the second day.

Now, when I undertake to plan the coming week's menus, I simply consult my recipe log and have instant access to over fifty tried-and-true ideas for main dishes. Because my log also lists the important ingredients for each dish, it's easy for me to make a shopping list without dragging out every last cookbook I own. Best of all, when I have too much of a certain ingredient on hand (say, evaporated milk or chicken at the end of its life span), I can simply scan my recipe log for meals that will use up the leftovers, a trick that saves me even more money.

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I designed my log as a table in my word processing program, so that it's easy for me to update it every so often, since the program automatically alphabetizes my new entries. But making the log on notebook paper or creating it in a more complex computer program would also work. For day-to-day reference, I use a paper printout, penciling in new recipes as I try them. Although my recipe log only includes dishes that my family has actually tested and enjoyed, the truly organized cook could follow a similar plan to catalog recipes she wants to try.

Creating the recipe log does require an initial time investment of an hour or two. But it leads to big savings, both in time and money. I no longer dread my weekly menu-planning sessions because I know I can get the job done quickly and easily. And by consistently planning meals, sticking to my shopping list, and using staple ingredients to cook most meals from scratch, I've cut my grocery bill in half in the past year.

Using the recipe log probably won't put an end to your kids' cries of "What's for dinner?" But it just might mean you'll have an answer for them.

Take the Next Step:

  • No time for meal planning? Subscribe to Saving Dinner Premium Menu Mailer, your weekly road map to making daily family dinners a reality.
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  • Continue to trim food costs by visiting our food & groceries section to get tips and tools for keeping more of your hard-earned dollars in your pocket.

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