Confession: I've never been much of a "menu person." Back when we were still on the Standard American Diet, I sometimes planned a menu for a special occasion, but that's about it. After all, when much of what you eat can be taken out of the freezer and microwaved, who needs a menu? (Shudder.) When we decided to go on The Garden Diet, we followed that menu plan, and I experienced firsthand how much simpler it was to eat well when you have a plan. From there, I decided to try my hand at making my own menus. Turns out, it's a terrific technique for feeding a family well.
First, why make a menu? Why not just decide what to eat on the fly?
I make menus for my family to accomplish the following things:
I can figure out what to do with that head of cauliflower in our refrigerator, while it's still fresh.
I can plan to provide enough of the things we want to try to include in our diet, and keep an eye out to make sure we don't get too much of a food that we want to limit. For example, if we want to increase our intake of leafy greens while decreasing our intake of nuts and oils, a menu plan can help.
If I plan at least three healthy meals and a nutritious snack each day, I am a LOT less likely to find myself ravenously tearing into something that I hadn't intended to eat.
It also saves money, because we buy exactly what we need at the store, instead of filling the shopping cart with random produce and hoping for the best. Although, when we do fill a cart with the best, most attractive, fresh, ripe produce we find, we can always take it home and plan a menu around it.
We don't have to stick to the menu exactly. If I forget to buy something I need for a recipe, I can make tomorrow's lunch today, and pick up the missing ingredient at my convenience. If we are not in the mood to eat what I planned for today, we can substitute for another meal in the plan.
Once I create a menu that works for my family, I can reuse it any way I like. For example I can save our winter menus and get them out next year, adapting them to our changing needs and tastes.
So, here is one way to plan a menu. Of course, there are probably many ways to plan a menu, and if you have any tips or ideas that work for you, we'd love to read about them in the comments.
Step One: Look at your schedule for the week. This is important because you don't want to plan a nice meal on a night when you are too rushed to prepare it, or when the family is too busy to enjoy it. Sometimes I make a soup or a smoothie that everyone can take to go. Sometimes we just fill a cooler with fruit. Keep your schedule in mind as you plan your meals.
Step Two: Take stock of what is already on hand so you can use it up. Those items should usually be what you use first on your menu, so they don't go bad. I like to come up with a couple of meals or entrees based on what is on hand, and place them early in the week's plan.
Step Three: Consider your cravings, and those of your family. If you are transitioning to raw or trying to include more raw food in your diet, and you have been craving a big bowl of chili, you have a choice. You can make a raw version of chili, or you can cave to your cravings. I find that it is really worthwhile to make the raw version. It doesn't always keep me from caving, but it does help. Add a raw "crave" recipe to your menu.
Step Four: Obviously seasonal produce is best, so think about what is in season. If pumpkins are abundant, then you might want to figure out what you can do with a pumpkin and work it into your menu. Make sure to add seasonal recipes to your menu.
Step Five: Leaf through some preparation books and visit a few of your favorite raw foodist websites. Have you stumbled across any new recipes that you'd like to try? It might be a good idea to work those in. If one is a bit complicated or involves skills you are still working on, it might be best to schedule that one for a day when you have extra time and family around to lend a hand. I try to keep an eye on this, and make sure the simpler, more familiar recipes outnumber the complex or new ones. I do think it's a good idea to add something new and interesting to your menu.
Step Six: Check the nutrition. Plug the holes where there isn't enough, and scale back on the fats where there is too much. By the time I reach this step, I have at least one recipe plugged in per day for the week. Now I like to think about what to add to achieve our nutritional goals for each day. We like to include a certain quantity of deep green leafy vegetables, cruciferous vegetables, brightly colored fruits and berries, etc. It helps that we've been having green juice and smoothies for breakfast, because they provide a large part of our daily needs.
While you are doing this, check the nutritional content from the standpoint of what you want to limit. In additional to including enough of the right foods, in our family it's also necessary to scale back on nuts and oils. One problem I run into is that many of our most favorite recipes contain nuts and oils. They make the recipes more filling and satisfying, but the amount we need each day is rather small and we don't need them with every meal. Fortunately, there are many great recipes that do not contain any nuts or oils. So at this point, it's necessary to do a bit of rearranging or substituting. Now is the time to take out that recipe that is too high in fat and substitute with something that is just as nutritious but more sensible.
Step Seven: Make your shopping list and go get the food! In order to use fresher produce, I prefer to divide the week in half and shop twice, once at the start of the week and once halfway through.
There is another way to do this that some may find more appealing. If you are fortunate to have a terrific garden or access to some great farmer's markets, you may wish to go out and gather the best looking produce first, then bring it home and start designing your menu from there. It might be best to start your shopping trip with a rough idea of what you are looking for, in terms of getting enough greens etc.
Brandi Rollins, author of "Raw Foods On A Budget," and "Confessions Of An East Coast Raw Vegan," offers another great tip. She says that when you are preparing a new recipe for the first time, plan to prepare it two or three times in the same week. There are two main reasons for this. One is, chances are you are going to be buying ingredients that you don't use very often, and this way you will be more likely to use them up. The second reason is that by the time you have prepared it the third time, you'll be able to do fix it more quickly and easily, which saves time.
Another way to simplify your weekly menu time is to make one (or several ) of the meals a "mono-meal." Just make a meal of peaches, or strawberries, or bananas, or whatever is fresh, ripe and in season. How about choosing a different fruit for breakfast each day of the week? Okay, I know, for those of us who are transitioning to raw, that may not sound very appealing. It's just not what we are accustomed to. When I first thought about mono meals, I thought it sounded very unsatisfying. I think that this is because normally when I think about having some fruit, I think about having one piece of fruit or one small bowl of fruit salad. The difference is that a mono meal involves eating the fruit until you are full. It could be ten bananas or a dozen apples. Here's a terrific explanation of mono meals. Try it! It can be nice, I promise.
If you need to start with a template, there are lots of terrific ones online, like this one and this one.
Or, if you'd rather have someone plan your menus for you, Lisa Viger at Raw on $10 A Day can do that!
Do you have any menu planning tips? Have you tried any of these methods and did they work for you? I'd love to read about it in the comments!