Menu Planning Using Themes ~ What is menu planning using themes? It is a system of menu planning that helps me easily plan dinners for my busy family!
I confess. I meal plan. I plan meals for the week, often for the next two weeks and if I know things are going to get real busy … for the next month. I know I’m in the small minority. I remember reading a survey conducted by a popular Canadian magazine about meal planning a number of years ago. The survey results showed that most people don’t have a clue what they are going to eat as they walk into the door after a long day at work. The next group make a plan in the morning before they head out the door and the smallest group are those of us who have planned the meals and corresponding grocery lists well ahead of time.
When I explain that I meal plan one or two weeks in advance I get quite perplexed looks, comments of disbelief and questions like “How can you know what you are going to eat so far in advance?” and “Doesn’t it take the surprise out of the meal?” and lastly, “How can you be that organized and planned that far ahead of time?” Well, let me explain my thinking! The element of surprise about what to eat is great for when you go out for dinner. Instead, planned eating leads to more intentional nutritious choices. Meal planning also creates more variety because you can plan ahead and make sure you have the needed ingredients for a variety of recipes in the pantry rather than rely on your usual stand-bys. Menu planning saves money because you’re equipped with a grocery list of actual food items you need rather than a random collection of food purchases that were bought on impulse and might be needed. You can also plan menus based on what foods are on sale by checking out the grocery flyer prior to the shopping trip. It also reduces unnecessary stress and makes for a more tranquil post school/work day interval from the time you walk into the door to the time you actually get the food on the dinner table and everyone sits down to eat.
There are basically four different ways of selecting food to feed your family. A common choice is what I refer to as ‘Factory Cooked’. This is food that is mass-produced and mass packaged in the form of boxes, packages, tin cans, Styrofoam and frozen entrees. The benefit of ‘Factory Food’ is that it meets the “get-it-fast” mentality. The negatives are these mass produced foods are laden with sodium, fat and a collection of ingredients that can’t be pronounced in one or two syllables in order to make them tasty.
The next two types of foods are ‘Fast Tracked’ and ‘Restaurant Cooked’. ‘Fast Tracked Foods’ come from drive-through-windows and take-out-counters and meets the “get-it-quick” mentality. There are generally two types of ‘Restaurant Cooked’ establishments including the chains that provide popular foods like burgers, fries and chicken fingers and the restaurants that serve food prepared by chefs. ‘Restaurant Food’ can be very tasty, quite nutritious if the right menu choice is selected. But it isn’t very practical to rely on regularly. Most of us just don’t have the time or budget to dine out every night.
The final choice is ‘Home Cooked’. This is where you choose what you are going to prepare and serve your family. The benefit is that you control the cost and the ingredients but it does take time, energy and menu planning. It may seem like its too much work and hassle to plan and prepare foods from scratch but the good news is there is a very doable system for making it work using themes. Let me explain.
To begin, plan to make use of healthy helpers like frozen vegetables, bagged salads and grated cheese. Not only are these items nutritious and are real food but they also are wonderful timesavers and reduce a few steps when preparing a recipe. Plan to double recipes so you have planned leftovers that can be reheated or popped into the freezer for a quick reheat.
When making a menu plan think in terms of themes. Restaurants do this very successfully. They will have weekly specials like ‘All You Can Eat Pasta Night Tuesdays’, or ‘Wednesday Fish and Chips’ or ‘Friday Wing Night’. I designate a theme for each day of the week and then plan meals to serve within each of the themes. The ideas for themes depend on family members schedules (soccer practice and swimming lessons), family favourites (no sense cooking food that no one will eat), budget, dietary needs and cultural practices. Examples of themes are: Sunday Supper, Soup as a Meal Night, Salad as a Meal Night, Pasta Night, Meatless Night, Casserole Night, Fun Food Night, Italian Night, Mexican Night, Stir Fry Night, Barbecue/Grill Night, Take-Out Treat Night, Slow Cooker Night to name a few.
How Does Menu Planning Using Themes Work?
While the family was young and busy I developed meal plans based on the following themes for each day of the week. This chart was completed, used as a guide for grocery shopping and posted on the fridge for all family members to see. The notes section on the chart is for reminders about anything that might affect the dinner hour. For example my husband might have to attend a light night meeting or the girls had to have an early dinner because they had piano lessons at 6:00 p.m.
Here’s an example of what the Menu Planning Using Themes chart looks like filled in:
And here is a closeup of the chart:
I created two forms of the menu planning by themes chart that you are welcome to download and use. One is in black and white and the other one is in colour. Just choose which type you prefer and print off multiple copies to cover you for the next few months. I just attached the chart using two paper clips onto a pretty sheet of scrapbook paper that looked nice on my fridge and matched the décor of my kitchen.
This is what the PDF format of the Menu Planning Using Themes chart looks like:
Notice I actually only ended up cooking three times during the week. Now that’s effective time management and being planned! Monday and Tuesday’s meals were repeats from Saturday and Sunday’s meals because I always cooked for two nights worth. Wednesday’s meal was something I had cooked previously and packaged up in the freezer. Friday was always everyone is tired after a long week of work and school so let’s keep it easy, simple and fun for everyone.
Keep in mind this system didn’t always work with the family schedule so adjustments sometimes had to be made. If there was a sports tournament and we were out of town for the weekend I didn’t have a Saturday Casserole or a Sunday Supper to fall back on. That’s where the back-up home cooked freezer dinners came in handy. Sometimes we also didn’t have a Saturday Casserole available because we went over to friends for dinner. Again, the back-up freezer meal came in handy or I would cook something in the slow cooker while I was at work on the Monday or the Tuesday.
A final note is to plan for your themes to change throughout the year and through the years. For example, Casserole Night became Barbecue Night during the hot summer months. Now that the family dynamics have changed and there is only two adults and one dog living in the house the themes have changed to: Casserole Night, Soup-as-a Meal Night, Saturday Repeat Night, Freezer Meal Night, Healthy Fish Night and Meatless Meal Night. But I still keep my No Cook Friday Nights.
Just in case you are interested in getting some ideas for dinner themes I wrote another post that you can click right here: How To Menu Plan Using Themes – Part 2
Meal planning just makes sense and using themes to plan your menus makes it easy, simple and keeps you organized.
Themes help manage the decision making for planning and deciding what to make for dinner!
Here’s a pinnable image for future reference and for sharing… thank you!
Now it’s your turn! I would love to hear your thoughts about menu planning using themes and how you meal plan!
This idea for menu planning using themes was featured on Huffington Post!