Until I quit gluten, I was a bit of a “hey, whatever” person when it came to menu planning. In the back of my mind, there was generally a vague idea. So vague, we ended up eating out a lot more than was good for our wallets.
There did come a time when I correlated eating out with feeling bad and eating at home with feeling good. I have a theory that I instinctively cooked foods that didn’t make me sick. You’d think it would not have taken me so long to figure out that gluten was a serious problem, wouldn’t you?
Now I plan a bit more carefully because while I enjoy the social aspects of eating out, sometimes it’s just more work for me — deciphering menus! quizzing waitstaff! — than I’m in the mood for. Plus I like that I can control little things like portion size, calories, and even levels of salt when I cook at home.
Because I have a crazy schedule, I build in options for days when I have to stay late at the office, when it’s just too hot to consider cooking, or when the fruit I’m planning to use gives up the ghost for no good reason (I kid: the fruit always has a good reason…usually me waiting too long!).
When I plan meals for the week, I consider variety (fish, veggies, red meat, chicken) and the potential for leftovers — I prefer to pack leftovers for my lunch, and so whatever I make for dinner has to be good enough for lunch.
I also try to introduce a new item into our menu every week. This week, it was za’atar, a spice blend (sumac, sesame seeds, thyme and other seasonings — apparently, there is no definitive recipe for za’atar), which I used to season roasted broccoli. I can’t wait to try it on chicken!
You can be as formal or casual as you want when it comes to menu planning. Some people — and I admire them so! — create formal grids, detailing all meals being prepared (including a leftovers schedule). Others (ahem, me) jot a few notes on an index card. Whatever your approach, knowing how food will get on the table every day of the week will make your gluten-free life so much easier.
Here are a few tips for menu planning:
- Set aside a specific time every week to do planning, recipe review, and research. This can be as little as 30 minutes, or as long as two hours (you know who you are, person who loves reading about food!). Create your shopping list after you’ve planned the menu.
- Identify tried-and-true recipes to populate your menu. Sure I try new things, but, as I’m sure is true for most households, I tend to rely on about a dozen or so meals that work well for us.
- If you clip/save recipes, create a system for retrieval, both for online recipes and paper items. Hmm, this is advice I should follow more closely.
- Pay attention to your schedule! If you’re running around with band practice, sports, errands, and other chores, chances are you won’t be able to put together an elaborate meal on a Wednesday night. Note the time you have available for meal prep on a daily basis to make sure what you plan to serve fits your real-life schedule.
- Plan for double-duty meals. If you’re making chicken one night, can you cook extra for a meal later that week? For me, I factor in lunches. I far prefer bringing my lunch most days, and knowing I have delicious leftovers really helps.
- Determine which meals you’ll be cooking. In our house, we’re on our own for breakfast and most lunches, so I just need to make sure I have GF options for me for those meals (and that the husband has plenty of oatmeal in stock; he’ll either have leftovers or go out for lunch). This lets me focus on planning dinners only. Your household may vary.
- Repeat your menus. There is no need to create a brand-new menu every single week.
- Keep pre-made meals or quick-and-easy recipe ingredients on hand for last minute schedule changes or emergencies. We all have them.
- Knowing I have a plan for meals is a huge stress reliever. Not only do I plan what will be cooked, I make sure I have the necessary ingredients on hand. Nothing throws me off like discovering a crucial item is missing (like, oh, the chicken part of grilled chicken).
What are your menu planning strategies? Any great tips? Let me know in the comments.