Sunday, March 11, 2012

Anatomy of a Menu

Sometimes when friends ask me about how I put together a dinner menu for the week their eyes glaze over when I babble on for more than a minute. I think they were hoping for a quick, simple explanation to it all and there is, but it may not sound like it at first.

It took a few years to find a dinner groove with my first child and then the whole system had to be tinkered with in 2009 when my daughter was born. I needed to change our dinners to suit a new eater and I found the easiest way to do that was to make dinners that could be segmented for picky little people. I also kept in mind that while I may be easing a new eater into the routine, I still needed to make dinners that I want to eat, as in, "This had better be worth my time to make as well as eat."

Over the years I have collected a little library of reliable books, magazines and blogs to use in my menu planning. 

My menu arsenal
On any given Saturday or Sunday, I look at our calendar for the coming week and see what evening commitments we have and note it on the menu. Then I flip through my library for inspiration to cobble together dinners for the rest of the week.

These are my favorite resources:

How to Cook Everything by Mark Bittman
Dinner a Love Story by Jenny Rosenstrach (Jenny graciously sent me a galley copy of her book and let me tell you, it is worth every penny, so pre-order it now! What can I say? Being an early, gushing fan has its perks.)
Everyday Food magazines (more on my collection here)
Sunset Weeknight dinners (2005 edition, co-edited by my friend, Emma Bland Smith)
Sunset Fast & Fresh
Time for Dinner by the Cookie editors
Real Simple magazine

With these wonderful resources at my disposal, I keep a few basic guidelines in place.

1) I try to do most of my shopping on Sunday, but I supplement with extras from Trader Joe's during the week. I am very fortunate to work two blocks from TJ's so I go there during the week for extra's on my lunch break.

2) To avoid repeats, I organize the menu by the main dish. So in a given week we'll have one or two poultry dinners, one pasta dinner, one vegetarian dinner, one soup dinner, and one get-out-of-jail-free dinner (aka the frozen something or dinner out) and then I find recipes to fit into those parameters. I believe this kind of thinking comes from my mother and my grandmother, but then again she would never approve of having chicken twice in one week. C'est un scandale!

3) The seafood chosen for a dinner during the week will always be made by Monday or Tuesday. This is almost always amended by frozen shrimp, which is a must-have in our freezer due to my shrimp-loving son.

4) On Sundays I typically put more time into what I make, mainly because I have the time! I try to make it a little more special than my usual 30-minute-dinner-wham-bam-thank-you-ma'am type of meal. Even better if I can do double duty and get something else ready for later in the week, especially if I have a twofer in mind. This particular week I roasted a butternut squash to be used in soup for the next day.

So as you can see this is not rocket science. It may seem too rigid for some, but for me it's just how I like to do my dinners. I like a plan, but I like it be flexible and as a result, I rarely encounter rotting vegetables in the fridge. An extra bonus is that we eat pretty good leftovers the next day at work.

What else can I say?

"I love it when a plan comes together."


  1. makes sense to me! and SO lucky you got the galley copy of DALS...jealous much.

  2. This is a GREAT post. One of my favorite things is to menu plan, but I've never mapped out what makes it easy or efficient. I also love seeing your inspiration magazines and must-have cookbooks. I usually grab a stack of seasonally appropriate Bon Appetits, Eating Wells, and Barefoot Contessas.

    1. Thanks Katherine! I have tried to comment on your blog before and have had trouble doing so. Can you check the preferences on commenting for a peep like me?