I thought I'd share a little bit about how I plan the weekly menu. I have actually designed 6 week rotations of supper menus, but I seem to stray from them over the course of time, and back to a week to week sort of thing. Still, I have those lists, and they are great to work from.
Currently, this is my method:
1. Is there anything on hand that 'needs using'? If so, that gets worked into the plan right away. It doesn't matter if it's a single ingredient or a side dish or what - I'll either put it into the menu or wrap it properly and freeze it for an upcoming week, if that's feasible.
2. What's on sale? If there's an amazing sale on something, that's when I stock it. With meats, that means that we have quite a bit of variety in the freezer, since most meats can be frozen. With produce, if it's a great lettuce week, we might have more salads...if carrots are rock-bottom priced, I can have those a couple different ways during the week. On the other hand, if there are no good produce sales, we will eat frozen and/or canned fruits and vegetables that we have on hand from our garden or from previous sales. If a type of produce that keeps really well goes on sale, I will stock more of it. I won't overdo the lettuce, for example, but a head of cabbage will keep a long, long time. Carrots and other root vegetables (beets, turnips,etc.) keep well too, as do apples and citrus fruits. If you have cool dark storage for them, winter squash and potatoes keep well too....and so do pumpkins if you want to grow some. Keep in mind though, a great price on something your family will not eat is still wasted money. (Actually, from the above list, we generally grow our own carrots, beets, turnip (just one, thanks, lol), winter squash, potatoes and pumpkins.)
3. Ask the family. What is the consensus as far as what we're in the mood for? Everyone here understands that we shop and eat on a budget, but family input really helps with the success of a given week's menu. I might not be able to whip up a lobster bisque if that's requested, but for the most part, the requests that are made can be fulfilled within a reasonable amount of time. (No one has ever asked for lobster bisque, by the way.) Or...I might be thinking ham bone with beans, and my family will say they'd prefer Boston baked beans instead. As long as I have the stuff on hand for either one, it's no big deal.
4. Check the freezer. I try to use at least one freezer meal each week, so that I have an easy day when the prep is already done. My freezer cooking is pretty simple - make a big batch of chili, spaghetti sauce, etc. and freeze the extra in dinner size portions. It's handy, and saves us time and money.
5. Use 'the list'. As soon as I try to think of what to make, my brain shuts down, so I use this little list to help me with ideas. In a given week, suppers could include:
a meatless meal
a hearty salad
an Asian meal
a Mexican meal
an Italian meal
a poultry dish
a beef dish
a pork dish
breakfast for supper
fend for yourself night (use up the leftovers)
Many things would fit into more than one category - taco salad is a hearty salad, a meatless meal and a Mexican(ish) meal....but having that list helps me get some ideas rolling. Also, I have lists of each kind of meal listed above, and I can go to those if I'm still stuck. Usually, just those titles will help me enough to plan the week.
6. Write them down. Once the main dishes are there, it's easier for me to figure out which one would be good with noodles, broccoli, potatoes, corn, whatever. It's important to 'round out' meals, so that there is a protein source, vegetables, fruit, etc. Our rule is that everyone has to try everything served, and for the most part, there is a lot of healthy eating. A little drama too, but it's my job to train my child in the way she should go, even if that means I have to hear about how much she dislikes my homemade bean soup.
I put suppers on a dry erase board in the kitchen, in no particular order.That gives us some flexibility. I just erase each one as it's used, so that we can see what we have left to work with.
What about Breakfast, and Lunch?
Breakfast is usually different for each of us, unless it's the weekend and I'm feeling ambitious. During the week there are several choices - oatmeal, cereal, peanut butter toast, muffins (sometimes) eggs, etc. Right now there is a fair amount of yogurt in the fridge, because it's been on markdown everywhere, so we are having more yogurt with homemade granola and fruit. We can use it for smoothies too, and sometimes we do, with frozen fruit. Anyway...breakfast is a casual, freeform meal around here.
Lunch is often leftovers from a previous supper. They may not be served the same way (leftover chicken might get made into tacos, for example), but we use lunch as an opportunity to eat the bits from previous meals. If there aren't leftovers to choose from, there is always PBJ, a big salad, something. Again, it's a pretty casual meal, but we make sure it's well-rounded as much as possible.
Snacks include fresh fruit, fresh vegetables, yogurt, dried fruits, peanut butter and crackers, cheese and crackers, muffins, green smoothies...pretty typical stuff, I think. I try to keep some variety, but switch things week to week. One week I might pop popcorn a couple or three times, the next week I may be slicing oranges more often. Oh, and no snacks after about 2 or 2:30, or else a certain little girl isn't hungry at supper.
What does it cost?
Our monthly budget for food, household items (like cleansers, laundry supplies, etc.) and toiletries is $160 a month. There are three of us - two adults and a child - and even with a dollar amount that is well below USDA guildelines (and also includes the house stuff and toiletries!) we are currently stocked to a point that we've decided to "eat down" the freezer and pantry, so we will set aside $80 a month for future bulk buying and use the other $80 a month for milk, produce, and really good deals that come up. So far, so good!
Where do you get your stuff?
Everywhere. First off, we garden, and we have a fruit orchard. We keep hens too, and they supply us with all the eggs we could ever need. We also raise rabbits - mostly as pets, but we do occasionally have rabbit for dinner. I grew up eating wild game and a variety of different meats, but my husband did not, and he much prefers that we stick with beef, pork, chicken, turkey and tuna, but he is willing to have rabbit once in a while.
I belong to a 'buying group' that does orders with different companies once a year. Spring order is bulk foods, many of them from Walton Feed, where we can get whole grains, milk powder, seeds for sprouting, grain mills and tons more. Fall order is nuts, seeds, teas, candy making supplies, etc. Truth be told, I can often find bulk items locally on sale for comparable or better prices, but there are some things I get through the buying group that I just can't find locally.
In my area, the LDS cannery will allow non-members of the church to purchase. If you have a cannery in your area, it's a great place to make bulk purchase of the items they offer. I've gotten beans and oats in bulk, and been happy with both.
Bountiful Baskets is a produce buying group that is available in my area. It's $16.50 for 2 weeks worth of produce. I've used it, and we just can't eat all the produce we get. It's a laundry basket full of stuff, so we were splitting the produce and the cost with a neighbor. It's nice, but we found that sometimes the quality wasn't the greatest...I like summer squash that are small and we would get rather large ones, for example. Plus, I'm that person who examines each and every apple before I buy them at the store, so I tend to be on the fussy side. It's good pricing, and sometimes we will do a basket in the middle of winter. They also offer bulk fruits and vegetables (a case of oranges, for example) at great prices, as well as breads, tortillas and some dry goods.
Mostly, though, I get stuff at the store. We live in an area where there is a lot of competition and prices are fairly low. There are 3 supermarket chains (Albertson's, King Sooper and Safeway), Sprouts farmer's market, Super Target, Super Walmart, and a lot of ethnic markets, plus Walgreens, Dollar Tree, etc. I watch for sales, check the markdown area, and stretch every dollar as best I can.
That's an overview of what works for me. I hope it helps you with menu planning. :)