October 16, 2012

Meal planning cuts time and waste, boosts nutrition


---- — The fall season seems to feel rushed after the “lazy days” of summer. 

Not only is it dark well before bedtime, often there are after-school activities, homework assignments and evening work meetings that get put off during the vacation season. Fall is a busy time, but that should not be an excuse to eat unhealthy dinners. Doing a little menu planning can really help you incorporate nutrition into dinner and can actually save you time and money.


If you’re new to menu planning, you should choose a format or style that most fits your needs and personality. 

In the beginning, choose one meal to plan for the week, usually dinner. Some people enjoy a chart-style menu planner, which you can fill in by hand or enter on an electronic device. If you are like me — a lot less organized — you can jot ideas down on your grocery list. 

I think the reason people do not use a menu more often is because they feel tied down to the chart, day by day. Do not forget that it is your menu; make it work for you. I like a random list, so as the week gets started, I can loosely plan quick meals for busy days and fill in the longer meals when I will be home earlier or have more prep time in the morning or the night before. 

As you start, take a look at what you already have in the refrigerator, cupboards and freezer. There is no point in saving all 10 boxes of spaghetti; plan a meal around it. Reducing waste will help keep your food-storage areas tidy and save you some money each week. 

Consider the plate method when filling out your meal. Ideally, one half of your plate should be vegetables or fruits, so they should be included in every meal. Quick sides, like salads or frozen vegetables that can be quickly reheated, are great ways to fill in your plate. Make a grocery list based on your menu, so you are sure to have everything you need to prepare it.


If you have any picky eaters, or anyone who is often “not in the mood for that,” plan your meals when they can contribute. As a general rule of thumb, everyone should be eating the same meal unless an individual has a food allergy or sensitivity. That said, try to include one food that you know the picky eater will like. Even if that person is really eating only applesauce for dinner while everyone else is eating pork chops and roasted root vegetables, they will not starve. They may even be hungry or bored enough to be tempted into a few bites of the other dishes offered. Though I cannot guarantee that the dinner complaints will go away, allowing the family to have some control over the menu at least takes some of the blame off of the cook. 

This is really where the time savings comes in. No more taking inventory of your cupboards and surveying the family on a nightly basis. You also save time where it counts. After a busy day at work and school with a hungry family waiting, taking your time is not really an option. If you know what is on the menu, you could do at least some of the prep work the night before, such as ready a casserole for the oven.

If you do not already plan menus, I urge you to try it. Making the menu takes less time than the minutes wasted nightly on the “What’s for dinner?” debate. You can decrease your dependency on take-out and frozen meals (although you can include them on your plan occasionally) and eat healthier by including more vegetables. You can easily reduce waste, make fewer trips to the grocery store and reduce costs by using foods on sale. And, most importantly, having a plan can make the rushed evening hours feel smoother.

Jordy Kivett is a nutrition educator at Cornell Cooperative Extension in Clinton County. For more information, contact her at 561-7450