Categorical menu planning: the explanation

6 Jan

I apologize–my post yesterday about my categorical menu planning was a bit vague on the specific categories we use and how the process actually works. I hope that this post helps clear up any vague details.

When I first suggested the idea of menu planning by category to my husband, he was fine with the idea. After all, he just has to eat the food; he doesn’t have to cook it. He did raise the concern that eating a pasta dish every Monday, a casserole every Tuesday, etc would get boring. I agreed with this. Thus, the concept of our categories was born.

After a brief discussion, we decided that it would be good to have a variety of categories. Specifically, we though that 14 was good number. This way,  we could go 2 weeks without eating the same type of food. After thinking about how and what we like to eat, these 14 categories emerged as the clear winners (I tried to take a picture of my handwritten list, but it came out really, really bad):

  1. Chinese
  2. Italian
  3. Mexican
  4. Burgers
  5. Salad
  6. Sandwiches/wraps
  7. Pizza
  8. Breakfast
  9. Seafood
  10. Crockpot
  11. Soup
  12. Stir-fry
  13. New recipe (one I’ve never tried before)
  14. Wild card (anything I want)

Each one of the categories is assigned a number, which is kept on a list in my recipe binder. We have 14 little scraps of paper with a number and each week when I sit down to do my menu plan, someone will pull 5-7 pieces of paper (the number varies based on our schedule for the week). Those numbers represent the category we will be eating that week.

After  I have the categories, I figure out what we’re going to eat. This where I get to be creative. I basically have free reign to cook whatever I want within a given category. For instance, this week the categories are: Chinese, Mexican, Italian, burgers and breakfast. So I planned to make:

  1. Asian quinoa salad
  2. Gnocchi marinara
  3. Bean burrito soup
  4. Orange-cranberry pancakes
  5. Lentil burgers

(Note: sometimes the categories may look like they overlap. That’s OK.) I then planned my grocery list around these recipes (after, of course, going through my pantry, freezer and fridge to see what was already in the house).

One of the nicest parts of categorical menu planning is that when you buy an ingredient–say, rice wine vinegar–that is not a standard staple, but you know that you’ll be using it in a lot of dishes, it becomes cost-effective to menu plan this way. Sure, to buy it for one dish is expensive but when you know you’ll use it at least 10 more times, it’s really economical (and trust me, rice wine vinegar is used a lot).

This type of menu planning also helps for stockpiling. Let’s say you narrow your categories to 7 and one of those categories is Italian. Well, Italian food usually involves some sort of pasta, so when there’s a good sale on pasta, you stock up. Then, it’s on hand and you don’t have to spend the money buying it for that week leaving your money free for something else.

So far, this type of menu planning has been working for us. We’ve tried some new recipes that were quite good (the bean burrito soup and a light Fettucine Alfredo that was made with no butter or cream). We’ve tried some that were horrible not as good, such as the lentil burgers. We have yet to go over our grocery budget, it’s more time efficient to go to the supermarket, and I no longer have the dreaded “What am I going to make tonight? OK, I’ll make that…wait, I’m missing 3 ingredients…crap, now we have to have this instead” battle. It’s nice to save my sanity along with time and money.

What do you think of categorical menu planning? Which categories would you use? Are there any you would add?


8 Responses to “Categorical menu planning: the explanation”

  1. Melissa E. January 6, 2011 at 9:14 pm #

    I like the idea of the categories, but I must not be bored as easily as your husband is–I can easily eat the same foods more often than once every 14 days. Plus, I like to have lots of leftovers and eat those a couple of days.

    My husband and I take turns cooking, but our styles are very different. I like to cook without a recipe and just invent something interesting, or start with a recipe and make changes based on what we have in the house. He follows intricate recipes with fifty ingredients. Perhaps it’s just that my husband likes to cook, but he takes at least 2 hours to make each recipe, and then we’re eating at 7:30 or 8 p.m. when he cooks. Too late when you have a two-year old.

    But I think I might try some modified version of your categories and have my husband and I draw from slips of paper. I think that’s such a creative idea and will get us out of our dinner rut. 🙂

    • theemptykitchen January 7, 2011 at 9:06 am #

      melissa, i’m like you. i can eat the same thing for days on end (and sometimes i do!). my husband, however, likes more variety than that and, although he’ll eat leftovers, he can’t eat something more than twice. unless it’s pizza. if left to his own devices, he’d eat pizza every day.

      i have a 4 year old so i totally understand the time crunch. almost all of my recipes can be ready in as long as it takes to watch 2 episodes of dora the explorer (46 minutes, to be exact).

  2. alternotreality January 7, 2011 at 10:13 am #

    I think I’m in love with you in a that-was-one-really-well-thought-out-list-that-made-my-life-easier kinda way.

  3. 100wordson January 7, 2011 at 11:41 am #

    I like your categories, though I’d make some changes. I’d probably get rid of burgers, breakfast, and seafood (I don’t eat seafood). I’d replace them with American, soups, and Indian/Thai.
    American would include burgers, but also rib eyes and mashed potatos (this is a once every 3-6 month meal), chicken and cream of mushroom over rice, and your favorite, meatloaf. 😉
    Soups are important right now because of my eating restriction, but also, DH likes making them and they add a nice bit of variety.
    Finally, Indian/Thai. We keep trying new curry dishes. I LOVE curry, and DH’s mango curry (with a coconut milk base) is absolutely delicious. Chicken and peanut sauce is also a favorite.

    • theemptykitchen January 7, 2011 at 11:46 am #

      soup is on the list! we love soup! in fact, most nights, that’s what my daughter asks for!

      that’s what i love about this stuff…this is just the list that works for us. anyone can adopt it based on what he or she likes. there are certain foods, like japanese/sushi, that i wouldn’t put on the list because there are some foods that are just better from a restaurant.


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