How to menu plan

A menu plan is an essential household tool that keeps the food budget in check, food waste to a minimum and life nice and simple. It's also a tool I find easily mislaid with major life upheaval and I have fallen off the menu planning wagon several times over the years. This time it was my switch to veganism. It's taken a few years to find my feet and I've done lots of experimenting, but now it's time to get back on a plan.

I usually work on a repeating two week plan; one set for summer and one for winter. This year I'm staying with the two week repeating plan, but having 3 sets - one for winter/spring, one for spring/summer, and another for autumn/winter. I prefer a set menu to weekly menu planning because it makes budgeting a lot easier.

Menu planning is something I struggled with for years. I used to sit down with a fresh sheet of paper and try to cast my mind into the future to decide what we should be eating. This is a naff idea. A much better approach, as with all things, is to start where you are. Observe what you naturally choose to eat, on which days, and how well it suits you. If a meal works for you, jot it down, along with the main ingredients required:

You will probably find you begin to save money just by not buying food that won't be used. If you need to shave further money from your food spend, you can tweak the ingredients lists to reduce your spending. As you can see, the ingredients are vague for quite a few of our dishes - these recipes are loose enough to allow me to make the most of BOGOFs, seasonal veg bargains or pantry ingredients. These kinds of recipes are your friend and it's worth experimenting.

I need to add a few more dishes, as some meals just didn't make the cut; and a few recipes I trialled have been bumped to the autumn menu. When I have my complete list, the plan can be threaded together and a shopping list created. I'll try to make sure the plan makes the best use of leftovers and fits our schedule.

When you begin, start planning for just one of your daily meals. The evening meal is usually the main meal of the day; and so it's a good one to start with. Writing it all down allows you to see where you could substitute cheaper ingredients, batch cook, or use up leftovers. Once you have mastered one meal, you can move onto planning for lunches and dinners.

If you have the luxury of a a frugal but sufficient budget* , this method works brilliantly at reigning in food spending. You will know what you need to buy, when, and you will learn how to stock your pantry with ingredients you actually use.

* If food insecurity has become a financial emergency, a different approach to the one outlined below is needed until you can get back on your feet. The absolute best resource for that is Jack Monroe's blog, Cooking on a Bootstrap - especially the earlier posts. The recipes are also great for the rest of us; and most of them are vegan too. 

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