We’ve been using a menu to plan meals in our house for several years now. Just about everyone who hears about it, though, finds the idea bizarre. I wonder why? Meal planning helps our household achieve triple bottom line sustainability (to borrow a term from the environmental movement). Let me explain …
It saves money. By planning exactly what we’d like to eat each week, we can make a shopping list that includes all the required ingredients. With a well organised shopping list, you’re less likely to make impulse buys, and also less likely to need extra impromptu trips to the shops. It also saves money as no ingredients are wasted. None!
It saves resources. A few years ago, The Australia Institute produced a report on wasteful consumption which found that ‘Overall Australians threw away $2.9 billion of fresh food, $630 million of uneaten take-away food, $876 million of leftovers, $596 million of unfinished drinks and $241 million of frozen food, a total of $5.3 billion on all forms of food in 2004’ (page 6). Quite apart from the economic waste (which is appalling), what about the environmental impacts of this type of waste? The emissions created from producing and disposing of unused food, landfill loaded with discarded food and packaging, the time and energy and water wasted in growing and processing things that never get eaten. Our weekly menu is a great way to avoid waste. By being conscious of what food we have in the house, we ensure that everything gets eaten before it shrivels, or gets mouldy, or reaches its best-before date. Whenever I partially use a food item, I immediately plan how and when to use the remainder. For example, we used half a cos lettuce at dinner on Saturday night. The other half will star in a salad (alongside pears, blue cheese, cucumbers, avocado, tomatoes and toasted pecan nuts) tonight. Spare cream might go into a pasta dish, or be served with a dessert. Extra feta cheese or eggs might be used up in an omelette or quiche. A sudden surfeit of tomatoes might be used in a home made pasta sauce, or a batch of ratatouille or shakshuka.
It saves time and makes for a balanced and delicious diet. When I get home after work, the last thing I want to do is to have to work out what to cook, whether we have the ingredients, and how to get the missing ones. It is much quicker just to glance at the menu, take the ingredients out of the fridge, cupboard or freezer, and cook them! It also saves time if you make larger quantities and freeze extra portions. Dishes like soups, stews and curries are generally easy to cook in bulk, and simple to freeze for later consumption. By planning meals ahead of time, we can ensure that we get plenty of variety and don’t get bored with what we eat.
This next bit might sound a bit obsessive, but so be it. Every now and then, I gather up all the hand written menus I’ve made lately, and put the data into an Excel spreadsheet. This is a fun exercise because – as well as giving me an idea of what our most-eaten meals are – it reminds me of dishes I’ve forgotten, and provides inspiration for new dishes I might want to invent.
Menu planning doesn’t have to be done all in one go, and doesn’t have to be rigid. We go to the supermarket twice a week, and have a farm shop walking distance from our house, so provided I’ve planned the next three days’ meals in advance that’s usually plenty. If there won’t be much time available for cooking one night (or we haven’t had a chance to buy ingredients) there are always a few soups, stews or curries in the freezer that can easily be defrosted. I recommend using a menu. It frees up time and money to do other things.