As a nutrition therapist, I have had clients come to me seeking assistance in learning about menu planning. Some have been embarrassed by their request, believing that they should have picked up this information somewhere along the way. Many people are so stressed and busy that they fly through the grocery store on the way home and grab what is quick and easy and not necessarily nutritious, or else they’ve become drive-through junkies knowing by heart the menus at fast food places.

Effective meal and menu planning can save you money and time, provide you with more nourishing meals, and may even help maintain sanity in your household at dinner time. If you need to get reacquainted with your kitchen, start slowly and allow time for this new menu planning skill to develop. Here are some suggestions to get you started.

Menu planning makeover

Start by overhauling the evening meal, since this is the meal that most families eat together. If you have children and other family members with whom you regularly eat, involve them in this makeover process. Sit down some evening after dinner and ask your family which foods they really like that you now prepare. Then ask for suggestions for new menu items. You may want to organize your discussion by categories such as:

  1. Vegetables, fruits, salads and side dishes
  2. Main courses containing meat, poultry and fish
  3. Meatless main courses featuring dry beans, pasta, and soy
  4. Starchy foods such as grains, potatoes, rice, couscous, pasta and bread
  5. Desserts

To get ideas for new foods, look through cookbooks and magazines. Talk with friends and co-workers about recipes that may have been hits for them. Consider adding one new food to a meal along with tried and true favorites. If it is a hit, great! If it is a dud, no one goes to bed hungry.

Providing a balanced meal

A nutritionally balanced meal is the ideal. Disregarding any special dietary concerns, meals for a healthy person should consist of protein, carbohydrate, a nonstarchy vegetable and a little fat.  This basic framework allows for a lot of variety.

When planning a meal, think of color and texture. A meal of baked fish, white rice and cauliflower is all white and not very appealing to look at. Substitute a sweet potato and a simple green salad to brighten up the meal visually and nutritionally.

Portion control is also very important. A portion of chicken, fish, or beef should take up about one-quarter of an 8-inch dinner plate. Your carbohydrate — potato, rice, couscous or quinoa, for example — should cover another one-quarter of the plate. The remaining half of the plate should consist of vegetables such as tossed salads, carrots, green beans, broccoli, turnip, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, asparagus or cabbage. The fat at the meal can come from salad dressing or some butter or a serving of 1 percent low fat milk.

Off to the grocery store

Once you have your meals planned for the week, it is time to work on your grocery list. Which ingredients do you have on hand and which do you need to purchase? Check store ads to see what is on sale, since you may want to plan some meals around sale items. Arrange your grocery list in the same categories in which items are arranged in the store – fresh produce, deli items, packaged foods, meats, dairy, and so on. This will save you time.

Post your weekly menu

Post your weekly menu on the refrigerator or family bulletin board. Instead of putting days of the week, just list day 1, day 2, and so forth. Then you aren’t tied in to preparing a specific meal just because it is Wednesday. Before you go to bed at night, take a look at your menu and decide what you want for dinner the next day. Now is the time to get something out of the freezer.

Remember that as the family cook, it is not your job to knock yourself out in the kitchen or to please everyone all of the time. Instead, aim to bring a variety of simple, tasty, attractive, nutritious meals to the table most evenings. You and your family will reap many benefits.

Georgia Clark-Albert is a registered dietitian who lives in Athens, Maine. Read more of her columns and post questions at or email her at