Menu Planning with Limitations

I’m a big fan of menu planning – well, partially. I’m not always in the mood to decide all of our meals, but I do enjoy following my cravings and forcing them upon my loved ones.

Once a week I ask my husband if he wants any specific meals, and happily build it into the menu. Otherwise my menu planning starts with main dishes I want, appliances I want to use (or not use!), then make sides based on colors or seasonal offerings. But what if you can’t reliably find the items on your list? Well, you must get a little creative and learn to be flexible. This flexibility is key when grocery orders can only be partially fulfilled because panic buyers have scooped up various items. Or maybe your grocery budget has suddenly evaporated and you are looking for options beyond adding mustard to bland food.

Yes, it sucks, but this is our world now. So until we can always buy what we need again, we must adapt to match this uncertain time. This post is about how our menu planning has changed, and how we still eat a healthy variety of foods each week.

Menu planning with limitations is getting more common with random food scarcity, or tighter budgets. Here's how I manage unpredictable grocery shopping. #COVID-19 #menuplanning

Disclosure: This site contains affiliate links; I may earn a tiny commission from purchases.

A few months ago Mister Jupiter and I were using a menu planning app that we started to love. It’s called Mealime (double check the spelling!), and we loved it because you can choose meals based on certain dietary regimens, avoid allergens that you select, compile a grocery list, AND the app provides cooking directions for the meals you choose. But it all changed when I couldn’t buy regular grocery items. Luckily I can often buy fresh food, but pantry items are randomly available, so I no longer plan meals (especially ones that use beans or chicken) before buying groceries.

So I changed our menu planning and grocery shopping entirely to accommodate the new world order.
The old way was

  1. Decide meals on Sunday
  2. Shop for meals on Monday
  3. Stick to the plan

But now I

  1. Shop for groceries ONLY when we need milk – thus maintaining social distance
  2. Buy a variety of fresh, shelf stable, and frozen foods
  3. Create the menu based on what’s on hand
  4. Stay flexible

My grocery store has a great range of basics and gourmet options, but the basics are selling out before I can get them, so I’m bringing home bacon-wrapped tenderloins instead of beans. I usually pick up one or two things in each aisle – one for immediate use, and one for the pantry. This is my general grocery list now:

  • Dairy (milk for baby, greek yogurt)
  • Stew-friendly veggies (carrots, potatoes, onions)
  • Citrus (oranges for juicing, lemons for hummus)
  • Meat (whatever looks good, prefer beef stew meat and bone-in chicken)
  • Pantry (half to use soon, half to use later – this is the most random section of my grocery shopping because it’s totally dependent on what I can buy in that moment)
  • NO OVERBUYING. I only buy what we will realistically need, no full carts.

Once I have my random groceries at home I start making the menu for the week. I do this planning with a simple principle in mind; pair something old with something new.

Menu planning with limitations is getting more common with random food scarcity, or tighter budgets. Here's how I manage unpredictable grocery shopping. #COVID-19 #menuplanning

Start with perishables – what is going to go bad first? How can your pantry items help make a meal? I would give examples, but these options are individual for each kitchen, so try out the principal – pair something old with something new.

In theory everything in your kitchen was purchased by you, and will be a good option in some way. If you are truly pressed for ideas use Pinterest to find recipes that use your hard to use ingredients.

I Googled “andouille recipes” the other day to help me generate some ideas. I bought the cajun sausage thinking that I would make a nice pot of beans and rice…but I haven’t been able to buy beans or rice for two weeks (remember I only buy groceries when we need milk, and I maintain social distance by only going to one grocery store. Surely beans and rice have been available, but they sell out before I get there). After a little searching I found an easy mashup; mac & cheese with andouille – so we made that and it was a hit. The sausage needed to be used, and the box of mac & cheese was in the pantry. Old & new. Perishable & pantry.

I apply a similar principle when clothes shopping – and only bring home a new pair of shoes when I can visualize several outfits first. Same with shopping for pantry items; baking mix is more versatile than tinned herring, so the baking mix comes home and the herring stays put (for now).

One key to successful grocery shopping is to only buy what you need. Need baking mix and see six boxes? BUY ONE. Please give other people the same opportunity to make biscuits. This applies to everything available, and I should be preaching to the choir here. So I implore you to chip away at your pantry and start making meals that feature your oldest items. Old with new.

Menu planning with limitations is getting more common with random food scarcity, or tighter budgets. Here's how I manage unpredictable grocery shopping. #COVID-19 #menuplanning

Another thing that we’ve changed is how I lay out the meal options.
Usually I write each meal on its corresponding calendar day, but now I simply list all available meals then cross off each one that we cook. This works for us because Mister Jupiter can plainly see the meals that are on-hand. He knows that I will prioritize fresh ingredients, so unless he wants something specific, I still decide that night’s dinner.

If you’re a social media user, check on your favorite restaurants and businesses! Some of my favorite restaurants have had to close entirely, others have successfully switched to all carry-out, and yet others are willing to share their kitchen stores with customers.
For example, a local German-style beer hall posts market items that anybody can buy. I ordered bratwurst and wine, but also rice and potatoes. At this rate I’m going to buy my groceries from restaurants before I go to the grocery store – it’s very convenient and I feel that my dollars are helping more directly.

That’s it. Next time you carefully shop, buy flexible options within reason, then mix and match old foods with the new foods you bring home. Play with spices and experiment. Stay healthy and eat well friends.

Related: Staying Calm in a Pandemic

Menu planning with limitations is getting more common with random food scarcity, or tighter budgets. Here's how I manage unpredictable grocery shopping. #COVID-19 #menuplanning

Author: Tracey

Tracey has a bachelor’s degree in Technical Writing from the University of Arkansas at Little Rock. She loves editing, riding bikes, and cooking for her family.

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