What’s for dinner?

It’s the question of the hour. Too many look for answers in the supermarket at 5 p.m. Hurried, harassed by hungry children, they rack their brains for an answer to the dinner-hour question.

Three meals a day. Seven dinners a week. From supermarket to pantry, refrigerator to table, sink to cupboard, the kitchen routine can get old, old, old.

What’s the answer? A menu plan — and it doesn’t have be complicated.

A small investment of time can reap great rewards. A menu plan saves money. Reducing trips to the supermarket, a menu plan reduces impulse spending. Using leftovers efficiently cuts food waste, while planned buying in bulk makes it easy to stockpile freezer meals at reduced prices.

A menu plan saves time. No dash to the neighbors for a missing ingredient, no frantic searches through the freezer for something, anything to thaw for dinner.

A menu plan improves nutrition. Without the daily dash to the supermarket, there’s time to prepare side dishes and salads to complement the main dish, increasing the family’s consumption of fruits and vegetables.

Follow these tips to put the power of menu and meal planning to work for you.

Dare to Do It

For too many of us, making a menu plan is something we intend to do . . . when we get around to it. Instead, view menu planning as an activity that adds to our quality of life!

Menu planning is the first line of defense in the fight to an organized kitchen, not the cherry on the icing on the cake. Promise yourself to start menu planning right now; involve your family.

Start Small and Simple

Break into menu planning easily by starting small and simple. The food flyers from your local newspaper are a good place to start. You’ll use the ads to get a feel for the week’s sales and bargains. Use that feeling to guide your menu plan.

Menu Planning Basics

Time to rough out a simple menu plan. The goal is two-fold: shop efficiently to obtain food required for seven dinner meals, while minimizing expenditure, cooking, shopping and cleaning time.

Look in the pantry and refrigerator to check for any of last week’s purchases that are languishing beneath wilting lettuce or hardening tortillas. Check for draft recipe ingredients. Review your shopping list and note needed items.

Now, you’re ready to shop with an open mind. Be ready to substitute if you find a great deal.

As you put away groceries, flesh out the menu plan. Match it up with the family’s calendar, saving the oven roast for a lazy Sunday afternoon, the quick-fix pizza for soccer night.

Post the menu plan on the refrigerator door. Refer to it during the coming week as you prepare meals. Remember your family is busy and you may have to rearrange your menu plans.

The hard part of menu planning is in the details. Make sure to build a personal shopping list. Build a family shopping list on the computer, listing all the foods and sundries your family consumes. Print 52 copies each year. Post them on the refrigerator. Family members who don’t circle “Sugar Pops” on the list when they empty the box, eat hot cereal for the rest of the week.

Cheat alert: next shopping trip, grab a hand-out supermarket map as you leave. Construct your personal shopping list according to the order you shop the store. You’ll speed your way out the door in record time!

Create a routine around your menu planning. Cooking tried-and-true speeds dinner preparation and streamlines menu planning. But, it’s nice to put a fresh recipe in once-in-a-while.

Stay Flexible

Menu plans aren’t written in stone. A posted menu plan promotes accountability, but family members will forgive you, as long as they get their postponed favorite a day or two later. Build flexibility into your plan and serve the aims of thrift with Cook’s Choice Night.

Make It A Habit

Simple or not, a menu plan won’t help you if you don’t make one. Get into the habit of planning before you shop, and you’ll get hooked.

Recycle Menu Plans

After you’ve made menu plans for a few weeks, the beauty of the activity shines through: recycle them! Your family won’t mind, and you’ll save even more time and energy.

Good luck. Menu planning will save you money, your family will eat healthier and you’ll use the food you purchase rather than throwing it out. There isn’t a right and wrong way to menu plan — just get started.