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I absolutely dread menu planning. Hate it. Yet when I don’t do it I find myself in the vicious “I don’t know what to make for dinner, let’s just eat out” cycle that ends up costing a lot of money.

My biggest menu-planning challenge? Being overwhelmed by all of the variety I felt I needed to have on the menu. Why was it so much easier to simplify other aspects of my life when planning what food to eat was still an overcomplicated process?

Wait a minute.

The Pareto Principle and how it applies to your food budget

The Pareto Pinciple is also known as the 80/20 rule. I remember it like this: I use 20 percent of my stuff 80 percent of the time, so I can get rid of lots of stuff! I recently noticed that it applies to food as well.

I often use the same few foods over and over in different combinations.

Oh my gosh, it was an epiphany.

This wondrous revelation has made grocery shopping easier and cheaper because I finally admitted to myself that I really won’t cook up that other stuff except on occasions when I have to dig up a special recipe for it.

I do, however, know that I will roast a whole chicken, mix up some meatballs or cook chicken breasts frequently. I don’t need a recipe and I’m able to combine these with any number of veggies and starches. And these meals are cheaper.

And it’s not even boring.

Too much choice = overwhelm

I thought that I needed to have different, exciting meals on the menu to keep it interesting. Like high school, where you couldn’t wear the same thing twice – no two meals should be on the same menu.

Well, let’s get real. If it’s not dirty, I’ll wear it until it gets dirty, and sometimes I’ll wear it then, too, because it’s my favorite.

It’s ok to eat the same stuff. It’s ok to eat your favorite meals. There’s a reason why they’re favorites. Just mix it up a little.

Getting variety with little variety

How do you get variety if you don’t plan new, exciting meals all the time? Well, let’s take a look at a few different foods.

I decided to stick with three meats. Chicken – breasts and whole chickens for roasting. Turkey – ground. Pork – ground or tenderloin for roasting or throwing in the Instant Pot and shredding.

And I know how important veggies are for a well-balanced dinner, so you get a good mix in different colors, but we definitely aren’t representing the entire produce section here. Here’s what I stick to:

Carrots, green beans, broccoli, spinach, zucchini, cauliflower and cucumber.

Next pick two starches – I like my gluten-free potatoes and rice.

Now, sit down with this list and start combining. There won’t be enough combinations to keep you from eating the same meal twice in a month (a good thing, I think) but there’s enough that you’ll be pleasantly surprised at the variety of nourishing foods you will eat.

(Remember: you can always plan special treats. Adding in some cheese-filled tortellini to a normal dish makes a nice addition for a special date-night meal).

Here’s an example of this type of menu-planning in action:

– Roast chicken with carrots and cauliflower

– Turkey chili and cornbread

– Chicken, zucchini and rice

– Egg flower soup with shredded zucchini, carrots and chicken

– Fried chicken, mashed potatoes, gravy and sauteed green beans

– Mini cheese pizza treat for kids

– Beans, rice, seasoned ground turkey, tostadas

Notice the same players showing up in different combinations? This was actually from the menu I made for the last two weeks. And it took me much less time than it ever has before because I just had my small list of choices to combine.

Start with a solid foundation

How does this work if you’re not looking up different recipes? Cooking is an art. Like any art, it should be fun, expressive and enjoyable. You don’t have to stick to a recipe to make delicious food. If straying from recipes scares you, that’s ok. My husband doesn’t like to do it, either. 😉

Rather than knowing a bunch of different recipes, knowing the basics is the most important thing you can do. These simple ideas are a must-know for chefs and busy moms.

– Know how to make different sauces to take any meal from simple to extraordinary.

– Master soup for an easy, nourishing and inexpensive way to combine different foods that you eat regularly.

– Use herbs and spices to add flavor to your food. Every kitchen should have rosemary, shallots, garlic and lemon.

– Make your own stock and use it instead of water to make rice or cook veggies.

– Learn the different ways to cut vegetables to make them seem more special.

– Make simple meals look pretty by putting a little extra into presentation.

Sounds like a lot, I know. But it really is simple.

Use the few foods that you love and are inclined to eat over and over and come up with different combinations for them. Learn culinary basics to make simple meals extraordinary.

Simple. Fun. Frugal.