Menu Planning In Retirement

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In the past, everything in our freezer, fridge, and pantry would have had a specific purpose. These days it will all get used, but there’s no rigid plan for much of the food we buy.

I have been a menu planner for a long, long time. I was never a natural at menu planning and it was was a task I got better at over a long period of time. Menu planning has saved us a lot of money over the years, but my way of doing it has changed and adapted to my/our needs through the years.

Prior to joining the navy and meeting Brett, I worked as a waitress (food and then cocktail). I made good money for the times, and my menu planning during those days consisted of deciding what I wanted to eat that day and then stopping by the store to pick it up using some of my tips from the day. If I felt like having a steak, I bought steak. If I felt like having a sandwich, I bought a sandwich or all the fixings, and so forth. I was young and had few financial responsibilities, and the idea of planning a daily menu and stocking a pantry never crossed my mind.

When Brett and I got together, we were both in the navy and had very little money left over for food once our monthly obligations were met (military pay was pitifully low then). Our dates consisted of long walks, occasionally stopping at the bowling alley on base to share a 90-cent grilled cheese sandwich and seeing a movie once a month at the base theater for $1 each. We otherwise dined together at the chow hall for free. After I left the navy and our son was born, we had $36 every two weeks in our budget for food, and I menu planned using the pantry method out of necessity. After buying formula, the rest of our groceries routinely consisted of a big box of Bisquik, a couple of smoked ham hocks, a package of chicken breasts, dried beans, pasta, a few produce items, a quart of milk, a dozen eggs, a pound of cheese, flour, and yeast. I baked bread, made soups and quiches and everything else from scratch, and we ate a lot of pancakes. Menu planning consisted of rotating through the meals we could make with what we had on hand.

As our income eased up over the years I segued into planning a more structured and varied menu. We still shopped every two weeks (based on military paydays), but I learned to go with a shopping list based on two weeks of planned (affordable) meals that offered variety. I enjoyed creating a meal plan and fitting in new recipes as well as fixing favorite dishes. I used this style of planning for the next 40 years, whether we had one child or three at home. Menus were made for two week periods, although for a while I tried making a monthly plan and shopping just once a month. I thought I would spend less that way, but eventually realized that instead of saving I was actually spending more, and stopping at the store more frequently for odds and ends I had forgotten. The two-week planning worked best for us.

Before we began traveling I told Brett I was tired of and done with planning and cooking, and I wanted to use more prepared foods, and eat more soup and sandwiches and Brett said it was fine with him. This turned out to be a great solution for life on the road because there were so many new and interesting foods to try in the countries we visited, and many prepared foods were in a different league all together than what’s available in the U.S. and were more affordable too. We often never knew what we’d find when we walked into a supermarket, and were grateful we could add items that looked delicious and were affordable. We kept to a budget, but we shopped with a very short list and chose items more randomly. The smaller refrigerators in Europe proved to be a bit of a challenge at times, but we somehow made it work.

The new normal in menu planning these days somewhat combines our initial “pantry planning” method with the more structured “menu planning” method. I create our meals these days out of what we have on hand along with adding in more prepared foods we know we will enjoy, but it’s far more random than before. I continue to do the shopping, but Brett and I work together ahead of time to make sure I purchase things he needs or would like to have or try. This new way still keeps our budget in line, but we’re buying and eating less meat than we thought we would and our meals are frankly more interesting and fun. Best of all, I’m no longer worn out, frustrated, or bored when it comes to meal planning and preparation. I have an idea at the beginning of each week of what I can and would like to fix for us based on what we have on hand, and then decide each day what that will be depending on how I feel.

Our current retirement menu planning would never have worked for us back in the day when we were raising our kids, but it’s a great fit for our lifestyle now. However, old skills are being put back into use again as I start to think about meals for when the whole family will be here for the holidays. Three are lactose intolerant, one is glucose intolerant, and one is vegan, so meals will have to be planned around those needs but not break the bank as well. It’s definitely a challenge but sort of fun too. However, I remain thankful this will only be a temporary assignment and afterwards Brett and I can return to our new normal.

18 thoughts on “Menu Planning In Retirement

  1. I’ve landed in a similar spot, especially with the price of groceries lately. I admit to being pretty lazy about eating out and take out in the past few years, and then Covid just stopped me cold for a while. Now I find a lot of restaurant meals not worth the cost, too salty, too fatt, etc. So we eat out very infrequently and I’m cooking more. And I often open the pantry to decide on dinner. 😂

    As well, I borrowed five cookbooks from the library in a search for some new favorites. But so far this week, I’m reading a novel. Ha! Like you all my library holds seem to come in at once.

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    1. We don’t enjoy eating out much any more – our Day of No Cooking on our anniversary is almost enough for the whole year! I agree with you: too much fat, too much salt, and prices are high for what you get.

      With prepared foods, I buy things I don’t want to or can’t make myself. Trader Joe’s is great for things like that, like the samosas we had the other night. Neither of us eats much these days, so their package sizes are just about perfect.

      My big issue with cooking these days is that our last few kitchens have been very small. Cooking became a challenge versus the fun it had been when I had a big kitchen.

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  2. Cookbooks from the library are a great, great help for meal planning! As are blogs like this and others. I’m cooking for one now for the first time ever, and it’s quite different, but ideas can be modified, and it’s still fun and interesting.
    $36! To feed a baby, a new Mom, and a hard-working man, must have been quite challenging. I hope you were able to get some outside help. Way back when, though, as a young single Mom/student, I probably didn’t have much more money than that, either. Lots of Spanish rice and macaroni and cheese! I did get that infamous government cheese and powdered milk somehow, though I can’t really remember how. For a year I got food stamps, and shockingly, it was way more than needed. I would buy for my neighbors with bigger families sometimes. It helped make me a creative and knowledgeable shopper and cook!

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    1. I don’t remember if we qualified for food stamps back then or not – I think we were just over the line income-wise to qualify (which has been the story of our lives). We made that $36 work for us, even after the formula took a big chunk of it (I think a case was around $10 or so). I remember a regular rotation of chicken noodle soup, bean soups, chicken or vegetable quiches, and pancakes. We got as inventive as possible but our options were limited. I baked all our bread and Brett took sandwiches into work every day: egg salad or tuna. The commissary thankfully always seemed to have some sort of special each time we went, like blocks of cheese or giant sacks of tomatoes at a ridiculously low price that we always took advantage of. A year later we had moved into base housing, and Brett had gotten a pay increase, so things weren’t so dire. We tried once to buy everything again for $36, but even without the formula we couldn’t do it.

      I get all my cookbooks from the library now. I used to own a bunch of them, and then realized most of them never got used except for one or two recipes in them, so I copied those recipes and took the books to the thrift store. The only books I’m interested in owning now are the Ina Garten ones.

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  3. When Covid hit, and we couldn’t go out to eat at all, I devised a good plan. I stick to a menu for the same thing every week. For example, Tuesday is fresh fish night since that is grocery day, Wednesday is leftover fish in the form of fishcakes, Thursday is sushi take out, Friday is roasted chicken, Saturday is steak night, Sunday is leftover chicken either in the form of chicken soup or stir fry, Monday is free for all night. I like roasted veggies with feta cheese and he eats a burger. it worked so well during Covid that we have pretty much stuck to it now. I no longer have to think about what to cook which gets old after a while. It may sound boring but it really isn’t. I also make fresh bread every week and I sprout mung beans to add to salad. We always have salad every night.

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    1. I like your plan! I’m going to have to think about that, although we don’t shop every week. I think there are a zillion ways you could mix up a meal plan like this – just work off a basic structure.

      I wish I could eat salad, but that’s not happening so we stock up on lots of other vegetables and include them in our meals one way or another.

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  4. Laura, I agree with you – in my retirement I am done with major meal planning and shopping! When Covid hit, we probably “ate out” more – getting take-out to support the local restaurants so they could continue to do business. And, several restaurants in our area offered “family bundles” that were much less expensive than I could buy the food and prepare. A family bundle might last us for 3 meals – we’d eat some and then put the rest in the freezer for later. Now, we are eating healthier and have cut way back on junk food, treats, desserts, eating out, etc. And we are spending much less on food. I sort of have an idea of what I can prepare in a given week, based on what’s in the freezer/pantry/fridge, but sometimes none of that sounds good, so I will do something entirely different. At this stage, there’s very little structure in that area and we are fine with that.

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    1. I feel like I have just enough structure now to make me happy when it comes to meal planning. I buy stuff for those days when I honestly don’t feel like cooking as well as things that I can put together or cook for meals when I do feel like cooking. However, I am giving myself a goal next year of trying at least one new recipe a month – I feel like I need to step up my game. Thank goodness though that I am married to a man who eats whatever I put in front of him and never complains.

      I must be getting old or something, but all the treats and such (cookies, pies, etc.) just don’t appeal to me like they used to.

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  5. I always enjoy your posts about meal planning and food shopping. Finding a way to cook for two has been quite an adjustment after raising three hungry girls, so I’m always interested in the thoughts of others.

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    1. Feeding three girls was a revelation and a chore. Those girls could eat! And eat and eat and eat – all three had big appetites. I was lucky they would eat whatever was served to them, but they did have their preferences so I was also juggling those with our budget and making sure they each got something every week that was one of their favorite. On top of making dinner every night I also had to prepare school lunches five days a week, and a good breakfast before sending them off to school. It was exhausting, but all three are now good cooks and enjoy a wide variety of foods and cuisines, but looking back it’s no wonder I got tired of meal planning and cooking!

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  6. Starting way back to my newlywed days, I was only able to stay motivated to cook dinner by incorporating one new recipe into my weekly meal planning. It kept me excited enough to keep on getting into the kitchen, and it’s a habit that continues today. This week’s new recipe was a one pot pasta dish made with butternut squash, leeks, and ricotta. It was absolutely fantastic, and served us over four nights. (It made way more than I’d expected!)

    All to say that I continue to meal plan in retirement, but between leftovers and our weekly dineout social activities, I probably average just two to three nights a week where I’m actually cooking dinner from scratch. And my go-to for nights that I’m to wiped out to cook are BLTA’s with a green salad. I always have all the ingredients on hand.

    I also have a cadre of cookbooks that rely on a stable of staples I keep on hand, such as olive oil, parm cheese, pasta, rice, and fresh herbs that I grow. The vegetables in the recipes vary, as does the protein, but otherwise there is a rhythm in what I make it seems. And for the occasional odd ball recipe item, I’ll google for a suitable replacement that I might have on hand.

    I do shop at four markets each week in order to leverage each one’s price advantages. We eat very well, still, for under $100 a week. In 12 years of retirement I haven’t had to change that amount. I spend closer to the $100 mark than not these days, but am still not going over.

    I’ve thought about moving toward convenience cooking on more than one occasion, but dang, my from-scratch food tastes sooo much better, and makes so much more quantity, that I can’t just yet. Someday perhaps!, but not just yet.

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    1. Before I forget, I would love that one-pot pasta dish recipe – it sounds delicious, and I love making one-pot dishes. Have you ever tried Chef Tom Colicchio’s one-pot pasta with ham and broccoli? We love it; in fact I plan to pick up some ham today so I can make it!

      Your comment got me wondering why I don’t enjoy cooking as much as I once did, and I realized it’s primarily because ever since we moved from Portland I’ve had to deal with a small kitchen with little counter space or room to cook. In Portland I had a wonderful big kitchen and cooking for my family was a joy. I tried a new recipe almost every week, did a lot of baking, and we ate very little prepared food. But having to cook in a tiny kitchen changed that (as did not having a dishwasher in Hawaii) and the fun slowly wore off as the effort of working in such a small space overwhelmed what I was doing.

      Homemade food does taste better, but these days there are things I’m just not interested in making from scratch like the samosas we had the other night, or that would be too much of an effort in our current kitchen due to lack of space. Baking with K last week was fun, but difficult in our tiny kitchen in the apartment, and there was also no room to store the muffins we made. It’s a challenge, so our current set up is working for me, a mix of prepared foods and things I can put together easily.

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      1. It’s from Cooks Country ‘One Pan Wonders’ cookbook, which is absolutely fantastic. I’ve made so many things from it, each recipe makes a LOT, and tastes so terrific and original. Cooks Country places all recipes behind a paywall, but here is a link to a blog that posted the recipe: https://leitesculinaria.com/307923/recipes-unstuffed-pasta-shells-butternut-squash.html

        Things I changed to accommodate items I had on hand and wanted to use: 1) I used penne because oversized pasta shells are sill expensive!, and 2) I used an open bottle of Gewurztraminer (hardly a dry wine!). Things I think you could leave out without any problem if you don’t want to bother using them: 1) Lemon zest. I keep it in my freezer, but I can’t see the recipe suffering if you leave it out. 2) Fresh basil. I grow this in my garden, and it did add a lovely flavor to the finished product, but again, I don’t think it’s necessary if you don’t have it on hand. ALSO: I wanted to sub whole milk for the heavy cream, but I was afraid! I also figured it worked out to just 1 Tbl per serving, so not to bad, but still, if you do end up making this and choose to use milk instead of cream would love to know how it turned out! (Trader Joes does sell a one cup container of heavy whip cream, so no waste)

        I bought a 16oz tub of ricotta at Trader Joes for above, and in that this recipe only uses a cup, I used the remainder in the following, also fantastic, Amaretto and orange ricotta poundcake. I reduced the poundcake recipe by a third to accommodate there only being one cup of leftover ricotta to work with:
        https://www.foodnetwork.com/recipes/giada-de-laurentiis/ricotta-orange-pound-cake-recipe-1973073

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  7. My retirement for one many plan is an awful lot like your after work with tips method, filled in with a few slow cooker meals for the freezer and hitting the store every few days.

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    1. Ahh, those were the days, buying what I wanted to eat that day. I’d love to shop for our meals each day, but know I would always overspend each time I went into a store.

      I love my slow cooker. I had an InstantPot during our last stay in Hawaii, but rarely used it and missed having a slow cooker (I did not like the slow cooker function in the InstantPot).

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  8. I’ve found that in traveling across the country, Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods are my friends. WF is of course pricey, but with it just being me it works. And I love having at least partially prepared items to make meals quick and easy. I think for the most part I will stick with this when I get home!

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    1. Quick and easy is what I want these days! I have not set foot in Whole Foods here yet, but it’s coming. Trader Joe’s is my go-to spot these days – it never disappoints.

      Your information is good to know though – stayed tuned for Friday’s post!

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