Meal planning doesn’t have to be complicated! Check out these tips to set up an easy meal planning system for your family.
In my life before kids, I used to choose different dinner recipes frequently – on a whim sometimes. I especially love to bake – muffins, cookies, anything gluten-free.
I never planned meals – at least not with any serious intention. I’d eat what I have on hand, whip up something easy, or eat some canned soup (not that these are bad).
Now that I have 2 small girls (who can sometimes be rather picky!), I’ve given up on making new and wild recipes every night (or going on a whim). I’ve come up with a really easy plan for planning and cooking meals (and I hate planning meals!) that works very well.
Why you need to meal plan!
If you are like me, the thought of actually sitting down to plan a meal sounds absolutely boring and tedious. I totally get it! But I promise you that you will save so much!
Meal planning will save you money
Have you ever been out grocery shopping on the spur of the moment and bought a bunch of fruits and veggies? Then, a week or two later you realize that some have already spoiled?
Or, you buy something only to come home and find that you have three of those at home in the cupboard?
Meal planning will prevent you from making impulse or unplanned purchases or rushing out to the store mid-week to get something that you forgot.
Meal planning will save you time
I can’t emphasize this enough. You absolutely will save time if you have a plan. I used to scramble around at 4 pm trying to figure out what to make and what I had.
When I started meal planning, I knew what was on the menu for dinner and that I had everything on hand to make it. Easy peasy!
How to begin meal planning
Here are the things I do to keep my meal planning system very simple:
- Have a written list of our favorite meals (breakfasts and dinners)
I’ve picked 20-30 of our family’s favorite dinner meals and put them in a binder with a list of the meals on the front. (You can organize your binder if you want, but my recipes are just in there. I figure 30 recipes are easy enough to flip through and don’t take much time.)
- Plan for one week at a time
If you can manage more than this, great! If I try for more than a week at a time, I start to feel overwhelmed!
- Plan several meals (but not all)
When I first started meal planning, I tried to plan out every single meal. This is way too hard (and doesn’t give you wiggle room for left-overs or a change of plans to eat out, for example). You might have to experiment to see how many meals you prefer to plan a week before you get a feel for what works for your family.
- Have “emergency” meals on hand
Some days your schedule may change, or you might not feel like cooking, or you are running late because of traffic, so you need to have extra “emergency meal” food on hand.
- Mac n Cheese
- cans of soup
- items to make PB&J
- scrambled eggs and toast (for dinner)
- ingredients to make a “Platter”
When I was little, my mom would put a bunch of seemingly random items on a plate (apple slices, cheese sticks, celery with peanut butter & raisins, etc.) and call it a “platter” and that was our dinner. (And, of course, it was our favorite dinner as kids!)
- Plan on the same day each week
For consistency and to get in the habit!
How meal planning works for us each day
I’ve made a list of several kid-friendly, easy-to-make (15 minutes tops!) breakfasts made out of ingredients that I make sure to always have on hand. You can plan breakfasts during your weekly meal planning session or have a list of fast and easy breakfasts (like I do) posted on your fridge and pick in the morning.
Related: 10 Quick and Easy Kid-Friendly Breakfasts
I work from home with 2 little girls, so I don’t specifically plan lunches. I often just make a quick sandwich or bring out some leftovers for lunch.
If you struggle with lunches or need to pack them for yourself or a family member, make them simple and easy.
Some easy ideas: sandwiches (PB&J or deli meat with cheese and lettuce), a can of soup, or leftovers. I find sandwiches very quick and easy to make. You can even make a bunch of sandwiches (or prep them) on Sunday night for the entire week! Easy!
Dinner used to be my hardest meal to figure out (because I was scrambling last minute and trying to figure out if I have all the ingredients!). You really need to plan.
Yes, I used to hate planning meals (and even planning my week). I found it painful and tedious, but, honestly, after planning things out ahead of time, I have so much peace and save tons of time during the week.
Here’s what I do:
On Sunday afternoon or evening, I sit down and plan my entire week (all activities, appointments, etc. – see more about how I plan our week and manage my time at my post here). This is when I plan the upcoming week’s worth of dinners.
Yes, I only plan dinners because:
- I have my handy list of very quick and easy breakfasts on my fridge so I just pick one in the morning and go with it.
- I don’t worry about lunches because I’m at home. If you need a more detailed plan for lunches or breakfasts, then plan your meals all at once (trust me, you’ll thank me later).
(A side note, you could, in theory, plan a month’s worth of meals at this time.)
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I just look at the upcoming week and figure out which of our 30 favorite dinners would be best on which day. (If Wednesday is my busiest day, I’ll just pick out a really simple and easy to prepare for dinner on that day.)
Then, I write down the meal on my planner (I use this one on my fridge and I love it) and write down the ingredients I need for it on a notepad. When I finish planning the week’s dinner meals, I have a shopping list ready!
All this planning takes me a maximum of 20 minutes (usually much less) and saves me SO much time during the week.
Every morning I take a quick peek at the dinner I have planned to see if I need to prepare anything ahead of time (take something out of the freezer, chop veggies, get the crockpot out, etc.).
This little “system” has saved me a ton of time and a lot of headaches. It’s amazing to me how much time and stress can be packed into figuring out how to feed small children! And we all know how fickle they can be! My daughters usually like (and will normally eat) everything on the list. And since everything is quick and easy it’s low stress for me!
I also keep a lot of healthy snacks on hand (nuts, raisins, frozen berries, yogurt, etc.). This is helpful in case a meal goes south or something happens and we need a quick snack.
More tips to make meal planning even easier:
Have theme nights
Pasta Mondays, Taco Tuesdays, Indian food Wednesdays…then rotate recipes based on the theme.
Make double batches
If you make extra, you can keep the left-overs for another meal later in the week or freeze portions for later.
The great thing about planning meals (and shopping) ahead of time is that you’ll have the ingredients on hand so you can swap meals around if needed!
Use a crockpot
Dump the ingredients in, turn it on, and in several hours you’ll have a meal!
Try new things
Using a system like this doesn’t mean you can’t try out new, fun recipes! Simply choose one, read through it and schedule it on a day when you have extra time to try it out!
A meal planning system doesn’t have to make you want to pull out your hair! Gather your favorite recipes, dedicate a few minutes each week for planning, go shopping, and you’re ready! Share your favorite meal planning tips below! (I’d especially love to hear if you have any favorite ethnic dishes to share!)