Meal planning. bah. Everything seems to fall apart when I get lazy about meal planning but it really is not my favorite thing to do. In this season of life, our weekends are not leisurely and relaxing, they are jam packed with all the things. So spending the weekend planning meals and sorting through cookbooks and shopping and then food prep… I can not. I have had some successes and some failures with trying to get organized and set a routine for meal planning and wanted to share some of the ways I have simplified this process with you.
Here are some tips that have worked for me and might make this process a little easier for you too.
Keep Everything in One Spot.
I used to jot down lists on random slips of paper and in my daily to do list notebook- the lists would come with me to the store and then get tossed in the trash once the shopping was done. I have started using a little meal plan notebook where all the shopping lists and menu plans are kept neatly organized and in one place. This is the single best tip I have for simplifying this process.
The reason to keep an actual designated notebook for meal planning is so you can look back on prior menus on those weeks you are feeling uninspired. It is also so easy for me to make a quick note or highlight a recipe that went over well with possibly a variation on a recipe I want to try next time.
I do try to keep a little recipe box that has our family favorites but honestly I just don’t always have the time to update it. This little notebook helps a lot as it is quick and easy. I do tend to try new recipes frequently so if something is a hit, I will note it down (and where I found the recipe) in the notebook. Over time that list grows and you have a simple spot to refer back to for quick ideas that will be a hit with the family.
When I am creating the menu for the week, I look back at the week before. I highlight things that went over well, make any quick notes and might even add that recipe to a future week. This helps so much to eliminate food waste. I made Coconut Lime chicken earlier this month and have half a can of coconut milk in my fridge. I scheduled ahead to pop that same recipe (or something similar) one two weeks out just so I was sure to use up the random ingredient in the fridge.
You can see an old list pictured above where I noted the kids tried sausage on pizza and enjoyed it and the beef bourguignon went over fairly well. If I need quick inspiration I can flip back through pages and pages of menus and am reminded of things that we enjoyed.
(You can use any designated notebook you like for this process or I have a special one for menu planning specifically. Find a bunch of options here
Consider adopting a framework.
Some people enjoy having themed nights such as Taco Tuesday or pizza Friday. You can certainly expand that to be less specific like Mexican Monday, Soup Tuesday, Pasta Wednesday and so on. If I am drawing a blank on a menu for the week it sometimes helps to have categories and then fill in the blanks- what is a salad, what is a vegetarian idea, what is a soup and I can easily start filling in ideas. Personally I am not a rules person so I don’t like having a framework to work under (“why do I need to have tacos on Tuesday anyway? Why can’t I have them on Wednesday! I am having all the tacos on Wednesday and that is that!” my inner toddler yells) but I have slightly adapted this concept to work for our family (and my inner toddler.)
I know on Wednesday both kids have practice so I have my quick meal ideas, crock pot meals or pre-prepped meals in place- sandwiches, soups, salads or pasta usually. Monday has become my shopping day so I usually plan to grab something from the deli at the grocery store or I might have something ridiculously easy like Crock Pot Baked Potatoes.
To go along with the idea of a schedule of meals that does work for our family and because dinnertime is so much drama at our house most nights (pretty sure the neighbors can hear the loud screams and sobs over broccoli), I have rotating menu ideas for each kid.
Thursday night is Addy night because she has a long and late soccer practice and I like having something wonderful for her to come home too. I have a short list of her top picks- tacos are the star of the show but anything Mexican works. I don’t have to hear the whining for “why don’t we eeeevvveeerrrr get tacos?”or the sad little face because she knows on Thursday one of her favorites will appear. Enchiladas, tacos, tostadas, burrito bowls whatever. I rotate one in per week usually on Thursday. The other kid is way pickier but I still have a short list of favorites and I randomly pop those into the week. Mashed potatoes, homemade pizza, pasta are all her favorites so again I can quickly get myself started on a blank menu plan by filling in Addy’s Thursday night, quick meal Wednesday and then slotting one of Maya’s favorites in. Once I get that much done, it is much easier to fill in the rest of the week.
An Organized Pantry and Fridge is a Good Thing.
Complete pain but it is so important for effective meal planning to keep the fridge all organized. I can’t tell you how many times I have planned to make something like Alice Springs Chicken and opened the drawer to find the cheese is moldy or the pint of tomatoes I bought has one tomato left in it. Just the other night I was making pasta and opened our jar of marinara sauce that I planned to use and discovered it had gone bad. Bah. So staying on top of keeping the fridge super organized is well worth the extra time.
I like to keep things as visible as possible so we have clear containers in the fridge. That helps so much as I can open the fridge and see tons of fresh and prepped foods and snacks. When everything is neatly stored and tucked away I always feel like we have nothing to eat. When it is all prepped and front and center, I am way more likely to make good choices.
Meal Prep Your Heart Out.
I try really hard to prep as much as I can, when I can. I can’t always spend 2 hours on the weekend prepping but I can peel and cut extra carrots for Chicken Noodle Soup as I am cutting them anyway for lunch boxes. I can wash extra berries for dessert while I am waiting for the toast and coffee to brew in the morning. I like to prep in tiny spurts rather than one long marathon- but you might see what works best for you. Having the meat seasoned, thawing things out or prepping veggies ahead makes cooking so much easier on crazy weeknights.
To take this one step further, I started organizing at the beginning of the week what our meals will be into bags and storing them in clear containers. When I come home and am unpacking the groceries I can pop the ground beef into the bag labeled Tacos, put the package of shredded chicken and the peppers into my Fajitas bag and so on. This simple step makes a big difference.
We have this little container in the fridge and then I made three or four baggies for the menu items of the week (depending on how long things will stay fresh). We had a chalkboard that indicates what the menu is for the week in the kitchen, so my husband or I can come home, grab the right bag and making dinner is super streamlined and easy.
You can see above the steaks for steak salad and a baggie of chopped veggies, some hard boiled eggs for a salad later in the week, coconut lime chicken and a bag with chicken, enchilada sauce and olives. I also have a leftover container of tomato soup that I eat as a vegetarian option on meat nights.
Those are my best tips to make the menu planning process as painless as possible and to hopefully save yourself some time and energy each week. I would love to hear any shortcuts or tips you have as well.
And here is another article you might enjoy on meal prep: