Meal Planning: How to create a plan that you will actually follow.

You keep thinking that you really need to get better about weekly meal planning for your family, because you know it would save you so much time.  Right?  Menu planning is one of those things that we all seem to like to talk about, but don't often actually get done. You look around on blogs and Pinterest and you can be left feeling a little intimidated.  The meals on those plans are either way more involved than you have time for, or they are foods that your family isn't actually going to eat.  

Some of the menus that people are posting are so involved - with new recipes every night and lots of complicated ingredients. Those menus look nice, but not the reality of what most of us with busy lives are actually going to stick to.  I don't know about you, but I don't have time to do that much experimenting, and the idea of trying a new recipe every night of the week is just too much. Don't get me wrong - I love reading food blogs and cookbooks, I love experimenting and trying new recipes - but I am also super busy.  I need an efficient system for planning a week’s worth of meals for 7 people. I need a set of tried and true basics that I can just pull out of my mental file and slot into my plan.  I need some sense of structure and consistency.   I need a plan that is going to guide me in the right direction when I've been up all night with sick kids, or I'm totally brain dead from a very full day. I need to not have to think about it too much.  But if I don't put some thought into our meals ahead of time then we end up just having the same stuff over and over again, or I end up staring into the fridge at 5:30 wondering what the heck I'm going to feed everyone in a half an hour.  

You don't need somebody else's meal plan.  You need a meal plan that is customized for your family. A plan that is too complicated or doesn't include your family's tastes will never get used, or will get thrown out the window. But no plan means last minute stress, or unhealthy and unbalanced meals, or spending too much money eating out.

So there needs to be some balance - a plan that has a predictable structure, is realistic to actually deliver, allows room for family favorites and simple classics, room for trying new things on the days when I know I’ll have time, and flexible enough that I can make last minute changes if circumstances demand it.

What works for me is a reusable framework, with themes or general categories already determined for each day, so I don’t have to completely start from scratch every week.  It is a basic template for my week. 

So what does my meal plan look like?

Click for a full size pdf.

Click for a full size pdf.

This is my standard template that I use a basis for creating my meal plan each week. For illustration purposes, this version has notes in it, so you can get a better idea of how I think about it.

I designed it to fit on one page with room for a grocery list. I can make notes on what I've got and what I need, and I can also use the back of the sheet to jot stuff down - inventory of what I've got, ideas of something to put in a future week, etc.  I've included a column for things I want to get done during the day, to either prep for that night's dinner, or breakfast the next day.  I like to fold it in half, so it fits in a purse or calendar book a little better, so I made it so that the meal plan part fits on half the sheet and the shopping list is on the other half.  

I keep a print out of this taped to the inside of a kitchen cupboard, so when I get up foggy-eyed in the morning, I just open the cupboard and the plan tells me what to feed my kids for breakfast. I like not having to think before I've had several cups of coffee.  

I’ll pause here and note that while I’m mostly talking about dinner plans in the rest of this post, I do also include breakfast and lunch in my weekly meal plan.  It helps me a lot to already have an idea of what to do.  Otherwise I end up giving the kids the same thing too often and they get tired of it, and then start refusing to eat it.  But, while I do customize and add more detail to the dinner part of the plan for each week, I often just leave the breakfast and lunch as-is.  If I have an idea of something a little different I want to try, then I'll pencil it in, but usually just having the main idea of what category to start with is enough for me for those meals (Monday sandwich, Tuesday something with a tortilla, etc.).  And as far as lunches go, my plan just includes school lunches. On the weekends we usually either warm up leftovers, or have a sandwich, or we'll be out running around.

So that's my meal plan.  And it works for us.  But your family isn't the same as mine, they don't like the same things, they don't have the same schedule.  I'm going to share my meal plans with you every week, to help you with ideas, but I don't actually expect you to use it exactly.  I want you to make your own - make one that you know is going to work for you. 

Now that you've seen my plan, do you want to know how to create your own? 

Now that you have seen my meal plan, read on if you want to hear about the method to my madness, and get started on your process for creating a meal plan template that you can use for your family each week. 

I've broken my meal plan development process into a few steps, so you can really get the idea. The type of meal I have listed for each night of the week is very intentional and I put a lot of thought into setting up this initial format.  So the up front part takes a bit of time.  But once you have figured out that structure, it’s very easy to fill in the details each week.

Meal Planning Step #1: Get your calendar together 

A very important first step in meal planning actually comes well before you even think about the food.  The first step needs to be having a family calendar that is up to date and gives you a good view of what your family's days and evenings look like.  You need to know this before you can think about how and what you're going to cook each night. Look at your calendar and get a feel for what each evening of your week contains, who is home, what time they get home, what everyone needs to be doing, and how much time you will have for cooking during the day and/or before dinner.  Does somebody work late one night?  Or have a late class or soccer practice?  Do you have certain days when you are running around and have no time to cook? What does a ‘typical’ week in your house look like?  The key to building a framework that you can use over and over again is having a good handle on what each day of your week typically holds.

Also think about what day your 'week' should start on, for the purpose of meal planning.  I was originally using a standard Sunday - Saturday week, but I realized that it works best for me to do the meal planning on Saturday or Sunday, so I updated my meal plan template to have the week start on Monday.

Meal Planning Step #2: Create your structure and themes.

Once you have your calendar and have a sense of what your typical week looks like, then you can map out your basic dinner structure according to how you know each evening is going to be, and how much time you'll have each day to prep and cook.  Look at each day and think about what kind of meal you can or want to be cooking in that schedule.  What days do you need to have something made ahead? What days do you have time to cook a more involved recipe? Give yourself a general category or type of meal for each night of the week that will be doable within your schedule. This is the step that should take you the most time, you should really put a lot of thought into it.  A meal plan is going to be a failure right away if set yourself up with ideas that you don't have time to follow through on.  If in doubt, I say keep it simple.  

To give you an idea of what I mean, here is the thinking behind each of my daily choices:

  • Monday is my busiest day of the week - I spend my morning at therapy with one child, and the afternoon is taken up by school pickups and ballet lessons.  We get home at dinner time, so I need a meal for Monday that I can put together in my spare hour in the middle of the day and have totally ready to serve when we get home. This usually means some kind of soup or stew that just needs to be dished into bowls, or some kind of whole meal in the crock pot. 

  • Tuesday is my one weekday with no appointments or lessons, and drop off and pick up at only 1 school, so I have time to get a little more creative if I want.  Sometimes I opt for an easy meal anyway and we do Taco Tuesday, or a simple Asian stir fry with rice or noodles, often trying to plan for a meal that uses a protein that was precooked from our Saturday or Sunday dinner (leftover over pot roast or roast chicken, or diced grilled chicken).  But if I’m all caught up on housework and have no extra appointments, then this is the day that I have time to experiment and try something new.  If I come across a new recipe that I want to try, Tuesday is one of my days where I stick it.

  • Wednesday we have soccer practice for one child that doesn't end until 6:15, and by that day we've usually got three nights of dinner leftovers in the fridge (I always cook extra!), so that's my day to clean out the fridge and just let everyone choose from what's already cooked. I've cooked for 3-4 nights in a row and I'm ready for a night off. If we don't have enough leftovers, then I will make a big chopped salad, or we'll have breakfast for dinner.

  • Thursday and I'm tired of fighting the food battles with the kids, and my husband often has band practice right after the kids bed time.  We want a dinner that we know they are going to eat so we can get them all to bed on time. So it's kid food night. And hey, the kids deserve to pick the dinner once a week anyway.  This might be fish sticks (Costco has really good ones), or homemade chicken nuggets (always make extra for the freezer), or some simple pasta, mac & cheese, or hot dogs, usually with some frozen peas on the side. I try to keep it to minimally processed and good quality brands (I buy Applegate hot dogs, Annie's mac & cheese), but this is the one night of the week that we often have a dinner that at least part of came out of a package.  Everything in moderation.

  • Friday is pizza night at our house.  Sometimes I go all out and make the dough from scratch and get really creative with the toppings.  Sometimes I buy organic frozen pizza.  Sometimes I pull some premade crusts or flatbreads out of the freezer and just mine the fridge to see what I can come up with.  Sometimes we get takeout.  However we do it, it's casual, the kids love it, the grownups have some good wine or a cocktail, and we have a lot of fun. 

  • Saturday is a free night – I have no commitments and it’s up to me whether I want to do much.  Often I try to keep it simple, because on Saturday I just don't want to work very hard.  I usually chose grilling or broiling for this night because it's easy for me but always results in a really delicious meal that everyone is going to like.  In the summer we grilled outside, in the winter months it will be more broiling, or a grill pan on the stove.  We have burgers a lot (turkey, salmon, or grass fed beef), fish, sausages, chicken pieces, or sometimes a steak to slice up.   I always try to cook extra so I can use it in a meal later in the week, or have for lunches. Occasionally if I have come across a more involved new recipe that I want to try I'll do it on Saturday, since I have time and I have my husband home to help out.

  • Sunday I usually have time and I like the idea of a big Sunday dinner, so a roast of some sort, or a big Italian pasta dish.  I also like to try to cook something on Sunday that I can use in at least one other meal in the coming week.  I cook a couple of whole chickens at least every other week, so I have the bones to make broth, and cooked chicken to use in soup or tacos or a casserole. Or a roast with lots of veggies and potatoes, that can all go into a stew for Monday.  If we have pasta or rice I'll cook extra to have as a side later in the week.

So that's what our typical week looks like based on our current schedule.  Get the idea? 

I’ve spent a lot of time looking at the calendar and really thinking about what kind of meal I need to plan for each night of the week. Based on all that logic, I've given myself one night of pizza, one night of kid food, one night of leftovers, and one night of simple grilling if I want it.  I just need to narrow down the exact flavor of the meals that I’m cooking, and make sure I have the ingredients either already in the house or on my grocery list.  And now I'm down to needing to come up with ideas and recipes for only 3 or 4 dinners.  And that seems a lot more manageable, doesn't it?

Create your basic weekly meal plan template once, and re-use it every week, just updating the details for the 3 or 4 nights that you're really cooking something different. 

I will also note here that most of the time in my dinner plan I am only planning ahead for the main dish or protein.  We always have a vegetable on the side, but I generally prefer veggies to be cooked very simply to bring out their flavor, so I'll usually just pick from what we've got and cook up something to serve with dinner each night. We get a weekly delivery of organic produce, so I don't have to think about having veggies on hand.  If you have access to something like that or a CSA I highly recommend it.  Anything you can do to take one step of work out of the equation is going to make your job easier.  Otherwise I would suggest you make yourself a standard list of veggies to buy each week, so that you know you have a supply on hand.  

For the breakfast and lunch portions - there isn't as much thought put into which meals are on which days.  I basically just tried to have 5 different basic ideas, so that I'm not getting too repetitive.  Monday's lunch is leftover pizza from the weekend if I have it, but the other days are just somewhat randomly assigned.  

Ok - so stop here.  This step takes time.  When you're finished here you should have your basic template that you will be using every week.  So really make sure it feels right before you move on.

The rest of the steps are about how you customize your meal plan for use each week. 

Meal Planning Step #3: Update the calendar and make changes to the template.

So here you are, Saturday or Sunday, ready to do your meal plan for the next week.  The first think you need to do is figure out where there are any changes to your usual schedule for the coming week.  Plans for a night out?  Any special occasions or parties?  Any late meetings?  Make changes to your template as needed, to reflect the changes in your calendar. 

Meal Planning Step #4: Inventory what you've got (and what you know is coming).

Every story or blog post I read about feeding a family on a budget always includes the advice to work from what you have first.  This definitely holds true for us. I do a much better job at keeping the grocery spending down if I first take the time to see what I've already got and think about what meals I could make with it.  So look around the fridge, freezer and pantry and make a few notes of things you have that you could include in a meal.  I usually start with the proteins first - what meats do I have in my freezer?

Also in this area for us I look at what we're going to have in the coming week.  We get a weekly organic produce delivery and a weekly dairy delivery. Knowing that a large portion of our essential items are just going to show up on my doorstep without me having to think about it, makes my life a LOT easier. So based on what you’ve got already (and what you might have coming), what do you have that you could base a meal around?  Pencil those in someplace.

Meal Planning Step #5: Fill out your plan

Now that you have an idea of what your week looks like, and what you've already got, you can pencil in a few ideas for the nights that you're really cooking. Look at a few new recipes, but don't set yourself up for too much work.  I say start with some tried and true favorites that you know you can pull off, and maybe stick in one really new thing each week. As you’re getting the hang of this planned cooking thing, start out going easy on yourself.  If you’re trying new recipes, or a new twist on something you already know how to do, print out your recipes and keep them with your meal plan. I also recommend that you keep a paper calendar somewhere – as you come across a recipe that sounds good, or you remember a favorite that you haven’t made in a while, pencil it into your calendar in a future week.  If you get into the habit of doing this, you’ll quickly find yourself with weeks already mostly filled out ahead of time.

Meal Planning Step #6: make your grocery list

Based on the dinners that you've filled in for the whole week, now go through each meal (including breakfast and lunch) and think through everything you’ll need for a full week of meals. Refer to your recipes if you need to.  Fill in the shopping list section.  And go shopping! 

Meal Planning Step #7: use it and enjoy!

Now sit back and admire your work!  No seriously, you've done yourself a big favor here. I feel so satisfied when I've got it all figured out and I've got the shopping done, and I know I don't have to worry about it again for a whole week.  I find that it takes a lot of stress out of my day, not having to figure out what we're having for dinner that night, or what I'm packing for the kids lunches for tomorrow.  It really takes a weight off my shoulders. 

Ready to give it a try? 

The first image above links to a pdf of my plan with all the notes, so go back up and print out that one to use as a reference. 

Click for an editable word doc

Click for an editable word doc

I also made a version that has just the main idea for each meal without the extra notes, so there's room to actually write in it.  That's the version that I use the most often - I'll print out one with just the headings, and write my ideas in with a pencil.  

And there's a version that is completely blank, if you'd like to use my template to map out your own week from scratch - click on that image and it will link you to the word doc that you can save and edit. 

A few extra time saving tips:

click for full size pdf.

click for full size pdf.

  • Make only 1 dinner.  Do not get yourself in the habit of making one meal for the adults and a different meal for the kids.  You are setting yourself up for way too much work, and you are not teaching your kids good eating habits. I won't got on and on about it here, there are plenty of articles to be found about the benefits of the family dinner. If you have super picky kids that just aren't going to eat what you want to eat, then it may take some time to get them used to the change, but you will be so happy you did. Go lightly at first, try to make healthier versions of meals they like and serve that to the whole family.  Gradually evolve the family meals away from the kid food. Seriously, get yourself out of that habit of cooking two dinners every night. 

  • If you have access to any delivery services, use them.  If you can take a step out of your workload and have things delivered directly to you, it makes a huge difference. We get a weekly dairy delivery and a weekly produce delivery.  I can't tell you how much I LOVE these.  We are also very fortunate to live in an area served by Amazon Fresh ('s grocery delivery service) - so if I really don't feel like going to the grocery store, I can order the rest of my groceries and have them delivered.  You might think that you'll be paying a huge premium for the convenience, but you might be wrong.  A few years ago I did a comparison of prices between my favorite local grocery store chain (QFC), Trader Joe's, and Amazon Fresh.  Of the three, Trader Joe's was the least expensive (although comparable on dairy products).  But to my surprise, Amazon Fresh was the same if not cheaper than the grocery store.  So look around at what your options are, you might be surprised.  And if the price difference is only a little bit more, you might find that the convenience is worth it.  You also might find, like I do, that you end up spending less overall, because you are not subject to the impulse buying that inevitably happens as you are wandering down the grocery store aisles. 
  • Grocery shop once a week at the most.  Get your lists together for everything you need for a full week, and get it all at once. Or consider trying to do this same planning exercise for two weeks at a time, and go to Costco for a couple weeks worth of main ingredients and staples, put your second week of meats in your freezer, then all you’ll need to get is fresh produce and dairy. 
  • Cook once and use twice (or more).  Double a recipe so you'll have enough for a leftover night. If you are cooking pasta or rice cook double what you’ll need and use it as a side or ingredient for a second meal later in the week. Or freeze it - cooked pasta and rice both freeze great.  Cook extra meat on Sunday and plan your meals for later in the week using the same meat. Make stock from your bones.  
  • Put away leftovers in serving sizes.  If you are going to use your leftovers for your lunch, or to pack up for you or your spouse to take to work, invest in a supply of single serving sized containers.  As you are cleaning up from dinner, put away your leftovers in individual serving containers.  Then in the morning you can just grab and go to work.  Put a little post-it on each one describing what's in it. 
  • Pack lunches ahead of time.  I can't tell you enough how much smoother my morning goes if I've made the kids lunches ahead.  I'm happier, because I don't have to get up and do it.  And they are happier, because I can give them more attention in the morning. 
  • Prep ahead of time.  If you can get in the habit (I am not! do as I say, not as I do!) of doing some of your prep work ahead of time, it can save you a lot of time in getting dinner ready on a busy week night.  Wash and chop veggies when you get them


I threw out a request for questions on my Facebook page a few weeks ago, and here are answers to the questions I got.  If you have other questions please let me know, and I'll keep updating this post as I get the questions. 

Q: How do you handle different dietary needs?  I’m low carb (or gluten free, grain free), but the rest of my family is not. 

A: I try to keep my carbs low most of the time as well.  Most of the time what I do is just cook the carb separately as a side dish, and then I just choose to not have any of it.  I will often make myself a bowl of zucchini noodles or cauli rice to go with mine instead - so the rest of the family has pasta with sauce, and I have veggies with sauce.  If we have a curry, I'll have a bowl of the curry with a spoon and eat it like a soup, instead of over rice.  If we have a noodle soup sometimes I'll add the noodles at the end into each bowl, and then I can control how much noodles each bowl gets. 

Q: How do you plan for days where the plan gets necessarily thrown out the window for one reason or another? I try to balance between having flexibility about which night things are cooked, but sometimes there's sickness or unforeseen schedule complications. Do you have back up meals you plan?

A: Except for the meals that necessarily need to be started well ahead of time, most of the meals are pretty flexible and can be swapped around to different days if necessary. That’s one of the benefits of doing the shopping for the whole week at once – you've got the ingredients you need for any of the meals on the plan. If things go really downhill then usually my backup is either the Kid Food dinner, because it's usually something that's pretty fast and easy to make, or getting into the leftovers if we have them, or making breakfast for dinner.  We basically always have eggs and bread, so if all else fails I can make some scrambled eggs and toast.

Q: How do you plan meals when you have a picky child?

A: I usually try to have at least one component of the meal that my pickiest child will eat.  To my great dismay, that usually is just the rice or the pasta or the bread. If that's really all she's willing to eat, then I will often give her a piece of cheese to have with it. I have lots of little tricks for getting kids to eat veggies (I’m working on a post about that), but the honest truth is that with all the strategies I can come up with, I still have one child who eats very little at dinner.  Honestly I don’t worry about it too much at dinner, I work to get her nutrition at other times of the day, and right now I’m ok with that.  We do have a rule now that she is 4 she has to at least taste the dinner, and most of the time she will. But the bottom line is, don't let that picky child determine what the rest of the family will eat.  Cook healthy and well balanced meals for your family, the children will eventually come around.  

Q: Doesn't it get boring, having the same thing over and over again? 

A: Even though the meal plan may look like it at first, we definitely don't have the same meals over and over again.  Quite the opposite actually, we rarely have the same thing twice.  I would easily fall back to about 10 standard dinners if I wasn't figuring out a different plan ahead of time, so the meal plan keeps me from doing that.  For example: just go search on roast chicken and you’ll find so many different ways to season it that you could do it every week and it would never be the same. So while my plan may call for doing a ‘roast dinner’ once a week, I hardly ever do it the same way twice.  I do better when I have some kind of boundary or box to work in, but the box is flexible enough that it never gets boring.

Goodness.  That went on and on, didn't it?  Sorry.  I tried to include everything I could think of to help you do this on your own.  Please ask any questions you might think of, or let me know if there are things missing here that you'd like to see me explain.  Let's do this together!


~ Lisa