I've been meal planning off and on for a long time. As I've gone along, I've tried a lot of different methods and templates and I have really been refining my process as I go. I've got it down pretty well now, to a system that I think is very quick and easy and actually makes meal planning doable for anyone, so I wanted to share with you a little about why and how I do it.
First of all, I'll tell you up front: I'm never going to give you a precise meal plan with 28 recipes you've never tried before, and quantities, and a list of exactly what you should buy. There are lots of sites out there that will be happy to sell you that. But I actually think that isn't really going to work for most people. Every family is so different. Everyone's tastes are different, schedules are different, needs are different. I think that trying to follow a meal plan designed by and for someone else is going to set you up for disappointment. You're not going to keep up with it and you are going to feel like you failed. I don't want you to do that! I want you to feel really good about making meal planning work for you. I want you to feel that sense of accomplishment of knowing that you did it!
The old idea of "Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime." But my version would be "Give a mom a meal plan and you'll feed her kids for a week. Teach a mom to meal plan and you'll feed her kids for a lifetime". (or at least a whole month!)
ORGANIZATION IS THE KEY TO BEING ABLE TO ACTUALLY ENJOY THE MOTHERING.
One of the biggest things I've learned as a mother of a lot of kids is that organization and planning are the key to keeping your head above water. I've always been a pretty organized person by nature, but now I see it as critical to my sanity. Sure, you can get by without being organized, but I really believe that life is so much easier and more relaxed when everything is in its place, and you know ahead of time what needs to be happening and when.
I find that I can enjoy my time with my kids so much more when I am not harried and disorganized and always running behind. If I have a plan, and I know it will come together, then I can sit down on the floor and play with trains and fairies and not have to worry about what comes next, because I know I've already got it figured out.
WHY MEAL PLAN?
This whole idea couldn't be more true than in the area of family meal planning. Personally I find it very stressful to be approaching the end of the day having no idea what I am going to make for dinner, or to go to the store not really knowing what I'm shopping for. When I am out of the habit of meal planning, we don't eat as well and we spend too much. I tend to shop to fill my fridge and pantry, with the goal of just having everything on hand to make whatever I might choose at the last minute.
But when I have a meal plan, shopping is easy and sticking to the budget is actually possible. I work from my list and I don't impulse buy. I can honestly say that in months when I am really on top of my meal planning I have spent almost half as much money on groceries as in the months when I am just buying whatever sounds good.
Planning for a month changes everything.
No matter what 'system' you use, actually sitting down to do the plan can still be a bit of a chore. So why not do this chore just once a month, instead of every week? Think of the time you will save! The real holy grail of meal planning, in my opinion, is to do it a month at a time. When I do that, I LOVE it. I love just looking at my plan and knowing what's for dinner for weeks to come.
This is also the secret to saving money on groceries, and saving time on shopping. If you buy for a month rather than a week, you can buy in bulk and plan multiple uses for larger quantities of foods. When I plan this way I will go to Costco at the beginning of my month and buy all our meat and pantry items, and anything else that can be frozen. (My 'month' starts the week after my husband's mid-month paycheck - it's the check that we actually have some money to spend, because the mortgage and health insurance have been paid from the end of month check.) I freeze meat, bread, tortillas, etc. and pull it out each week as I need it. Then all I need to shop for each week is dairy and fresh produce, and whatever small things I might need for a particular recipe. A big grocery trip and big bill once a month, but then just small grocery bills for several weeks after that.
Give yourself a box to work in.
Whether you plan for a week or a month, one of my biggest keys to success is having a schedule of themes to follow. I assign a theme to each day of the week, according to our family schedule. We have days that are very full (with therapy and dance and soccer), and we have days with no extra plans. I work around those constraints to know which days I have time to cook and which days I don't, and choose my themes based on that.
This is the schedule that's working for us right now:
- Sunday: Pasta (or something Italian-ish)
- Monday: Soup or stew (something I can make ahead in the slow cooker)
- Tuesday: Taco Tuesday! (or something Mexican-ish)
- Wednesday: Asian
- Thursday: Leftovers
- Friday: Pizza
- Saturday: Roast or grill some meat.
When you do it this way, the meal planning seems so easy. Now all I have to do is come up with 4 Pasta or Italian ideas, 4 soup or stew recipes, 4 Mexican meal ideas, and 4 Asian ideas... You get the idea. It seems so much more manageable when I break it up that way. I start with pencil and my ideas, and just start filling in boxes until it's all full.
Of course this doesn't mean that you can't stray from your schedule. It's really there just to give you an easy place to start with coming up with ideas. But if you have a recipe you want to try that doesn't fit your themes, then write it in.
I follow a schedule for breakfasts and lunch too. But those basically stay the same each week, so I don't plan individual meals against those. For the kids breakfast I rotate through basically the same 5 things every week, maybe with a some slight variations. I follow a theme for their lunches too. So if you've paid attention you might notice that I always do breakfast-for-lunch on Wednesday, or some kind of sandwich on Friday. That structure gives me a place to start, but the actual lunch is never really the same twice. It works.
Plan even more ahead, and be flexible.
I'm always looking at recipes. It's just what I do. So if I come across an idea for something I want to make, then I want to add it to my plan. On the back of my printed meal plan (which is always close by), I usually have a scribbled list under the heading "Next Month". I'll just jot down ideas as I come across them, and often by the time I get around to doing the next meal plan I've already got most of my ideas already figured out. I also do the same for repeats - if I made something that was just a really big hit with the kids, then I definitely want to make that again. I'll just circle it on my plan, or add it to my "next month" list.
The meal plan is never really totally set in stone. Things get crossed off and rearranged. Plans get changed. But the nice thing about having planned and shopped ahead is that I've already got the food I need, so I can easily adjust to a change in plans. If an appointment comes up, or a late meeting, I'll just push out a more complicated thing I had planned and pull out one of my quicker meal ideas instead. By the end of the month my printed plan is always very well loved and scribbled on.
What about the recipes?
I think a lot of people get stuck at meal planning because they think they have to have a new recipe to write in each box. Don't do that to yourself!
My meal plan consists of mostlywa old favorites, things I know how to cook without thinking about it, and things that I know my kids are going to eat. Honestly I only try a totally new recipe maybe a couple of times a month. Often I try just a new or different twist on an old favorite - I know how to cook my version, but I will often look it up on Pinterest anyway, and try somebody else's version of an old favorite.
This is where the themes really helps. Once you have a general idea of what you're going to make, you can fill in a few old favorites under each category. And then consult Pinterest for a few new ideas.
I've got a ton of recipe ideas on my Pinterest boards. If you're not already following me, you should be! I also started a new board with links to recipes for the kinds of things that are on my current meal plan. I think I'll add a new one each month, so you'll always have the archive of the recipes that went with each month's plan.
Ok, a lot of talk. Now let's get to it. My templates.
You can click each of the images below to get a pdf version if you want to just print it. But if you want to really go for it and edit your own, here is the link to the full excel workbook. The workbook has three tabs - one is the filled out plan you see below, one is the blank template, and one is the blank grocery list template. You'll need Microsoft Excel to open it.