Of all the things I do on a regular basis, the one thing I detest the most is trying to figure out what’s for dinner. It’s the most mysterious thing… every night my family is hungry, starving even, but they have no idea what they want to eat. Until I suggest something. Then, they immediately know that they do NOT want that to eat. But they still don’t know what they DO want. A few years ago, I decided that I was going to plan an entire year of meals in one sitting and be done with that awful question forever. It didn’t quite work out the way I planned, but it did help!
Here are some tips & tricks I use to meal plan. Before I begin, let me say that there are so many options for meal planning. My method may not work for you. Hopefully, something I’ve learned may help you avoid the dreaded “What’s for dinner?” question.
Decide on a format
I set up a Google Doc spreadsheet for my menu. This allows me to create my menu at my computer, and still access it when I’m at the grocery store and can’t find my list… or maybe accidentally deleted my list. Yep, I’ve done that.
I do grocery shopping on Wednesdays and Saturdays, with Wednesday being my main shopping trip. Saturdays are a quick run for replacement produce, bread and anything we need for the following week’s school lunches. So, I set up my menu to run Wednesday through Tuesday. When I’m making my grocery list I only have to look at one row. Making this change has really simplified things for me.
Plan for a chunk of time
I meal plan for three to six months at a time. Remember how I said I hate deciding what to make for dinner? This way I only have to do it 2-4 times a year. Planning for a year at a time didn’t work for us because tastes changed, allergies changed, and small appliances broke. Planning weekly, and even monthly, was just too often for me. I still felt like I was having to decide too often.
If your schedule is predictable, use that to your advantage. Set up some kind of meal routine to make planning easier. Here’s our routine:
Mondays, I work late. Also, we usually have Sunday dinner leftovers. The kids and I try something new (& fast) or something that my husband wouldn’t like. Thomas can eat leftovers from Sunday.
Tuesdays are Taco Tuesday. While I would be perfectly happy eating regular crunchy tacos each week, my kids don’t love them. So, we alternate Tex-Mex inspired meals like enchiladas, tacos, taco soup, tortilla soup, chicken tacos, nachos, or taco salads.
Wednesdays are usually an intermediate-level meal. It usually takes 30-45 minutes to prepare dinner. It’s usually something familiar. I try to use mostly pantry staples and fresh produce we typically have.
Thursdays are usually another intermediate-level meal. I usually do some kind of grilled or baked meat and potatoes or rice with vegetables.
Friday is usually a quick low-maintenance dinner. That’s the day for a crockpot soup, InstantPot mac & cheese, BLT sandwiches, sheet pan dinners, or pastrami subs.
Saturday is a little different. I usually plan for something that I like to eat, that no one else really cares for. That’s because my husband and kids usually get take-out and I can’t eat out due to food allergies. But, it’s also usually something that if they decide NOT to eat out, we can easily modify it to be something everyone will eat.
Sunday is our heartiest meal of the week. It usually takes the longest to prepare. It’s almost always some kind of meat & potatoes.
Deciding what to make
When I get ready to do a meal planning session, I head over to Pinterest and browse for dinner ideas. I create a new board for each meal planning session. I go through the previous couple of boards and see if there’s anything we want to repeat. I re-pin the items to my new board then I fill those squares in on my spreadsheet according to our routine and schedule. I try to make sure each week is balanced. My family gets tired of eating chicken, so I make sure we have a meatless meal at least once and some kind of beef at least once. I try to alternate the days so that we aren’t eating chicken three days in a row either. I also try to make sure that if I need to buy special ingredients we can use them in other recipes that week. I try to make sure that we have a balance of new and tried-and-true family recipes. I also make sure that we aren’t repeating meals more than every two weeks. My kids would love to eat chicken nuggets and tater tots weekly (probably even nightly) but that’s probably not the healthiest plan.
Finalizing & Printing
Even though I plan my menu out several months in advance, I only print three to four weeks at a time. Before I print the menu, I glance it over and see if I need to make any changes. Has anyone developed a serious aversion to any of the meals? Have the kids recently told me that they don’t like a particular meal and were just pretending in order to not hurt my feelings? Have I developed a new allergy or sensitivity? Do we have an event coming up that would preclude me from preparing a particular meal on a particular night? Was there a huge sale on a particular ingredient that we need to use up? Is something in our food storage about to go bad and need to be used? Since the bulk of the work is done, it’s not a big deal to swap a couple of meals or replace a meal or two.
This is the most important part of meal planning. Because I do my grocery shopping on Wednesday, I have most of the ingredients for the next seven meals. If we’re scheduled to have baked chicken & roasted potatoes on Thursday, but I have a meeting come up, I can swap in Friday’s easy meal on Thursday night, then move Thursday’s dinner to Friday. I try to do at least one meal each week that uses only pantry staples & the fresh produce we always have. If my husband decides he really wants pizza on a Wednesday night, it’s not a big deal because we aren’t wasting food purchased specifically for a meal we don’t prepare.
If I find that we aren’t sticking to our menu I do another quick evaluation. Am I trying too many new recipes? Are the meals too complicated and I don’t feel like making them? Are the ingredients out of season or too hard to find? Is our schedule just too busy for these kinds of meals right now? I feel like we go through periods where every night is a quick meal night. I do my best to make sure the kids get fresh fruit and veggies with their nuggets or hot dogs or grilled cheese. Or fresh fruit with their pancakes. I try to take those time periods into account, but sometimes it just happens.
Make it budget friendly
Only you know what you can afford to spend on groceries. I will say that we spend quite a bit on groceries. I won’t tell you how much because it’s no one’s business. And it kind of makes me sick when I think about it. However, I have a lot of food intolerances and allergies. I can only eat specific brands of foods, and almost never generic brands. Most of what I eat is considered a specialty food. I could write an entire blog post about what I can and can’t eat, and maybe I will one day. We have four different kinds of milk in our fridge as we all use different types due to different dietary needs. Below are some tips that I use for making meals budget friendly AND healthy…
1. Load up on the veggies. Frozen green beans and mixed vegetable medleys are really affordable at Costco and Sam’s Club. I can get six heads of romaine lettuce for less than $4 at Sam’s Club. We eat a lot of romaine lettuce. Not all veggies need to be cooked. My kids sometimes enjoy having carrot sticks & cucumber slices with ranch on the side instead of having to “suffer” through steamed carrots.
2. Use healthy carbs to fill out meals. Quinoa and brown rice are great healthy options and are available at really good prices at both Costco and Sam’s Club. We also eat a lot of potatoes and roast them in our air fryer. Will your family eat whole grain or whole wheat pasta? What about a lentil or veggie-based pasta?
3. Buy meats on sale & freeze them. We stock up on beef roasts when Smith’s has them $2.99/lb or less. I’ll buy four or five 2.5lb roasts and stick them in our deep freeze. I buy boneless skinless chicken breasts at Sam’s Club for about $1.77/lb. I stick each chicken breast in a sandwich bag, then place several sandwich bags inside a gallon freezer bag in the deep freeze. On a night when we have baked chicken breasts, I pull two large chicken breasts out of the freezer and butterfly them. That’s typically enough meat for one meal. For a favorite chicken recipe, I’ll use three and we’ll have some leftover for lunch the next day. When meat is a main ingredient in the meal, I plan 4 to 8 oz per person, depending on the meal. Sometimes meat is the side dish and the pasta, potatoes, rice or even roasted veggies is the main dish. If we’re trying a new meal and I’m not sure if everyone will like it, we do it that way.
4. Make things from scratch when you can. With all of my food allergies and intolerances, I can rarely use pre-packaged foods. Instead of using gravy mixes, which usually contain dairy and gluten, I make a healthier “gravy” using vegetable Better Than Bullion, water and corn starch. We buy Hidden Valley Ranch powder at Sam’s Club and mix our own dressing so it’s always fresh and tastes better (or so they tell me, I can’t eat dairy). Instead of spending $1 on a packet of taco seasoning, we have large bottles of spices from Sam’s Club that we use to make our own seasoning mix for pennies per serving. Decide what’s more important to you, saving money or convenience. Sometimes convenience wins. I’m not making my own almond milk or yogurt. I’m not making my own infused olive oils. But I will buy popcorn kernels and olive oil over microwave popcorn every day. Much cheaper, and tastes so much better.
5. Build a food storage and use it. When an item you normally purchase (and regularly use) is on sale, buy 2. One to use now, one to store for later. Take advantage of case lot sales to purchase items your family uses on a regular basis. We always purchase one case each of black olives, black beans, red beans, refried beans, white beans, spaghetti sauce, and green beans. By the time the next case lot sale rolls around we’re usually down to our last can or two of each. I also make sure to ALWAYS have at least two extra of any specialty food items. Especially if they’re made by smaller companies and are sometimes hard to find. I eat low FODMAP and make sure that I always have two backup Fody Ketchups. If I ever ran out completely, I’d probably cry. A lot. Low FODMAP foods can be hard to find on a good day. Throw in a pandemic or supply chain disruption of any kind, and it’s nearly impossible. I recently ran into a problem where I could NOT find Crystal Louisiana hot sauce I normally buy. I went to five grocery stores before I finally found it. It’s not that I’m picky about the flavor of the hot sauce, but due to medical issues, I have to be picky about the ingredients.
Put it into practice
So this sounds great and all, but what does a week really look like? Here’s what’s for dinner for the next seven days at our house:
Saturday – Red Pepper Chicken Stir-fry but with garlic-infused olive oil replacing the garlic, no ginger, no basil, no ghee, with brown rice
Sunday – Meatloaf, Mashed Potatoes, Corn, Steamed Green Beans
Monday – Alfredo with cajun chicken, salad (this meal will have to be seriously altered as two of us don’t eat dairy, and I don’t eat pasta)
Tuesday – Steak & Chicken Fajitas, corn tortillas, brown rice, black beans, cheese, sour cream, guacamole, romaine lettuce, tomatoes, grilled sweet peppers, cilantro
Wednesday – Basil Black Pepper Chicken Sausage with roasted Yukon potatoes & roasted veggies (Brussels sprouts, sweet potatoes, broccoli, green beans, sweet peppers & kale)
Thursday – Baked orange chicken stripes with jasmine rice and stir-fried mixed veggies
Friday – White Chicken Chili with cilantro, tomatoes, avocado
Follow your favorite food bloggers
A couple of years ago, during a meal planning session, I found a recipe that looked intriguing, Buffalo Chicken. It wasn’t the title of the recipe, but the ingredients that were included that completely intrigued me. This wasn’t a normal Buffalo Chicken recipe. It combined two of my favorite flavors… southwest & buffalo. What?! Mind blown. I made it, with a few alterations to fit my family’s dietary needs. Every single person in my house loves this chicken. I leave out the lime juice (sad) to make sure everyone likes it, but add it to the glaze at the end just for mine. I started looking around at the Carlsbad Cravings website and I am hooked. I haven’t made a single thing from her site that I haven’t loved. Her Chipotle Chicken marinade is absolutely amazing. It makes the BEST chicken tacos. And if you want something truly, truly amazing, put either of those chicken recipes on this BLT Salad with Lime Vinaigrette from Damn Delicious. The combination of those makes me want to cry. My older daughter begs me to make the Lime Vinaigrette regularly. It’s a staple in our home. I’d make just about anything either of those two bloggers recommended to me. When I run out of ideas, or everything showing up on Pinterest is another version of the same thing, I check out these two and see what’s new that sounds good.
Another favorite recipe around here is Buffalo Chicken Burgers from Bobbi’s Kozy Kitchen. I haven’t made anything else of hers, but these burgers are on regular rotation at our house. Get fresh ground chicken, not frozen or the pre-packaged shrink-wrapped dry ground chicken. We get it at Harmon’s in Utah. It’s the best (although, avoid it if you have a dairy allergy as I’m not sure about their allergy policy and I’ve found feta in my ground chicken before – they sell chicken & feta burger patties). We leave the shredded carrot & celery out of the burgers due to family preference. But the panko… that makes it. I do it a tiny bit different. I mix the Buffalo sauce and the panko crumbs and stir. Once the panko crumbs have soaked up all the sauce, I mix in the ground chicken and seasonings. Make the patties and let them sit in the fridge for at least an hour. Once it’s cooked, you get crunchy flavor-packed bites of buffalo seasoning rather than the entire burger tasting the same throughout. Try it both ways and see which you prefer. These are delicious served with homemade ranch, avocado, a couple of dill pickle slices, baby greens, a tomato slice and a sliver of red onion.
And with all the time you save from batch meal planning, you now have time to document your life and tell your story! Include some of your family’s favorite recipes in your scrapbook. I use recipe screenshots next to a picture of the meal. Cooking and eating food is a big part of our lives, why not include it in our life story? On the page below, you can see a screenshot of the Buffalo Chicken Burger recipe right next to a picture of the delicious burger. I’m getting hungry. And I’m considering altering the menu for next week to include these little delights. Totally worth it.
Have a great week! Stay safe, wash your hands, wear a mask, and make memories!