Save yourself time and money by using this simple (free) printable menu planner to keep yourself organized at dinnertime. Plus, get over 30 ideas for family-friendly recipes to use in your planning!
In my house growing up, when I asked the question, “Mom, what’s for dinner?” there was a good chance the answer would be one of two things…
- I.D.K. (interpret: “I don’t know”)
- Chicken something
We joked about this, and to be fair, my mom somehow always managed to pull together a tasty meal, even when she had no idea what that meal was going to be as of 4:30 in the afternoon.Now that I’m the mom in the house who is supposed to answer that dreaded question, I’ve found that the key for me is to not have to decide in the moment.
Meal planning is not a new idea. There are scores of how-to’s and printable menus online, but I wanted to share with you the simple, no-fuss system that has been working well for me for the past four years.
The whole process only takes about 10-20 minutes per week, so if you’ve thought in the past that meal planning is too much work, I challenge you to give it a try.
How to successfully meal plan:
1. Decide how much you want to plan & how often.
Some people plan breakfast, lunch, dinner, and snacks. That’s just too much for me. Maybe someday I’ll start planning more than cold cereal for breakfast with the occasional hot breakfast when the mood strikes, but not today. For now, I’m sticking to just planning dinner. For all other meals, we just go with what we feel like eating at the moment.
You also need to decide how often you want to plan. Weekly? Monthly? I plan weekly, but I use a monthly calendar (read on to download my free printable meal planning calendar). This way, I can collect ideas for future weeks, see what we’ve eaten recently, and save on paper. Besides, I’m pretty sure that if I had to print out the paper every week, I wouldn’t do it. I lose motivation easily.
2. Pick a time to do it.
Meal planning is part of my weekly cleaning/household tasks routine. I used to plan on Tuesdays because that’s the day the grocery ads came out. I liked seeing what was going on sale when making my menu for the week. Now I do it on Mondays because I found I’d never plan all the way to the following Monday, and I’d be annoyed on Mondays when I didn’t know what to cook. Plus, I found that most of the sales were on non-perishable things that I keep in my stockpile anyway, or the sales were on produce, which was easily swappable (is that a word?) in many menus.
3. Keep a list of family favorites
Anyone who knows me can tell you that decision-making is not my forte. Even something as simple as choosing what to make for dinner can be hard for me, so I make it easier for myself by keeping a list of tried-and-true meals our family loves (see below for links to my favorites). I like to throw new recipes into our meal rotation as well, but having this list to start from saves me a lot of time when I sit down to plan our meals for the coming week. I pull out my list, see what we haven’t had recently, and plug the meals into whichever days make sense.
4. Sit down and plan!
Once you have decided on your planning method, sit down and make it happen! When I plan, I open up my computer to my Pinterest board: “Food…Tried and Loved.” I also open my Google Drive spreadsheet with my list of family favorites (see #3). Then, I simply plug the meals I feel like making that week into my “What’s for Dinner?” calendar. If I get inspired by a meal that I don’t think I’ll have time for that week, or I already have other similar meals planned, I write them in the “Meal Ideas” column to be used in future weeks.
5. Make a grocery list
Once I have picked my meals for the week, I check which ingredients I need to buy and add them to my grocery list (I use the Out of Milk app) on my phone. It works best for me to make this list as soon as I meal plan, because if I wait until I’m heading to the grocery store, I forget, or I am wrangling children, or the world explodes…or something like that. It’s just better to do it right away, okay? Trust me.
Bonus Tip: Stock your pantry with the basics
I make it a point to check grocery ads and stock up on things when they’re on sale. Over the years, I’ve developed a good sense for what a good deal is for meat, cheese, olives, etc. and I try to only buy them when they are below my target price. By doing so, I save my family money (obviously), but it also makes meal planning easier because I already have most ingredients on hand at any given time. When I take my weekly grocery shopping trip, I stock up on break, milk, produce, and the handful of special ingredients that my week’s meals require, but I usually have most things already. Easy peasy.
My Last Confession:
That sounds dramatic, doesn’t it? I know some people say that meal planning is too restrictive. I get that. What if you planned to make spaghetti on Tuesday night, but Tuesday rolls around and you really don’t feel like Spaghetti? Or what if your husband has to work late and you don’t feel like making a full-fledged dinner that you know your toddlers just won’t appreciate?
Answer: Don’t make it.
I do not make myself a slave to my menu. If I don’t feel like eating something, I don’t. Sometimes, I switch the meal with one I have planned for later in the week, and sometimes I make something else that uses similar ingredients. That’s fine. I’m the one cooking, so I reserve the right to change the menu. Still, having something planned makes my life as mom SO much easier.
Ready to get started?
Note: If you prefer a weekly planning calendar, try this one!
Now, I won’t just send you out on your own to meal plan all by your lonesome self. To help you with your meal planning endeavors, here are 30+ of my favorite family-friendly meals. These are the ones that make a regular appearance on our dinner table. Enjoy!
- Easy lasagna skillet from The Many Little Joys
- 15-minute French Dip Sandwiches from The Many Little Joys
- Aardvark Pies from The Many Little Joys
- Porcupine Meatballs from Jamie Cooks it Up
- Baked Spaghetti from The Girl Who Ate Everything
- BBQ Sloppy Joes from The Many Little Joys
- 5-ingredient Mexican Casserole from The Many Little Joys
- Meatball Sliders from The Many Little Joys
- Navajo Tacos from The Recipe Critic
- EASY Instant Pot Honey Garlic Chicken from The Many Little Joys
- Instant Pot Chicken and Rice Dinner from The Many Little Joys
- The Best Chicken Fajitas from Mel’s Kitchen Cafe
- Hawaiian Haystacks (with from scratch sauce) from Mel’s Kitchen Cafe
- Baked Creamy Chicken Taquitos from Our Best Bites
- Chicken Piccata from Life in the Lofthouse
- Pasta Primavera from The Pioneer Woman
- Baked Chicken Breasts from Gimme Some Oven
- 15-minute Creamy Balsamic Chicken from Lauren’s Latest
- Cashew Chicken Lettuce Wraps from She Wears Many Hats
- Slow Cooker BBQ Chicken Sandwiches from Because I Said So Baby
- 7 make-ahead chicken marinades from The Many Little Joys
- Chicken Noodle Soup (with homemade noodles) from The Many Little Joys
- Cauliflower Chowder from Damn Delicious
- Slow Cooker Tomato Basil Parmesan Soup from Creme de la Crumb
- Loaded Baked Potato Soup (30-minute meal) from The Many Little Joys
- Easy taco soup (Instant Pot + slow cooker directions) from The Many Little Joys
- White Chicken Chili from The Many Little Joys
Miscellaneous Amazing Recipes
- Perfect Homemade Pizza from The Many Little Joys
- Sweet Balsamic Glazed Pork Loin from Mel’s Kitchen Cafe
- Zuchinni Ribbon Pasta from Our Best Bites
- Mountain Man Breakfast Skillet from The Many Little Joys
- Corn dog muffins from The Many Little Joys
Now, it’s your turn. What are your favorite recipes to cook for your family? Tell me in the comments, and leave a link to it if you want!