This post may contain affiliate links, which means a commission is earned (at no cost to you) if you decide to make a purchase via a link in this post. For more information, see our disclosure policy.
A few meal planning tips can make a HUGE difference! It can be overwhelming to anticipate everything that needs to be considered, especially if it’s a new practice. Meal planning is essential for making your week go smoothly, saving money, and feeding your family nutritious foods.
Family dinners are important for bonding and staying connected. However, I’ve found that frantically texting back and forth with Hubbs in the afternoon about what we should have for dinner causes more arguments than anything. We bicker about who should pick up the kids and who is running to the grocery store. This is followed by complaints of forgotten ingredients. After all that effort we’d end up ordering take-out. We couldn’t even enjoy that because we were eating with grumpy children. Understandably so, as they were starving and it was past their bedtime! The bad outweighed the benefits of a family meal, for sure. (To this day we joke that the nastiest text we can send each other is “what’s for dinner tonight?”)
Most of us can agree meal planning is essential, but that knowledge alone doesn’t make it easy. Thinking about meals ONCE each week instead of daily is extremely liberating. You won’t be spinning your wheels and wasting your time and energy. These 12 meal planning tips are adaptable to work well for any family!
1. Breakfast & lunch
Keep it SIMPLE. Typically on the weekends, I’ll make a huge batch of scrambled eggs or pancakes and keep them in the refrigerator for breakfasts. We also do some mornings of cereal or toast. I love these squeezie pouches for Greek yogurt and applesauce and I try to keep them full at all times. They’re a nice option that our toddler can get for himself if he’s “starving”. (For my own breakfast, I drink bulletproof coffee which is wonderfully quick and easy!)
Lunches are often sandwiches with veggies (fresh/canned/frozen) and/or fruit (fresh or frozen, not usually canned as they have a lot of extra sugar in them). While each meal may not be “balanced” with all of the food groups, I aim for the overall day to be balanced.
2. The magic whiteboard
One of the best meal planning tips is using a small whiteboard! I got this idea from funcheaporfree.com and I love the flexibility it provides and it’s a great communication tool. I put a metal magnet in the section for the current day so it’s easy to see. This is the framework that I use and more details about how I use it are provided below! I put the magnetic whiteboard on the back of our man-door to our garage so that I can give our dinner plan one last look as I leave. It’s nice to double-check in case I’ve failed to thaw the chicken!
To make your own magical meal planning whiteboard, you’ll need a medium-size dry-erase board, a magic marker, and small, flat, blank magnets. When the board is vertical, make horizontal lines (using the magic marker) across the board so that you have 7 even-ish sections and label them with each day of the week. (I’ve included the above photo of my board, for your reference. It’s a little embarrassing, but you may as well know my dirty secret right now. I am not crafty. The only crafts you’ll find on this blog are for children… And if I craft with my kids, you won’t know who’s is who’s.)
If you ever have trouble removing dry-erase marker that has either been on the board or the magnets too long, rubbing alcohol takes it right off.
Don’t have the time or materials to create whiteboard right now? This Meal Planning Template works in the meantime!
3. Grocery shopping day
Choose a day of the week that is the easiest for grocery shopping and try to be consistent. (I recommend doing it one day before the day that works best for any meal preparation you may
Don’t plan meals, build your grocery list, and go grocery shopping all in the same day. Break up these tasks so that it’s not overwhelming to do it all at once. I plan meals and create my grocery list on Thursdays, do grocery shopping on Fridays, and Saturdays I do any meal prep for the week. I don’t do a ton of prep, but I like to cut up fruits and vegetables so that they’re a handy snack. (If you hate grocery shopping with kids, you can make it fun.)
4. Review your upcoming week
Take a look at your calendar and use a dry-erase marker to note on the whiteboard which days that you’ll need a super quick meal, won’t be
5. Family favorites
Write (or use a label maker) your family’s favorite meals on the flat magnets. I also have generic magnets labeled “leftovers”, “on our own”, and “takeout”. I plug in several of our favorite meals based on the criteria notes that I’ve made on the whiteboard. When I want to try a new recipe, I write it directly on the whiteboard, as it must be loved to earn a place on a magnet. The magnets make adjustments to the plan throughout the week easier. Hubbs had to work late unexpectedly? No problem, we’ll do leftovers tonight, and I’ll make his favorite meal tomorrow instead. I simply swap the magnets. (I originally color-coded the magnets by the main ingredient, but that has since been jumbled. I’m about practical, not necessarily pretty!) I also keep a frozen lasagna in the freezer as an easy Plan B option, should the need arise.
6. Plan leftovers
After you’ve made a recipe once you have an idea of how much it makes. If it’s a meal your family really likes and the recipe doesn’t make enough for leftovers, DOUBLE the recipe so that you get at least 2 meals out of it. (I’m not a very good cook and I don’t enjoy cooking. I understand the many benefits of a home-cooked meal, so I do it out of necessity. However, I definitely appreciate the days when I don’t have to do it!) We typically have leftovers once or twice each week.
Depending on the type of meal, you may even be able to freeze the leftovers for a frozen meal another week. Another thing to keep in mind is that you can do partial-leftovers. Perhaps you got a rotisserie chicken and you can shred some for quesadillas one night, and use the rest in a soup the following day, making the soup easier and faster to make!
7. Master recipe book
This meal planning tip was a game-changer for me, and I can’t believe I didn’t think of it sooner! Create a master recipe book that is ONLY meals that you have actually made and want to make again. (Bookmark and print recipes that you want to try in the future, but keep them in another place.) I use a simple 3-ring binder with dividers for each type of meat, chicken, beef, pork, vegetarian, soups, and desserts. There’s a section for meal prepping recipes, like steaming sweet potatoes and hard-boiled eggs in my instant pot.
I consolidate recipes that I requested from my mom, printed from Pinterest, and photocopied from recipe books. I put all of them in my master recipe book. When ALL of my recipes are in ONE place, I’m not trying to remember where the recipe came from. Thanks to mom brain, I’d never find it. (If you’re into making things pretty you could re-type all of the recipes for a consistent format. That’s SO not important to me, so I haven’t done it. Again, I’m not crafty.) I also put each recipe in a plastic sheetcover to protect them from my messy “cooking style”.
8. New recipes
As a general rule, incorporate no more than ONE new recipe in a week. Doing something new for the first time is hard; don’t make your week harder than it has to be. It’s nice to incorporate some variety by trying new recipes but pace yourself. There are millions of amazing recipes on Pinterest, but I can easily get lost down the rabbit hole for far too long. If I’m looking for something specific, I’ll search it on Pinterest. Otherwise, I have a few tried and true recipe books and blogs (Skinnytaste is awesome) that I look through.
Also, make sure to keep in mind the ingredients that you regularly use in other recipes. It may sound fun to try that new Thai dish, but if it requires 5 specialty ingredients that you don’t use in anything else, they may be difficult to find, expensive, and take up space in your pantry, so it’s probably not worth the hassle. (If Thai is your favorite and you love cooking, maybe it IS worth it for you, but I’m all about finding the easiest way to get dinner on the table.) I love simple and it doesn’t get any easier than 3 ingredients in a crockpot; check out this site!
9. Limit sides
I feel like it’s unnecessarily overwhelming to attempt to plan a side or two in addition to the main meal. Instead, we generally select a main meal that is already balanced (carbs, protein, fat) without sides. Sides often create too much food, as well. If the main meal isn’t as balanced as we’d like, we microwave frozen veggies that we keep on hand. They are easy, tasty, cheap, don’t go bad, and ensure we get our veggies. As previously mentioned, we shoot for a balanced overall DAY of food. If we had salads for lunch, I’m okay with just pizza for dinner that may or may not include a few shreds of vegetables.
10. Review recipes for the grocery list
Once I have a plan for which meals fit best on which day, I review each recipe and ingredients that I don’t already have. I often THINK I can remember all of the ingredients in a recipe off the top of my head, BUT I’m frequently (okay, almost always) WRONG. If I want to make sure I don’t forget the Parmesan that makes all the difference between a “meh” meal and a loved meal (aka kiddos begrudgingly choking down one required bite or happily enjoying a whole bowl), I review the recipes.
An accurate grocery list is one of the key meal planning tips because you’ll only need to make one trip to the grocery store, which will save you LOADS of money on your grocery bill!
If meal planning isn’t new and you incorporate this new system easily, after a few weeks, try including a meal of Shelf Cooking! This term refers to planning meals with ingredients that come mostly from the pantry or freezer shelves and requires no or minimal ingredients from the grocery store. This idea was coined by one of my favorite bloggers, Jordan Page. She does shelf cooking for an entire month every year, but I haven’t been able to get Hubbs on board for that. A fair compromise has been fitting in at least one “shelf cooking meal” each week. I’ve found that Allrecipes.com is a tremendous help for finding recipes that use ingredients you already have on hand. It’s an excellent way to turnover stock and use up the odds and ends that you don’t typically cook with.
11. Record meals
I make a note in my electronic Google calendar of what we ACTUALLY ate each night for future reference. If a month went exceptionally smoothly, or I noticed a pattern like Hubbs worked late a lot on Thursdays and getting take-out worked well, I’ll plan for that in the future. Sometimes when I’m brainstorming meal ideas, I’ll look back through my calendar to see if there were any meals that he loved that maybe we got temporarily burned out on and they dropped out of the rotation.
12. Reminders in your calendar
If you need to thaw meat, make a reminder to take the meat out of the freezer the night before. If you need to start the crockpot, make a note in your schedule that you’ll need to start the crockpot at noon. I put an alarm on my phone to remind me to start the crockpot or rice-cooker. Otherwise, I’ll continuously worry about forgetting and/or forget. I do label the alarm just in case it’s such a crazy day that I can’t remember why I set the alarm. (Nothing is more maddening than an alarm going off because I’m supposed to do something important and I have NO IDEA what it is!)
While I do meal planning on Thursdays and outline the entire week, each evening I review the plan for the following day. If I can see that a conflict has come up, it’s easy to make adjustments. If a friend invited us over for a playdate at noon, I won’t be able to start the crockpot at noon. I’ll swap that dinner with what I planned for another night. That way I already have all of the ingredients on hand and I’m not trying to think of a new meal idea!
Meal planning CAN be easy with these incredible meal planning tips!
After a few tries, you’ll build the habit and family dinner will be easy-peasy. Create a whiteboard, magnets with family favorites, and master recipe book and you have the tools you need for easy meal planning. Consider your calendar, the weather, and cooking times when selecting meals, and be sure to include at least one night of leftovers! Build your grocery list from recipes, and you’ll have everything you need when you need it.
The only things left to do are a little cooking and enjoying time with your family. By adapting this method for your family, you can enjoy the many benefits of a less stressful week and more nutritious family meals together!
Don’t have the time or materials to create your meal planning whiteboard, yet? No worries! Snag this Meal Planning Template that works almost as well!