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Find a Meal Plan Method That Works for YOU (and Why Thematic Planning Saved Our Dinner)

From weekly food prep to once a month cooking, here are meal plan methods to try to see what meal planning strategy works best for you and  your family. 
How To Choose A meal planning method 2

 Even if you’re not doing a tricky diet like a Whole30 or going camping while gluten-free, we all KNOW in our heads that meal planning is super important. The journey from the head to the table can be a long, lonely road though.

While it’s not as ugly as “taxes” and “homework-over-Christmas-break,” the notion of meal planning still manages to strike fear (and perhaps head-bashing frustration) into the bravest of hearts.

I’ve tried several different styles of menu-planning, ranging from flexible to high intensity. Some have been successful and some have been dismal failures. This is how I learned to stick with meal planning long term.

I know some of you might be thinking: WAIT! I’m struggling just to figure out what’s for dinner tonight … you mean there are different WAYS to plan to eat?? Yup. Depending on your personality and life stage, what works for one person may not work for you.

And you may find that you have to switch meal-planning styles on occasion.

This post is sponsored by Plan to Eat, where the importance of meal planning to eat better food is the foundation of everything they do.

6 Meal Planning Styles & What Finally Worked for Me

After years a long time of experimenting with different menu plan systems, I finally settled on the one that worked best for us. In the process, I learned this secret about myself: despite my love of planning and organizing, deep down I love being spur-of-the-moment and random with food

Being random and spontaneous with food is great … until it’s 5:30 on a Tuesday night and your kids are begging for dinner. Ahem.

1. Fly by the Seat of Your Pants

A pepperoni pizza

In some circles, this may be better known as UNplanning. I simply cook whatever I am in the mood for or whatever we happen to have on hand. The ruling question: What sounds good right now?

While I appreciated the freedom and spontaneity of this plan, I quickly became an emotional slave to the daunting task of food prep for my family. We eat three times a day, but you would think it was an emergency the way I clattered around the kitchen in a panic.

It helped save some dinners when I learned to make slow cooker recipes in the Instant Pot, but there were still issues.

We defaulted to the same quick-prep-foods repeatedly – and I failed to take advantage of simple time savers. Which meant we regularly ended up with the same meals over and over, weird food combinations, take out, and a highly stressed mama.

Not to mention a blown budget. No, this family definitely functions best with a plan.

For those of you who can magically open your fridge at 4:30 and have the family happily eating at 5pm without any pre-thought … I salute you.

2. Meal Planning by Grocery Sale

Produce section at a grocery store

Before we started buying our cows and chickens in bulk from local farmers, I would cozy up with the newspaper and hunt out the best prices in meats and veggies. This method no longer fits with our lifestyle, but I mention it because it can be of great benefit for those on a super-tight budget.

If you make it to the grocery and see that ground beef is on super markdown (and you’ve planned chicken, pork, and beef roast dishes), it makes sense to reorient your plan. The same works for Farmer’s Markets and learning what is in season and plentiful as you shop – buy what you like, making sure to get an appropriate amount that you know your family can eat before it goes bad (or learn to freeze produce for later).

Be careful, though. It’s easy to slip back into meal plan method #1!

If you menu plan AFTER you grocery shop, be sure to actually MAKE the plan so you don’t waste your great deals. Whether you write it with a pen and paper, have a spreadsheet in your computer, or use a handy system like Plan to Eat to automate and help you find meals for whatever’s on sale, just make sure you DO it.

3. Once a Month Cooking

freezer meal 2

We had great success with this, particularly using recipes from the books Don’t Panic Dinner’s In The Freezer and its sequel (both found on Amazon). Knocking out 4 weeks worth of meals in one day? Yes, please. Of course, that means you also have to plan to USE them. See meal plan method #1. Cough.

I love the time-saving nature of freezer meals. Unfortunately, if I’m not careful, I can make it to the end of the month with a beautiful stash of frozen food that I never touched because I forgot to pull it out of the freezer the night before. If you find yourself hoarding your food because you are waiting for the “perfect” moment to use them, this plan may need some tweaking.

4. Pre-planned Meal Services or Software

Try Plan to Eat free for 30 days!

When it comes to paying for a meal planning service, there are two general categories:

  1. Meal plans that come pre-made, everything laid out for you
  2. Meal planning frameworks/software that allows you to choose your own recipes but does legwork for you

There are some really great menu planning services that will email you a week’s worth of recipes and even a shopping list. However, I struggled to find meals that my family liked on said lists. I wanted to have a little more control over what we ate, but I felt guilty if I deviated from the plan that I paid for.

That’s one reason that even though I resisted trying Plan to Eat’s 30-day free trial for years, it turned out to be a great fit since I could use my own recipes and plan my own days. With Plan to Eat, it takes just seconds to upload recipes from the web into my recipe box, and I can drag and drop them onto a calendar, moving them around to fit MY schedule.

Plan to Eat generates the shopping list for me, keeps track of recipes I love, and helps me find new recipes for that elusive bit of rutabaga that simply must be used ASAP. It can even keep track of my pantry, which might not be as organized for efficient meal planning as Becca’s. 😉

RELATED: My Honest Sunbasket Meal Kit Review

A New Twist on Batch Cooking

Have you tried batch cooking? It’s one of my favorite kitchen hacks to save time while cooking real food, but my take may be slightly different than the ones you’ve seen before.

Instead of making large batches of food and saving them for later, I batch together kitchen tasks and link one night’s dinner to the next. Think of it as getting a head start on your next meal. The net result is time savings AND fresh dinners every night.

The current trend in meal prep seems to be focused on taking several hours on a weekend day to chop and prep veggies, cook meats, and then assemble the leftovers into a multitude of containers.

This is great if it works for you, but my family gets sick of eating leftovers all the time and I get tired of keeping track of all the containers in the fridge! Plus, spending 3-4 hours in the kitchen on a Saturday or Sunday afternoon is usually the last thing I want to do.

My Real Food Head Start 7 Day Dinner Plan provides a framework for incorporating my technique each day to save time on future meals and even start stocking your freezer if you want, while still making and serving a fresh dinner. The best part is, you use the time you are already in the kitchen – no extra prep day needed!

5. Weekly Planning

Macaroni and Cheese in a blue container

This plan works pretty well for us. Some people succeed with planning food for the whole month, but I’ve never been good at that. Life happens – like we go out of town unexpectedly, my in-laws invite us over, etc – and suddenly I’ve wasted a lot of time trying to plot out my entire month.

Instead, we plan on a weekly basis. Towards the end of the week I sit down with my calendar and brainstorm meals that fit our family calendar.

If I know that we need a quick meal Thursday night, I can aim for a one pot meal – not a three course affair or something requiring a lot of clean up. I can schedule meals the kids can help with, like the Instant Pot mac and cheese (above), on nights when they’ll be around.

This also allows me to use what we find at the local farmer’s markets or on sale at the grocery store where the availability of produce can change.

I’ve found a weekly rhythm to be the most effective for elimination diet meal plans.

6. Thematic Planning

Italian Wedding meatball zucchini and greens soup

I think THIS plan has been the most successful with us. It allows for me to be spontaneous and yet responsible. Win-win! Each night of the week has a broad theme.

In my opinion, thematic planning rocks. It makes sure we use up the meat we’ve bought in bulk, it guarantees variety, and it helps us intentionally plan FUN food, like pizza and pancakes. And when I’m feeling adventurous, I can easily change it up. Don’t feel like Beef Stroganoff tonight? Let’s change it to Beef Taco Salad instead! Booyah!

This past winter, our themes looked like this:

  •      Sunday – breakfast for dinner
  •      Monday – soup (leftovers provided fast, warm lunches for us all week) Quick Italian Wedding Meatball Zucchini with Greens pictured above
  •      Tuesday – chicken
  •      Wednesday – meatless (fried rice, beans/rice, grilled cheese, egg dishes, etc.)
  •      Thursday – beef
  •      Friday – homemade pizza
  •      Saturday – leftovers

If you are an ultra-creative person, you can come up with fun theme titles like Meatless Monday, Taco Tuesday, Wacky Wednesday (new food to try), Thankful Thursday (leftovers), Fun Friday (pizza, pancakes, homemade chicken nuggets), and … well, you get the idea.

Homemade hamburger helper in a white bowl with a wooden spoon

We’re in a season of new rhythms, so I’m currently working on our new themes:

  •     Monday – Slow Cooker Meal
  •     Tuesday – Freezer Meal / Chicken
  •     Wednesday – Pasta Night (spaghetti, hamburger helper, above, alfredo)
  •     Thursday – Beef
  •     Friday – meatless/pizza
  •     Saturday – leftovers

As I said, I’ve shied away from Plan to Eat because I’m really good at meal planning already. The trick is … I’m not always great at making sure that I take the time to MAKE the plan. My jaw dropped when I saw that PTE can function like an organized Pinterest board. There’s even a PTE button that can be uploaded onto my web browser to make it easy to import a great recipe that I spot on the web! My thematic planning works perfectly with PTE’s features — and I can move meals around in a snap when I change my mind.

How to choose a meal planning method

A Piece of Advice Before You Menu Plan

For those of you who haven’t ever meal planned before, please don’t read this post and think I am some sort of Perfect Kitchen Goddess who has achieved Meal Planning Nirvana. I experimented with each of these methods out of desperation until I finally found one that worked long term (thematic meal planning). So you think I’d stick with it, right? *cough*

You can ask my husband how many times I actually cooked dinner this last month.

On second thought, please don’t.

I know, I know. Why should you take meal planning advice from someone who has failed at cooking for her family lately? Because I want you to learn from my mistakes.

I found my groove of what worked for my family. But it only works if I actually DO the work of planning. When I fail to plan, we quickly slip back into the insanity of high-stress and repetitive meals. I know I need to plan. I know how to plan. The trick is following through.

Why I Was Surprised by Plan To Eat!

You may find hope in PlanToEat.com. This is a paid service with tons of bells and whistles that make menu planning easier — and fun! If you’ve been on the fence about paying for a service that you can do for free on paper, let me encourage you with what I found: I’m a frugal person. If I pay for something, I’m going to use it. A subscription service helps keep me accountable. Therefore, I’m more inclined to menu plan.

Therefore, my family eats dinner. Bam.

(My personal favorite feature on Plan To Eat? You can benefit from your past work and even repeat meal plans, including labels for theme nights that you write in the notes section! For this handy tip, click here.)

6 Different Meal Plan Methods & Why Thematic Planning Saved Dinner

So, in a nutshell … we do Thematic Planning on a Weekly basis so I can better utilize Once A Month Cooking so I can Fly By The Seat of My Pants.

What’s your meal planning style? Tell us in the comments below!

Meal Planning Resources

Here are the meal planning services (in no particular order) that I endorse for you to pick based on you and your family’s needs!

30 Minute Dinners from Don’t Waste the Crumbs

Cooksmarts (great community of people to learn from)

Real Plans (organizer to add your OWN recipes and replicate plans)

PrepDish (prep ahead, easy meals all week)

Kitchen & Meal Planning Binder by Nourishing Joy

Customizable Low Fodmap Meal Plans

Health Home and Happiness Grain-Free Meal Plans for GAPS Diet

Try out their freebies (some even have tree trials) to see what fits your personality and preferences! 

Some images from GraphicStock; used with permission. 

Need More Baby Steps?

Monday Missions Baby Steps Back to Basics

Here at Kitchen Stewardship, we’ve always been all about the baby steps. But if you’re just starting your real food and natural living journey, sifting through all that we’ve shared here over the years can be totally overwhelming.

That’s why we took the best 10 rookie “Monday Missions” that used to post once a week and got them all spruced up to send to your inbox – once a week on Mondays, so you can learn to be a kitchen steward one baby step at a time, in a doable sequence.

Sign up to get weekly challenges and teaching on key topics like meal planning, homemade foods that save the budget (and don’t take too much time), what to cut out of your pantry, and more.

Unless otherwise credited, photos are owned by the author or used with a license from Canva or Deposit Photos.

23 thoughts on “Find a Meal Plan Method That Works for YOU (and Why Thematic Planning Saved Our Dinner)”

  1. Rebecca Grabill

    I was once a meal planning superstar. Then we had our kitchen remodeled and I didn’t cook. For a month. It took six months to get used to cooking again. I got back in the swing just barely when I started getting sick. And had to go gluten free. Time to re-learn how to cook, people! I did, sort of, but one of my sons was diagnosed with food allergies. More restrictions. Not gluten, no dairy, no egg, no poultry in any form… on and on. ARGH. Anyway, that was just complaining; what I *meant* to say was that Theme planning has been very helpful, as well as the Three Things philosophy: a protein, a “grain” and a veg.

    That said, I find the app Paprika seems to do what PTE does but without the monthly fee. Recipe keep, meal plan, menu schedule, generate a grocery list… Pretty snazzy.

  2. I’ve come to realize that I HATE meal planning! No one in my house is ever in the mood for the same thing at the same time nor do we all eat at the same time every night either. I have to have some meals that I can make ahead to leave for my husband while my daughter and I are doing our martial arts classes, days when I (or others!) am just not in the mood for what is planned, or things come up and I am unable to cook the meal as planned. I was thinking of going to the store each day (just for dinner) so that we would all be in the mood for the same thing. I just know that ANY kind of sitting down and meal planning is just a total drag!

  3. Though the point about paying to hold yourself accountable makes sense, if anyone is looking for a free option, I’d recommend spoonacular: https://spoonacular.com/weekly-meal-planner It has nutritional information too 🙂

  4. I generally plan out the number of meals I need for a week and then we decide what we want the day before. Sometimes we will plan each day but it’s easier to just have X amount of meals for the days.

  5. My way looks mostly like “Weekly Planning.” I seriously sit down the day before grocery shopping and plan out the week. However I leave some flexibility. Usually the last day before shopping is a pantry or freezer type dinner. That way, if I have more leftovers than planned, or we don’t eat one meal, I can just move things over by a day. Also, sometimes I move the days around. Maybe I had chicken planned for tonight and I’m just not feeling it – then I’ll just swap it with another night.

  6. Catherine @ Making Meal Time

    I too, used to be a fly by the seat of my pants planner but it just got too stressful. I recently posted my five steps to stress free meal planning.

  7. I used to be an avid OAMC planner. Then I got busier and that fell by the wayside. Plan To Eat saved me! I plan better. I make more meals on my “wish list” and I save $$$$$. I adore that it makes my grocery list for me as I plan and I ALWAYS have my list with me. Seriously awesome.

  8. 3 methods that have worked for me: based on sales, I’d pick 8-9 recipes, maybe 5-6 dinners, 1-2 lunch dishes, 1-2 baked goods. I’d make no plan of what to cook when as I liked the spontaneity of deciding at the time.

    Once I became disabled, I needed not only to plan ahead, but to cook ahead, as I never knew when I’d be unable to cook. If I had energy today, I might cook 3 dinners today. I used monthly plans, changed seasonally, so the planning only had to happen 4 times a year.

    I’m not buying seasonally so much since I had a huge garden. I need to plan to use the zucchini in the freezer, the canned salsa and the unending eggs from the flock. So the current plan is for two months and designed to be year-round and use up stuff we produce. The plans are based on a big cooking on Wednesday, with a large dish like a roast chicken or pot roast plus whatever baking is planned for the week and another couple dishes. I do a couple dinners on Friday night so I’m free over the weekend, usually a soup and a one-dish meal. There’s a night or two with fast dishes like eggs or pasta, but mostly it’s just chores like soaking beans or thawing stuff – the heavy cooking is done on Wednesday and a couple dishes on Friday and that’s enough. So I’ve managed to be frugal with both money and my energy with this plan.

    Freeing up most of my evenings has been handy lately as while the fatigue hasn’t been bad, there’s been a lot of harvest to put up.

  9. I’ve gone through several variations of meal planning, especially as our family has grown. When it was just me and my husband, pretty much any meal I made fed us for two days at least, so planning two week’s worth of dinners was a snap and we would just pick whatever sounded good.

    Now that I’m expecting our fourth, and the three out of utero kids love to eat, I’ve progressed to planning all three meals for two weeks at a time. I have about three dinners that make every single meal plan, and several that we have once a month, so then I just fill in from there with what’s on sale, in the freezer, or sounds good and is reasonably inexpensive. Breakfasts and lunches are usually the same for each meal plan – we have a rotation of things we like, and we get variety through dinner and through switching the order around.

    I keep themes in mind for planning, but not on specific days. I’ll try to include Mexican, Asian, soup, and breakfast for dinner categories each week, and then whatever else I fill in.

  10. Karin Alvarado

    I absolutely LOVE Plan to Eat, and I don’t really plan! I’m still learning. I always buy just after Thanksgiving when they offer their half price membership. Anytime I see a recipe online, I can just click the PTE button on my toolbar and upload it to my Plant to Eat account. Then all those wonderful dishes I knew I saw once on the internet are all in my account. I can plan them for a certain day, put them in the queue for when I’m ready or just leave them in the recipe list. When you have meals you want to plan you can print a shopping list for those meals, week, days, month. It even combines ingredients! I can’t say enough good things about this software. It’s AWESOME!

    1. Bethany - contributing writer for KS

      Karin – I love that toolbar feature, too. You don’t realize what a blessing it is until you try it out!

  11. Jen @ Eating My Vegetables

    I find it most helpful to just jot down my meats/protein for the month. Since that is budgeted, I generally already know how much I have for the whole month, even if the veggies change week to week. Then after shopping I toss in where they might go, and then from their i semi make it up as I go along. We’re grain free though, which is easier, as the only things that need multi-day planning are if I sprout seeds or lentils or something.

    I also find it helpful to cook components of meals sporadically. So I’ll prep some veggies one day, and debone chicken, but then actually use them a different day. It’s the saucea nd flavor blends that change all the time.

  12. I typically plan my meals around the sales. I shoot for 4 full dinners a week. The other nights give me wiggle room to use up leftovers or be social (i.e. church activity). I sit down on Sunday afternoon & plan the dinners, but rarely do I actually follow the plan to the letter. At some point the meals get cooked, but I like keeping it flexible while still having a plan. Every so often I plan a “raid the pantry/fridge night.”

  13. my meal planning consists of opening the fridge, freezer, and pantry about once a week, writitng down the main stuff in there (not necessarily condiments or the like). I put a star by stuff that needs to be used NOW like fresh spinach. Then I sit down and plan about 4 days. Right now it is just me and hubby and he is quite good about eating what is put in front of him (thankful for this!)
    I also do the “theme-approach” but tie it to nationality. Asian, tex mex, italian, southern, etc. I don’t pick a day to do Asian, like Tuesday, I just keep those themes in mind when thinking of ways to use it up.
    This week I have
    Italian: leftover chicken tossed with fresh spinach ( i Have a lot to use!), sauteed mushrooms in a cream sauce over “something” roasted potatoes, rice, etc. plus roasted aparagus.
    Asian: Thai red curry chix (coconut milk, red curry paste, Tbs brown sugar, 1 Tbs almond butter) with veggies (sweet potato cubes, onion, cauliflower, SPINACH, and cilantro. Over rice noodles.
    Tex Mex: Mix leftover: shredded pork, pinto beans, refried beans, cooked cubed potatoes, cheese and enchilada sauce-bake. SPINACH, cuke, onion salad.
    Southern/American: roasted chix thighs, roasted slices of sweet potatoes n beets; kept separate, tossed w/evoo n S n P. coleslaw w/vinegarette
    and so on.
    I like this post and hope other share their meals.

    1. Bethany - contributing writer for KS

      Alexandra – that’s a GREAT idea to put a star on your list/menu by items that need to be used up quickly (or used up a lot).

  14. Oh, and another method not really listed here is “Repeat Planning.” Tsh Oxenrider has talked about that method in the past, where she plans out two weeks of dinners in one sitting and then just repeats the same menu for the second half of a month. Wouldn’t work for me (I like the freedom to choose new stuff every week), but for someone who dreads meal planning, that’s a great way to get it done. (Or, you could plan week 1, cook it, plan week 2, cook it and then just save your two plans and repeat.)

    1. That’s definitely a good one, Alissa – I like what I call “connected meal planning” too, where I’ll plan a few meals that spill into each other, like broth and chicken noodle soup one night and then white chicken chili two nights later (using the broth and chicken) or grilled chicken and potatoes one night and a chicken casserole using leftover grilled chicken the next, stuff like that. 🙂 Katie

  15. We had a funny baby step that got us into meal planning. It started as a budget saver when we realized that we were tossing a lot of foods that we only used half a package of in our meals. We declared: “only one specialty cheese per week!” That forced me to think about grouping meals together. If I’m buying feta, then we’re having greek pasta salad and mediterranian green bean salad as dinners.
    That method also lead to “bacon week” which includes pasta carbonera, BLTs, and our favorite chopped salad that requires bacon crumbles.
    Now that I’m much better about using my freezer and my kids eat more food, we don’t really need to plan meals around using specific ingredients, but it was a great way to transition into some sort of planning.

    Another planning baby step for us was to just identify 3 meals for the week. Not worry at first about WHEN we’re going to cook them. I would just plan for 3 dinners, write them on a post-it note and still get to be a bit spontaneous in chosing which meal on which day… and pulling out a frozen pizza on Fridays!

    Now, we as my kids are in school events, we are very theme driven. Monday = Garden/Farmers Market finds; Tuesdays = Freezer meal, Wednesday = rice/beans, Thursday = quick and easy, Friday = Grill or Pizza

    1. This is similar to what we do. We plan 2 – 3 meals that have fresh ingredients and then a list of 6 or 7 that are made from pantry/freezer staples on hand. The 2 – 3 “fresh meals” are usually off of a theme or ingredient that we purchased or made special for that (pinto beans and cornbread leads to pork chops with cornbread stuffing or a baked brie and then brie stuffed burgers. Cook once, eat twice makes our lives easier.
      The rest of the week is random, but from a “plan”

  16. I am a combination of monthly planning, fly by the seat of my pant, thematic planning, and detailed planning. haha
    I plan it all out but then I have my own method for following it.
    You can check out what I do at this link. It’s the last in a series but the entire series is listed at the end.
    http://prairie-living.blogspot.ca/2013/09/shopping-and-prepping.html

  17. Dawn @ Reveal Natural Health

    I struggle with meal planning. I am a semi-thematic planner but mostly a fly by the seat of my pants. I almost always do homemade pizza on Fridays, so it is a relief to not have to think about what to do for dinner that night. We also do a taco type dish during the week but it is not reserved to a specific day. Tacos are my go-to meal when I need a quick idea because they are pretty quick to make since I stock up on homemade refried beans in my freezer. The remaining nights are usually pretty random and not well planned in advance.

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