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
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
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
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
When it comes to paying for a meal planning service, there are two general categories:
- Meal plans that come pre-made, everything laid out for you
- 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
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
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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!
PrepEar Connected Cooking App (previously Super Healthy Kids Meal Plans)
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?
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.