Your mission, if you choose to accept it, is to recommit to meal planning as we enter the busy fall season and find a method that works for you.
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.
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.
What I Learned About Myself
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.
So here are the 6 Meal-Planning Styles we’ve tried:
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.
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. 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 write it down so you don’t waste your great deals.
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
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 better fit since I could use my own recipes and plan my own days.
However, this method is great if you are in a season of life where taking the time to plan is overwhelming and you just need outside help.
Give it a try with a FREE 2-week sample menu OR purchase a single month. Tiffany has also graciously offered an exclusive coupon for Kitchen Stewardship readers. Just enter the coupon code KS15 before checking out for 15% off the 3-month or annual packages if it turns out this meal plan IS beneficial to you!
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. 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.
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)
- 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, 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 PlanToEat.com? 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.
Disclosure: There are affiliate links in this post to Amazon from which I will earn some commission if you make a purchase. See my full disclosure statement here.