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The Ultimate Meal Planning Guide: How to get Real Food on the Table Every Night

This ultimate meal planning guide helps you make a weekly food menu with healthy, real food. Meal planning is an awesome tool to help you serve healthy food on a budget and not waste anything. Here’s how.

The Ultimate Guide to Menu Planing

How long do you spend in the kitchen each day meal planning, preparing food AND cleaning up after meals?

Thirty minutes per meal? An hour?

Some days I feel like breakfast alone takes almost two hours!

Check this out:

The average American only spends about half an hour a day on all kitchen tasks combined.

I am not average, my friends, and if you’re reading this blog, I’m guessing you are not either.

Only about 4 minutes of the 31 spent on food are designated for cleaning up, which leaves time for barely anything other than throwing away packaging and paper plates (or accounts for many days when nobody makes food at all?). After our family’s dinners, I’m pretty sure we spend more than 4 minutes just carrying things back to the kitchen to put away.

There are times at the end of the day that I walk into the kitchen to finish cleaning up – especially if we had to run somewhere after dinner – and I just want to curl up in the fetal position and hide.

Do you know the scene I mean? Perhaps you’ve seen it in your own kitchen:

The sink is full of dirty pots and a baking dish that will need to soak for about a week to get the black stuff off, the dishwasher is running, there are leftovers begging to be put away, bits of carrot ends on the cutting board, fruit that didn’t fit in the fruit bowl rolling around the counter, and you realize that lunches still need to be packed for the next day at school.

You know it would have been better to clean up as you cooked, but you were already behind and couldn’t serve dinner late because you had to go somewhere at 6:30. The stress of that dinner hour is still weighing on your shoulders as you gaze upon your kitchen and try to steel yourself for the cleanup hour.

And you know they’re all going to want to eat again tomorrow.

Meal Planning Excuses

Maybe It’s Just Too Hard

soccer games take a lot of time

Maybe real food isn’t possible in modern society, you think.

I don’t have all day to devote to preserving and cooking food like Laura Ingalls Wilder’s family. Times have changed!

And they have, it is true.

But we don’t have to forage, farm and hunt all our own food anymore – nor should we feel forced into a “one size fits all” mentality about food, convenience and making our diets fit our lifestyles.

We can find the intersection of our busy lifestyle and an old-fashioned way of eating – simple, whole foods.

I can’t take the minutes out of the meal – the food processing companies can, but they also take the nourishment out, and that’s a trade-off that I won’t accept. But I CAN help you take the stressful feeling out of the minutes.

I can pinpoint exactly what is different on those days when I feel harried, stressed, rushed and at wit’s end as I try to get dinner on the table, and the days when I feel put together, peaceful, still rushed (always), and yet successful at getting dinner on the table when it needs to be there.

The good days are those when I make a plan and stick to it.

But how do I stick to a meal plan long term? When I know exactly what I’ll serve for dinner and I’ve both determined when I need to get into the kitchen and done part of the work prior to the “power hour” right before dinner – it works.

The only way to achieve that is through meal planning.

I’ve fallen off and climbed back on the meal planning train more times than I can count in my adult life, but I keep coming back for more because I know it’s vital to my real food success (and to maintaining my last shreds of sanity at the end of the day).

Life without meal plans feels a little like the clown act at the circus where everyone is running around out of control and nothing can get done, except nobody is laughing at our house.

Meal Planning Guide with Ten Steps 

Whether you’re a meal planning rookie or an old hat, I’m sure you’ll find both inspiration and motivation in these top 10 ultimate tenets you must remember and make your own in order for meal planning to work:

  1. Meal Plan Like Michael
  2. Meals Aren’t Outside of Time
  3. It’s OK if you’re not June Cleaver
  4. The Hail Mary Pass
  5. When Backward Thinking Finally is a Good Thing
  6. The Daily Habits that will Change your Life
  7. Meal Planning has a Fashion Sense
  8. The Marriage to the Circular
  9. Know Thyself
  10. Don’t Sell out to Sell Shoes

Read on for the explanation of each vital step!

The Ultimate Guide to Menu Planing

Meal Planning Guide #1: Meal Plan Like Michael

Any of you remember Michael Jordan and the Nike commercials?

“Just do it.”

You don’t have to be a pro to know that if you don’t “just do it,” it’s not going to get done. So you have to make meal planning a priority in your life.

Schedule a time in your calendar and make sure it’s done before you play.

That’s what we tell our kids about homework, and we know we need to take our own advice on this one! Before I sit down to relax on a Sunday night (because my meal planning is a recurring calendar item at 8:15 p.m. Sundays), before I check Facebook, before I go to sleep – I need to know what we’re having at least through Thursday.

Meal Planning Guide #2: Meals Aren’t Outside of Time

instant Pot pulled beef bbq on a place with roasted potatoes, corn on the cob, and cherry tomatoes

Start with your calendar.

It’s going to backfire if you sketch out your meals and THEN put them into your family’s calendar, because meals happen within the family’s schedule. So you have to plan them that way.

Look at your week’s schedule.

  • What nights are busy nights?
  • On-the-go meal times?
  • What days do you have more time at home before dinnertime?

This should direct the types of meals you choose.

Meal Planning Guide #3: It’s OK if you’re not June Cleaver (or Julia Child. Or Rachael Ray.)

Plug in meals that work for your family.

Put slow cooker meals on days you need to walk in the door and eat.

Choose “on the go” meals for those times when it’s just going to be impossible for the family to sit down at the table together.

If you have a new recipe you want to try, plan it on a day when you’ll have a buffer on your time – your family doesn’t need to run off somewhere immediately after dinner and you are home for a while before dinner. For working families, this may be a weekend.

Plan larger or more complicated meals on those more “open” days too – and then determine if you might have leftovers for one of your busy days! I often plan leftovers for a day when my husband is away in the evening, because it’s easier for me and I don’t have to worry about there being quite as much food available.

For this school year in our family, for example, we’re having a slow cooker meal every Monday because we need to eat by 5p to get to church school by 6:00. We need a big meal to share every Tuesday because my in-laws visit. And I’m careful to watch for other busy nights (or busy days) that would require a slow cooker meal or Instant Pot meal.

Meal Planning Guide #4: The Hail Mary Pass

Hamburger Helper Remake

Take a pass over your meal plan to check on balance:

  • type of meals
  • meats used
  • other grains included (you don’t want pasta every night even if it IS your kids’ ultimate favorite)
  • $ value of meals (you can drastically cut food expenses by planning some inexpensive meals regularly)

It’s worth building a habit of taking two minutes to “check your work” so to speak and make a conscious effort to insert both nourishment and balance. The only way to really ensure that is to meal plan (hooray!).

Meal Planning Guide #5: When Backward Thinking Finally is a Good Thing

Once you’re happy with the meals you have planned for a week (or 3 days at a time, or a month – whatever works for you), now it’s time to think backward.

Look at the first meal on your menu and consider:

What do I need to do in advance to make this meal happen? What could I do in advance to make my life easier at the dinner hour?

Write those tasks on your calendar on the day before (remember in the last post when I told you to keep your meal plan integrated with your REAL calendar? That applies!). They might include:

  • thaw meat, broth, or veggies
  • bring bulk ingredients out from wherever they’re stored
  • soak grains
  • prep a portion of the meal (like boiling eggs or making mayo)
  • marinate meat
  • soak dry beans
Ultimate Meal Planning Guide for Real Food
BeansBookCover200outlineFind 30 bean recipes, tested and with tons of frugal tips and transformation options, plus 20 pages of information on cooking dry beans, the health benefits of beans, and ideas for bean haters in The Everything Beans Book – and it now comes with a BONUS 2-week meal plan using the recipes in the book (just added)! You better believe I tell you what to do in advance and take the thinking right out of it.

As long as you use your calendar and get a jump start the day before, you will not believe the difference it will make in your dinner prep stress level! Which brings me to…

Meal Planning Guide #6: The Daily Habits that will Change your Life

I don’t want you to start obsessing about food, but I do think it’s wise to check on the question, “What are we going to eat?” often throughout the day. If I’m not going to order out or use frozen pizza often, I need to be thinking ahead about pretty much every single meal.

At the very least, you should shoot for these habits:

  • Check your meal plan every night after dinner.
  • Check your meal plan every morning when you get up.
  • Know when you need to start cooking for that day.

It’s not like we generally forget to eat three times a day…we just need to remember to think about eating three times a day before it’s upon us.

Meal Planning Guide #7: Meal Planning has a Fashion Sense

Not really. But it can have style! StyleS, that is.

Bethany discusses six different meal planning styles. Pick one that works for you, and be sure to see if you like her favorite, thematic menu planning.

My favorite method of planning is something I call Connected Meal Planning, which means I try to connect parts of meals to each other to streamline things. For example, I’ll plan a roast chicken one night, beef stir fry the next (with extra rice), and then chicken, rice and green beans (from Better Than a Box) the third night, using leftover roast chicken and leftover cooked rice. It makes meal 3 a super fast prep!

I also use connected meal planning to avoid wasting ingredients, like if I buy a bag of spinach – I’ll make sure it appears in two or three meals that week. This gets a momentum going and I feel like “I can’t give up on my meal plan now, it’s already underway and the spinach is open/rice is cooked/whatever!” Then I keep cooking, even when I’m getting worn out.

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!

Meal Planning Guide #8: The Marriage to the Circular

grocery shop and meal plan together for success

You don’t have to be as organized as a wedding planner to be a meal planner, but you should stay connected to the grocery store ads in some way if budget is a concern for you (and with the exception of the very rich, I hope it is!).

  • You can meal plan after you shop the sales (using what you bought).
  • You can meal plan before you grocery shop (using the sales you know you’ll buy to guide you).
  • Either way, your meal plan and your grocery store ad or “circular” as we called it in my childhood, should live together. So they should be married. Winking smile

If you don’t shop much from the grocery store, there are plenty of other ways to keep budget in mind while you shop, so be sure to keep your supply in mind as you plan – do you need to eat seasonally, use your bulk stores, or plan a certain meat once a week because you bought a portion of a cow? You could apply this principle by being sure to refer to your freezer list or bulk pantry storage each time you meal plan as well.

I buy bulk foods, portions of cows and pigs and eat seasonally, but I also hit the regular grocery store – just not all that often.

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!

We Americans spend the least amount of time cooking out of 34 countries surveyed. The French actually spend about 30 minutes a day just shopping for their food!

I often say I wish our country would eat more like the French…but not this time. I don’t have those 30 minutes a day!

I’m all about grocery shopping once a week (or even less sometimes). So planning is key to making that a reality.

Meal Planning Guide #9: Know Thyself

Roasted Blue Potatoes from CSA 2015

Meal planning is about as individual as jeans, in my opinion.

You gotta try on quite a few, and you’ll KNOW when you get the one that’s just right for you, the one you’ll wear until they’re practically transparent in the behind. Winking smile

So know thyself:

  • What meals are going to work for you?
  • What’s in your pantry? You have to know your own house too…
  • What do you need to put on the shopping list?
  • How detailed do you need to be (sides, salad, etc. or just main dish?)
  • How often will you meal plan? Weekly, monthly, recurring rotating schedule? Whatever works for you.

One style I’ve never tried is “loose” menu planning, recommended by a reader. You choose 5-7 meals for the week and make sure you have all the ingredients on hand, and then decide what you’ll actually eat each day the night before or even the afternoon of, depending on how much prep your recipes take.

One implementation strategy that I return to in very busy times is to think out of the box and do some dinner prep at other times of day, depending on your schedule.

When I have new babies, for example, I can’t always count on that “power hour” to make dinner right before we eat. I had to learn to find other times of day to do some prep, including the night before, the middle of the morning with an older child helping, or just as kids are coming in from school, with the understanding that I’ll be stopping and starting a lot.

Everyone is different, everyone’s “normal” pantry stores are different, and family’s tastes are different. But there’s a way to make meal planning work for you to get real food on your table nearly every night of the week (unless you consciously decide not to).

Meal Planning Guide #10: Don’t Sell out to Sell Shoes

But do take Nike’s advice: Just Do It.

Have I mentioned that already? It’s really the first and most important step of all.

You can do this!

I can’t promise a magical Dishes Fairy to make all those piles disappear, but at least if your meal goes well and is on time, you’ve got a better chance of dealing with it all as you go.

Meal planning is as close to magic as I know for a real food lifestyle, and once you make a commitment to just do it, start with your calendar, take a few minutes to think through your week, get a habit to plan ahead, and find just the right style for you, you’ll find yourself walking on air – just like Mike.

If you’re really in a pinch and need some help, here’s my kid-friendly Sunbasket meal kit review.

Who’s going to improve their meal planning strategy this week? Commit publicly in the comments and just do it!
The Ultimate Guide to Menu Planing - get real food on the table every night!

The Best Meal Planning Guide Posts at KS Over the Years:

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.

3 thoughts on “The Ultimate Meal Planning Guide: How to get Real Food on the Table Every Night”

  1. I could have written your lead in to the tips word for word. That’s totally how I feel, how our counter could be described, etc! I totally find that weeks when I menu plan things go smoother but I do it very rarely. I really need to start doing it more. You have motivated me to try again. I do try to make double on nights when I have more time so I can freeze that meal for a future week.

  2. Wow — someone else who remembers June Cleaver!! and everyone probably knows who Julia Child is, but I did have to look up Rachael Ray 😉

  3. I have been meal planning for a couple of months now, and in the beginning I was very precise. What I have at last settled on is an exercise book where I jot down the meals I would like to cook on certain days, and maybe some other recipes i would like to try – for desserts maybe or something to make and freeze. I make a note on the side where I can find the recipe. On the right hand side I jot down the ingredients needed, excluding those already in my pantry or freezer. Sometimes I wing it when unexpected guests arrive, or we have to pull a frozen meal out of the freezer, and that is ok. The meal I have not made I schedule in for the following week as i should already have all the ingredients for it. The exercise book is very handy to carry around in the kitchen or while grocery shopping, and I can easily look back on previous weeks that have worked well.

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