Menu Planning That Actually WORKS!

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We all know that menu planning is better for your health, saves you money, and cuts down on waste. Plus, cooking at home can be a fun use of creativity. I love the idea of menu planning, but it took me forever to make it work. I tried once a month planning, but how do you plan dinner four weeks from now when you don’t know what you’ll be doing? I tried it for a few months, but by the end of the month, it was completely illegible, covered in arrows, cross-outs, and new meals written tiny and sideways. It took five minutes just to read it! So I tried once a week planning, but that was so much work. I’d spend an hour a week making the perfect plan and still have to change it mid-week (because life happens). After a few weeks of this, I threw in the towel (um, post-it?) and switched to winging it. That worked brilliantly. Not. After a week or two of take out and mac & cheese, I figured out that this wouldn’t work.

So, I figured out a hybrid system that would let me plan quickly and efficiently. Does that sound good? Here are 9 easy steps to creating a flexible menu plan that works for YOU. Start with planning dinners; you can plan breakfast, lunch, and snacks later. Download the printable Meal Planning Guide by putting your email below to guide you through the process.

Make the Base Menu Plan

Step 1: Make a list of meals your family loves. Be sure to get the input of adults and kids old enough to talk. I talked to my family and made sure to include mac n’ cheese & chicken nuggets (Man Cub’s favorite). Make sure you get a good-sized list, at least 20-40 ideas. Add any ideas you can think of. Don’t worry if you don’t have a full meal for each idea. You can add sides to round them out later.

Step 2: Alter or veto meals for allergies and other health concerns. Do you have allergies in the family? See if you can alter the recipe by swapping out one ingredient for another. Did you just go vegetarian? See if there is a vegetable-based version of your family’s favorite foods. (My awesome vegan friend Brittany recommends Minimalist Baker &  Oh She Glows for vegan recipes.) Trying to eat healthier? Try swapping out white rice for brown or white bread for 100% whole wheat. You can do it gradually if that helps (i.e. 75% white rice with 25% brown for a few weeks, then 50/50, then 25/75 before switching to all brown rice).

Step 3: Categorize. This will help you to set up your week. We love Mexican food and quite a few of our recipes are Mexican (well, Mexican-ish), but eating Mexican all week can get boring. These get put in a category. I also have a category for freezer meals, meals that don’t keep, quick meals, and crockpot meals. You may create categories by preparation method (crockpot, freezer…) or type (Mexican, Italian…). At this stage you may also want to take note of meals that are expensive, time consuming, or seasonal. For example, I like to make a Southwest salad, but the romaine is bitter in the winter, so I make it only in the Spring/Summer. You can create a separate category for these or just add a star to remind yourself. You can also make a category for backup meals (for when you’re sick or the toddler spends all day peeing on the floor and you don’t have the energy to cook… Not that I’d know how that is…) and a category of special meals that take more time or money to make (you can save these for birthdays and other special occasions). Don’t go too crazy with the categories, though. You only need enough to organize your recipes. Four to six categories should be good.

Step 4: Plan a 4-6 Week Rotation. Use your categories to create a regular rotation of meals that you can reuse over and over again. Don’t stress too much over this. You won’t be locked into doing it exactly this way every month. You will want to rotate your categories & tentatively schedule the menu on specific days. For example, you may want to have a Mexican night, an Italian night, a comfort food night, etc… I like to put a crockpot meal on Sundays so I can set it going before church and have it ready even if we stay after church or do something in the afternoon. Be sure you include a few crockpot, freezer, or easy meals each week. If you like to regularly try new recipes, just write “New Recipe” wherever you’d like to try something new. We like to incorporate leftovers, so I put a leftover night every Thursday and make sure we have a big meal on Wednesdays.

Make Your Menu Plan for the Week

Step 1: Gather your supplies. Now it’s time to plan one week at a time, but it will only take a few minutes. You’ll need your categorized list, your calendar, and your weekly list. Oh, and a pen. Pens are useful.

Step 2: Write out your plan. Now look at your calendar. Are you eating out with friends one night? Write that down. Have a busy night? Be sure to put a crockpot or quick meal that day. Schedule your meals. You have a meal plan!

Step 3: Go shopping. Oh yeah, make sure you have all the ingredients to cook the meals you planned! Food is a key ingredient in meals. I go shopping once a month, but I double check to be sure I have all the ingredients for the weekly meals when I make my menu plan. Usually, except this week when I didn’t and sent hubby to the store after work. He had to go to a more expensive store than we usually do, so try to check your ingredients before you cook, m’kay?

Step 4: Get cooking! Now, the key to a good meal plan is to actually cook the meals you plan (go figure). Be sure to give yourself grace. If something comes up, just swap out something else. It’s okay. You own your plan, not the other way around. I cook once a week, so when I make my plan I put freezer meals at the end of the week and my most time consuming meal on Monday (my cooking day). If you want to cook once a week, just set aside several hours (my mother-in-law comes over to watch Man Cub), put on good music, and get to it! If you don’t have the time or desire to do all your cooking in one day, at least set aside some time to prep your ingredients once a week: shred cheese, cut veggies, cook & shred chicken… This will make it easier and faster to cook your meals every night.

Step 5: Edit your plan as needed. Try out your menu for 1-2 cycles and see how it goes. You’ll begin to notice a few things. Do you have a meal that is the first to go when you’re eating out? Maybe you don’t like to cook it and it should go on your special meals list instead of your regular rotation. Pay attention to your tendencies and how you feel. Remember, you own your plan, not the other way around. Once you know how your plan is working, edit as needed. You may need to move meals around a few times, add new favorites, and remove meals you don’t like. I have one week that is very cooking intensive, and another that is ridiculously easy. I can either trade some meals between the two lists or I can plan to have extra work (like making bran muffins or processing whole chickens [for shredded chicken and broth]) on the easy week.

And there you have it. I’ve been using this system for several weeks now and it works great! Meal Planning is finally simple, easy, and fun. Sign up for your printable (you’ll also have access to the whole printable library!

Get you Meal Planning Printable Here!

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How do you plan your meals? What works best for you? What is hardest? If you tried the meal plan, please let me know how it went in the comments below.

P.S. Want more meal help? Check out Mystie Winkler’s (Simplified Organization) 5-day Simplify Your Pantry e-Course April 17-21 or her Grocery Store Tips.

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2 thoughts on “Menu Planning That Actually WORKS!

  1. Amy

    Love this Jenn! I have always struggled with this trying to find different ways of doing menu planning with no succes! This may actually work for me ;)! I sure am looking forward to trying it! I love that it’s it all crockpot or freezer meals and you have the idea that you have a plan and you own your plan!

    1. Jenn Post author

      Thanks, Amy! Definitely give it a shot! The initial set up does take a while but my week is SO much more peaceful now. I don;t run around at 5 with a toddler on my leg making mac&cheese AGAIN because I have no idea what’s for dinner anymore. 🙂 Freezer meals save my sanity.


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