We’ve all been there: exhausted from a long day at the office, stressed out from a particularly difficult week at home with a baby, or run down from the emotional stress of life. At these times, the thought of walking into the kitchen without any real plan for dinner, without any of the necessary ingredients for an easy meal, and with a table full of picky eaters to feed is enough to induce panic in any parent – and send us running straight for the nearest drive-thru. But what if I told you that there IS a better way?
You don’t have to spend an hour in the kitchen each night; you don’t have to make multiple trips to the grocery store each week; and you can serve dinners that your family will actually enjoy – without much effort on your part! I promise — it’s not too good to be true, and it doesn’t require any additional time out of your already-chaotic schedule.
Over the past few months, I have had many readers ask me for more details about how I plan our family’s dinner each night. I’m here to report that it’s not hard, there’s no secret skill involved, and anyone out there can do the same thing.
But before I get into the nitty-gritty details, let me just say this for any of the skeptics out there: Planning a week of dinners at once is my NUMBER ONE tip to help families save time, save money, and eat a healthier, more balanced diet. Aren’t those reasons enough to convince you to give it a try?
Sure, it takes about 30 minutes each week to actually sit down and make a meal plan and grocery list, but you will easily recoup that time (and then some) by avoiding multiple trips to the store later on!
With that said, shall we dive right in? Here’s what to do:
- Schedule It on Your Calendar. I plan one day each week to do the grocery shopping for our dinners. Recently it’s been on Thursday mornings, since that’s when I have all 3 boys in school and can shop alone (what a luxury!). Figure out when you can carve out a chunk of time to buy your groceries, and schedule it on your calendar. Then you ALSO need to schedule the meal planning time on your calendar. I add “meal plan and grocery list” to my To-Do List on Wednesdays since I know that I’ll be shopping on Thursday morning.
- Use a Template or a Standard List. I use the same meal planning and grocery list templates each week because they help me stay organized and they save me time. My custom templates are included as PDF downloads in my eCookbook, but you can also find plenty of meal planner and grocery list templates on Pinterest if you prefer. Just make sure that the ones you choose will work for YOU.
- Grab Your Calendar. When you sit down with your blank meal plan, be sure to have your calendar available for the week ahead. Take a look at your family’s schedule. Will you be going out to dinner one night for someone’s birthday? Do you have soccer practice late one evening (giving you even less time to cook)? Write down any commitments from your calendar onto your actual meal plan. If you know that you will only have about 10 minutes to prepare dinner on any given night, then don’t add “Homemade Lasagna” (or some other time consuming recipe) to your Meal Plan for that day! I love scheduling slow cooker meals for the nights that I know we’ll be out of the house late.
- Write Down Your Meal Ideas (in Pencil). Once you have noted the family’s general schedule for the week ahead, it’s easier to take a look at each day and determine what to serve for dinner. Here are some tips to make this particular step even easier:
- Grab your favorite cookbook, open up Pinterest on your computer, or pull up your favorite recipe blog on your iPhone. Whatever source you use, be sure that you have recipe ideas readily accessible.
- Stick with at least one or two meals each week that you know the family will enjoy and that come together easily. For instance, we treat ourselves to carry-out pizza on Friday nights. The boys have come to expect it, and I look forward to a night off from the kitchen. I write “Pizza Night” on my meal plan each Friday so that I know it’s one dinner that I don’t even have to think about! Another routine might be quesadillas towards the end of the week because they’re a great way to use up leftover chicken, ground beef, seafood, veggies, or just about any other ingredients that you might toss in! They’re fast too, making them great for weeknight meals. Do your kids love spaghetti? Then go ahead and serve it every week! You can add variety by changing the protein that you serve alongside (meatballs, grilled fish, rotisserie chicken).
- Aim for a variety of meats throughout the week. For example, plan to serve seafood one or two nights, chicken a couple of nights, and maybe beef, turkey, pork, or vegetarian on the other evenings. This general goal helps give some structure to the meal planning process because you can look at your template and see what you might be missing. It’s like fitting together pieces in a puzzle.
- I try to prepare a variety of dishes so that nobody gets tired of the same thing. While Gibbs and Spencer love casseroles, I think that Keith and Casey would be very unhappy if they saw a casserole on the table 4 nights a week. Keith loves sandwiches, so I regularly add those to our menu (often using left-over meat that I have on hand). And finally, because I love the convenience of a slow cooker, there is usually at least one Crock Pot dinner on our list. Again, it’s like fitting together pieces in a puzzle, but it doesn’t always have to be perfect. Some weeks you might need to serve 3 slow cooker meals to save time (been there!), while other weeks you might not make any.
- Once I have determined the main dishes that I want to prepare, I also list side items for each meal. Usually it’s a fruit or vegetable side dish, along with a carbohydrate or starch (i.e., dinner rolls, rice, couscous, potatoes, etc.). I love the convenience of veggies that can be steamed in the microwave, so those are staples on my grocery list (along with bags of lettuce for salad). Quick and easy is always best when it comes to sides!
- Stay flexible. Inevitably, something will come up during the week that will change our schedule. Use a pencil to jot down your dinner ideas, and feel free to erase or rearrange them as necessary. When my menu is in pencil, last-minute changes don’t seem so tragic! You might also like to build in flexibility by scheduling a “leftovers” night on your meal plan – a great way to use up whatever is hanging out in the refrigerator, freezer, or pantry.
- Use Your Meal Plan to Write Your Grocery List for the Week. Once you have sketched in some dinner ideas, it’s much easier to put together a targeted grocery list that will help to get you in and out of the store quickly (and for less money)! I have set up my grocery list template based on the order that I shop in the store – making it even easier to remember each item on my list without having to backtrack a zillion times. If you use coupons when you shop, a meal plan and organized grocery list makes coordinating your coupons much easier too!
In my opinion, this simple investment of time can be truly life changing! With a weekly meal plan, you will avoid last-minute trips to the grocery store. And by avoiding extra trips to the store, you will avoid extra spending. But most importantly, you will bring your family together each night. As I have said before, I believe in the power of a simple homemade meal to calm the chaos and unite a family. I hope that you’ll give it a try.