For as long as I’ve been married, I’ve done some form of meal planning. For me, there was just no other way to handle groceries and dinners—which I suddenly became responsible for, once I was no longer living with my parents! I know there are people who like to wing it when it comes to what they’re going to eat each day. But for me, meal planning helps me save money, time, and energy, and it helps my family eat better.
For the past few years, I’ve been planning all of my family’s dinners for the week, on a weekly basis. We tend to choose from a few different options for breakfasts and lunches each day, but dinner is the meal that I plan ahead for. I keep a grocery list on my phone, which I add to whenever we’re running low on staples. Before we go grocery shopping, I also add to the list all of the specific things that we need for our dinners that week. Shopping this way keeps our trips quick and efficient, and prevents us from buying things we don’t need.
In 2019, I’ve decided to take meal planning a step further, and plan out four weeks at a time. So far, it’s worked really well! Here’s how I did it.
- I made a list of our 16 favorite dinners. I chose only meals that we really enjoy, and look forward to eating. I also have a policy of making our dinners balanced—meaning every meal has protein, grains, and vegetables.
- I organized a meal rotation plan with four meals from our top 16 per week. I made sure that each week only has one or two “involved” dinners, meaning meals that require a fair amount of hands-on prep and cooking time. The other two to three dinners are relatively quick and easy.
- I planned for one freezer meal, one leftover night, and one night eating out (or ordering in) each week. That covers seven days of the week for dinners.
Freezer meals are dinners that we’ve cooked or prepared in large batches and frozen for later use. Most of them are soups, and all of them are cooked by defrosting and/or cooking in the Instant Pot or on the stove. If I prepare one batch of a freezer meal on one weekend per month, I have more than enough to work for my plan.
Leftover nights help us to use up our leftovers from the other meals that week. This way, we waste very little food! If we end up not having much leftover food to choose from, we have a “cheat night” and make something really simple (and not necessarily balanced), like mac n’ cheese, grilled cheese, or pizza.
Using this plan, we have so much more variety than we used to have, when I only planned one week at a time. It’s also nearly effortless to plan our dinners now. All I do is look at my meal rotation plan, which I keep in a note on my phone, and copy over the dinners for that week onto my weekly planner. I use a printable weekly planner, which I fill out at the beginning of each week and hang on the fridge.
This meal plan is also super flexible! Based on what plans I have for the evenings in any given week, I can arrange the meals in a way that works best. I plan to have the easier/faster dinners on busier days. I can also swap dinners from day to day, based on what we feel like having or any changes of plan that come up. On our week with a planned date night, we set that night as our “eating out” night and feed the kids a simple dinner before we go. On weeks when we’re cooking fresh meat or fish, we can make those dinners on the day or the day after we go grocery shopping, so nothing spoils.
One of the best benefits to my four-week dinner plan is that I’ve noticed we are eating a lot more vegetables! Many of the meals I’ve chosen have vegetables we wouldn’t eat otherwise, like baby broccoli or cabbage. For meals with a side dish vegetable, I made strategic choices so that we will eat a variety of veggies, instead of eating just our few favorites. It feels good to see that now, a bigger portion of our grocery haul is produce.
Another benefit is that we can now easily avoid buying things that we would end up wasting. Every so often, we may try something new if it looks good at the store, but for the most part, we only buy what we need for our meal plan. New dinners and recipes only make it in if they are really good!
For me, meal planning is one of the simplest and most important things I can do to make my home run smoother. Like budgeting, it’s a basic necessity! It’s just another way I stay organized and keep my life simplified.
Below is my monthly menu. I hope this gives you ideas and inspiration for a meal plan that works for you and your family.
- Ramen noodle soup (homemade, of course!)
- Pasta with marinara sauce and Italian sausage
- BBQ chicken breasts or drumsticks with baked beans and whole grain rolls
- Shrimp chow mein with edamame
- Spaghetti and meatballs
- Chicken coconut curry with rice
- Baked breaded fish with quinoa and peas and corn
- Steak with baked potatoes and whole grain rolls
- Hamburgers (with veggie toppings like lettuce, sautéed onions, avocado, etc.)
- Bratwurst on buns with fried potatoes
- Chicken and veggie pita wraps
- Chicken fettucine alfredo with salad
- Coconut chicken adobo with rice
- Shrimp linguini with zucchini
- Pulled pork (or shredded BBQ chicken) sandwiches with green beans
My Freezer Meal List:
- Taco soup
- Chicken & rice soup
- Chicken noodle soup
- Chicken dumpling soup
- Cheesy potato soup
- Baked ziti
- Beef stew