Wife: What do you want for dinner?
Husband: I don’t care. Whatever you want.
Wife: How about I pick up pizza on my way home from work.
Husband: No, I’m having pizza with the guys this weekend.
Wife: How about Chinese?
Husband: No, I’m not really feeling that.
Husband: I had a burger for lunch.
Wife: There’s a new Thai place that sounds good.
Husband: No, the kids won’t like that.
Wife: So, what do you want for dinner?
Husband: Whatever you want.
Does that sound familiar? Do you have weekly or even daily conversations like that in your house? Enter meal planning.
Meal Planning is the thing everyone says you should do, but nobody actually does it. This is especially true if you are a busy mom (and what mom isn’t busy?) Meal planning can save you money and set your family up for eating healthy throughout the week. The main reason I’ve heard for why people don’t meal plan is that they don’t have time. However, this reason doesn’t really hold up because meal planning can actually save you time throughout the week. The real reason people don’t meal plan is because they don’t know how, and the task seems too daunting. Here I will walk you through my step-by-step process for meal planning. From start to finish, this process takes us only 3 to 4 hours and accomplishes the following:
- 1 trip to the store(s) each week
- Only buying what will get eaten each week
- Healthy, balanced meals despite our busy schedule
- No one asking the question “what’s for dinner”
Read on to find out how I do it, and how you can do it too!
How to Meal Plan in 17 Super Simple Steps
The first step is to get everyone on board with the planning. Your planning group should include everyone in the house who will voice an opinion on what is served for each meal. The last thing you want is to do all the planning yourself and then listen to everyone else whine about what is being served. If you are meant with resistance from your desired planning participants, you can implement a rule that those who aren’t involved in planning are not allowed to complain. That’s the rule in our house.
Evaluate your schedule for the week. Meal planning can also serve as a time to get everyone on the same schedule for the week’s activities. When meal planning you don’t want to plan a complicated dinner on the night you are going to be working late, or when only half the family will be home. Discussing what everyone has going on for the week allows you to figure out which meals will work best for which days and set you up for successfully following your meal plan.
Prepare your calendar. I use a meal planning tablet from Amazon, but you could use any type of calendar or tablet. Just make sure it has spaces for plugging in the meals you want to make. Mark the calendar with any events that you have going on or dinner plans that are already made.
Take nominations for desired meals. Ask everyone involved what meal they really like or would like to eat that week. This gets everyone a meal they love, and it gives you some options to work from. Right now, just make a list of the suggestions. Add in a few of your own, so that you have a decent sized list. Save this list for future use. If you are running out of ideas in future weeks, you can refer to this list of favorites.
Start plugging meals into the calendar. When deciding what to make on each night, consider how much prep time and clean up time is required. You can also check the weather. If it’s going to be a nice evening, maybe you want to grill out on that night, but if it’s cold and projected to rain, then a warm soup may be the better option. Also, consider if any meals are likely to have leftovers. These can often be used for lunches and snacks.
Fill in any remaining dinners. You can do this by going through cook books or search for recipes online to find ideas.
Once you have all of your dinners planned, then consider lunches. Where are family members during lunch – work, school, home? That will direct you with where to go for planning lunches. Does anyone have access to a microwave for heating up left overs? My husband and I both have microwave access, so we will sometimes prepare a meal that keeps well and package into individual servings for lunches. We also use prepackaged salads for easy lunches. For kids that are at school, you will want them to have something that isn’t too messy and doesn’t require heating up. There are plenty of store-bought options, or you could go with traditional sandwiches. Don’t forget to consider what sides (if any) will be eaten with the main lunch dish.
Now you have dinner and lunch figured out, so it’s time to think about breakfast. For breakfast, generally think quick and easy and aim for a mix of protein and healthy carbs. Overnight oats are my go-to option. Oatmeal or other non-sugary cereal and yogurt is another possible option. Make sure to consider whether everyone needs to eat before they leave the house. Can you or your husband take food with you and eat when you get to work or in the car? Can the kids eat at school?
Consider if snacks are needed. Will the kids be starving and need a snack after school? Will you or your husband get the munchies mid-morning or in the afternoon? Planning for snacks can help prevent buying snacks while you are out or at work. Having a healthy snack handy can also help you avoid the junk food that is so often present in work place breakrooms. I plan for snacks at work, and I always have a couple protein bars in my tote bag and diaper bag, so that I am always prepared for a snack attack.
Determine if your family has any other food needs during the week? Do you need to bring snack for your kid’s sports team or for a birthday party? Are you going to a pot luck over the weekend? Include these occasions in your meal planning to avoid extra trips to the store and last-minute scrambling. Make sure to mark these instances and what you are planning to make for each on your meal plan.
Put together your shopping list based on your planned meals. Go through every item you wrote down for any meal and make a list of everything you need. Where we live, meal planning involves going to at least 3 different stores, so I make a list for each store. However, one list may suffice depending on your shopping situation.
Add essential but non-planned for items to the shopping list. Do you need toiletries, cleaning supplies, diapers, etc.? Make sure to add these to your shopping list. Pro tip: Have a running list that everyone adds these items to as they realize they are almost out. This helps make sure you don’t forget anything. We use the Wunderlist app which allows us to share a list across multiple devices.
Plan your shopping. Which stores do you need to go to? What’s the most effective order to go to each store? Can you do e-cart at any stores? Is it hot enough that you should take a cooler to keep items cold when going to multiple stores? Is the whole family going shopping? Do you need to run any other errands?
Prepare whatever can me prepared in advance. For lunches, you can make sandwiches ahead of time, and use individual packets for condiments so the sandwich doesn’t get soggy. Pre-portion snack items. For fruits and veggies, wash, peel, and cut as needed, so they are ready to eat. Then bag these as grab-and-go single servings. For crockpot meals, you can often put everything into a gallon freezer bag and freeze, so it’s ready to dump and go. Just make sure to put the bag into the fridge the night before, so it can thaw.
Post your meal plan for the week somewhere the whole family can see. Make sure that everyone is aware of what they are to take for lunches and who is responsible for making dinner and what time it needs to be ready.
Enjoy your week because you won’t have to tell anyone what’s for dinner, go to the store or grab unhealthy and expensive takeout because you didn’t get around to planning dinner!
Important Note: Be cautious about relying on buying meals while you are out. It may be more convenient but is often not very healthy much more expensive. The notable exception to this rule is meals at school for kids. Often there are state mandates about the food having to be at least somewhat healthy, and the meals may be less expensive than packing lunches.
Happy Meal Planning!!
Lauren Forsythe is the mom behind My Favorite Job Title is Mom. She is a veterinary pharmacist for herday job and a wife, mom, equestrian, ice cream lover and occasional hot mess the rest of t he time.