How She Plans Meals
It’s 6 p.m. You’re rifling through your freezer with one hand and wielding a broomstick in the other, to ward off the starving children who are trying to sneak crackers from the pantry. You have no idea what’s for dinner.
It’s every mom’s nightmare (oh, the whining!), and yet it happens to all of us. The problem is, dinner comes every night. And then there’s breakfast. And lunch. And then dinner again.
This month, I talked to some fabulous moms who have found meal-planning systems that work for them, and even more moms who are also fabulous, but are still searching for something that works. I hope some of their ideas will help make meal planning a little easier for you.
Every mom wants to make delicious, nutritious meals that she can whip up quickly and that her family will actually eat. But in real life, you have to prioritize. Before you create or revise your own meal-planning system, take a minute to prioritize your own list of objectives, based on what's important to your family. Here are some examples:
- Make nutritious meals.
- Improve cooking skills.
- Prepare meals quickly.
- Expand your meal repertoire.
- Make meals that everyone will actually eat.
- Save money.
Kara's main goal is to cook meals that everyone will actually eat. She rotates through about 100 tried and true recipes, and when she occasionally tries a new recipe she doesn't add it to her repertoire unless at least a majority liked it. For Elizabeth, cooking is a creative outlet, so she tries one or two new recipes a week. Getting her children to try new foods is a big priority for her.
If you have a clear idea of what's most important to you when it comes to feeding your family, it will be easier to customize a meal planning system that you'll actually stick to.
Planning Your Menu
For most moms, this is the hardest part—figuring out what to cook. The biggest difference between those who consistently plan menus and those who wing it is that they set aside a specific time to plan meals, whether it's once a week, once every two weeks, or once a month. You may not think you have time for this, but this scheduled planning session will save you from hours at the grocery store and from becoming a fridge zombie, staring glassy-eyed into the void.
Stacie and Kara plan out a whole month in advance, because they like to sit down once and then not think about it for the rest of the month. Stacie prints off a blank calendar and writes in a dinner for each night. Kara picks 23 cards from her recipe collection so she has enough meals for a month (accounting for a few leftover nights, etc.). You can read more about her ingenious system in her profile.
Lori plans menus two weeks at a time to save time and money. She finds that she can shop more efficiently for two weeks at a time. Planning every two weeks also helps her make sure there is a good variety of different foods, without repeats.
Liz Edmunds, aka the Food Nanny, also suggests planning two weeks at a time, because she feels like planning once a week doesn't give her enough of a break between meal-planning sessions. She's got the planning step down to 10-15 minutes every two weeks. She shops once every two weeks as well, though sometimes she has make a quick trip to the grocery store in between for things like produce and milk.
Lisa, Jen, and Valeria plan a menu every week. Every Monday, Lisa prints off a blank weekly meal plan and writes in her dinner choices. Jen made a menu board for each day of the week out of picture frames with brightly colored paper under the glass. She (or the child in charge for the day) writes the dinner selection of the day on each board. Valeria goes digital: she enters her meal choices in her iCalendar app. Planning weekly can also be a good strategy if you want to use weekly grocery ads to plan your menus.
When you sit down to plan a menu, you need resources. Without them, you're practically guaranteed to fall prey to food amnesia, as if you've never made a meal for your family in your life. The following tips give you several different starting points to get your ideas flowing.
1. Compile a master list of all the meals your family likes to eat.
If this seems intimidating, you can just start with one or two and just add to the list as you cook successful meals. Once you have a list, you can just sit down with it and plug the ideas into your menu. Here are a few different ways moms compile their master lists, although plain-old pen and paper works, too!
Janae keeps a running list of all the foods her family likes on the on her phone, using the Todo app. When she plans her menus she just looks through the list and schedules the meals she wants to make by setting a due date. Read more about her simple system here.
Kara keeps an accordion file with cards for each of her family's preferred recipes (with ingredients on the back for easy grocery shopping).
About eight years ago, I started using MacGourmet to store recipes I wanted to repeat, because I wanted a good way to share them (I can email them or make a PDF cookbook) and to categorize them in multiple ways (by meal course, main ingredients, holidays, etc.). It's also easy to import recipes from websites or blogs. I also keep a document with a list of easy, quick meals.
Stacie, Lori, and Lisa have compiled their own family cookbooks. They put recipes the family likes in three-ring binders with tabs for different categories. They keep recipes they want to try in the front of the binder. If the family likes them, they slip them into a sheet protector and add them to the appropriate category.
2. Check your shelves.
Another great place to start planning your menu is to figure out what you already have, and choose meals that use those items, before they get lost or expire or spoil. Jordan Page, who blogs at funcheaporfree.com, even coined the phrase "Shelf Cooking" for this tactic--choosing recipes based on what you already have, rather than just based on what you feel like eating. She even challenged herself and her readers to cook for the entire month of September 2017 using only items from their shelves (pantry, refrigerator and freezer) plus $25 of fresh food a week. (Read her post about Shelf Cooking here.)
Lisa keeps an inventory list of items in the basement deep freeze and a list of spices she has on hand. Janae likes to buy meat when it's on sale and freeze it to use later. To make sure she doesn't forget about it, she periodically goes through her freezer, phone in hand, and schedules meals that use the ingredients in her freezer.
3. Set themes or rules.
A lot of moms find it easier to figure out what to make if they impose some structure on their planning by setting rules (i.e. one vegetarian dish a week) or even themes for specific nights. Designating specific types of food for specific nights can be especially helpful if you have a few predictably busy nights that need to be crockpot or leftover night.
Liz sets a theme/category for every day of the week, and has written two cookbooks based around this format. For her, Mondays are for comfort food, Tuesdays are for Italian food, Wednesday is fish, meatless, or breakfast food, Thursday is Mexican Night, Friday pizza night, Saturday is for grilling, and Sunday is for family traditions.
Here are some theme ideas from other contributing moms:
- Breakfast for Dinner (Brinner)
- Soup and Salad
- Assemble your own (salad bar, baked potato bar, rice bowls, etc.)
- Crockpot/Instant Pot
- Recipe from a specific cookbook
- New recipe night
- Take-out or go-out
4. Find go-to cookbooks, blogs, and apps.
When you sit down to plan your menu, bring a stack of your favorite cookbooks for inspiration. Lisa checks out one or two new cookbooks from the library every time she goes, to mix things up. I like the challenge of cooking through entire cookbooks, usually picking just one new recipe to try each week. My favorite was "The Science of Good Cooking," by America's Test Kitchen, which took me two years to complete.
When you try a recipe you like from a blog or website, bookmark it, because chances are you'll like more from that site. Stacie prints them out and keeps them in a her recipe binder. Elizabeth uses Pinterest to save and organize recipes she finds online and wants to try. After she makes a recipe, she has her family rate them and repins them with the rating so she knows what to make again.
There are also several great recipe apps, many of which also generate shopping lists. Valeria likes Wildtree Meals and Forks Over Knives (vegetarian).
5. Ask your friends what they like to make.
Other moms are great resources, even if you just ask a friend, "What are you making for dinner this week?" Jen likes to get together with groups of friends and swap menus. Each one prepares a one-week menu of family favorites and provides the recipes. They all walk away with several weeks of menus.
Kate, Kristin, and Stacie took this idea to the next level. For five years, these three friends organized a meal swap. Each one would cook one night a week and bring food to the other families. Besides having to cook fewer nights a week, they learned to cook for a crowd (15 adult portions at a time), they expanded their recipe repertoire, and their kids learned to try new things.
6. Check store ads/coupons.
Several budget-savvy moms we talked use grocery ads as the jumping off point for menu planning. They find the best deals for the week and plan meals around those items, to keep their grocery costs down. Jordan uses a website called Deals to Meals, a $5 subscription service that compiles a weekly comparison of grocery ads in your neighborhood, including Costco and Sams Club. It identifies the best deals, so you can stock up, and even creates menus based on the discounted items.
7. Plan meals that build on each other.
This may qualify as a more advanced tip, but Jen and Elizabeth suggest planning meals that build on one another—meals that use some of the same ingredients, so you can use them all up, and meals that repurpose leftovers from the night before. For example, if you cook a roast and mashed potatoes one night, turn it into shepherd's pie the next night. If you need cilantro for pad thai one night, use it in tacos the next night.
Jen created a whole list of great ways to repurpose leftovers, like saving leftover veggies for soup or pasta salad, or shaping leftover mashed potatoes into patties, freezing them, and browning them on a greased skillet as a side dish for another night.
If the act of choosing what to cook is your barrier to planning ahead, you may want to just have someone else do it. There are several meal-planning services that send you weekly meal plans, including shopping lists, such as No More To Go, Relish, Clean Simple Eats, and eMeals. Most are customizable to dietary needs.
If you want a service that will take care of the shopping for you too, services such as Hello Fresh, Plated, and Blue Apron, will plan your menus and drop the ingredients at your doorstep.
One of the greatest things about the sheer number of meal-planning services out there, is that you should be able to find one that will cater to your specific dietary goals, whether you're gluten-free, vegan, or just trying to eat nutritiously.
For two years, Heather has been using meal plans from Clean, Simple Eats as part of her goal to get healthier. She loves the six-week plans because she doesn't have to think about what to cook (she even eats the leftovers for lunch), the shopping list is ready to go, and the nutritional information is already calculated for her.
A list is a list, right? Turns out, there was enough variety in grocery list systems among moms I talked to that it's worth discussing. As with menu-planning, there were two main camps, analog and digital.
Lisa prints blank shopping lists for both the standard grocery store and Costco, organized into categories: snacks, produce, canned, baking, cereals, bulk bins, deli, meat, dairy, frozen, breads, and other. This helps her remember what she needs, but also makes the shopping trip more efficient, since the items are roughly categorized by store aisle. As soon as she finishes a list, she prints another blank one, so she can add items as she runs out, and when she plans her next menu. She also keeps a list of pantry basics, so she can scan through it and see if it's time to restock the staples.
On the digital side, some moms we talked to simply keep a running grocery list on the Notes app on their phones. Janae uses the app Anylist, which allows her to make categorized grocery lists for each of the main stores she visits. She can also designate favorites, which stay on the list, and she can share her lists.
Valeria skips the grocery-list step and goes straight to the shopping step, right from home. She orders groceries through Walmart-To-Go, a grocery pickup or delivery service (many stores offer this service). When she's running low on an item, she sticks it right in her cart. And when she plans menus, she shops as she plans and then picks the order up the next day (free), or has it delivered (for a small fee). She keeps a separate grocery list for items she can't find at Walmart, but these lists and the resulting shopping trips are brief. The best part? No taking grabby kids to the grocery store!
Several moms also order pantry items from sites like Amazon.com or Vitacost.com and have them delivered to their doorsteps.
This is not an article about meal prep—that's a topic for another time—but your meal-preparation tactics can affect the way you plan your menus. Most moms I talked to usually prepare their meals the same day they eat them, barring leftover night. But several had innovative ideas for prepping ahead.
- Jen periodically gets her family together to make mixes for food such as pancakes and muffins.
- Janae almost always cooks twice as much food as her family will eat, then freezes the rest of the meal for another day.
- Years ago, I got together with my friend Lanae and we used one of the many freezer-meal cookbooks to make four or five different meals that we could freeze for later. (The convenience was great, but I didn't end up loving the recipes themselves.) Some people even do this for a month at a time. Big effort up front, but then you can coast.
- Dana's version of freezer cooking is to cook up a bunch of ground beef and chicken all at once and then freeze it in meal-size portions. Then she can use it for a variety of different recipes. You can read about her meal-planning system on her blog or listen to a podcast episode about it.
- Most remarkably, Erika does almost all of her cooking for the week on just one day! She provides details about how she pulls this off on her Instagram account and sells her meal plans at Clean Simple Eats.
There are dozens of make-ahead cookbooks that look very intriguing to me, but which I just didn't have time to check out this month. I have a couple on hold at the library, so we'll see.
Ultimately, meal-planning is such a hot-button issue with most moms, that I could dedicate an entire blog (and many people do) to meal-planning techniques, let alone recipes themselves. But I hope some of the ideas in this post will spark some new strategies that you can use to create or revamp your own menu-planning system. Happy meal planning!
Resources mentioned in this article or recommended by moms I talked to:
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