When Nick and I where first married we used to have the same argument every…single…day. It started with “what do you want for dinner tonight?” before he went to work and drug on throughout the day as we pitched ideas back and forward, until finally deciding on some kind of takeout around 7pm. This continued for probably 4 or 5 years, until I finally decided to put an end to our dinnertime indecision.
First, I tried writing down 7 options and getting the ingredients for those meals each week. The idea was we could choose between each of the meals each day. Unfortunately, this method didn’t really work for us and much of the produce just went to waste. I knew we needed something more concise, but still able to be adjusted since we had 2 kids under 3.
I started printing out blank monthly calendars and filling in dinner ideas one week at a time. Eventually we moved to doing 2 weeks at a time, once each pay day, which helped us plan ahead for duty days, holidays and nights when we had plans. I kept the calendar on the fridge so we could easily look at it and thaw out the meat we needed or remember to grab the veggies we needed for the upcoming week at the grocery store or farmer’s market. In June, 2018 I upgraded from printable calendars to this magnetic dry-erase calendar from Emily Ley (pictured below), which makes our dinner planning feel much more posh and easy to update.
Throughout the years I’ve learned some great do’s and don’t when t comes to planning our meals. Whether you want to start meal planning to save money, eat healthier or just stop the indecision, these tips can help make your path smoother. Here are my top 8 tips for meal planning & a freebie to get you started!
Start with one meal
Whether you want to start making a morning smoothie or plan dinners that are easy and delicious, you have to start somewhere. I recommend starting with one mealtime (breakfast, lunch or dinner) to get used to the change. It can be overwhelming if you try to schedule all your meals from the get-go, so start with the meal you want to work on first and give yourself time to adjust before adding more mealtimes to your scheduling.
Try new things
Pinterest is a great tool for getting recipe inspiration, especially if you’re in a rut or don’t really cook much. You can find hundreds of recipes for any dish or style of food you can think of and pin it for later. One little trick I picked up is to search for some of our favorite foods we get when we go out to eat. We’ve found so may great recipes this way! Another great way to add to your recipe repertoire is to swap recipes with friends and family. A few years ago, I asked my Granny if I could watch her make her famous chicken and dumplings. I learned to make authentic Indian butter chicken, naan, and chana masala from our neighbor, in return for my chocolate chip cookie and roasted fall veggie recipes. I’ve also done list swaps with a friend which resulted in a couple of our go-to recipes.
This tip is 2-fold. First off, it’s a good idea to look at the calendar and check for anything special that may affect the mealtime your planning. When Nick was on nights, I made lots of crockpot meals and recipes that could be reheated easily so he could take it to work, however when he was on a late shift, I made recipes that could be kept warm easily so he still had a hot meal when he got home late. Likewise, when the big kids have dance classes afterschool (Irish step for Siggy at 3:30 and ballet for Anora at 5pm), the Instant Pot, Crock Pot and Fast Food are my best friends.
Additionally, thinking ahead also refers to what you can do with leftovers or how you can (easily) prep ahead. For example, if plan to make rotisserie chicken on Monday, I can plan another meal to use the leftover chicken in, like chicken and dumplings, ramen or quesadillas. Some meals can be used to double as prep time, like having breakfast sandwiches and hash browns for dinner on a Sunday and making extra sandwiches for breakfast throughout the week. Don’t forget you freeze things for later too, like the second half of teh lasagna that no one eats. Split that sucker into 2 smaller plans, bake one half and freeze the other for later. Bonus: you now have something for those meal trains you never know what to make for.
Set Theme Days
Some people find it easier to designate specific days for different types of foods. Our friend Tiffany had a standing “Wacky Wednesday” rule where the whole family tried new recipes every Wednesday. Our friend Cassandra assigned different types of food to each day of the week, such as Meatless Monday, Seafood Sunday and Pizza night every Friday. This can be a great way to bring some variety into your meal plan. In the past Tuesdays in our house has been Mexican themed with tacos, enchiladas, quesadillas, burritos, etc.
Give yourself (and your family) some margin
Going from no plan to planning meals everyday can be a shock. I recommend starting out with a few days that you leave open, especially if you have family members that take a little more time to adjust to change. For me this meant planning dinners Monday-Friday and then playing it by ear on the weekend. Eventually, we decided to make Friday our “anything goes” night because, at the time, we lived in Hawaii and had a religious group meeting across every Friday at 6pm, so hitting a drive-thru was more convenient. We still work in some take-out days, once or twice a month, which brings me to my next tip.
Allow for flexibility
Some nights you’re not going to feel like cooking, and that’s okay! Sometimes, you aren’t going to want enchiladas, even though you planned it. Again, it’s okay. Maybe there was a schedule change or a friend is unexpectedly in town and wants to go out to eat and catch up. It’s okay to move things around or go off schedule every once in a while. The point is to make life easier for you, not to give you something else to stress about. There are still days when the kids are arguing all day, I’m behind on school work, Nick is dealing with wok stuff, and teh last thing I want to do is cook dinner, knowing at least one kid is going to complain no matter what I make. On those days, I shift everything a day to the right, write in Tacos and head for Taco Bell. The kids are excited to get tacos and I don’t have fight anyone to eat; it’s a win-win!
Let the family help
Every month when I plan our dinner menu, I ask Nick and the kids for help. First off, this means I don’t have to decide on 30ish meals all by myself, which is nice, but more than that, it gives everyone ownership. The kids each get to pick a couple of meals, which I immediately sprinkle around the calendar. Next, I ask Nick if there’s anything he’s craving or any new recipes he wants to try. We add those in and then pull up our list to finish filling in days. Another tradition we started is that the kids get to pick what they want to eat for their birthdays and at their birthday parties if they’re on separate days. We tend to schedule parties later in the afternoon so we can have leftovers for dinner. This can lead to some fun suggestions, like Anora wanting chili for her birthday/party a few years ago and Vara requesting chicken nuggets (of course) for her birthday this year…which is on Valentine’s day.
Make a list
For years I used to sit down and try to think of 14 dinner ideas to fill out the calendar. I would search Pinterest for hours, usually coming up with recipes that sounded good, but only I would willingly eat. Eventually, I realized this was the hard way of doing things, so I started a list of our favorite dinners. It wasn’t much at first, probably 10-15 ideas we rotated through regularly, like enchiladas that we literally ate every…single…week. About once or twice a month I would convince Nick to try a new recipe. If he liked it, I added it to our list. We now have over one hundred dinner ideas on our list, plus side ideas. From quick, easy dinners like grilled cheese and chicken nuggets (some of my kids’ favorites) to hardy meals we can share with friends or use for leftovers later in the week like apricot glazed ham, chicken and dumplings, and rotisserie chicken.
Meal planning doesn’t have to be boring or a lot of extra work. As my mother told me when we had our first child: find the voodoo that works for you and go with it. Whether you plan 5 meals a week or 20, do what works for you and makes since for your family. If you want some help getting starting, grab my Dinner Ideas Master List for free below with over 100 of our family’s favorite meals.
Happy meal planning!