9 Tips to Successful Menu-Planning

Would you be jealous if you knew that I have a magic half hour? It magically makes my food and gas bills shrink, my family healthier, and my life less stressful. Don’t you wish you had that magic half hour, too?

The good news is that you do. All you have to do is use it.

That magic half hour is for menu planning. By planning ahead for the week I reduce the number of trips to the grocery store, avoid last-minute fast food dinners, and totally skip over the hour of doom (you know, the hour before dinner is due on the table and you stand looking in the refrigerator hoping to be able to produce something edible in 40 minutes from slimy lettuce, cottage cheese, and spicy barbecue sauce).

Here’s how it’s done in my home:

    1. For menu planning to be done most effectively, you need to set aside a regular time to do it. Sunday afternoon while your husband watches a football game, Thursday afternoon while the baby naps – whenever works for you. Begin by collecting:
      • a pad of paper and pen
      • your grocery list, if you have one started
      • any cookbooks or magazines you’ll need
      • your laptop to access Simple Bites, or your other favorite food sites, for menu planning tips and dinner ideas!
    2. Write Monday through Sunday down the side of the paper, leaving space enough between them to write the meal plus comments. The most daunting thing about menu planning is the blank piece of paper. For me it is helpful to have a bit of routine built into my menu planning. Saturday is always pizza night at our house, so once I write that down my paper’s no longer blank and I only have 6 days to go.
    3. Note on the paper any things in the upcoming week that affect your day. If you have a busy day of errand running, that’s not the day to plan an elaborate meal. Note any commitment that will impact how long you have to prepare, serve, or eat the meal.
    4. Decide what to prepare. I find it helpful to think in terms of categories, for example:
      • Soup or Salad
      • Pasta
      • Casserole
      • Quick & Easy.

      Or you could divide it into cooking styles

      • grilling
      • crock-pot
      • stir-fry
      • roast

      If I pick one from each category, there’s sufficient variety that my family won’t complain, and by putting the Quick & Easy meals (tacos, hamburgers, spaghetti) on harried days, dinner will get done on time.

    5. Save one day a week for a new dish from a cookbook or a food blog if you like to try new things. If it’s from a blog, make sure you print out the recipe and keep it with your menu plan or in a notebook just for that purpose.
    6. Make a note of where the recipe is as you write down the menu for each day. Even if you know it by heart, it could be that you’ll be delayed and need to call home and say, “Honey, could you get dinner started?” Or, if you’re like me and have an embarrassing proliferation of cookbooks, remembering which book a certain recipe is in can be challenging, so the notation is helpful.

Photo by Lynn Craig

  1. Have your shopping list next to your menu planning sheet. As you write down a menu item, look at the recipe and review it, writing down what you need to get from the store. If you’re unsure about how much of a spice you have, or whether or not you have frozen chicken breasts in the freezer, now’s the time to check. There’s nothing more frustrating than starting to cook and finding out you really don’t have an ingredient after all.
  2. If you tend to have a lot of leftovers from your meals, plan one day as LO (leftover) day. In my house that means I take all the leftover containers out of the refrigerator and line them up on the counter and the family gets to pick what they want. It’s a buffet on the cheap that cleans out the refrigerator and reduces the amount of food you waste. And as a bonus, it’s a no-cook night for you!
  3. Lastly, look for twofer opportunities. What’s a twofer? It’s getting two meals from the effort of one. You can do that by using the leftovers from one meal in the next meal (roast chicken today is chicken chimichangas tomorrow), or doubling the recipe and freezing half for another dinner on a day when you absolutely don’t have time to cook.

I can’t give you a template to follow or do the menu planning for you, because what a family eats is so individual. The size of  your family, the time you have for cooking, your family’s food preferences, and whether or not you have picky eaters ALL affect what you cook.

The best person for the job is you, and the best time to do it is now! And once you’ve done it and have realized the benefits, you’ll never want to return to the stress and expense of not knowing what’s for dinner.

So, the only question left is….what’s for dinner?

About Lynn

Lynn Craig is a mother of four (two out of the nest, two to go) who homeschools, bakes obsessively, quilts sporadically, and occasionally finds time to clean the house. She and her husband live in Bellevue, Washington where she chronicles her kitchen triumphs and disasters on her blog Cookie Baker Lynn.

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  1. Great tips. I meal plan each week and always find that I can use more suggestions on how to do it even more effectively. Thanks!

  2. It always takes me forever to do my menu planning because I get too distracted by all the recipes I “could” make. This guideline will be perfect for me. It will help keep me on track so I can get it done faster. Great post Lynn!

  3. Michelle Wobbe says

    Thanks for the helpful tips. I am considering giving up recipe collecting for lent…my addiction is THAT bad. I often get lost in a see of “new recipes” and then end up making the same boring stuff each week!

    • I think my husband would be on board with my giving up recipe collecting for Lent! I need to figure out how to simplify them AND make all the pieces of paper easily accessible. Any suggestions?
      .-= Rhiannon’s last blog: What kind of mama are you? =-.

      • I’ve just decided to purchase a 3-ring binder for this purpose! all my downloaded/ ripped out scrapped can be punched and ready to go – they can even go in plastic sleeves, and I can even put in tabs to categorize. And I can take them out and shuffle them at will. I plan to photocopy recipes out of my cookbooks (which in 20 years of owning cookbooks I have not actually cooked from) that I might actually make. I am very excited to do this!

  4. I am starting to realize I need to plan healthy lunches and snacks too. These are great tips, especially the left over night. Thanks!

  5. I’ve been using a great program called Evernote to do all this writing stuff. I can clip recipes from the web, make a dinner list, make a grocery list, track my daily t0-do list, and easily take it with me in my phone. No paper required, but yes, you do have to do it every week at the same time to make it effective.

  6. For dinner? Chicken and Noodles….with leftover chicken from the whole chicken that I roasted last night!

    Love the menu planning! I actually do it by the month…only because I hate going to the grocery store. The hubby makes the once a week produce-bread-anythingelsepressingonthelist stop.

    All of the great recipes online have helped me to become quite the cook in our house! Thanks for the great tips! I am such a believer in menu planning for busy families!
    .-= jackie’s last blog: going.home =-.

  7. Dinner? Dinner? WHAT dinner? (I fear the Hour of Doom may be close at hand.)

    Good list, Lynn. Very well said.

    Now, for dinner…
    .-= Jennifer Jo’s last blog: The logical thing to do, or not =-.

  8. I’ve been planning our meals for a while now…it’s great! Two of my kids (ages 6 and 4) also cook two nights a week. So, when I make my menu I leave Tuesday and Friday open and sit down with them later to decide on their dinners. Quality time, quality help, and they learn a little something too 🙂
    .-= Annie’s last blog: The Problem With Moving =-.

  9. Jenni @ My Web of Life says

    I am actually planning my menu now (well not NOW…). I’ll be off to the store in an hour or so.
    I like to plan my weekly meals by the meat we eat. We always have fresh fish on the day that I shop. Then I make sure we have 2 meatless meals, 1 beef, 1 pork and 1 chicken. We usually allow for one day of leftovers. I also try to make sure one day is a crock pot meal.
    Thanks for some great tips, Lynn!
    .-= Jenni @ My Web of Life’s last blog: Giving Up Carbon For Lent =-.

  10. My husband and I have been menu planning for the last 15 years or more. Our grocery list is based on recipes for the week. We rarely run out of anything and have very little waste because most ingredients get used up during the week.

  11. We’ve been doing this in our house for years. When we were first married, my husband and I started by writing down each meal as we fixed it. Pretty soon, we had a comprehensive list of favorites and we’d add to is as we tried and liked something new. Now we have four-year-old twins and the four of us make our meal plan together each week. The girls get to pick one meal each. We leave one night open as quick and easy which consists of breakfast for dinner, pizza, or pasta. That only leaves four nights to plan and we make sure one of those meals uses leftovers (i.e. chicken quesadillas or pot pie from roast chicken). The girls eat what we eat or some variation of the same meal and they help with meal prep and cooking most nights. I think this has made them good eaters who aren’t too picky about food. We make our plan on Sunday and the girls and I shop on Monday/Tuesday. Because we have a plan and a list which the girls helped make, they know what we’ll be buying and more importantly that we won’t be buying extras.

  12. you have such a wonderful way with words, lynn. thanks for the tips (and the copious chuckles).
    .-= grace’s last blog: a shmiscuit, a shmasket =-.

  13. Great post. I’ve just recently started meal planning. With 2 kids and working full time, wondering “what’s for dinner?” was just too frustrating around 4pm!! I’m extremely organized and task oriented. So I’m loving all this planning. I feel good because I’m pretty much doing it the same as you. Thanks for outlining it all out. I love to come home now and know exactly “what’s for dinner!”
    .-= Lynne @ Our Happy Home’s last blog: Valentine’s Day 2010 =-.

  14. Stephanie Proffitt says

    Thanks so much! I began menu planning and love how it’s changed my cooking and my budget. I really can’t fathom how I used to walk through the grocery store before just “hoping” all these things I bought would magically become a meal every night for the next week or two.

    The idea of the “theme” nights (Fridays are always pizza night, etc) has really helped out too. I had only recently heard of it and am now beginning that implementation.

  15. I have that magic half hour too — Saturday mornings, before our grocery run. My problem is planning too many new meals in one week! I get really excited picking new recipes…. but taking on new challenges five days in a row is just not realistic.
    .-= Bethany’s last blog: Sweet and Sour Chicken =-.

  16. Oh that happy magic hour is priceless! If I don’t guard it vigilantly, our week looks like CHAOS. I am also now just trying one new recipe a week or even every two weeks. With a toddler, it’s just too hard to do more than that! 🙂 Have you tried doing it monthly? I’m experimenting with that right now for March so I don’t repeat a meal but so far I like it. It does take more than an half an hour though!!!!!

  17. Great list! We are always in search of a twofer opportunity. I love not having the pressure of cooking the meat just to toss it into the dish, so having it ready to go because I cooked 3 meals’ worth on Monday is always a plus!
    .-= Shaina’s last blog: Kugelhopf, My Grandma’s Way =-.

  18. This is always a problem at our house! Thanks for these great tips! Now on to Menu Planning 101!
    .-= Sandy/AboutOne’s last blog: How can I sign up for AboutOne? =-.

  19. I love those suggestions! We also have one night a week at our house that is “Dad’s Night to Cook”. It’s usually on one of the days I work and the girls like seeing what Dad comes up with. I would be lost without a meal plan! Oh, and Leftover Nights are the best : )

  20. I really like your idea of planning by categories. It might make the task seem a bit less daunting. I’ve been meal planning for about a year and it’s really helped reduce some stress for me in this department. I linked to you today from my plan. Thanks for the tips!

  21. I think meal planning is my favorite household chore. So much so, that it doesn’t feel like a chore at all. For me, the biggest thing is flexibility – finding a system that works for you and then being flexible to adjust it as your life changes. We used to do theme nights – pizza, grilled sandwiches, crock-pot, and “a little fancier.” Over the summer, I was planning meals based on what produce came in our bin each week. Now, with a toddler, a new baby, and recentely heading back to work, the plan is based on what can get cooked (or reheated) FAST!
    .-= Alissa’s last blog: What’s Working =-.

  22. I second Evernote, although I don’t use it for this purpose yet, but many others. The other great thing about Evernote is it’s web based and there are apps for your phone. SO this means anytime you are on a computer anywhere you can clip and save things to Evernote and then when you are at the store or market fire up your phone and there is your stuff. You could make a folder for shopping and when you clip it, it is already organized. You could use it just for your recipe collection from the web if you like.

  23. Great article Lynn! I always try to meal plan right before going grocery shopping, which is never a good idea because I’m in a rush and can never find stuff I want to eat. Plus I usually want to make something new for every meal. I should create a list of repeats!

  24. It could be so easy couldn’t it? Thanks for sharing! I tried out a similar method for planning my week and my things-to-do, but I never really thought about doing it for meals…
    I think I’ll get it a try.
    Btw: I love your blog, it’s a first time for me, but I got you saved in my Favourites…
    Have a great week…
    .-= Deia’s last blog: Me and Mr. Darcy =-.

  25. I do something very similar and actually recently posted a menu planning/grocery list sheet that helps in my planning. Hop on over to my blog and you should be able to find it if you search “menu planning”.

    Thanks for the helpful tips!
    .-= Jen’s last blog: Virtual Vacation: Germany =-.

  26. I use a yearly calendar that I pick up each year at the dollar store to schedule my meals for each month. This is a great place to store copies of favorite recipes, make notes of those meals that “flopped” and offers suggested ideas that were successful each month as I plan for the days ahead. I keep each year as a reference. This is a great way to organize family favorites, grocery lists and my pantry. Also helps to focus my spending each month so that I can take advantage of super sales and stockpile only the foods that I need. Now I not only save money on the great sales but also limiting the amount of food waste my family throws away. All it takes is a little bit of time to save my family a huge amount of money.

  27. The best thing I started to do 5 years ago was keep my planning! As Moms we spend hours organizing meals it is a shame to waste that time. So I keep a file with my menus and shopping lists. When it comes to a week we really need to save money I will scan my shopping list and pantry and then go from there.

  28. Thank you, this was so helpful and motivating!!

  29. Michelle Earney says

    Hi Lynn! Thanks for sharing this. I’m a NAPO Professional Organizer and just reposted your article to our website, http://www.napodfw.com, on June 28, 2011. I thought it was a great article to share with our clients on how to organize menu planning. Of course, I listed full credit to you, your blog, and simple bites. I couldn’t figure out how to contact you so I apologize for posting pre-permission. If you have any changes to the post, please let me know! Thank you, Michelle

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  31. Great tips:) Another good time for meal planning – when you’re waiting around for your kids, say in the car, at swim practice, at the doctor’s office, etc. More on that, and a link to your helpful tips, here: http://hintmama.com/2014/10/24/todays-hint-9-to-dos-to-check-off-when-youre-waiting-for-your-kids/

  32. Utpal Thakuria says

    Good suggestion

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