Simple Menu Planning for Busy People
Updated: Feb 3, 2021
We've all been there. It's 5:30 and you have no idea what to make for dinner. You haven't taken anything out to thaw and you're missing key ingredients for all your go-to quick meals. The kids are hungry. You're hungry. Everyone is cranky from a long day. Of course, there are the go-to solutions for a lot of busy families - take out, meal subscription plans, frozen food from the supermarket. But those solutions can be on the unhealthy side and certainly worse for your budget. I prefer to feed my family whole, homemade meals (for the most part - I see you, hot dogs, pizza and tomato soup!) for which my dollars are spent on quality of ingredients, not convenience. This is where menu planning comes in.
I'm here to tell you there's a better way. And it's silly simple - it doesn't require an app on your phone or any super special gear or a subscription. Hear me out and I'll show you how.
Make a List of Meals You Like
Just get out a sheet of paper and start writing. Look on Pinterest for ideas if you want, but we're just looking for a list of dinners that you and your family like to eat on the regular. Put it into categories for ease of planning. The categories could be by type of protein such as beef, chicken, fish, vegetarian, eggs; or by flavor profile such as Italian, Mexican, Asian, English, American, etc. I like to do my categories by ease, including whether I have it pre-made and in the freezer (more on that below) or whether I need to make it fresh, as well as type of protein and flavor profile. That all seems super involved, but trust me, it's not. Just make your list.
Supplies and Execution
You'll need a standard size calendar, a pen, and some Post-It tabs, such as these:
You'll write your meals on these tabs and place them on your calendar to plan the month, like so...
The beauty of using these tabs is that you can move them if you need to. I rarely keep my exact plan as I go through the month. Something always comes up to change things. No big deal - I just make a switcherooney.
Also, I reuse these tabs month to month and they last for quite a while. I just keep them on sheets of paper in a folder. If you want to get really organized, label those sheets of paper by type or by season, so you have a "cold weather" list and a "summer" list, for example. I have sheets of meals for when I do a Whole30, a sheet for Fall/Winter, and a sheet for Summer. These sheets then act as your "planning list" going forward.
Doing the Thing
First, take a look at your personal/family schedule and take note of anything happening on a regular basis or anything upcoming that you'll have to plan around. Kids have swim class on Wednesday nights? Maybe plan pre-frozen meals for those nights. That way all you have to do when you get home is pop it in the oven or on the stove top and it's done. Take note of upcoming holidays or birthdays for which you'll want to make something specific (or for which you won't have to cook at all) and plan around those. Take note of any other busy weeks or days and think about what you'd want to make on those days to make life easy.
Next, just start placing your tabs throughout the month. Maybe you want to always have Mexican on Tuesdays, Fridays are always pizza night, Soups on Thursdays, roasts on Sundays, etc. I'm trying to not be too specific with dinner ideas, because I know every household has different eating habits, but I think you get the drift. There's nothing wrong with repeats and, if it suits you, nothing wrong with only planning for one or two weeks at a time rather than monthly. This is about making life easier for you. Also, I make sure to incorporate "Leftovers" nights if what I'm making the day before is going to make enough and it can't be easily frozen.
And speaking of making double, that leads me to...
A lot of my menu planning centers around the fact that I like to pre-make and freeze a lot of our meals. Look, I love to cook. I love the feeling it gives me when someone I love eats a dish I've made and they're wowed by it and tell me how delicious it is. It gives me all the feels.
What I do not like is to cook in a rush at 5:30 on a weekday night after a long day. So, I batch cook and keep it in a chest freezer. Then I plan my monthly menu around what I have cooked.
Maybe once every 2-3 months, I'll shop for and cook a bunch of meals. My regulars for the Fall/Winter are Shepherd's Pie, Chili, Greek Lemon Chicken Soup, Zuppa Toscana, and Stuffed Pepper Soup, as well as a few others from many talented food bloggers that I've come across. To batch cook, I'll usually double the recipe and cook a lot, then scoop them into right-size containers for a meal for three, label and freeze. I keep a list of what I have in the freezer at any given time and cross out as I use things. Alternatively, sometimes I'll just make double or a big batch when I'm cooking that night's dinner, and freeze the leftovers. It's very nearly the same amount of work and you get at least double the meals!
Revel in Your Superpower
Once you've done this once, you'll never look back! The initial planning time will, of course, take longer, but once you've started it only takes maybe 45 minutes a month. The power that comes from that feeling of control and knowing what you're putting on the table every night is life changing, I have to say. Whether it's the amazing ease at which you can quickly write up your weekly shopping list, or the time that is freed up surrounding the dinner hour, SO much time is saved. You get to feed yourself and your family real, good, homemade meals, and you don't have to pull your hair out nightly to do it!