I have tremendous respect for people who are naturally “planners.” Although I believe in every way that planning is a great thing, I struggle to do it, and I hate the process! I know what to do, but sitting down to actually do it can be overwhelming to me. I would rather go clean up wet pine needles off our roof deck in the rain than sit down and plan out my meals!
Despite my dislike of planning, sometimes it must be done. If you also struggle to create and commit to a plan, this is for you! I’ll walk you through the process of creating a meal plan step-by-step. And the good news is that after you’ve done it once, the hard part is over. You can keep your same plan from month to month, or week to week (depending on your preference) and just make minor changes as you see fit. Most people tend to eat the same basic foods and recipes repeatedly anyway, so why not build that into a semi-permanent plan?
Meal plans are a great tool to reach other goals you may have. The plan is a means to an end, and not an end in itself. Some great reasons to create a meal plan are:
- Meal plans aid in grocery budgeting
- Meal plans aid in health and weight loss goals
- Meals plans ensure you always have an answer for the dreaded question, “What’s for dinner?”
So why don’t more of us do meal planning? Some common hang-ups include the following:
- The process can be overwhelming
- The process can be time-consuming
- Fear of getting it wrong
- Dislike of being constrained to a plan
- Life is unpredictable- you never know what you’ll be hungry for or when you’ll end up going out to eat
Relax. You can do it. Follow the below steps, and create a plan (one time!) that you can use over and over. This will free up your mental energy, reduce impulse buys at the grocery store, and help you eat healthier (if that’s your goal). What if you don’t plan it out right? That’s ok. Plans can be changed if needed, and it’s not the end of the world if you don’t stick to it 100%. If you’ve planned to cook hamburgers, but everyone really wants spaghetti instead, do it. It’s ok. Having a plan just ensures that you’ll have something prepared. This article will also help you form a contingency plan for those times when you didn’t get your meal plan just right.
So here we go! Below are the steps to creating a rotating meal plan.
1. Make a List of Foods You Want to Eat
What do you want to eat? What do you eat now? What does your spouse or significant other want to eat? Make a list of foods that you’d like to include in your plan, and gather input from your family members. Just brainstorm away at this point. For now, just start with dinner foods; if you would also like to plan breakfast and lunch, you can do that at another time.
It will help if you create separate lists for “Protein,” “Vegetables,” “Carbohydrates,” “One Dish Meals,” etc. Later you will create different combos for a well-rounded meal.
Keep in mind any specific financial or health goals you are shooting for. If you’re on a tight budget, you’ll obviously need to limit the Filet Mignon on your menu, and perhaps opt for more chicken dishes instead. If you’re trying to lose weight doing the low-carb method, you won’t want to list lasagna or potatoes as regular options.
Credit: Christine Hitzler
2. Determine Frequency
Once you have your food lists in place, determine how frequently you want to cook each item. Some foods you may really enjoy and can eat a couple times a week. Other choices may be more labor intensive or expensive, and you just want to eat them once a month.
As you’re determining how often you’ll prepare each food, consider how much time each one takes to prepare. Slapping a piece of steak or chicken on a frying pan and steaming some frozen broccoli takes far less time and effort to prepare than a stir fry or any recipe involving a lot of chopping, dicing, marinating, and other prep work. Keeping it simple can be a great way to eat healthy, save time, and save money, as simple meals often require fewer ingredients to prepare.
It’s ok to eat the same thing often if you want to! One of my biggest hang-ups when I sit down to do the meal plan is that I think I have to re-invent the wheel every time and come up with new and creative things for each night. Not true! Be real. Be normal. Just write it down.
Go through each food item on your list, and make a little note next to each one about how often you’d like to eat that choice. (Remember, you can always change this if you need to.)
Credit: Christine Hitzler
3. Account for Leftovers
If you’re making a larger recipe (soup, stew, etc) estimate how many servings you will have, so you can account for leftovers. It’s ok if you’re off a little, because you’ll be creating another list of back up meals in case you need them. The same goes for a roast, or anything else you won’t be able to finish in one meal. You can either save the rest for “leftovers” night, or formally plan to have it more than once that week.
Make another small note next to the items on your food list indicating how many meals you think you can get out of each one.
Credit: Christine Hitzler
4. Consider What You Have in Your Fridge/Freezer
One last thing to do before you actually start compiling your weekly or monthly meal plan, is to consider what foods you need to use up out of your fridge and freezer. Try to work all those odds and ends in to your meal plan, so they don’t go to waste (or sit there indefinitely).
For example, I had a frozen pork roast in my freezer that had been there for awhile. My husband and I recently decided we wanted to cut pork out of our diet, but we do want to eat up what we have. So I took it out of the freezer to thaw and picked a Saturday when I had more time for cooking and threw it in the oven. Since we didn’t eat the entire thing in one sitting, for another meal that week I chopped up the remains and threw it in some sautéed bok choy for a little stir fry. A fresh meal and a different take on the leftovers!
5. The Blank Slate
You now have your food lists. You’ve determined about how often you want to eat each food, and you know approximately how many leftovers you’ll have. (Again – don’t worry if you’ve miscalculated!)
At this stage, find a blank calendar page and start plugging in meals. If you don’t have a calendar handy, there are free printable calendars you can find online. If you prefer, you could also do this step in a computerized calendar or scheduling program, but I prefer the old-fashioned pencil and paper method.
Start going through the lists you have created and begin entering your meals for each day. You can mix and match choices between your Protein, Vegi, and Carb categories, or you can do the same combo each week. It’s a good idea to use a pencil when you’re putting your meals on paper, so you can easily change it if needed. It helps me to know that what I’m entering doesn’t have to be set in stone as soon as I put it on the page.
There are no hard and fast rules to how you plug in your choices, but some people like to do themed nights such as “Meaty Monday” or “Taco Tuesday.” Following a theme system like this can help you incorporate variety into your planning. You can then rotate recipes in under each theme. But there’s no need to be that fancy if themes aren’t your thing!
Here are a few other tips and suggestions for filling in your calendar:
- Rotate your base set of recipes every week or every two weeks, depending on how often you’d like eat them. (E.g. every other Monday is pork chops and a salad, or every Friday is homemade pizza night, etc.)
- Perhaps leave one night a week for a “new recipe night” or recipes you don’t want to eat as often that you can plug in when you feel like it.
- Reserve at least one night each week for leftovers. Sometimes getting creative and combining leftovers and misc. fridge items can lead to some great meals!
- Write in any holidays, birthdays, etc, that are likely to involve special meals with family.
- Write in any planned date nights or nights you know you will eat out.
Since my husband and I both work during the week, our weeknight dinners are very easy and simple, like a piece of steak or fish and a steamed vegetable with butter (we’re low-carb eaters, so no rice or potatoes for us!) But on the weekends, I might make a batch of lamb curry, a soup, or a roast that we can eat from throughout the week. On Sundays we go to church and generally spend time with family afterwards, which often involves going out to eat, or eating something at one of our parents’ homes. So for my meal plan, I leave Sundays open, and if we end up being home, we’ll eat leftovers or something off my contingency list.
When you’re finished entering your meals, take a step back and see what the “big picture” looks like. Are the meals reasonable to make in the amount of time you have on those days? Are you eating enough vegetables? Is there enough variety? If you notice any glaring problems, go ahead and make the necessary adjustments.
Credit: Christine Hitzler
6. The Contingency Plan
You know stuff’s going to come up. You’ll run out of leftovers for leftover night. Your plans to eat with friends at a restaurant will fall through. You’ll forget to take the meat out of the freezer in time for dinner. Life happens! For such instances, you should have a list of “go-to” options that you can fall back on. These should be items you can always have on hand to throw something together, preferably ones that won’t spoil quickly or can be stored in the freezer. Consider the following ideas:
- Breakfast for dinner (egg scramble, etc);
- Soup or other bulk meal you have made in advance and frozen;
- Hot dogs or sausages
- Freeze individual hamburger patties and store them between waxed paper. Pull them out for a quick meal that you can throw right on a pan in their frozen state.
Each family will be a little different in the types of foods that are on their back-up list, but just create one that you’re comfortable with. Chances are you already have an informal list in your head of things you throw together when you have nothing else planned.
7. Execute the Plan
Now that you’ve created your plan, it’s time to put it into action! You can now answer with confidence when your kids or spouse asks, “What’s for dinner?” You may even like to post your meal plan on the fridge for everyone to see.
Create a grocery list based on each meal and recipe that you have written down, and go shopping so that you have all items on hand when it comes time to make dinner each day. Since you have all your meals planned out, you can do your shopping week by week, or you could even buy ingredients for meals further out if you find a good deal on something. (Just make sure it won’t spoil before you need it!) Since my family eats mostly fresh and perishable items, I prefer to do my shopping week by week, but sometimes I can get away with less.
Each day look ahead on your meal calendar and check for the following:
- Are there any last minute ingredients you may have forgotten and need to pick up?
- Do you need to take something out of the freezer for tomorrow’s meal?
- Is there any prep work you need to do in advance (marinating, etc.)?
- Are you approaching “leftovers” day and don’t have enough leftovers? Pull out a pack of steaks from the freezer to thaw, or plan to do something else on your contingency list.
- Do you have too many leftovers accumulating in your fridge? Substitute an upcoming meal with more leftovers to make sure you’re using them up and nothing goes to waste. Or if your leftovers are able to be frozen, stick them in the freezer as something to use another time.
8. Evaluate the Plan
After you’ve gone through a cycle of your plan, evaluate how it went. Do you need to make any changes for next time? Are you happy with your meal choices? Do you need to substitute something for next time, or plan to do a meal less frequently?
Once you’re satisfied with your meal rotation, you’re done! You can repeat the same rotation from month to month for as long as you like. Of course you can always make substitutions as needed, but the hard part is over.
Enjoy the fruit of your labor. When you go to the grocery store, you’ll now be able to make a shopping list based on an actual plan, as opposed to buying a random collection of ingredients that you may or may not end up using. Since you know what meals are coming up, you can also watch the store ads for any special deals and buy them in advance, knowing that you will have a use for them.
“What’s for dinner?” You know!