Meal Planning
Credit: Photo by LizMarie_AK (

Tips for Successful Meal Planning

Prior to menu planning, dinner was one of the most stressful times of my day. After coming from work, I would typically scramble around taking inventory of ingredients. Then I would brainstorm dinner options based around the ingredients I identified. If I couldn’t come up with something, I would throw my hands up and we would just go out.

Meal planning has helped me simplify home life and save money on food. I write out the week’s dinner menu before going grocery shopping. Then I only buy what I need for the menu. This ensures everything I buy gets used by the end of the week. Now, when I get home from work, I already know what I am making for dinner and I already have the ingredients. The following five tips are how I successfully implemented meal planning into our daily routine.

1.) Pick Versatile Ingredients

Pick ingredients that can be used in several applications. My favorite versatile ingredient is chicken. I buy the whole chicken and roast it. I then cut the meat off the bone and divide it into meals. One night we’ll eat the thigh and drumstick with a vegetable. The next, I might shred the breast meat to use in enchiladas. Last, I will use the carcass to make chicken broth, which I will freeze. I now have enough chicken broth in my freezer that I no longer buy chicken broth. Plus, homemade chicken broth is way tastier than store bought! I use this methodology for as many ingredients as possible. Another example is buttermilk. If I buy buttermilk, I will make fried chicken, ranch dressing and biscuits. If I buy kale, I will make sautéed greens and Zuppa Toscana. I can give several more examples, but you get the point. By using ingredients in more than one application, I am reducing the number of ingredients I buy for the week and ensuring ingredients are used while fresh.

In addition to being mindful of using versatile ingredients, I will also look for sales on ingredients. If I find a really good deal on pork loin, I will write the menu to include it. That is what happened last week. So we had pork Chow Mein one night and shredded pork on a baked potato another night.

Homemade Chicken Broth
Credit: Photo by Merelymel13 (

2.) Plan a Night Off

Once a week, I plan a night off. For me to stay committed to our menu plan, I have to be able to take a night off every now and then. Sometimes, it’s just ordering pizza and eating off paper plates and other times it’s going out to a local restaurant. Either way, one night a week, I get a break.

3.) Make it Visible

I have our menu plan written on a dry erase board in our pantry. It not only serves as a reminder for me, so I know to take the steaks out of the freezer to defrost, but it also lets the rest of the family know what’s for dinner.  By having the meal plan in a visible location, I am more likely to stick with it. Unfortunately, there is some truth in the saying, “out of sight, out of mind.”

Get the whole family involved each week when the menu is being decided. By gaining everyone’s input and allowing them to be involved you gain buy-in and support. Even if I find a deal on something that I want to incorporate into the menu, I will still get opinions. In this case, I may ask, “We have pork loin this week. Anyone have any thoughts on how to prepare it?” Including everyone in the process and then posting the menu somewhere visible not only helps me stay on track, but also helps with family support. That being said, keep in mind, you won’t be able to make everyone happy all the time.

4.) Be Flexible

Flexibility allows the menu plan to fit into the daily routine. Sometimes, we decide to make Wednesday’s meal on Monday. Sometimes, I come home from work and am just too tired to think about dinner and so pizza night gets moved. Sometimes, our friends call us to meet up at Buffalo Wild Wings for dinner. We do our best to stick with the plan, but we also allow for some flexibility and even an occasional deviation. In order for the menu plan to be long-term, it has to be dynamic and change to your needs.

5.) Use your Freezer

In the past, I highly underutilized my freezer. Your freezer should be your best friend in the art of meal planning! For example, if I am making spaghetti and meatballs, I can double the ground beef and freeze half the meatball mix. The next time I have meatballs on the menu; I can take the mix out of the freezer, defrost, form into balls, and bake. That’s it! Most of my prep time was eliminated! Or I can use that same meatball mix add one or two ingredients and make meatloaf.

When I freeze food, I use my vacuum sealer. Since it squeezes all the air out, food stays fresher longer and I do not have to worry about freezer burn. There are two reasons why I freeze the meatball mix instead of the formed meatballs. First, by sealing the meat in a bag instead of a container, it takes up less space in my freezer. Not to mention, formed meatballs would get crushed by the vacuum sealer. Second, as mentioned before, I can use the same pre-seasoned mix to reinvent a slightly different meal item, such as meatloaf.

I have frozen homemade spaghetti sauce, pizza dough, pasta dough, chili verde sauce, chicken broth … the list goes on and on. Just make sure you label it! There was one time I did not use my labeler and could not remember if the dough I had frozen was for pasta or pizza! Grr… I ended up having to throw it away.

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Start Meal Planning Successfully Today!

These five things helped me implement a menu plan that actually worked in my family. I hope that by sharing these tips, you can start meal planning too. As I said before, meal planning can save you money and simplify life a little – or at least dinner time.