Feed your family using these ways to meal plan when you hate meal planning!
By Dena Norton, Contributing Writer
We’ve all heard it before. Meal planning saves money. It cuts down on extra trips to the grocery store. It eliminates the dreaded 5:00 scramble to figure out what’s for dinner. Yada, yada…
All those things are true. In fact, you can’t avoid meal planning entirely if your goal is to prepare healthy dinners for your family each night. But, in this busy stage of life, the thought of tabbed binders, color coded printables, and pre-planned lists of each day’s breakfast, lunch, and dinner just makes me want to run for the hills…or, better yet, to my favorite restaurant.
Instead, I’ve found practical ways to minimize the time and effort I put into meal planning, and still get healthy dinners on the table each night! Here’s how you can do it too.
How to Meal Plan when You Hate Meal Planning
Keep it Simple
I’ve tried out a few meal planning services but, the more intricate a meal planning system is, the more likely it is to have features that don’t work for me. I find myself scratching through this, and moving that over there, and end up frustrated with all the modifications I have to make in order to use it.
You know what no-nonsense method actually works best for me? Post It Notes – I just slap one onto my weekly calendar so it’s always visible, then scribble down a one line menu for each night’s dinner. (The same thing can be done with Evernote or similar apps if you prefer to use your device.)
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Create a Weekly Meal Plan Template
Instead of starting with a blank slate each week, consider creating a weekly template with meal categories for each night. My weekly dinner template looks something like this:
- Monday: Crock Pot/Instant Pot (my Best Slow Cooker Beef Roast, Easy Pulled Pork, and Crock Pot Baked Potato Bar are some of my favorites!)
- Tuesday: New recipe
- Wednesday: No-cook (sandwiches, etc.)
- Thursday: Family favorite, doubled to serve leftovers tomorrow (Spaghetti and Meatballs, Chicken Noodle Soup, and Old Fashioned Beef Stew are all big hits at my house)
- Friday: Leftovers
- Saturday: Eat out
- Sunday: Restaurant leftovers or snack dinner (popcorn, cheese and crackers)
Obviously, other categories like Meatless Monday, Taco Tuesday, or others could be substituted to fit your needs.
If you’re an overachiever, consider keeping a spreadsheet or other permanent record of the actual meals you put into your weekly template so you can recycle that weekly menu each month/quarter. I like the sounds of this a lot, but have yet to do it. 😉
Reward yourself for Meal Planning
It’s not just kids who perform better when they’re rewarded. I mean really, who among us wouldn’t love a long bath, a latte, or a little Netflix binge when we get our work done? If weekly rewards sound too indulgent, reward yourself monthly for sticking to your meal plan for four weeks in a row.
Stock Emergency Back Up Meals
I always have a few back up meals on hand in the pantry or freezer, whether it’s pasta with marinara sauce or some of these healthier convenience meals from Trader Joe’s.
You could also batch cook a few back up dinners once a month or every few months to be stored in the freezer and defrosted as needed.
The key to making this tip successful is to only use back up meals when you truly need them.
Pad the Grocery Cart
This may not be possible for those with very strict grocery budgets, but I’ve found that tossing just a few extra staples like another bunch of spinach, bag of rice, or block of cheese into my grocery cart as I pass through the store can help save me from a second trip later in the week.
Resort to Take Out
If you just have one of those days, and none of the five tips above will save you, take out may be the best available option. But beware of letting this become a regular thing. I’d suggest one of two approaches to ordering take out:
- Save that night’s planned dinner ingredients to be cooked on the night you originally planned to eat out. This way, there’s no waste, and you’re not tempted to double up on restaurant eating.
- Choose from restaurants or grocery stores with basic, healthy take away or delivery options. Think rotisserie chicken + salad bar. They get the job done but aren’t necessarily the most exciting. If you get to choose from any of your favorite restaurants, you might find reasons to get take out every week!
Try Home Delivery Meal Planning Services
When all else fails, let someone else plan your meals and deliver the ingredients to your door. Blue Apron and similar services do just that and are catching on like wild fire. If you’re able to afford these, definitely check them out!
Amy @ Simple Everyday Home
Having emergency back-up meals is a lifesaver! Another thing that helps me is to keep a little list on the side of my current menu plan with ideas of meals to make NEXT week. Sometimes when I’m planning for THIS week, I’ll think of a couple meals that just don’t make it onto the plan. Having those meals already written down helps get them out of my head and allows me to start next week’s plan with some meals ready to be scheduled.
Yes, love the idea of sketching out ideas for the upcoming week! Thanks for adding that, Amy!
Sarah @ The Teacher's Wife
These are some great tips! I need to get back into meal planning regularly – summer got me totally off and we ate out way too much. Keeping it simple and having a little template like you mentioned are huge for me. The template keeps me from feeling like I’m starting from scratch every week. While I love trying new recipes when I can, I have a few “go-to” recipes that I know I can make quickly if I don’t have time for anything new or more time consuming! Great tips!
Thanks, Sarah – so glad some of this was helpful for you!
When I used to do meal planning, I would make a plan and then just cook whatever I felt like cooking from the plan. I never stuck with it in the order that I created it. That really helped me to feel like I wasn’t boxed in.
Oh good idea, Keelie. Because I’m always looking for more practical ideas myself, how many meals did you plan at once? (Mostly wondering whether you grocery shopped for ingredients weekly or more/less often?)