6 Tips to Simplify Meal Planning

posted by Andrea | 06/24/2013

BLT sandwiches

Many people I know (myself included) often slack off on meal planning in the summer. Maybe it’s because it’s hot and we don’t want to be in our kitchens; maybe it’s because vacations, summer camp, sporting events, and outdoor activities make meal planning less of a priority. I supposed it’s easy to put meal planning on the back burner {pun intended!}

However, these busy weeks of summer are some of the most important weeks to create and utilize a meal plan… because it will save you so much time and stress!

If you are struggling to set up a meal-planning routine, here are 6 simple ideas that just might help:

1. Create daily “themes” for your meals.

For some reason, it is SO much easier for me to create a meal plan if I have a “theme” for each night of the week.

For example; our daily themes are:

MONDAYS: Mexican or Italian

TUESDAYS: Casserole

WEDNESDAYS: Breakfast

THURSDAYS: Meat {pork chops, chicken, ribs, burgers, brats, steak, meatloaf}

FRIDAYS: Mexican or Italian {whatever we didn’t have on Monday}

SATURDAYS: Soup, salad, sandwiches, leftovers, or out to eat

Of course, I don’t always stick to this exactly every single week — but it’s super helpful to have this general guide. There are just so many recipes out there to choose from, so if I know I’m only looking for “Italian recipes” or “breakfast recipes” it helps me narrow down the possibilities.

These daily themes have helped me to create better, more efficient meal plans each week and help to assure we don’t eat too much of the same thing in one week. I’ve been meal planning this way for almost 2 years now and it’s still working well for me.

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2. Don’t be afraid to re-use meal plans.

Unless your family is extremely picky, you can probably come up with 3-4 weeks worth of meals without too much trouble. Then once you have those meals planned, use that as your guide for the following 3-4 weeks. If everything went over really well, make the same meals in the same order again. If there were a couple recipes your family didn’t like, swap them out for something different.

The beauty of this meal planning method is that you hardly have to do ANY work after the initial 3-4 week plan… and I’m fairly confident that no one will get bored with 3-4 full weeks of different meals.

3. Make super simple foods.

I think this is probably my biggest tip — because so many people I know think that just because they’re creating a “meal plan” that it has to be fancy or difficult.

Seriously, there is no need to make fancy, gourmet meals… ever (unless you like making gourmet meals). If your family is anything like ours, simple, easy-to-prepare meals make up 95% of our menu plans.

Please don’t let yourself get caught up in needing fancy recipes (or any recipes at all) in order to create a suitable meal plan. Grilled cheese, bean and cheese quesadillas, baked potato bar, pancakes, hamburgers on the grill, and spaghetti are all favorites for our family :)

Oh, and if you’re looking for really simple recipes with easy-to-find ingredients, check out my virtual recipe box!

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4. Make a double batch whenever possible.

If I’m making soup, stew, casseroles, pasta dishes, or grilling/roasting meat, I almost always make a double (or triple) batch and put the rest in the freezer. This way, I save myself a bunch of time (and dirty dishes) now… and even more time later when I can just pull a meal out of the freezer and pop it in the oven.

Obviously, this won’t work with every meal you make, but I try to make double batches of food at least once or twice a week. This means I always have a pretty good selection of meals in the freezer — and boy do they come in handy for busy days when time gets away from me!

Another way to save time is by making two different meals at the same time. For example, if you have two chicken meals planned in one week, cook up all the chicken at one time and then portion it out for the two different meals. Or make your meal for tonight, and while it’s baking in the oven, get a head start on some of the prep work for tomorrow’s meal.

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5. Make enough for leftovers.

Dave and I LOVE leftovers — and while I know everyone doesn’t share our enthusiasm, if you’re also a fan of leftovers, you will love this tip.

If you don’t have the need to make a double batch (see #3 above) or you don’t have the freezer space to make a double batch every time, at least make enough for leftovers later in the week. You can eat them for lunch, repurpose them into different meals, or just use them for a busy night when you don’t have the time or desire to cook.

Some of our favorites leftovers are: taco meat or grilled chicken to put on salads, pizza, lasagna, casseroles, soups, baked sandwiches, baked potatoes, etc.

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6. Plan for nights out.

Yes, you read that right — I think it’s a really good idea to plan for nights out (either with friends, family, or at restaurants). I have absolutely NOTHING against picking up a pizza, pulling through a drive-through window or eating out at a local restaurant every now and then — as long as it’s somewhat planned.

We don’t do it every week, but Dave and I do plan to take a night off from cooking every once in a while (we always try to use coupons or gift cards!)

I realize eating out isn’t necessarily the healthiest or most cost-effective meal choice, but I’m 100% fine with doing it SOMETIMES. What I don’t want to get into the habit of doing is using fast food as a back up for “slacking off” and not following through with my meal plan.

So as you enter the busy weeks of summer, consider utilizing a few of these tips to simplify your meal planning.

Your family and your sanity will thank you!

What are your favorite meal planning tips?

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16 comments

  1. Amanda

    06/24/2013

    rather than plan for specific nights, I plan meals and then as we go through the 2 weeks, I just pick things that will work for that evening. And although it’s not on a meal plan, usually we plan for at least one night out.

    Also, in the summer I plan to use the grill A LOT! I can throw a protein in some marinade at naptime, or when I’m making breakfast, and then at dinner time it’s ready to throw in the grill. I try to pick sides that are mostly either grill friendly, microwave or stovetop.

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  2. Stacie Kaltz

    06/24/2013

    Thanks Andrea! I was just thinking what to have for dinner, and do not want to make a big dinner since Michigan temp has increased (not complaining)! You are so right at saying summer time dinner planning can become a bit relaxed! I have not been on the ball with meal planning lately, but I knew you would give me some inspiration!!! :-) BLT’s it is!!!!!

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    Andrea Reply:

    Haha — when Dave read my post for today, he said “let’s have BLT’s next week” — so we’ll be having them for dinner tomorrow :)

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  3. Aa.

    06/24/2013

    For me it is pretty difficult to cook in the summer because the entire hose is warmingeven if we boile 2-3 potatoes, and we can’t freeze meals because of the small freezer. But we cook easier, pasta, easy soups, grills and salads so it is kind of fun, especially because we don’t need to eat as much as we did in the winter and it is easy to have yougurt in the morning, soup for lunch, fruits for snakcs and an easy dinner in the evening. We make big batches of soup so they will last 3-4 days and that is my greatest tip to cook in the summer, because i believe that soup tastes even better the day after it has been cooked.

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  4. Debby

    06/24/2013

    I think you’re right about the simple thing being so important. Don’t get caught up in fancy meals. A protein and some fresh veggies(raw or cooked) and some fresh fruit is all you need.

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    Andrea Reply:

    Yup… totally agree! Dave would definitely argue that he’d need potatoes or a starch too :)

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  5. Shari

    06/24/2013

    Thanks for this! I had really been slacking with my meal planning of late, and I think it’s because I was just letting it get way too complicated. Time to get back on track. :-)

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    Andrea Reply:

    yes Shari, it’s so easy to over-complicate simple things! Stick to the basics, make your 15 favorite recipes over and over again… it doesn’t have to be fancy or complicated at all!

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  6. Julia

    06/24/2013

    As usual on your site, in today’s post I found out that your family uses ideas our family has been using too. :) I think it’s brilliant that you’ve been able to use those ideas as a business for you.
    I have used the the daily themes for meal planning for a long time. It has helped relieve alot of the stress of meal planning because, as you said, it narrows down the recipes to choose from.
    In the past I have used many different meal planning methods: monthly, weekly, two-week plans, etc. The method I am currrently using and loving is an idea I ran across at simplifiedpantry.com. Basically you keep a master list of pantry basics (you decide what those basics are for your family) and keep those items on hand. You compile a master meal list each for breakfast, lunch, supper and snacks based on what your family likes and what all can be made from your pantry basics. Shopping is easy cause it’s just restocking your basics.
    To make this method work easily for me, I’m using a cork board/magnetic dry erase board that I attached to one of my upper kitchen cabinets with the removable 3M picture hangers (I have a very small kitchen). I use the cork board half to keep my meal lists on 5×8 index cards easily visible and accessible (also very easy to write down new meal ideas or new favorite recipes). I use the magnetic dry erase half to write down my current meal ideas. As I make the recipes, I erase that meal idea. I can also write down leftovers or perishables that need to be used up soon and keep track that way. I have found this method to be very flexible to schedule needs and it adapts very well to using the daily themes when I want to use that method as well. I am really enjoying cooking with this method of meal planning. :)

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    Andrea Reply:

    Wow Julia, your system sounds fabulous — and so organized! I love it and might just have to implement something similar inside one of our kitchen cabinets!

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    Jennifer Reply:

    Thank you, Andrea and Julia! I need to do something about the leftovers that get lost in the fridge and could have made great second meals. The wipe board hidden in the cabinet is a perfect idea to jot down what’s left over and ideas for using it.

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  7. Jen@ A Heart For My Home

    06/24/2013

    Great ideas! I also try to stick to themed days. It makes menu planning much easier.

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  8. Kalyn Brooke | Creative Savings

    06/24/2013

    I always try to limit one new recipe to try a week. Sometimes I get really excited about trying new things, and I end up getting overwhelmed.

    We found that our eating out habit was getting out of control, so as an inspiration from your no spending challenge, my husband and I started a “no eating out” challenge for 3 weeks.

    Well, we are on week 3, and though we have been tempted to run out and grab something, we’ve forced ourselves to stay and eat at home. It’s definitely made me meal plan even more- so thank you!

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    Andrea Reply:

    Yay Kalyn! isn’t the no-spending challenge quite eye-opening? It was for us!

    Oh, and I like your “only one new recipe a week” idea too.

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  9. Rachel

    06/25/2013

    Love these ideas! My husband and I work outside the home and have 3 kids that are very active in baseball, golf, dance and gymnastics. We are at a ball field or studio 5 nights a week and Saturdays as well. We have been eating way too many drive thru dinners on the bleachers since baseball started in April and something has got to change. Just this past weekend we were talking about meal planning. I try to make a lot of snacks/desserts/pancakes (many from your recipes!) on Sunday evenings to get us through the week, but meal planning is so hard when we go straight from work to the ballpark every night. I often plan for us to eat at home after the activities are done for the evening, but when a child is hungry and there are two hours left in a sibling’s game/event, it’s hard not to feed them something from the concession stand. Yes, I could make sure I always have snacks packed for the ball park, but most days I feel good if we remember everyone’s hat, bat bag and water bottle (not to mention chairs, bug spray, sunglasses, etc.). I am going to give these ideas a try this week! Even is we don’t get home until 8:45 to eat, we’ll be better off financially and physically if I have a dinner planned for when we get home. Thank you!

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    Tonia Reply:

    Holy Cow Rachel!! Maybe you should invest in a slow cooker…throw your meal in it in the morning…or even the night before(you can place the crock in the fridge over night and just bring it to room temp before placing it back in the pot and turning it on) This would save you so much time and it would be ready when you get home!!

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