My Meal Plan (5 years and 3 kids later)

posted by Andrea | 09/23/2016
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meal plan

Way back in September of 2011, I shared the brand new way of meal planning I had been using for only a few weeks at that time.

That method revolved around having set “themes” for every night so it wouldn’t be as overwhelming to create my weekly meal plan.

For example:

MONDAY – Italian

TUESDAY – Casserole

WEDNESDAY – Breakfast

THURSDAY – Meat (burgers, roast, pork chops, chicken breast)

FRIDAY – Mexican

SATURDAY – Leftovers or out to eat

SUNDAY – meal with friends, family, or at church (for lunch), frozen pizza (for dinner)

Now, 5 years and 3 children later, I’m happy to say that we’re still using that same basic meal planning method because it STILL works so well!

The one modification I’ve made is that I no longer assign specific themes for specific nights of the week — but rather just try to hit each of the themes once per week. This way, we still have lots of variety in what we eat each week, but I have a bit more flexibility as to what night we eat what food.

For example: 

Instead of always having some sort of Italian meal EVERY Monday, we now plan some sort of Italian meal once per week.

Instead of having breakfast EVERY Wednesday, we now just have breakfast once per week — whenever it works best in our schedule.

Also, now that we have 3 kids, we rarely go to family or friend’s houses on Sundays anymore. Instead, we often just do a simple meal after church — a casserole I can have ready to go before church, loaded baked potatoes in the slow cooker, or even sandwiches. We still usually have pizza at night though!

I still plan our weekly menu out on Sunday afternoon (and I still make my grocery list at the same time), but I plan them based on what our schedule looks like, how much time I’ll have to prepare the meal, and how much time we’ll have to eat the meal.

If I know I’ll be gone most of the day on Wednesday, I’ll pull a casserole from the freezer in the morning (or the night before) and have it ready to go in the oven when we get home.

Or if I know we will only have a short time to eat dinner, I’ll schedule leftovers or plan to pick up a pizza on that night.

If we have lots of extra time (like we did over the summer) I’ll plan to make a more time-consuming meal or use up some of the kid’s freebie restaurant coupons they got from the library!

Honestly, I don’t really enjoy meal planning… but at the same time, I know how much time, energy, stress, and effort it saves me throughout the week and I’m 100% positive it’s worth the few minutes I spend planning our menu on Sunday.

Over the summer, I tried “winging it” a few times and not making a set-in-stone weekly meal plan… it was SO awful! Dave and I were constantly talking about what we could have for dinner — only to find out we didn’t have all the right ingredients, we didn’t have enough time, or we forgot to defrost a key part of the meal.

It was crazy how much effort it took to plan individual meals the day we wanted to eat them versus planning everything ahead of time and grocery shopping with those meals in mind.

I quickly realized (yet again) how meal planning simplifies my entire day… at least the food part! 

Yes, YOU can meal plan!

Even if your meal plan is ridiculously simple (think: spaghetti, grilled cheese, baked potatoes, pancakes, and frozen pizza) I can almost guarantee you will feel less stressed and more “on top of things” if you know what the meal plan is for each day — not to mention it will make grocery shopping so much easier!

And even if your meal plan is to get takeout, order pizza, and hit up your favorite restaurants every week, I honestly still think you would benefit from planning it a week in advance. No more questioning which restaurant to go to, what type of pizza to order, where to get takeout from, etc. etc.

In my opinion, I really can’t think of any situation that couldn’t benefit from a weekly meal plan (even if it’s just a mental meal plan)!

Still need a little more convincing?

Check out ALL my meal planning posts here!

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26 comments

  1. Alex

    09/30/2016

    Great tip on meal planning; I’m going to give it a try!

    Also, great job on the website!

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  2. Mara

    09/28/2016

    This system definitely seems to work so well! I think it takes the over-complicated parts of meal-planning out of the equation! I bet a lot of people already do this more than they even realize 🙂

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  3. Emily

    09/26/2016

    Yes meal planning!!! Saves so much time and money. My week feels so off when I haven’t planned out our meals. Even if the plan is a freezer meal, I need to have that written down. 🙂 I put an alarm on my phone that reminds me every evening before I go to bed to set out meat or a freezer meal to thaw. I would love to have monthly meal plans that we rotate. One of my goals! Let me know if you figure that one out. 🙂

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  4. Julia K

    09/26/2016

    I have been meal planning for YEARS and could not imagine life without it. Even when we have those weeks where everything has gone pear shaped – the meal plan is the constant. I generally come up with it on a Sunday and print a copy off and stick it on the fridge as I CONSTANTLY get asked “what’s for dinner Mum ?”.

    For some reason I have kept the past year’s meal plans in the front of my recipe binder. Lacking inspiration yesterday, I plucked a meal plan from February out of the binder and except for swapping out Thursday’s planned meal for a lasagne I already have in the freezer – I’m just reusing that week in February. See – I even get a holiday from meal planning by just rehashing one that I prepared earlier.

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    Andrea Reply:

    I’ve honestly thought about doing a couple months worth of meal plans and then rotating them several times a year. It would save me so much time and energy 🙂

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  5. Jennifer Crawford

    09/24/2016

    I am a teacher and the beginning of the school year is especially hard. I found that if I make a loose meal plan for the month it really helps me. For this month I picked 4 slow cooker meals, 4 main course salads, 4 sandwich/wraps, and 4 “other” meals like lasagna or stir fry. Then each week I pick 4 of the meals (for the other 3 nights of the week– one night is usually take out, one night leftovers/clean out the fridge, and one night I pull something homemade out of the freezer). This gives me flexibility to adjust my meals to my schedule, what sounds good that week, etc. but I still have a plan. And I only really had to do it once a month.

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    Andrea Reply:

    sounds like a great plan for a very busy time of year!

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  6. Pixie508

    09/24/2016

    I always make a list of meals for the week – I don’t pick a day, because I found when I used to do that, I would get to that day, and not want to make whatever it was, and then I’d throw myself off. I don’t do themes, but I do try to vary the protein and the carb (we often have salad, or whatever veg I feel like, either frozen or fresh. Generally, we do breakfast for dinner 3wks out of the month, and we have pizza every Friday (although, once in awhile it gets swapped to the weekend).

    Along with the 6 meals (+pizza) that I plan every week, I keep some basic ingredients on hand all the time – we always have frozen ground beef, ground sausage, and chicken breasts, as well as frozen homemade spaghetti sauce (in one dinner sized portions), shredded cheese, and pantry staples etc. Meaning I can always make things like pasta and sauce, tacos, grilled cheese/tomato soup, etc. It means that if all goes horribly wrong, I can pull those “pantry staples” out and know I can have dinner on the table in less than 30min. – It also means if I can get to the store Monday morning (my normal time), I have enough stuff to go a few extra days if I can’t get to the store, including my frozen meals.

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    Andrea Reply:

    yes! Pasta, tacos, grilled cheese, loaded baked potatoes, and pancakes are always our “fall back options” 🙂

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  7. Meghan

    09/23/2016

    Great meal planning tips! I really enjoy meal planning. Before kids I would browse cookbooks and try new things often. Now, I have a mental list of 20-30 meals that I choose from every week. I plan out the week on paper but usually have 2-3 easy meals in mind (like eggs and hash brown scramble) in case something doesn’t work out. Sometimes I contemplate getting fast food when the older kids have practice or a game, but it’s truthfully more stressful for me to get everyone out the door earlier,go into a restaurant, and then load everyone back in the car after dinner to ge to practice. I’d rather cook at home.

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  8. Sarah

    09/23/2016

    In a moment of desperation a month or so ago, I copied your meal plan almost exactly. Then I found a recipe or two for each theme, made a grocery list for all the ingredients, and have stuck to it since then making the same recipes over and over again each week. Amazingly, no one complained or got bored and it has saved my sanity, time in the kitchen and at the grocery, and money. It’s also given me more time with our little boys since I don’t have to spend so much time in the kitchen or planning meals.
    I did this in such a simple way so that I could establish the habit and it worked great! Thank you for the inspiration. It was hard for me to start doing it because I love to change things up and cook and try different recipes and meals, but I learned – finally – after only three years of doing this mama thing that that just doesn’t work for me right now in these little years. One day I’ll be able to do that consistently again, but for now keeping it simple is the way to go.
    Last Sunday, I decided – now that the habit is established – to try and have the same method for 3 months at a time and then I just have basically 4 meal plans for the year to I rotate based on the season. We’ll see how that works 🙂
    Cheers from NM

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    Andrea Reply:

    I actually thought about doing this EXACT same thing over the summer — and Dave said it was a good idea! I’m trying to come up with a one-month meal plan that can work (with a few swaps) for each season… and then make a grocery list for each of the weeks. That way, I just have 4 weekly meal plans and 4 corresponding grocery lists that I rotate in and out all year long (with a few tweaks for seasonal preferences).
    HOWEVER, I really like your idea of eating the same things for 3 months, then switching to a new season’s’ menu plan for 3 more months. I might have to look into this idea too! Thanks for the inspiration 🙂

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  9. Jennifer

    09/23/2016

    I cringe when we don’t have a meal planned and the round-and-round starts about what we could have for dinner. I am much happier and feel less stressed when we have a meal plan and can talk about ANYTHING else each evening.

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    Andrea Reply:

    yup! Over the summer, I got “lazy” and often didn’t have a plan for every day. I was always amazed how much time I spent talking and thinking about “what we should have for dinner” on those night I failed to plan. Lesson learned — always have a menu plan!

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  10. Jamie

    09/23/2016

    Yes! I do 3 week meal plans and then a massive grocery trip (with 3 little ones, I try to go grocery shopping as little as possible) and would be lost without a game plan! I keep a notebook specifically for my meal plans and grocery lists — when I run out of ideas, I can flip back a few pages and get some ideas from previous weeks or months.

    I’ve also found it easy enough to pick 1-2 meals each week to double and freeze for another week. Our grocery budget barely notices it and it’s nice to have a steady stash in the freezer for weeks that get crazy. Except now I’m stashing them for this winter when Baby #4 comes. It isn’t always easy to find the time (or space in your budget) to do 1 major freezer cooking day, but I’ve found this works very well for us.

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    Andrea Reply:

    Wow — that’s great. i can’t even imagine buying 3 weeks worth of groceries WITH 3 kids along. Do you have to take 2 carts?
    Congrats on baby #4 — get that freezer stocked!

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  11. Megan

    09/23/2016

    Your strategies really do help. Even when I just jot down a simple plan like you suggest, such as pasta one night, sandwiches, casserole or salad, it really does help me feel more in control of grocery shopping and the evening routine. Eating dinner together makes such a difference and having a little plan in place makes it so much more doable! Thanks for all your great tips!

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    Andrea Reply:

    yes, yes, yes! It doesn’t have to be anything fancy or special — just a simple plan so you don’t have to make the decision about what to eat at 5:00 when everyone is hungry!

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  12. Katie

    09/23/2016

    I love cooking and browsing through recipe books, but it was taking me ages to meal plan each week and I knew it was necessary with 2 full time working parents and 2 kids under 4.

    Similar to you, I have themes I try to incorporate each week – a slow cooker meal (generally works out well to do this on a Monday), a meatless meal, a soup/sandwich meal, a homemade pizza night – and I figure out where the best place is to put them each week based on our schedule.

    To limit my endless browsing through recipe books, I limit myself to 3 books per week to peruse when picking out my meals!

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    Andrea Reply:

    haha — love this! I used to love looking through cookbooks too, but I actually purged almost all of mine a few years ago. Now I just scroll through the recipe page on my blog and sometimes Pinterest 🙂
    I have thought about checking recipe books out from the library though!

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    Katie Reply:

    Anything by Ina Garten (the Barefoot Contessa) is a winner! I haven’t made a bad thing from her yet.

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  13. Paulette

    09/23/2016

    Sorry…just thought of something else you suggested in one of your posts about meal planning. You suggested double batch cooking. Oh Andrea, this is just the bomb!!! It has helped me so much. Again, you are so helpful.

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    Andrea Reply:

    Thanks Paulette — glad your meal planning methods are working so well for your family… and yes, double batch cooking is SUCH a great way to save time and energy in the kitchen!

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  14. Paulette

    09/23/2016

    Andrea, you are SO right. I even came up with a list of all our favorite meals and when meal planning, I just pick and choose for the week and then prepare my grocery list from my choices. It’s amazing. One of the worse things about preparing meals (to me) is that mental paralysis of trying to decide what to have and not being prepared for that choice. You’re such an inspiration! Thanks for all you do!

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  15. Amy

    09/23/2016

    I HATE meal planning! It stresses me out WAY too much. I decided to join Costco again, and that has helped immensely! I stay away from the “not so great” frozen food there, but they have a wonderful selection of foods to choose from that don’t have a million insane ingredients. We all eat at different times. Sounds crazy, I know, With my daughter coming home starving at 4 from school, then my husband coming home an hour and a half later hungry, and me not so hungry when they are, having things that don’t take much time to make separately is a god send!

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    Andrea Reply:

    Well, it sounds like you have a system that works well for your whole family at this point in your life! Good for you!

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