How I Simplify Meal Planning with “Go-To Meals”

posted by Andrea | 04/29/2015

go-to meals

You all know that I’m a big advocate for weekly meal planning (or monthly meal planning for those of you who are really ambitious!)

No, I don’t particularly love the process of meal planning, and I don’t anxiously look forward to deciding what we’ll eat all week long. However, I know (from lots of personal experience) that my days and my kitchen and my life run a whole lot smoother when I take 20 minutes or so to plan out a week of meals on Saturday or Sunday.

It’s kind of like my morning routine that I shared last week. I don’t necessarily LOVE waking up early and forcing myself to get dressed and ready; but I also know that if I DON’T do it, I’ll feel behind, cranky, and stressed for the rest of the day.

Similarly, if I DON’T spend the time to make a simple meal plan for my week, my weeknights will be much more rushed and stressed because I won’t have a plan. Plus, I’ll most certainly need to make multiple trips to the grocery store to get items I didn’t have… and I’ll end up spending A LOT more time thinking, planning, and worrying about our weekly meals than if I had just planned them all over the weekend.

To sum it up, I meal plan because it saves me massive amounts of time — and right now, time is my most limited resource 🙂

That said, I’m ALWAYS looking for ways to simplify and streamline the meal planning process.

So far, my favorite meal planning method is still to use “themes” for the different days of the week. I’ve been using this method faithfully for 4 years now, and although we don’t religiously abide by these themes every single night, I DO use them as an extremely helpful way to take much of the thought process out of planning our meals.

Another unexpected benefit of using themes for so many years (Italian one night, breakfast another night, Mexican another, etc. etc.) is that I’ve compiled a pretty extensive list of “go-to meals”, as I call them, that I can make on a moment’s notice without a recipe and using mainly non-perishable ingredients I almost always have on hand.

These go-to meals have saved my butt and my sanity on MANY occasions — if plans unexpectedly change, if I realize too late that I forgot a crucial ingredient at the store, if the weather isn’t cooperating for my menu on the grill, or if dinner guests are invited at the last minute.

I know that no matter what the situation, I ALWAYS have multiple meal options I can make at a very short notice.

Here are a few of my favorite go-to meals.

I feel I should mention that I am fully aware that many of these meals are not necessarily health foods, nor are they gourmet. However, these are not meals we eat every single day — they are last-minute options when our time is short or plans change.

Also, I’m fairly confident ALL of the options listed below are healthier and cheaper than fast food 🙂


  • Any type of pasta with any type of jarred sauce or this super simple semi-homemade pasta sauce
  • Often I’ll turn the “plain pasta” into a baked pasta dish by adding cottage cheese, ground beef or ground sausage, cheese on top, and popping it in the oven for a bit.
  • Frozen pizza or muffin tin pizzas
  • Mac and cheese (from a box)

**We’ll often make garlic bread, frozen veggies, fruit salad, and/or salad as sides for these meals.


  • Bean and cheese quesadillas — I’ll add ground beef or shredded chicken mixed with taco seasoning if I have it in the freezer
  • Loaded chips and cheese (cheese, peppers, onions, seasoned ground beef, more cheese, tomatoes, herbs, etc.) topped with salsa and/or guacamole
  • Bean and cheese burritos — again, I’ll add ground beef or shredded chicken if I have it on hand

**We’ll usually make some fresh salsa or jarred salsa and a salad as sides for these meals.


**We’ll usually have fresh fruit with yogurt, canned fruit, and/or smoothies with these meals.

Soups, Salads, Sandwiches, and more:

So there you have it, nothing fancy, nothing glamorous… but I can make everything listed above in 30 minutes or less, without a recipe, without the need to run to the store for fancy ingredients.

This certainly doesn’t mean we never resort to fast food… but I will say that most of our fast food meals are actually planned into our weekly meal plan and not a result of no plans or nothing to eat in our house.

Thanks to a bunch of pantry staples and a handful of super simple meals, I know that we never need to wonder “what’s for dinner”, scramble to the store at the last minute, or head out for fast food with 2 little kids!

What are your favorite go-to meals?


Filed under: FoodMeal Planning

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  1. Jill


    I LOVE seeing these kinds of posts! We Momma’s have to share these ideas! Love the “themed” nights idea. I’m thinking a breakfast for dinner will be in my menu plan next week- gonna try the french toast sticks!
    Here are my go to meals:


  2. Meghan


    I pretty much always have to have 3-5 meals I can make at any time. It’s a weird security thing 🙂
    Breakfast burritos
    Quesadillas with whatever leftovers we have
    Hash browns, eggs, and turkey sausage skillet
    Spaghetti and meat sauce
    Sloppy joes
    Turkey kilbasa and Hashbrowns
    Frozen ravioli layered with Prego and mozzerella cheese and baked
    Hamburgers and baked beans
    Pancakes, bacon, and fruit

    None of these meals are a first choice, but they are a better alternative to pizza or eating out.


    Andrea Reply:

    YUM, sounds like some good go-to meals for me!


  3. Aa.


    I myself am in the proccess of making this same list.

    My personal favourites are pasta (tuna and tomatoes, clams pasta, pasta with chicken and brocooli, ravioli and carbonara are the fastest and we love them), ranch eggs, breakfast dinner, finger fish with steamed broccoli, sandwiches and a version of chilli that we like.

    We always have ingredients for at least 3-5 of these foods and it is a life saver to have them noted on a list so I can look over it when I am short on time.


  4. Carrie


    Your baked ham & cheese sandwiches are DEFINATELY on my “go-to-meals” list. Also, we are getting a Meijer store this year & I’m soooo excited since you have spoken so highly of it. 🙂


    Andrea Reply:

    yes, we love those too! yay for a Meijer coming to your town. I hope you love it as much as we do!


  5. Erika


    My go to meals are spaghetti and meat sauce, tuna salad sandwiches, fried egg sandwiches, black bean quesadillas, english muffin pizzas, bean tostadas, waffles or pancakes and eggs. Soft tacos or burritos with whatever we have on hand, grilled cheese and tomato soup. Another favorite that we like every week or two is what we call “Squee” brown ground turkey or beef, then add chopped onions and shredded green cabbage and if we have any other veggies we need to use, I’ll add those too-usually peppers or mushrroms. Usually we will eat this over buttered noodles and everyone will season it to there liking. Just make sure you cook cabbage very well or else your tummy will get a little bloaty feeling. 🙂


    Andrea Reply:

    Your list sounds very similar to ours! And for the record, my all-time FAVORITE go-to meal (since I was a little kid) has always been spaghetti and meat sauce. I could literally eat it for breakfast (and honestly, sometimes I do!)


  6. Roxanne


    I try to keep some thawed chicken breasts in the fridge at all times. They’re so versatile and there’s a lot of different directions I can take them as long as I have at least a half hour to prep them- I can bake them with whatever sauces, seasonings or toppings I have on hand; I can cube them or slice them and use them in pasta dishes, soups and stir-fry; or I can shred them and use them in more ethnic-type dishes. We also always have frozen veggies in the freezer (yay for microwaves!) and if we can slice up some fruit to go with it, then I call it “good enough” and dinner is served 🙂


  7. Tracey


    This is JUST what I needed today…I think you are a mind-reader!!! So often I’m struggling with ash everyday challenge, I check in here, and it turns out you’ve addressed that very thing.

    Thank You!!!


    Tracey Reply:

    “an” everyday challenge!


    Andrea Reply:

    Happy to help — and extra happy that my tips seem to align with your challenges 🙂


  8. Meg


    Thanks for the ideas! We try to eat as much “real food” as possible, but many of your ideas can be adjusted accordingly. Great, simple way to keep that daily “what’s for dinner???” feeling at bay. 😉


  9. Debbie W.


    Great list Andrea! Some of these are my go-to meals too, but you have several that I never thought of. I think this list will really help me in my efforts to improve my own meal planning/meal prep. Thanks!


    Andrea Reply:

    glad to add a few more ideas to your list 🙂