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10 Tips to Successfully Meal Plan — Without Being Boring!

Remember, when you were young and kid-free, deciding at 6:45pm where you wanted to go out to dinner? (Don’t you want to go back in time and kick that person?!) My husband and I used to have so many options, when we were kidless and living in Washington, D.C., that we often had to play the “veto game” to figure out which of the amazing and endless number of available restaurants we would be dining in that evening. Even when we cooked and ate at home, we were heading to the farmer’s market the day of and picking up produce at 6pm when we got off work, casually cooking, and eating around 9pm… whaaaaaat?? Gone are those days! While it can still be hard to figure out what we’re going to do for dinner, we do not have time to play the veto game or dash off to the grocery store at 6pm. The easy solution is to meal plan, but that can sound like such a drag. 

bread meal plan NMB

Who knows what the little monsters ones will want to eat three days from now? I was so hesitant to be a meal planning family back when my son was a baby and first started eating meals at the table with us. I finally started making a meal plan out of desperation, and now I love it! I’ve been setting a meal plan for our family’s meals on a weekly basis for the last five years, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.* I feel completely stress-free at 5:30 when I start cooking. I know what I’m making, and all the ingredients are ready in the pantry and refrigerator. Such a far cry from when I first started!

Just in case this sounds like something you want to try, I’ve put together some tips I’ve learned over the past several years on how to meal plan without it being boring:

  1. Follow food blogs. Find a few favorites that appeal to your cooking style, dietary restrictions, and the food your family loves. (I love Ambitious Kitchen, Dinner: A Love Story, Simply Recipes, and Smitten Kitchen—to name a few.) I find food blogs to be a bit easier to navigate than cookbooks, plus they’re always putting out new recipes. I like to read my blogs on Sunday over coffee and save the recipes that look good.
  2. Get some rotation going. You make a mean lasagne? Get that in the meal plan every other week—or as often as you feel like having it!
  3. Assign meals to days. In our house, I try to make a new recipe every Monday (Gourmet Monday is what I call it in my head. I don’t think my husband or kids know about that . . .), and we have Taco Tuesdays and pizza (and a movie) on Fridays. It keeps the plan relatively simple.
  4. Get input from the kids. If you’re like me, your daughter will say “Macawoni and cheethe!” 100 percent of the time you ask her what she wants for dinner this week, and sometimes we can accommodate that. Try to remember what foods your kids have loved in the past or what meals they have devoured, and incorporate those into your menu cycle. Your kid likes roasted broccoli? Mix it up, and have it steamed with butter as a side dish one night.
  5. Begin with a one-week plan. If you’re just starting out, give yourself two days off. The weekends can be looser for most people, but decide which days you’ll have more flexibility. You can put “take-out” or “leftovers” into your plan if it helps you to have it all written out. (It helps me tremendously!)
  6. Make the menu! Since I’ve assigned certain meals to certain days, I basically just have to figure out what kind of tacos or pizza we’ll have—and then fill in the gaps. We usually have pasta once a week, only eat meat twice, and eat fish at least once. There’s usually a family favorite recipe I can put in somewhere, and I try to incorporate an ethnic meal (Mexican, Indian, Chinese, etc.). I also look at the weather for the week and plan soups or creamy dishes on colder days and salads or grilled dishes on warmer ones. Once you figure out what your family needs—and how much time you have—you’re all set to plan those meals.
  7. Plan thriftily and efficiently. It’s helpful to think about the whole week because you can save money on groceries and save yourself some time as well. For example: if we have a whole roasted chicken on Sunday, we’ll have BBQ chicken sandwiches or chicken enchiladas later in the week with the leftover chicken. If I put a spinach salad on the menu, I’ll go ahead and get a gigantic batch of spinach and use it in other dishes—or for more salad. If I make a bean and rice bowl for one meal, and I know I’ll need rice for an Asian dish later in the week, I’ll go ahead and make a double batch of rice.
  8. Use what you have. During the summer, I figure out which vegetables we’re getting in our CSA before I set our meal plan. If I have leftover salmon in the freezer, or if I need to use the rest of the Brussels sprouts, I’ll take that into account too.
  9. Get thee to the grocery. Most people I know actually like grocery shopping on their own, but I hate it. I love shopping at a farmer’s market, but strolling down a big supermarket aisle with a cart is my living nightmare. Make it faster by getting your list in order and shopping for the entire week. If you need fish or other meat for the end of the week, and you’re shopping at the beginning of the week, grab it anyway and put it in the freezer for later. I usually do have to do a mid-week grocery run for fruit and other produce because it spoils quickly, but I like being able to dash in and out of there in a hurry, so I try to remember everything during that big beginning of the week shopping trip. (I’m also guilty of texting my husband once or twice a week to pick up something on the way home.) (Okay, five times a week.) (Okay, it’s usually wine.)
  10. Be flexible—even within the plan. When I first started making a meal plan, I would get so stressed if we decided to go out to dinner instead or if no one felt like eating what I’d planned for us. Don’t be like me! That ground beef will keep for one more night, or you can freeze it. If you don’t feel like eating what you have planned, swap it for another night—or order takeout instead!

salmon meal plan NMB

Below is a sample meal plan for our family. I like to plan sides as well, but you don’t have to! Do whatever works best for you and brings your family the most joy and happiness (and most importantly, the least stress)!

Sunday: whole roasted chicken with potatoes, spinach salad, French bread (make or buy double loaves, freeze one for Friday)
Monday: pasta carbonara, sauteed spinach
Tuesday: fish tacos with red cabbage slaw and avocado, corn, and mango salsa (make enough red cabbage slaw for Wednesday)
Wednesday: BBQ chicken sandwiches, sweet potato fries (use leftover chicken from Sunday and leftover red cabbage slaw from Tuesday; buy enough sweet potatoes to use in Wednesday’s curry)
Thursday: slow-cooker chickpea, spinach, and sweet potato curry over rice
Friday: French bread cheese pizzas, spinach salad (use leftover bread from Sunday)
Saturday: dinner out with friends!

Someday I’ll be that lucky jerk again who can go out to dinner at 9pm after having luxuriously decided what I felt like eating (I’m not bitter), but for now I dig the menu making. It’s fun to know what I’m going to be making, not to have to make last-minute dashes to the grocery store or to have to order last-minute take-out, and to keep my family fed well—even on the busy days. Next challenge to tackle: wine planning.

*I am the sole cook in our family, which is fine with my husband and me because I’m pretty good at it, and I enjoy it. If you hate cooking and your partner loves it, then heck, why are you still reading this? Email this to him or her instead! If you and your partner both enjoy cooking, give him or her half the planning responsibility, and share the load!

Do you set a meal plan in advance? What works for you?

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