How to Meal Plan | My Approach to Menu Planning

by Marcy on January 8, 2009 · 0 comments

how to menu plan

How to Menu / Meal Plan

Menu planning is a beautiful thing. Frugal Meal Planning is even better! I first learned about menu planning a little over a year ago when I stumbled across the blog I’m an Organizing Junkie. After participating for a few weeks I was sold. Menu planning does take some time up front (usually on Sunday evenings for me), but having a plan really does save me a lot of time, money, and stress in the long run.

For those of you new to menu planning, the task might seem overwhelming at first. And while I do not consider myself a menu planning expert, I do have a few tips that I’d like to share about how I come up with my weekly menus. Hopefully some of this info will help you out if you don’t know where to start…or if you have started but feel stuck.

How Many Meals to Plan and How Often

The first step to menu planning is to decide how many meals you are going to plan, and how often. While some people choose to plan their meals for breakfast, lunch and dinner, I have chosen to stick mainly with our dinners and our weekend lunches. I do this because we always have cereal, granola bars, fruit and oatmeal on hand for our breakfasts, and lunches are almost always leftovers or items that are always in my pantry or freezer.

In addition to deciding how many meals you are going to plan, you should also decide how often you are going to plan them. For example, I currently write up my menu plans weekly. Others write out menu plans for an entire month. There is no right or wrong answer as to how many meals you include in your menu plan or how often you choose to write your plans. Do what works best for you and your lifestyle.

Variety is the Spice of Life…or Something Like That…

The second thing I like to do is to have a rough outline in my mind as to what types of meals I want my family to eat each week. We are meat eaters so I tend base my outline on the types of meat we eat. For example I try to limit our meals that contain beef to twice a week. I plan for a chicken/pork/turkey dish 3-4 times per week, one night for leftovers and at least one night for eating out (usually pizza). While this is my rough outline I ultimately default to what is in my freezer and pantry and what is on sale at the grocery.

Some other guidelines I try to follow each week are:

  • Make at least one new recipe (more than that tends to overwhelm me)
  • Use the crockpot at least once if possible
  • Include a vegetable with every meal
  • Cook different types of food each week: Mexican, Italian, Asian etc…

While I don’t always follow these guidelines to a tee, having them helps me get “unstuck” when I can’t think of meals to add to my plan.

You Don’t Have to be a Chef to Create a Menu Plan

Menu planning does not require you to be a gourmet chef. It can serve to eliminate the chaos of trying to figure out what’s for dinner after a long day. It can help you form your grocery list. It can help you to ensure that your family is eating a balanced and healthy diet. And it can help you avoid the (costly) temptation of eating out frequently. But nowhere have I ever seen the rule that you have to be a gourmet chef (or even a good cook!) to menu plan. At its most basic level a menu plan is your guide to ensure that you have food in the house that can be formed in to meals; even if those meals are chicken fingers and tater tots (which I see nothing wrong with, by the way!).

Involve Your Family

While I am the one who does most of the planning and cooking in our house, sometimes I run out of ideas. Or the energy to think. Or both. :-) When that happens I ask my husband if there is anything in particular that he would like to eat and I think about my daughter and what she likes to eat. This usually helps. Another thing that I like to do is to post our menu plan in the kitchen when it is complete. That way my husband can see what is on tap for the week and veto anything he isn’t up for.

Be Flexible

Things happen. Schedules get screwed up, people get sick, or sometimes you don’t feel like eating what you had planned for the night. You know what? That’s ok. While I assign a meal to each night of the week, I tend to change meals around based on what we are feeling like on a particular night. And sometimes I abandon the plan completely. My menu plan serves to make my life easier, not to make me guilty when I fall short.


There are tons of great resources on the web if you are looking for new meals to try. Here are some of my favorite inspirations:

And a few of my favorite cookbooks:

And while they are nothing fancy, you can view all of my past menu plans here.

For those of you with menu planning experience, what tips do you have that you would like to share? Where do you come up with ideas for new recipes to try?

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