What I Have Learned: Meal Planning and Putting it to Paper

I have struggled with this whole meal planning business off and on. I have come to realize that meal planning just doesn’t happen. It is something I have to work hard at doing. It has to be purposeful, intentional.

MP paper

The classic method of pen and paper is usually what works best. I can jot down an idea, scribble it out, move it to another day with an arrow. It’s just easier to “think” when writing, opposed to using a calendar on the computer or some meal planning service. Now, I have used Plan to Eat and liked it but it hasn’t been a consistent tool for me. If you are more of a computer organizer I’d highly recommend checking them out (I am not an affiliate, just a mom who is speaking from her own experience). Plan to Eat is pretty user friendly and especially after you build your recipes. I think the best part was that it automatically created a grocery list based off your meal plan. And you can delete items you know you already have so that you only get a list of what you need.

Anyway, like I said, pen and paper has proven to be a true friend when it comes to meal planning. I really enjoy using this two week schedule printable. It has spaces to include breakfast, lunch and dinner ideas. I typically shop on Tuesdays and occasionally I’ll go on Monday or Wednesday depending on the food situation or my schedule that week. So having the two week layout helps me to start my plan for the week on Tuesday and wrap around to the following Tuesday. I try to plan for 8 days because there is always a day I plan a meal and then when it’s time to make it I am not in the mood for cooking that meal. This way allows me a little wiggle room.

How do I know what meals to plan? Great question! I have found it helpful to come up with categories. My categories are Pasta/Grain, Asian, Traditional, Vegetarian, Mediterranean/ Middle East. You might think up Italian, Chicken, Pork, Soup/Stew/Crock pot/ Casserole, Skillet, Salad, Breakfast for Dinner, Pizza night, or even Cajun. My family likes to eat very different cuisines and they can be pretty particular about their food. I think that’s a big reason it has been such a challenge for me to plan. I also don’t want to feel obligated, nor do I have the time, to cook 7 days a week. That’s why you only see five categories.

Here are my categories and what they mean to me in more detail. Pasta/ Grain means cooking spaghetti, or pierogi, or gnocchi, or quinoa, or orzo and whatever sauce and veggies to go with it. Asian means a lot of different choices like Indian curry or Thai curry (and there are a bunch of curry ideas for both) or peanut satay chicken, or stir fry, or fried rice, or homemade Chinese food. My traditional category is cooking up a meat, veggie, and starch. So I might make a meatloaf with mashed potatoes and peas. Or I’ll make herbed chicken thighs with roasted potatoes and green beans. Maybe I’ll make Jamaican jerk chicken breasts with sweet potatoes and broccoli. Fajitas, burgers, and Shepard’s Pie also fall into this category because they are a meat with a veggie and starch.

The vegetarian category is the most difficult because we are not fans of substitution type meals. No tofurkey burgers or lentil “meat”loaf for us. We like our veggies and want to eat more of them, definitely. But I haven’t found any “go-to” vegetarian recipes that aren’t curries. But nonetheless, here are some meal ideas I have listed: grilled cheese (actually – you have to try this Blueberry Balsamic grilled cheese from Amanda K. by the Bay) with butternut squash soup, mushroom and kale and wild rice casserole, red beans and rice. Not too inspiring but I guess we can work on that. And for the last of my categories I have Mediterranean or Middle Eastern food. I like to make a Greek salad with chicken, or tabbouleh and felafel, or spiced chicken kebabs.

I plan to cook five days a week and I plan a day of leftovers. Okay, so that is only six days, what about the last day? What do you do for a meal that day? Well, it all depends on my mood or what’s on the calendar. Usually, almost always, there is an event on the weekend – that serves food, or we go to my in-laws – and they prepare a meal, or we have enough leftovers to come up with something to eat, or I’ll make something “easy”, or we’ll get takeout. This is where you know you and your family’s style. For us, I try not to cook anything big on the weekends. This is the time I want to spend with my family, not spend time in the kitchen cooking (or cleaning). I know for some families it works best to make the big meals on the weekends and save the easy or quick stuff for during the week.

Now that we know our categories and we know how many days to plan to cook something you just plug it all in. Here was last week’s plan. I know that my hubby loves homemade pizza so that works for Tuesday. A family member has been staying with us for a while and agreed to cook Wednesday. Thursday’s plan is to cook Jambalaya (maybe the “Mediterranean” category will have to change to the “Other” category). Friday we’ll cook burgers and dogs since we have a bunch leftover from July 4th weekend. Saturday I can make a salad with grilled chicken. And Sunday will be soup and grilled cheese.

I had actually, for the first time, made a plan for two weeks out. My goal is to not go shopping again until the 21st. So for next week’s plan I have written down Leftovers on Monday, Chicken with sweet potatoes and a veggie on Tuesday, Tikka Masala on Wednesday, Teriaki stir fry on Thursday, homemade pizza on Friday, Leftovers on Saturday, Make a sauce and do spaghetti on Sunday and Monday we will try rice and beans.

So far writing it down on paper has been super helpful. Over the last few months I’ve been able to keep dinner on the table and there have been maybe 2 complaints. And when I say complaints it means that we ordered takeout when we really shouldn’t have and that the meal really was a dud. My hubby knows he can be a difficult customer and he has loved my cooking and loved that he can count on coming home to a yummy meal. My confidence has really grown since I decided to refuse to fail.

And now with a few months of weekly meal planning under my belt it’s time to try shopping every two weeks. Eventually I would like to go monthly. It’s a lofty goal, but I find that the more trips I make the more money I spend. It will also leave a little extra time in my week to go other places with the kiddos for nature walks or field trips or play dates.

Another trick I’ve learned about planning my meals is to write down on my master list (the list with the categories and meal ideas) any meals I’ve made that my family loves. Lately we are enjoying homemade pizza (with a copycat Uno’s Chicago pizza dough crust), Thai red curry, Chicken Tikka Masala, and I recently found this Jambalaya recipe that now will go into regular rotation – it’s super YUM and easy to make. And yes, my children eat all this spicy food, usually. 🙂

Writing down dinner plans have been priority to lunch and breakfast. As long as we have eggs, steel cut oats, cereal, and leftovers then everyone can eat breakfast. I’ll also go to our local bagel shop for “yesterday’s bagels,” a bag of seven for $2. Can’t beat that.

And for lunch, well, that’s the next part of meal planning that I need to learn to plan. I’ll get deli meat every so often for sandwiches or my hubby will eat leftovers or eat out. The kids and I will eat PB&J or chicken fingers or leftovers. Yeah, these meals need a little more love and care, but I’m happy that I have found what works for me. Good old pen and paper – and the discipline to use them.

What is your meal planning trick? How do you get it done?

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2 thoughts on “What I Have Learned: Meal Planning and Putting it to Paper

    • That’s great! It’s so much easier when there’s a list of meals from which to choose, especially for those times when I just don’t know what to make.

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