Just Say, “What’s for Dinner?” 12 Times a Year
A Step by Step Guide to a More Practical Way for Meal Planning
When I first learned about Pinterest, I pinned every possible pin I could find that had to do with meal planning. I just knew that I was going to find the perfect fix to my constant annoyance known as dinner. I despised coming home just to stand in front of the pantry as if boxes and cans were going to just fall off the shelves at my feet as if to say, “cook me!” We ended up going out to eat way too much simply because we did not have a plan from week to week. We were wasting food because I didn’t know what we had so things would spoil or expire before I cooked them. When I got started on Pinterest, I spent hours looking through meal plans that gave recipes and shopping lists. But I couldn’t find anything that really worked. And it finally occurred to me that the reason these plans wouldn’t work is because the plans were based on the food, not on my family’s schedule. And so I was constantly trying to figure out a way to make these great plans with great meals work in a schedule that was unique to just us. So I decided to make my own meal plans and to start from the schedule side of life, then to plan the meals. And so, here’s another blog with another meal plan! But this time, I hope to teach you how to create the layers of a plan so that the meals themselves are not what you’re trying to recreate. Instead, you are recreating a system so that no matter what the meals are, your family can stick to a plan, save money, and have less stress when it comes to meal times.
To get started, you will need a few supplies and you’ll have to do a little prep work. Once the prep work is done, this process should take you an hour or less each month. Imagine only having to think, “What’s for dinner?” just twelve times a year!!!
- You will need a dry erase monthly calendar, a small blank dry erase board, and dry erase markers in 4 colors (I have black, blue, red and green).
- Find a place to hang both the blank board and the calendar near your kitchen. I have mine on the inside of the pantry doors. You need them to be easily accessible and easy to get to so you can not only see them but so that you can write on them.
- You need to do a full freezer clean out and evaluation.
- Make a list of everything in your freezer(s) and categorize on the blank white board.
Okay, now that you’re caught up, here’s what you’ll do each month:
- You’ll need your 4 dry erase markers and your calendar before you begin.
- After you clean off the board from last month, you’ll write the new month at the top and put the dates on the calendar. I use the black marker for this layer.
- Next, using the red marker, you’ll mark any events during the month that will keep you from having to cook dinner at all. This would be if your family is attending an event where dinner will be served or you know that you’ll be out of town, etc.
- Then, using the blue marker, you’ll mark any events during the month that will directly affect your dinner prep time, number of family members present, etc. These events don’t mean that you don’t have to cook dinner, but you need to be mindful that you probably won’t have time to cook a 6 course meal on those nights. These could be nights with sports practices, one parent working late or out of town (OofT), etc. **Sidenote – In my effort to be as real as possible I shared this month’s meal plan even though it wasn’t the most normal of months for us. You’ll see that this month’s calendar is a bit out of control with the blue events. It so happens that I will be out of town a lot. While this isn’t normal, it’s a good example of how you have to work your meals around what’s going on so that it’s practical to stick with the plan. That’s why you’ll see that both times that I’m out of town (MM OofT) burritos and boys’ night out to IHOP are both on the schedule…those are traditions when mom’s out of town that always happen. I used to plan other food, and found that IHOP still happened, so I adjusted and made it part of the schedule. That’s how a real meal plan will actually work.**
- Next, using the green marker, I put a dollar sign on pay days and indicate the days that I’ll be going grocery shopping. This helps me be mindful of how many meals I plan that would require purchasing new ingredients (especially meat) so that I spread out the expense from pay period to pay period. Putting the grocery store on the calendar helps me keep know exactly what items have to be purchased for the meals on the board between store visits. Seeing store visits on the board also helps keep in mind to plan meals that need fresher ingredients closer to when I will have just been to the store.
- Finally, I use the black marker to put the meals on the calendar. See below for further details on how this process works.
Here’s how I think through what meals go on the board each month:
- I ask my family if there’s anything in particular they want to add to the list of meals this month.
- I challenge myself to pick at least one new recipe from one of my Pinterest boards to try this month.
- I try to only choose 1 or 2 “new” meals each pay period that would require purchasing meat and new ingredients. When I make a “new” meal, I always double it so that we can eat it and so that I can freeze a batch. A “new” meal to me would be a new recipe or a recipe that I’ve cooked before but that I don’t have made in the freezer already.
- I try to put meals that require extra prep or cook time on Saturdays or Sundays so that I can cook on the weekends and enjoy the leftovers on weeknights.
- I love planning crockpot meals on Monday nights…there’s nothing better than coming home to a house that smells good and hot food! And if the meal takes some prep, you can do that on Sunday so that all you have to do is pull it out of the fridge on Monday morning and turn the crockpot on.
- I use the list of freezer food to fill in the majority of the month’s meals. These meals get replenished throughout the month as I freeze doubled meals and as I freeze leftovers that we just don’t have time to finish.
- As I choose meals or meat to use from the freezer list and put them on this month’s calendar, I draw a red line through them. And as I plan a “new” meal that will be doubled I write it on the freezer list in green. I don’t erase anything or write in black until I go to make the next month’s calendar because I’ve found that as the month goes, things will shift and some meals won’t happen as planned. If I already had the meals erased, they wouldn’t get put back on the board and I would find that they would get forgotten about in the freezer until they were too old to be eaten. So, I wait to be sure they really get used this month, and then I erase them. Same as the “new” meal… I wait to be sure it gets made, so that it doesn’t get added now but then really doesn’t get made this month for some reason. That way I won’t plan on it for meal for a future month and be disappointed when it’s not really in the freezer even though it was on the list.
- About twice a year I plan freezer meal prep days to restock the freezer (I’ll share those recipes and tips, no worries!) and give me a kind of cushion to build off of when going into the next 6 months of meal planning. I try to do this in spring and fall when the electric bill is the lowest so we are more likely to have an extra $150-$200 in the budget to spend on extra food those months.
After the first month, you’ll get the swing of things and I guarantee it will make meal time so much more pleasant when the only guesswork left is, “who’s cooking?”
Good luck! And feel free to comment if you have ideas to share or have questions or need suggestions for your particular situation. I’d love to help!