Meal Planning 101: Create a formula for the week’s meal plan

Create a formula for meal planning each week. Taco night? Yes. Meat loaf night? Sure. Choose what sounds good to have on a regular basis, and just line out the week.

Meal planning is a proven means to help you improve your nutrition, increase quality family time, and save money. If you’ve got a meal on the table in a timely manner you eat well, have something to enjoy with friends and family, and avoid costly restaurant meals or excessive trips to the store.

Meal planning makes for good eats.

This past weekend I spent some time reorganizing the refrigerator, freezer, and pantry. An inventory helps me know what we have, what we need, and how to spend my kitchen time in the coming weeks.

Since the months are changing right now, I have fresh in my mind the status of our grocery budget and an inkling of the changes I want to make in our spending in the coming month. Meal planning plays a huge part in all that.

So far in the Meal Planning 101 series we’ve covered the following topics

Over the coming weeks, we’re going to talk about strategies to create actual meal plans, like these:

Consider these Rules of Meal Planning:

Some folks don’t meal plan. I haven’t figured out what they do do, but readers have said that they don’t. Others are pros. And the rest of us fall in the middle.

I’ve been planning my meals on a weekly or monthly basis for the last 18 years. And some nights I still go to the fridge and say “What are we going to have for dinner?” Some days I give in to the last-minute call to take-out instead of being more intentional about our dining experiences.

Clearly I’ve got room to improve. And maybe you do, too. If so consider these ground rules for meal planning:

1. The meal plan is there to serve YOU. If a certain meal turns out not to work on a given day, ditch it and go to Plan B.

2. If you don’t like committing to Meal A on Monday, Meal B on Tuesday, then don’t. Just create a list of 7-8 meals, make sure you have the groceries, and slap the list on the fridge. Cross off meals as you serve them.

3. Leftovers can make a meal. These items should be cooled and frozen right away or refrigerated and consumed within three days. Leftovers make easy lunches or the basis of a new meal altogether. Or just reheat and eat.

Create a dinner plan formula for the week.

One of my favorite strategies for meal planning is to use a formula of theme nights to determine what we eat on a weekly basis. This means that I choose a variety of meal types, decide in advance how often we’ll have a certain type of dish, and just plug them into the different days of the week.

A meal plan for the week comes together quite quickly because I’m not putting a lot of thought into the whys and wherefores. I already have a formula. And it’s so easy!

You can create a formula for meal planning based on ethnic flavor profile, protein type, or length of preparation/style of dish. Here’s a sample plan for each one:

Ethnic Foods Formula

I like to mix up the flavor profiles of the foods we eat. We tend toward certain favorites, like Mexican and Italian, but I like to mix them up for variety. Here’s how different ethnic foods can be dished up throughout the week.

Protein Type

Meal planning by protein type allows me to keep the price of our groceries in check. If we go meatless several times per week, we’ll keep our costs low.

Length or Style of Preparation

Maybe your weekly meals are determined by the time you have to cook. I get that. We’ve got hockey two nights a week, date night one night, and one night where I’m away from the house. This makes for four nights when I don’t want to or can’t be in the kitchen. And that schedule determines what we eat.

Seasonal Themes

There have been other times when my formula or theme changed with the seasons of the year. Hot weather calls for sandwiches and salads, while colder temps and winter grocery sales call for more stick-to-yer ribs fare. Here are a couple examples.

My October Eclectic Plan

This month I want to be more organized in my shopping, cooking, and supper serving. So I created a new formula for October, that I’m calling the Eclectic Plan. ;) I took into consideration all the different styles of themes, stirred in a good portion of freezer cooking, and am hopeful that this will help us eat well and stay on budget.

  • Mexican - Taco Bar
  • Rice bowls – Beans and taco night leftovers
  • Pasta/Polenta – with Vegetable Bolognese, Green Salad, Bread
  • Meat and Potatoes (feast night) – Roast Chicken, Couscous, Vegetables
  • Fish – Grilled Shrimp, Rice, Veg
  • Fish – Grilled Salmon with Almond-Lime Butter, Roast Potatoes, Veg
  • Sandwich/Soup/Salad Night - Grilled Cheese Sandwiches, Chicken and Barley Soup
  • Pizza Night

I planned a hypothetical eighth meal for back up. Because, really? Who are we kidding?

In addition to making a creative and varied “formula” for each week, I also put together a freezer cooking plan that will take me through the month, better able to stick to these themes as the month progresses. More on that later this week!

Do YOU have a formula for meal planning that works for you?

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Comments

  1. Right now my rotation is something like:
    Monday: make something that takes a bit more prep (we are home all day on Monday)
    Tuesday: soup with our small group every week, usually in the crockpot
    Wednesday: quick before Awana at church (quesadillas, grilled cheese, etc.)
    Thursday: make something that takes a bit more prep (we are home all day on Thursday)
    Friday: pizza
    Saturday: pasta night when I have more time to make a fancier sauce or have just been to the store that day to stock up on the ingredients for a fresh salad to go along with it. : )
    Sunday: leftovers, snacky dinner, nachoes

    Usually one of our at home days is a dinner that is a tried and true favorite, and one might be a new recipe. Just depends on the week. : ) This rotation is working well for us right now … when I stick with it. : )

  2. Deborah Jennings says:

    We do have a meal plan. Mine is different though. I plan with the different types of meats that we eat; Beef, Chicken, Pork, Ground Beef and so on. We also plan a vegetable night, where we have just vegetables. Some kind of beans as the protein and then other vegetables to fill in. Some meals we only eat in summer and some meals are winter meals. But it all works out.

    I am loving this series! Thank you so much for putting it together for us.

  3. We’ve actually planned, not around the meats, but around the starches. I read it in Simplicity Parenting and it totally clicked with me. I know usually what meats we’ll have on hand, but I can’t always guarantee based on prices. If I plan around the starches, (rice, potatoes, pasta, tortillas, etc) I plan around the less expensive part of the meal and make that more of the priority. It works.

    • I’ve never heard of that method, but it sounds like a good one. We actually talked about that last night, hubs and I, when we differed on taco filling. We knew we wanted tacos with homemade tortillas, so it was just a question of settling on the filling.

  4. I’m at that life stage where I am Mom’s Taxi – I’ve learned that any sort of formula is destined to fail and then I don’t follow the plan at all – for me, I know what I”ve got in the freezer or I take a quick peruse – then I base the choices mostly on the calendar. Some days there’s time to prep – some days it has to be instantly ready – so I plan that way.

    Also this week was a true testament to the freezer – virus hit me WICKED hard – the meals planned got axed and ‘instant’ freezer meals subbed in – thank heavens!

  5. I think we follow a mix of seasonal and length of time for prep. Some days we are out late for dance class, so it’s a slow cooker night. Next night we are around so I’ll take a little more time for prepping a meal throughout the day. I make my meal plan every Sunday and post it on my blog. It has helped keep me accountable for finishing this task each week.
    On my goal list is to try to make some freezer meals now that we picked up a chest freezer.

  6. Last winter/spring, our weekly formula included one slow-cooker meal, one breakfast night, and Taco Tuesdays. I think we got tired of that because now there isn’t much of a formula with one slow-cooker meal per week plus a bunch of other random meals. But something isn’t working right now because my boys are NOT eating what I’m making and I don’t want to eat what I think they will eat! Grr, preschooler eating habits!

    Thanks for all the ideas, Jessica!

  7. Michelle H. says:

    Great article! It’s fun to see all the different types of meal plans that can be used and you have given me some good ideas to try at home.

  8. Natalie Muoio says:

    I am rather new at this meal planning and really enjoy your diversity in planning. You have opened my eyes to other possibilities that I didn’t realize were out there. How do you plan by themes and such while trying to catch all the sales. Some of the other plans I’ve researched plan around what’s on sale. So I am a little confused and need help. Also how do you stay so motivated? Some times procrastination gets the best of me and I can’t help it

    • I stockpile which means that I buy a lot of something that is on sale. Then I store it in the freezer until we need/want it. I still work with the sales, but don’t use it up in the week that I buy it. That way we get more variety and still save money.

  9. When I first started meal planning, I had a theme for every night. That, however, felt a little too constricting. It always felt like there were meals we liked that didn’t fit into my themes. Now, I have a mix. Mondays and Thursdays are vegetarian, Wednesdays are leftovers and Fridays are pizza. Tuesday, Saturday and Sunday are filled with whatever strikes my fancy.

  10. love, love, love the way you categorize your thoughts. you are teaching me how to think better. it’s all ideas i’ve heard before, but the way you connect your words makes the concept very approachable. thanks. off to read more links.

  11. Just wanted to leave a comment to say thanks for the thorough meal planning step-by-step guidance! I’ve been looking for help figuring out how to start meal planning for a while, and all I’ve come across on the internet are either packages you have to buy or a big list of recipes. I know how to look up recipes online! What I really need is help thinking through the whole process, which your website does!

    My husband and I have been married a few years, both work, and have always struggled to have consistency with making real meals for dinner and having good food around for breakfast and lunch. We are frugal to the max, so one of the barriers for us is always not buying enough things at the grocery store because they are too expensive, too nice, etc. We are at the point now though where we are realizing we probably won’t ever look back and regret buying good, real food. It has been a shift for us to feel ok spending the money on organic milk, nice fruit, quality cheese, etc. But now that we are ready to spend a little more on our grocery shopping, we are at a loss for how to plan and prep meals consistently during the week. Hoping your website will continue to help us change that! Thanks very much for the clear, honest, helpful thoughts on meal planning!!

    • I hope so, too! Thanks for the great feedback.

      I’m assuming you read through the whole meal planning series. Let me know if you need help with certain issues. I may not have tagged them all correctly, though I hope I did. You might want to download some of the free plans I have here: http://lifeasmom.com/2014/03/coming-soon-this-weeks-dinners-for-70-or-less.html

      I know you might not need the recipes, but you can see how I built the plan to use up leftovers and waste very little. They are also very make-ahead which should help during busy work weeks.

      • Thanks! I’m still working through the whole series you have posted and will definitely check out the free plans. We have a huge garden so another priority for us is using the produce as best we can. This often feels tough to do when we are sort of in a routine and then suddenly there are pounds and pounds of tomatoes, cucumbers, zucchini, and more to integrate into our meals. We do preserve a lot of our produce, so we don’t have to use it all fresh. But it still requires a shift in planning during the summer/fall that wouldn’t be there during the winter/spring.

        Looking forward to getting on track with this! Thanks again!

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