Meal Planning 101

My brother once joked about how different my views toward meal planning are from my mother’s. While she struggles to come up with dinner ideas, I shuffle around menu plans so that I can fit in a new recipe. Meal Planning 101 – this one’s for you, Mom.

Meal Planning 101

People ask me for meal plans. This is like asking for a date itinerary. What if I tell you to go hiking, get ice cream, and watch the sunset together- but you and your date are more coffee and art people?

That’s why I’m giving you tools to make a meal plan of your own, so that you can create a menu full of the (healthy) foods you love.

Here’s a quick overview of the plan:
  1. Write down foods you already eat
  2. Figure out where you want your meal plan written
  3. Create themes for each night of the week
  4. Make a list of foods for each theme
  5. Plan meals for the entire month 
  6. Add vegetables and sides week by week

1. Write down foods you already eat

Make a list of what you eat now, even if it’s frozen pizza and macaroni and cheese. Don’t spend too much time on this step – it’s just something to get you started.

2. Figure out where you want your meal plan written

Planner from Michael's

I use a planner that I got from Michael’s and write the meals in the bottom block of the week view. Of course there are apps you can use, like Food Planner, but I personally prefer pen and paper. Find something you like that is easy to use.

3. Create themes for each night of the week

You don’t have to pick a theme for each night of the week, but it makes meal planning SO much easier, and it helps keep variety in your diet. These are the themes we have been using for the last couple of years:

  • Monday: Pasta/Italian
  • Tuesday: Asian or Indian
  • Wednesday: Breakfast for Dinner OR some variation on the “meat ‘n taters” theme (usually meatloaf or lentil loaf)
  • Thursday: Mexican (we live for Thursdays)
  • Friday: Salads and wraps for spring and summer; soups and chilli in the fall and winter months

Start by planning ONE meal for each weekday- I have been meal planning for 10+ years and still only find it necessary to plan the menu for the evening meal. Occasionally we’ll plan something for the weekend, but for the most part it’s every man for himself those days.

Decide on the themes you would like for each day of the week. If you are having trouble thinking of themes, take a look at the list of foods you currently eat. Do you see any trends?

4. Make a list of foods for each theme

Eggplant Parmesan
Homemade Eggplant Parmesan

For Mondays we usually cycle through eggplant Parmesan, pasta shells with homemade Alfredo sauce, and lasagna. Thursdays we do smothered burritos (with this sauce), burrito bowls, or some variation on tacos.

When deciding on recipes, be practical about the amount of time you will have to devote to cooking. Don’t be afraid of some repetition either; If you want to eat the same thing week to week, that is fine by me.

5. Plan meals for the entire month

Once you’ve got your themes settled and you have a list of foods within each theme, start filling in spaces on your planner  for the first week. Here’s an example of ours:

  • Monday: Eggplant Parmesan
  • Tuesday: Tiki Masala with Garbanzo Beans
  • Wednesday: Meatloaf
  • Thursday: Smothered burritos
  • Friday: Caesar Salads

Go ahead and fill in the rest of the month with meals for each theme. Some foods may be favorites (like our smothered burritos), so you might want them on the menu twice that month.

When planning meals for each week, check to see that you don’t have similar meals back to back. For example, if we have burritos Thursday night we don’t want to have breakfast burritos the night before and hummus wraps Friday night. Likewise we try not to plan Thai peanut noodles on Tuesday when we just had pasta Alfredo on Monday.

One other area of the menu we manipulate is meat. Our goal is to have only one meat meal per week. Sweet and sour chicken, meatloaf, and chicken tacos would not all make it into the same week.

6. Add vegetables and sides week by week

Garden Tomatoes
Fresh out of our garden!

I have tried planning out all the vegetables for the month, but this hasn’t worked well for me. Instead, I do it each week as we are looking over grocery store specials. This gives us the opportunity to take advantage of store sales and ripe produce from the garden. We also keep a stash of frozen vegetables in the freezer so that we have no excuse not to fill half our plate with vegetables.

When planning in vegetables, be generous. Kale salad and roasted carrots never meet complaints at our house. Try for mostly non-starchy vegetables. These are low-calorie and you can eat your fill!

We don’t often eat bread with meals, though we do keep discounted bakery bread in the freezer. This way when we are planning a meal for company we can pull out a loaf of ciabatta or sourdough for a well-rounded meal.

Wrap it up!

And you’re set! I highly encourage 1.) Using a planner and 2.) planning out 1 full month at a time. The time investment for doing the whole month is little more than it is for doing just one week. And you can use that one-month menu for as long as you like!

Remember to reevaluate your meal plan to make sure it is filled with recipes you love. There are plenty of delicious, healthy recipes out there, so don’t fill up your meal plan with sub-par meals!

Meal Planning 101

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