My Approach to Weekly Meal Planning

January 13, 2016

January 3-9 Meal Plan

One of my personal goals for 2016 is to make a weekly meal plan and stick to it most of the time (planning is nothing without follow-through). This is something I’ve done in fits and starts for years now. On the weeks when I do it, everything seems to run more smoothly. Sadly, as soon as life gets busy, it has also been one of the first things to go. And once the meal plan habit goes out of the window, I find myself awash in food waste, too much takeout, and a faltering kitchen ecosystem. Madness ensues.

However, I find that if I can make a rough plan, every other aspect of life feels a bit less unwieldy. Even if the plan is simply a store bought roast chicken and steamed broccoli and then a pot of soup large enough to last three nights, it helps keep the chaos in check. And thus, this commitment to myself to plot out dinners a week at a time, shop for them, and then cook what I’ve planned.

January 10-16 Meal Plan

My goal here is not to offer you a formula for your own meal planning. There’s plenty of that out there on Pinterest and countless other blogs. Instead, I’m giving you a peek into my thought process in the hopes that it might help spur your own. And so, here are the things I keep in mind to keep my aspirations in check and ensure that the plan is useful and realistic.

  • What season are we in? Is something available right now that might be gone by next week?
  • Do we have things in the fridge, freezer or pantry that need to be used up?
  • Is it a busy week? Am I teaching any night classes? Should I plan for voluminous leftovers for easy reheating?
  • Did I spot anything in the last week that I particularly want to make or try? Is there a cookbook that’s been particularly inspiring of late?
  • Am I working on anything that requires recipe testing that could be dinner?

Typically, a glance at my calendar, a trip through these questions, and quick consultation with Scott is enough to have a rough plan on paper. However, some weeks, I still remain stumped. When that happens, I pull out the big guns and consult my Things I Like to Make for Dinner list. For years, this list lived in my head, but last year, I finally typed it up and published it on my ancient personal blog so that I’d have easy access to it. Reading it through always helps.

Finally, once the plan is drafted, I write it on our chalkboard wall. Having it posted in the kitchen helps keep me honest and keeps Scott in the loop. I also post pictures of the meal plan to Instagram and from here on out, will occasionally share some of the recipes here (particularly if they put preserves to good use).

Now, here’s a question for you guys. Do you meal plan? And if you do, do you have a system? I’d love to hear about your thought process.


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42 thoughts on "My Approach to Weekly Meal Planning"

  • I almost bought a spiral bound weekly/meal planner I liked on etsy and then realized I could make something similar myself. Something about writing it down keeps me accountable too and a side benefit is the kids don’t always ask me what’s for dinner, they just check the meal plan.

  • I meal plan and make a grocery list at the same time in a spreadsheet. I make the meals hyperlinks if they are online recipes. I agree it helps keep me from wasting as much food and eating convenience food.

  • I kinda sorta meal plan. I feel like I suck at it, but I’m starting to realize if I have a semblance of plan, life is easier. I teach a cooking class every Tuesday at a local middle school as part of the after school program with Boys & Girls Club, but then have to come home and get dinner on the table ASAP for my own family. While I sometimes have leftovers from that class, I don’t count on them for dinner that night, so I have a solid plan in place before I head out to teach. I tend to do a “3 nights at a time ” approach, which gives me wiggle room to work in what needs to go, what’s leftover from classes and what recipes I’m testing. I use pizza night every week to help clean out the fridge, by making four smallish thin crust pizzas using whatever needs to go while pulling from my canning shelves to fill the gaps.

  • When I DO plan, I usually start with a long list of recipes or dinner that I want, and then slate it into a schedule, so it fills about a month. Since it’s a long list, it allows me to bump or move things around according to how the day or week is playing out. I really appreciate not having to plan something every seven days.

  • Like you, Marissa, I always start with the best of intentions and then….life happens. My planning seems to run parallel to what you say–I think about what I have in the freezer, I consider recipes I might want to try, and I of course consider my time, with planning for leftovers as needed. One thing I do in the winter is make a “kitchen sink soup” that uses up leftovers (which my husband typically won’t eat unless I disguise them extremely well, which I actually have gotten pretty good at!). I also use the “Plan to Eat” website and find that helps me a lot. Thanks for the post and reminder about just how importantly planning is, esp. to not waste food!

  • Yes! I almost always plan a dinner menu every week. It helps me to avoid buying unnecessary groceries, and to focus. I like to try new recipes often, usually something I’ve pinned online. I work Tues., Wed., and Friday. Sunday’s leftovers are eaten Tues., Monday’s are eaten on Wed., etc. It almost always works. If there is still food left, it goes in the freezer. When that gets a little full, it’s so helpful to have for small meals or even busy days off.

    What I need to do is keep a dinner notebook, which I started to do once, but lost track of.

  • I almost always meal plan using Google calendar, that way I can access it when I’m out and I can just share it with family members. For the past 8 years, I’ve had very busy winters where most weeknights and one weekend day are spoken for. And I live in a tiny town where there is no delivery service and only 1 store with a choice of pizza or subs so takeout is pretty much not a choice. 🙂

    Some days my plan fails and we end up with leftovers or grilled cheese sandwiches but then I just move dinners around on the calendar.

    I plan on Sundays, checking what’s in the freezer or shelves and balanced by what’s on sale.

  • I like to plan on Friday night or Saturday morning so I can get to the market on Saturday with a list of what we need for the week.

    I start by auditing what needs using then plug the weather forecast in for the coming week, so I don’t plan to have lasagne if it’s going to be 40 degrees (104F)… Always good to have some no cook options like rice paper rolls or bought roast chicken in a salad for those days!

    I like to make the Monday meal quick and easy, Wednesday needs to be pre-done and ready to go since we’re both home late, and Friday is usually leftovers or eating out.

    We have linked iCloud accounts so use shared Reminders on our phones for our shopping list and lunch and dinner plans. It’s so nice to be able to add something to the list while I’m at work and he’s shopping and vice versa!

    We like to be flexible enough to be able to get cheap deals when we see them, so feeling comfortable with switching up ingredients and cuisines helps, and we’ve both enjoyed learning about new foods and techniques so we can do that.

  • I am single and have had a gastric bypass, so when I do plan something, it ends up being something I eat off of FOREVER! I do ok with leftovers if they are like one pot meals: lasagna, beef stew, chicken ala king, green chili burritos, etc. But if it is steak or ribs or something like a meal with multiple things, the dogs usually get it. After 50 some odd years, I am still trying to perfect my cooking skills and have about decided I need an electric pressure cooker to alleviate the shoe leather from my repertoire.

  • I always made a menu for a month at a time as we had 9 children and you have to plan ahead. No kids at home now but we still do our menu ahead. We always bought on sale, had a huge garden (no more) and I froze foods and canned tons. Still buy on sale and check the freezer and pantry before doing the menu. Buy fresh fruits and veggies weekly. We always have a leftover day or two per week so things can move a little but for the most part we stick to the menu. We love to try new recipes so that happens almost weekly, too, but is also part of our menu plan. I make most of our bread from scratch and we can always make our lunches from homemade bread and jams or other spreads we’ve put up.

  • I plan every week. I sit down on Sunday and make a weekly list and a grocery list. Then on Monday mornings i pick up my CSA and also do my primary grocery run for the week.
    When I’m planning, I typically cook three nights a week, eat “cold” (it’s a German thing – mainly like a bread platter with meats and cheeses) one night and do leftovers one night. On weekends I wing it. I use the crockpot at least once a week when the kids have lessons etc. that will keep me out too late to cook. It has worked well for us. And I appreciate that I’m never scrambling, especially on those super busy afternoons. Planning ahead for those days means dinner is already done ahead of time. Couldn’t do without planning!

  • I use and the only time I spend planning for the week’s meals is when I get the weekly email and read the recipes. Super convenient, interesting and healthy recipes that can usually be made in 30 minutes. I use it for weeknight meals and love it. don’t know how I did without it!

  • I do plan, but not like most I’ve seen. When I feel totally uninspired I go through my favorite cookbooks (Simply in Season, my binder of collected recipes, a blank pages cookbook I filled in with ones we really love and whatever is on hand I’ve been wanting to try) and I make a big page of ideas. Then on a notecard I slot in meals for the next few days. Like you I take into account the family schedule, the state of the fridge leftovers, what is in the garden, etc. I also fill in baking I need to do and try to make notes for things I need to do ahead (soak beans, thaw meat.) Every few days I make sure we’ve eaten leftovers or they are filled in as part of a meal. It is amazing how the big list will spark my creativity in the kitchen again and remind me of things we haven’t had in forever that we love. And when you make 21 meals a week at home sometimes you just need some creativity to be sparked! 🙂

  • I meal plan every week before grocery shopping. First use up fresh veggies in fridge, then look for frozen proteins. Based on that i check calendar, teach late Mon, crockpot meal, Sat and Sun usually long cook/prep meal for weeks lunch leftovers, soups, roasts, casseroles. I must plan or too much food goes to waste. CSA winter veggies take a plan.

  • Since both me and my Hun Bun work during the week, I’m the winter cook, making a BIG meal on the weekend for us to have for quick leftovers–or plannedovers–during the busy work week. Winter meals are soups and stews. Hun Bun is the summer cook. He grills up a bunch of meats to make into salads and wraps for dinner. Thankfully, neither of us mind having leftovers!

  • I would love to be pointed in the direction of your veggie mac and cheese recipe. It looks delicious (saw it on instagram) and I think my five kids would eat that.

  • Meal planning — such a good goal! I’m pretty spotty at it and would like to improve. Some years, especially around the New Year, I’m on top of it. It usually falls off in February or March. Ha!

  • I do meal plan, generally five meals per grocery shopping trip. I consider what leftovers I have and what’s in season. I have a recipe database that is searchable by ingredient (and other ways too), and that is very helpful. If I have a hunk of gruyere cheese, for example, I can search for that and come up with a dozen recipes in which to use it. Also, I try to make something different each night: chicken one night, fish one night, vegetarian one night, pasta one night, etc. I’ve been a planner for decades. Couldn’t do it any other way.

  • No meal planning here and I have known for years that it is the efficient and smart way to do things. Perhaps that is why I have resisted. Ha! That said, I think I will try once more to do this. Since it is only me and the dog, I think I will post a picture each week of my menu, like you said, to keep me honest. Thanks!

  • I haven’t done it for a while but this week am starting again using what has been my most successful method to date. Things are a bit different at the moment as I’m not working (except occasionally from home), which makes things a bit easier (am here to cook) and also a bit more difficult (less routine). I get an organic veg delivery every Thursday morning – what I had been doing is printing out the order from the online shop every week. Can’t at the moment so I waited until today when I have the delivery slip to work with. Another reminder to get the printer at home working.
    So, using the print-out of what I’m going to get that week, I review the contents of the fridge and hand-write whatever I have there. Then, using that extended list as the basis of my meal plan, I work out what I’m going to eat. I write the days of the week with two arrows coming from each, one for lunch, one for dinner. I will check my calendar as well, just in case I’ve made plans that will involve eating away from home or require a very quick meal at any stage. I try to follow the 5:2 fasting plan so I incorporate my fasts for the days that will suit best. And then on the corner of the page, I write a shopping list for anything extra I need to get. Between the fresh veg and having a very well-stocked storecupboard I don’t need to buy much at the moment other tha dairy products and occasionally some meat.
    As a final step, I transfer my meal plan into a memo in my phone so that I have absolutely no excuse to ever “forget” what’s on the plan and just buy something else on the way home.

  • I am lost without a meal plan. I used to base it around new recipes I wanted to try. Now I have two young children and cooking needs to be pretty easy and minimal. I have a five day template of easy foods we like (stir fry, pasta, burritos, soup, pizza), one day open for take out, and one day for something different. I put it up on our kitchen chalk board but don’t assign days. It helps so much with grocery shopping and avoiding waste and 5:00 panic.

  • My meal plans can be pretty vague but anything is better than nothing. They usually revolve around schedules for the week. This semester’s dinner plan is:

    Mon – mom cooks her choice (usually curry/something spicy)
    Tues – dad cooks girl 1’s choice (usually chicken/potatoes/vegt)
    Wed – drama club AND gymnastics, therefore waffles or pancakes
    Thurs – dad cooks girl 2’s choice (usually pasta/salad)
    Fri – pizza (alternate takeout/homemade)
    Sat – mom cooks dad’s choice
    Sun – soup and grilled cheese

    I do an online grocery order every Friday or Saturday and ask each family member specifically “what one thing do you want for dinner/lunch/snack next week?” Their choices repeat often enough that I shop for sales on those items. I have a “fun folder” that I review for my choice and homemade soup and these also become grownup lunches/leftovers for the week. I have another folder of standards for when I don’t have time/energy to be creative.

  • I especially appreciate your suggesting a list of your favorite foods/meals to make. I have a large binder that I put all of the tear-out and reprint recipes I like and use (or intend to try). But leafing thru them takes time when I’m in a hurry or haven’t planned. So a list like this at the front of the binder would really help narrow down my planning for the week. Thanks for the idea!

  • I use the two Knock Knock pads (magnetized on my fridge): What to Eat and We’re All Out Of. Shopping on Sundays seems to work for me, so I put together my meal plan before shopping, plugging fridge contents into the meal plan, and checking off boxes on the shopping list as I go. I’ve sustained this since May, so fingers crossed!

  • I have a very *very* loose system since I’m a singleton. I tend to make a big batch of something on the weekends, divvy it up into portions, and stick half in the freezer immediately. Then during the week, I’ll make another dinner or two that serve multiple people so I can have some variety in my leftover lunches and dinners.

    I try to plan around what produce I’ve gotten in my CSA. In the winters, it’s a ton of spinach and carrots, so I do a lot of protein + roasted root veggie + sauteed greens combos.

  • ….not a precise plan, but a grid. A large showcase meal for Sunday late lunch (2-3). Fun small indulgent meals on Monday and Tuesday (our weekend). VERY lite and simple on Wednesday and Thursday. Friday simple but substantial. Saturday lite again, to ramp up the appetite….for Sunday ! The best day of the week!

    good luck with you plan !….the freezer ( and preserved ) are your friends.

  • My roommate and I plan ~2 meals a week with lots of leftovers. We make one on Sunday night and the second early in the week, Tuesday or Wednesday. The leftovers become lunches and sometimes dinners as well. By only planning two meals it’s less of a commitment so if our schedules change or we get free lunches (as grad students we are experts at this) we don’t waste a lot of food. It also means we can have some flexibility with what we eat as the week progresses without feeling guilty about changing a plan.
    It’s a system that works for us, and one I’d recommend if you aren’t feeding a lot of mouths and/or are just starting a meal planning system.

  • Meant to also say I love your list of things you like to make – that’s definitely something I should do. I’m frequently amazed at how I’ve forgotten something that I used to have in regular rotation. Sometimes it makes it back into use and sometimes I decide I’ve moved on and just amn’t that keen anymore. But it still always amazes me how it’s possible to just forget about certain meals.

  • I usually try to make two items on Sunday that would leave me with some left overs. It is just my husband and I but we have things going on 3 to 4 evenings each week so having a casserole, enchaladas, or soup in the fridge is a real life saver. I am going to try is to make two of the same casserole etc and then freeze one for a future week when my processing gets in the way.

  • Yes, I meal plan. These days, the calendar is priority one when checking everything out (Sunday always means cook something with voluminous leftovers, because Monday is always from hell); 4 fairly busy schedules, including pickups now that older can’t bike everywhere due to snow, means this is always a requirement.

    It usually looks like an assortment of recipes, shopping list, calendar all out (some electronic, some not). One tool I’d like to use better is Flipboard, creating a magazine each week, so the whole family has access to the week’s recipes (so younger can get things started after school). family has lots of input into what we’ll eat.

  • I would be lost without a meal plan, I would spend too much and I would waste too much.

    Planning saves me so much stress. I look ahead at the week and I know which days I’ve got afternoon carpool, or which evenings there is a school concert, etc. Then I can plan something simple or just cook ahead of time.

    I have a handful of pantry recipes I can throw together when my plan doesn’t shake out. I purposefully do not include these recipes in my regular repertoire, so they don’t get overused.

    A big benefit is that going out to eat is a special occasion–a real treat.

    Another thing: I buy almost all my meat frozen (farmers, co-op club) and so if I didn’t plan ahead I would never defrost any meat!

  • Since I like my bananas slightly on the green side, I find time to grocery shop twice a week with a list of where I’m eating each meal, so I know if I’m packing a lunch. This keeps each trip short, with a list of only a couple of meals (assuming leftovers), and almost eliminates any produce waste. Small, focused grocery trips make each less stressful and kind of fun. It’s how Europeans shop.

    If I’m worried about how long a meal will take to cook in the evening, I make it in the morning. Yes, it becomes leftovers from day one, but I find that much less stressful. If I know on the way home that it will take as long to microwave dinner as to wait at a drive-thru, I’ll opt for the home-cooked meal.

  • I have found digital note books like Evernote ( sure there are others) to be lifesavers in planning ahead for meals. I can post online recipies to digital notebooks (I.e. I’ve created recipies to try and make ahead) and make the shopping list at the same time. You could create a make ahead notebook for each week, but I am not that detailed. The convenience factor for me is that as long as I have my phone, my plan and list are with me.

  • SO I just found you on Instagram! Very exciting.

    We meal plan some… and as we transition to being more intentionally local in our eating, and as the garden (please, oh please…) takes off this season, I anticipate meal planning even more around what we are growing and canning, and what we can get in season in our area. Planning also became more essential when we moved last June to a place where I can’t buy organic/local meat without driving for 30+ miles.
    Meal plans that work involve the use of leftovers and the crock-pot, and consult the freezer, the crisper, the weather, and what’s on sale before shopping, and I try to build in things I could cook in my sleep and things that don’t require a ton of effort(breakfast for dinner, I’m looking at you…) so that I don’t feel like I slave away every night in the kitchen.
    Mostly things are on paper, magneted to the fridge to keep the hubs in the loop.

  • I used to plan out a week at a time. Now that my son is in high school and all three of us have sports and other evening obligations, I just plan a day or two in advance. I do plan ahead for weekend cooking: I make big pots of whatever, which we eat for several meals, and then I freeze the rest. Having a lot of soups, beans, stews, tomato sauce, pesto, greens, etc in the freezer means I can survive without too much planning. As does having plenty of pasta and things like canned clam sauce and jars of Harissa, roasted peppers, etc.

  • Marisa and everyone else: You are definitely headed in the right direction. About 15 or 20 years ago (I have now dated myself), my boys were busy with sports and they always had friends at the house who stayed for dinner, and then there were the foster children who might arrive in the afternoon. I never knew how many were for dinner. We were not eating very well because dinner always seemed to be a last minute decision. Like everyone has mentioned, I started making a weekly meal plan. I put this meal plan in MS. Word! Guess what…. I have a two year plan that I can print. The recipes and shopping lists are also in Word. It is really a blessing even now that the kids are all grown and I am retired. Do I change the menu? Of course, because my year round CSA causes those changes. Keep it up everyone!

  • I think I make better food choices when I do a meal plan. I use Evernote on my phone. I keep a list for next weeks shopping and one for next weeks meal plan. That way the list is always with me and I can add as I think of things. I do like the idea of the list of things I like to make for dinner. I think I will add that to my lists. I live alone and sometimes I hear that people who live alone dont cook anymore. I tell them that I think I am worth cooking for. Thanks for your blog.–Cindy

  • My menu planning tools:

    Feeddler app – for following my favorite food (and other) bloggers

    Pinterest – for pinning recipes that I find while doing the above. I have “Dinner Recipes -TRY” and a “Dinner Recipes – SUCCESS” boards. If a TRY recipes gets the make it again vote from all 5 of us, it gets moved to SUCCESS. I really like being able to skim pictures of the recipes while deciding what to make.

    Outlook calendar – I create a calendar appt for dinner time each night. What I’m making goes in the title line, the recipe(s) URL and list of ingredients go in the URL and notes fields. I usually have my calendar open on my iPad and the next app open on my phone so I can go dinner by dinner adding any ingredients I need to the shopping list. Having it as a digital calendar appointment also means I can check on it from anywhere/anytime if I need a reminder of that evenings plan or to see about what a time In should start cooking. I tag my husband & kids on their calendars so the constant “what are we having??” disappears. If the dinner is something we really like, I set its appointment to recur once every 6 weeks, occasionally I’ll get to a week and find its already planned with recurring meals…kinda nice!

    Grocery Gadget app – my grocery list, accessible from any device or PC so I can add things instantly as I notice we’re out or am prepping to shop. My husband has the app on his phone too and it syncs with my list … no more “I forgot to tell you we needed _______”!

    The biggest thing I look at when planning is what’s going on that week; Monday & Wednesday need filling but fast meals because my 3 guys leave at 6pm and don’t get back til 8:45pm (karate class). They don’t like eating before, but are HUNGRY when they get home. I usually use at least one of these nights to run errands so dinner needs to be something quick to assemble too. Tuesday & Thursday our daughter has Colorguard practice from 4:30-8:30 so I need something that either reheats well or is fine at room temperature. Friday nights we’re all home, but after a full week I rarely feel like cooking so this is usually something from the crockpot. Saturday & Sunday (if we don’t have plans) are for more time/labor intensive meals.

  • I love to see how people handle this process of deciding what/how to eat dinner! Yes, I am a meal planner. I jot down some menus every week, but the important piece for me is recording what we ate in my supper notebook. I started doing this is 2008 (!) and those notebooks are an invaluable resource for recalling recipes, menus, and seasonal eating patterns, as well as who we were eating with. I blogged about it a few times, most notably here:

  • Planning differs from Summers (CSA season) to Winters for me. When working with my CSA bounty, I wait to see what I’ve gotten and then plan from there. Winters are a little more laid back without the pressure to use and consume. I keep lots of root vegetables, but since their shelf life is considerably longer, I don’t have to worry as much about using things up quickly. On weekends, I usually go through a cookbook or my stack of recipes and recently, what I’ve pinned, and whittle the list down until it’s what I think I’ll be able to consume over the next week or so. Then I go shopping so everything is ready to go when I get to it. I always have things that I’ve frozen as backup when I come home too exhausted to cook.