This post may contain affiliate links. Please read my disclosure policy for more info.
Also known as the witching hour, the 4 PM dinner rush can be stressful for anyone. It’s no secret that between homework, little league and ballet, dinner seems to get lost on the to-do list for any busy family.
Having a plan for dinner when mealtime comes is a must for any mama who wants to keep her sanity. And it helps you keep your hard-earned cash where it belongs. In your hands, not McDonald’s.
These 12 effective meal planning tips and tricks will help you be ready for the dinner hour before you know it.
Related Post: Complete Guide to Stop Wasting Money on Groceries
12 Steps to an Effective Meal Plan
Meal planning should be simple, but for many of us, we do it for a week and then give up. We don’t put the systems in place to make it easy. To make it a part of our routine.
Today, we change that. Here are 12 easy steps to become a meal planning master.
1 – Find a Meal Planning Template
Jotting down your meal plan on the corner of your kid’s field trip permission slip isn’t a recipe for success.
Choose a meal planning template that works for you. This can be in a recipe app like Recipe Keeper. Or, you can use a printable to stay organized and inspired, while keeping your plan front and center.
I don’t know about you, but when I have a pretty printable to fill out and refer to, the follow through is so much easier.
You can click to download free meal planning templates below!
2 – Have a Master List of Your Family’s Favorite Meals
Ideally, we won’t be cooking the same exact meals every single week. But there is probably a list of tried and true recipes that your family gravitates towards.
Make a list of 20-30 of these favorite meals and keep them in the meal planning rotation. Refer to this list first when making your meal plan so you don’t fall into the Pinterest recipe black hole.
Plus, it’s important we pick meals that our families will, you know, eat!
3 – Think About Your Schedule
Grab your calendar and look at the events coming up that week. It makes no sense to plan a gourmet meal with 50 ingredients on a night you won’t get home from Cub Scouts until 6:00. Plan accordingly.
PTA meeting on Tuesday? Soccer game on Thursday? Have easier meals planned for your busiest nights or plan to eat leftovers. To help get you started, here is a list of 40 delicious crock-pot dinners under $5. There are some super yummy meals that are perfect for any busy family.
4 – Take Inventory of Your Freezer, Fridge, and Pantry
Are there any meals you can make using ingredients that are in your stockpile?
Check to see what meats you have in your freezer, what fresh produce needs to be eaten in your fridge, and what sauces or sides can come from your already-full pantry. Use what you have on hand and you’ll save money and time.
If you aren’t sure what you can make from the random assortment of ingredients around your home, try entering the list into SuperCook. It will recommend recipes based on the ingredients you have.
5 – Have Themed Dinners
You can make meal planning faster by assigning a different theme to every night of the week. Meatless Monday. Taco Tuesday. Chicken on Wednesday. Breakfast for dinner. Fancy Friday.
Personally, I prefer to plan themed dinners a little more loosely so I can be flexible with my schedule while also providing variety in my meal plans. For example, each week I try to include one or two chicken meals, a beef meal, a pasta dish, and a night for leftovers or eating out.
Instead of chicken every Monday or pasta every Tuesday, I plan when we will eat each meal based on what our evenings will look like and how much time I need for each recipe.
Find what works for you, and make it your own!
6 – Go Paperless with Pinterest
You guys. I have no idea what people did before Pinterest. Seriously. I rarely crack open a cookbook anymore because Pinterest has made organizing recipes and meal planning so much more simple.
Create an account, if you somehow don’t have one already. Then, make a board for pasta recipes. A board for chicken dinners. A board for fish recipes. You name it, it can be a Pinterest board. I even have a board for simple side dishes and veggies.
The beauty of using Pinterest to help you with meal planning is two-fold. One, it’s paperless. No more huge cookbooks taking up all your counter or cabinet space.
And two, if nothing on your board seems appealing to you as you plan, simply search for more ideas. There are literally hundreds of easy meal ideas at your fingertips in seconds. Fo’ free.
Psst, while you’re over on Pinterest, remember to follow us!
7 – Plan to Make a New Recipe Every Week (Or Two)
Depending on how busy any given week might be, plan on incorporating new recipes on the regular.
Every once in a while they will be flops. But for the most part, cooking new recipes will add to your meal plan repertoire. Add any favorites to your master list of favorite meals.
Incorporating some new recipes once in a while will keep your old favorites from getting stale. And give your family a special meal to look forward to.
8 – Cook Once, Eat Twice
Make chicken one night. Cook enough so you can use the leftovers in your pasta dish later that week.
Brown tons of ground beef. Use half of it for tacos one night and the other half for chili another night.
Whip up a Crock-Pot meal and you’ll have enough for two dinners. (Don’t hate on leftovers!)
Be creative. Are there any meats that can be used for multiple recipes? Can you use leftovers to throw in a soup or a pasta dish? What about on top of a salad for lunch the next day?
We don’t all have time to cook seven days a week. Using leftovers can give you a break a few times a week without having to order pizza.
9 – Don’t Forget About Meals Other Than Dinner
Obviously, avoiding the last-minute dinner scramble is the biggest reason for meal planning. But don’t forget all of the other meals too. Have a plan for breakfasts, lunches, and healthy snacks.
Forgetting to plan for breakfasts and lunches can mean extra trips to the grocery store. And we almost always overbuy when we go into the store without a solid plan.
Make sure to keep food in the house for all meals so your family isn’t tempted to hit the convenience store or drive through.
10 – Be Flexible
Some people like to plan their meals out nightly Monday-Sunday. Others prefer to plan seven dinner meals and choose what they want to cook that night based on whatever mood they are in that day.
Remember that there is no right or wrong way to meal plan. Make it work for you!
If you need to shift a meal in your plan, don’t let it derail your entire week. Do what you need to do to get food on the table and get back on the horse tomorrow night.
11 – Make Your Grocery List as You Meal Plan
This tip goes hand in hand with tip #4. As you peruse your fridge, freezer, and pantry and make a meal plan based on what you already have at home, make a grocery list with any ingredients you will need to buy. Reference the recipes you plan to use as you go, so you don’t miss that little can of green chilies you always forget about.
When you’ve finished meal planning, the majority of your grocery list will be done and you are ready to hit the store.
Or place your online grocery order. #nojudgement
12 – Post Your Meal Plan Where Everyone Can See It
It is easier to follow through on your meal plan if you leave it front and center.
Post it on the fridge. Keep it next to your bullet journal. Make sure it is placed somewhere visible so you will see it throughout the day.
Keeping your plan at the front of your mind will make you less likely to forget about dinner until the last minute. And might keep your kids from asking you, “What’s for dinner?” 43 times. No promises, though.
Saving Money With a Meal Plan
Meal planning means more efficient grocery shopping, less money and food wasted, and fewer dinnertime scrambles. Hopefully, these 12 tips will help you master meal planning and reap the benefits once and for all!
Remember, the longer you meal plan, the easier it gets. Don’t let any mealtime meltdowns get the best of you or your little ones. Have a plan. Work the plan. You’ve got this!
What are your favorite meal planning strategies? Share in the comments!