What’s for Dinner? Simplify Your Way to Meal Planning Success

Last year, when our family went through the 31 Days of Living Well and Spending Zero challenge, I struggled with one big area: meal planning.

Really struggled.. I just couldn’t get my head around planning meals more than a day or so ahead. I can barely answer “What’s for Dinner?” on a given night, so how was I supposed to answer it for an entire week or more?

I understood why meal plans are important. Meal planning can save you a lot of money. If you can plan out what you are going to eat over a week or more, you’re far less likely to waste the food you buy or give into the temptation to eat out.  Plus, meal planning can help you take better advantage of the foods you already have in inventory.

Despite that, I still had trouble implementing the plan, and I wasn’t quite sure why, Considering how easy I find it to fall into routine and schedules, you’d think that meal planning would be a no brainer. Instead, my mind and taste buds rebel at the idea of deciding exactly what we’re going to eat on a given day and sticking to it.

I also felt constrained by my daughter’s eating habits. Little Bit used to eat tons of foods, but starting from about age 3, our standard main dish became “Anything with melted cheese and nothing without.” Over the summer, though, I lost that excuse as she broadened her palate and started eating a lot more diverse foods.

It’s great that our family can now enjoy more options for dinner, but that’s meant that I need to be more careful not to get carried away and buy a bunch of foods we won’t eat.

So I was motivated to change, but struggled with coming up with a workable plan.

I really just needed to overcome my mental block and simplify the meal planning process.

Overcoming the Mental Block

Over the last year, I read a lot of people’s meal plans, and I’ve realized my meal planning rebellion is probably overkill. For instance, Jamie over at Medium Sized Family gives a meal plan ever two weeks that just says” We’re gonna eat this stuff over the next two weeks.”

No “On Monday, we eat tacos” Just “We’ll eat tacos twice over the next two weeks.”

A list of possible meals to make over the next week or two appealed far more to my rebellious taste buds. Some days you just need pizza. Still, I struggled with the initial list.

Finally, I ran into the right article over at Ava’s Alphabet: How to Start Meal Planning When It Doesn’t Come Easily. And in that article, I found the key:

At some point during this struggle, I either read or was told to just start by writing down what we actually ate for dinner every night on my calendar or a sheet of paper


Why did I never think of that?

Come to think of it, every time you shop for food, you are meal planning. Maybe not efficient meal planning, but meal planning. You’re buying the stuff you’re going to use in your meals. Most of the time when I shop, I’m just saying “Yes, I can use that to feed my family,” based on what I know we use.

Only one problem with that approach: With no timeline for using a given food, it can go bad or get overlooked. And it still doesn’t necessarily answer “What’s for Dinner?” on a given night.

To change that, I have to turn my “stuff my family will probably eat” into “stuff I’m going to serve my family this week.”

Paring Down the Process

The first step to simplifying my process was to pare down the task. Before, I tried to plan three meals a day. I realized that approach ignored how my family actually eats 3 meals.

Silly me.

Breakfast at our house is catch as catch can. As long as I have Pop Tarts, oatmeal, cereal, yogurt, and/or granola bars, everyone will figure out something to eat.

We handle lunch the same way. Little Bit and I go through her school lunch menu each month and determine which days she wants to buy lunch and which days we need to pack. Other than that, we just scrounge up meals for her of cheese sticks and crackers or cereal and fruit. Jon and I make sandwiches or finish off leftovers.

If I keep buying our staples, breakfast and lunch take care of themselves.

It’s only dinner I need to plan. It’s the only meal where my family all eats the same thing.

Once I realized I really was only planning 1/3 of my meals, the meal planning process became a lot less intimidating.

Figuring Out What We Eat

I have a little over a month’s worth of data of what we eat, and it’s pretty revealing. Over 5 weeks (not including vacation time), I’ve come up with the following stats:

  1. We eat pizza (usually frozen) once a week. Mostly, pizza is our Plan B “I ain’t cooking” meal, so it’s not going away anytime soon. I’d love to see us eat it a little less, but I don’t think that’s likely. So,
  2. We eat at my in-laws at least once a week, too. Another meal I don’t need to plan.
  3. We made soup twice. Each time, soup and bread made up 2 dinners. One soup was leftover based, the other I bought 1 specific ingredient (butternut squash) to make. In cool weather, I can expect to make soup of some kind every other week, at least in cool weather.
  4. We had either chili or beans and rice every other week, pretty much alternating with the soup weeks. Again, each time, we had it, it made up at least 2 dinners (and a couple of lunches).
  5. We either ate pasta or made a meal out of roasted potatoes with cheese each week.
  6. Jon made “Crock Pot” entrees at least every other week: chicken, ribs, and a roast. These generally made up at least 2 meals (although the leftover chicken got turned into soup) and reflect what bargains i was able to find in the meat section during my grocery trips.
  7. For the remaining dinners we ate out for our anniversary and got Chinese takeout.

Now maybe this was just a repetitive meal month, but I doubt it.

My guess is during the summer, we went with a few more meals of burritos or eggs instead of soup. We may have done a bit more grilling instead of eating quite so much starch.

It still gives us a great starting off point for a flexible two week dinner meal plan.

Simplify Your Way to Meal Planning Success

My 12 Dinner Meal Plan

Thinking about what we eat, I feel pretty confident that we can turn our “what we ate” list into a solid 2 week meal plan and the start of my next shopping list.

  • Frozen Pizza (in stock)-2 meals
  • Soup (French Onion with Mushrooms–have all ingredients but the right cheese) -2 meals
  • Rice and Beans or Chili (The main difference for us is sausage versus hamburger. Either way, we have all ingredients)-2 meals
  • Roasted Potatoes with cheese, bacon, and frozen broccoli (in stock)-1 meal
  • Spaghetti with meat sauce (in stock)-1 meal
  • Slow Cooker Ribs (in stock)-1 meal
  • Roast Chicken (in stock)-2 meals
  • Breakfast for dinner (need more eggs)-1 meal

Emergency Standby Dinner: Bean burritos and chips (need more burritos), Grilled Cheese Sandwiches

Okay, that’s 12 meals, accounting for a dinner at the in laws or a night out, plus an emergency plan in case something comes up. 

When someone asks “What’s for dinner?” I have an easy answer.

Meal Planning should also keep my grocery budget in check. Planning it (and looking at inventory) means I can limit most of my grocery shopping trips to dairy and produce (unless I find a killer deal on steaks for later. It’s always worth looking.)

Adding New Items

The only thing my meal plan system doesn’t address is variety. It’s entirely based on things we already do.

One of the things I do, though, is try to attempt at least one new recipe each week. 

Last week, I made French Toast Bread Pudding and Butternut Squash and Apple Soup. Both will be on the menu again, though not over the next 2 weeks.

That said, adding a new entree isn’t always the most successful way for me to add variety.

Adding new sides can be a wiser approach, allowing anyone who turns their nose up (Little Bit) to safely avoid more than a single bite of strange new items. It can take a lot less effort to put a side together. Plus, if the recipe doesn’t work out, it’s a lot easier to toss a side than a main dish.

Desserts can be safe, too, since someone can always choose something else or skip it entirely.

So sometime over the next two weeks I’ll try a couple of new recipes. It’ll either be a vegetable side to accompany the chicken or ribs, a new bread recipe or some dessert that I can scratch together from what I have on hand. That way, I’ll add to my cooking repertoire without getting too ambitious.

Meal Planning Success

Meal Planning can save you money.and time. It can prevent you from wasting a lot of food and help reduce the temptation to eat out.

It’s a really good idea, but getting started intimidates a lot of people. If you feel like you can’t answer “What’s for Dinner?” when your family asks, answering for a whole week is overwhelming unless you can simplify the process.

So simplify it. Look at what your family already eats, look at what you have in inventory, and fill in the blanks. Then, whenever you get the classic question, you’ll have the right answer.

And it might not even be “Pizza.”

Do you know what’s for dinner at your house during a given week? If you do, what tricks have you used to make it easier for you? 

24 thoughts on “What’s for Dinner? Simplify Your Way to Meal Planning Success

  1. I’m always so happy when we make a meal plan. But…I don’t do it every week. Sometimes Mr. Mt will take charge and plan out some meals before he heads to the store. Hopefully this will inspire me to finally sit down and figure it out. =) It’s hard to feed 7 people without any planning.
    Ms. Montana recently posted…Smart Goals with Savings ArtMy Profile

  2. I love the idea of writing down what you typically eat as a starting point for meal planning! Since I jot down meals for each week, I often go back a couple of weeks to see what we ate another week when I need a little inspiration.

    My problem lately is my kids are PICKY teenagers. So, my options aren’t as expansive as they once were. But…I make dinner and they either eat it or make themselves something they will eat (the nice thing is, they are old enough to make ramen and mac and cheese).

    I’m experimenting this week with meal planning to save time in the kitchen (batching food prep). I’m recording my meals and time spent making them – it does require more planning but, so far, I’m saving time in the kitchen and dinner still makes it to the table.
    Amanda @ centsiblyrich recently posted…One of the best ways you can save money: Tax advantaged accountsMy Profile

    • Ah, I had not thought so much about kids getting pickier as they get older. But, as you say, the kids can get their own alternatives.
      We need to do a better job of batching. We have leftovers pretty regularly, but that’s more often a matter of cooking more than we need than deliberate plans.

  3. It’s great how you figured out your obstacle. I loosely plan. I need to work my way up to a 1-week plan and then maybe tackle the 2-week.

    When I cook meatballs I make enough for at least 4 dinners. I keep one on hand for the next day (we like them better when they congeal) and the rest go in the freezer. I also like the boneless/skinless chicken thighs from Aldi and keep extra (raw) servings in the freezer that can be defrosted. I also keep cans of chunk chicken, tuna and bean salad on hand. Since Mr. G stopped eating bread and potatoes I can’t use grilled cheese or baked potatoes as a backup but eggs are always good for dinner.

    Have you figured out how to arrange your pantry or your cupboards? That’s still an obstacle for me.
    Mrs Groovy recently posted…FI GothicMy Profile

    • My best trick to the pantry/cupboard is to keep an inventory, but it doesn’t get updated nearly enough. I’m due for a clean out, though, and that helps.

      My bigger problem is the freezer. I know what I put in there from shopping trips, but I’m not always great at remembering what leftover soups etc Jon may have stashed there. We need to do a good clean out, there, too.

  4. I have to chime in on this one! I completely understand where you’re coming from, but my problems fit onto the other side of meal planning: I absolutely HATE grocery shopping! The only way I’m able to walk into the store and come out with anything at all is to meal plan. On Sunday morning, we sit down together and figure out what we need to buy. For us, it’s 4 meals during the week, plus 1 huge slow-cooker meal for that evening which will also turn into our lunches for the week. We just leave it all open-ended other than the slow-cooker meal. This way, we know we have ingredients for 4 meals, but if I don’t want taco salad on Monday, I don’t feel like I have to have it!

    I’m not a very experienced cook, and if I walked into the store without a list, I’d definitely leave with cereal, 2 kinds of cookies, and ground beef. Haha! Not exactly meals…

    • Cereal is on our emergency meal list, especially with cookies. Sometimes, pouring a bowl is about what we can manage.

      That said, I’ve always loved grocery shopping, and my issues circle more around using what I buy than not buying enough. As for the cooking, that comes with experiences (although it looks like you’re in DC…lots of dining out temptations there!). I know there are a lot of foods I was intimidated to try cooking that I’ve started fixing in the last year or two…fried okra, Yorkshire pudding, french onion soup. Most of them have worked out fine, once I find a simple recipe.

  5. Like you, I feel like I can barely answer what I want for dinner tonight without worrying about a whole week’s worth of meals (or more). My wife on the other hand has been trying to implement mean planning for quite some time. I know all the benefits, and we try to make up grocery lists based on a loose meal plan. We even have a “menu” to pick from, a list of dinners we’ve enjoyed in the past, although not necessarily what we’ve eaten recently.
    Gary @ Super Saving Tips recently posted…Why You Need Life Insurance Whether You’re Young or OldMy Profile

    • Too much reliance on what we’ve eaten recently may be the downfall of my plan. On the other hand, we get some variety because Jon is just as likely to cook as I am, and we do the same things differently and that can change each other’s plans.

  6. Oh man, thanks a lot for posting this. Meal planning makes such a big difference when it comes to keeping costs low. It’s almost unbelievable how bad I am at it, considering I know how much it can move the needle. I think I’m at where you were last year. I’m doing pretty well on breakfast and lunch with staples (as you recommend). But dinner is still a big challenge. Hopefully I can use your tips to jump ahead! Thanks again for sharing.
    Jay recently posted…Trend Following Stock Picks for October 2016 (Part 3)My Profile

  7. Hey, thanks for the shout out! I really enjoy meal planning so much more now that I’ve simplified it. We try new things once or twice during my 2 week meal plan period, but it’s really hard to find new foods that most of us will eat. (I can’t please all 7 of us all the time!) I like your idea of having a stand by meal waiting. I need something like that for those nights when things suddenly get crazy or I’m sick.
    Jamie @ Medium Sized Family recently posted…Creative Tips for Having a Fun Fall PartyMy Profile

    • Having a standby we can pull out when all else fails helps so much, even if it’s just PB&J or cereal. It does give you a little wiggle room when, say, you have a splitting headache and no leftovers to fall back on. I figure as long as no one goes to bed hungry, dinner is accomplished.

    • That’s why i try adding either sides, desserts and bread recipes….they don’t hurt nearly as much if we don’t like them as a main dish. Or small portions…nothing worse than having to power through leftovers that you just can’t face.

    • We love grilling and grill in all weather. Unfortunately, at the moment our grill needs some TLC to get the burners back in action. I’ll be glad when grilled chicken, steak and chops can go back on the menu.

  8. Meal planning is the bane of my existence. I really struggle with it. The problem is that even if I plan a meal and have the ingredients on hand, sometimes I get home and just cannot bring myself to cook it! I try to keep it simple for nights I am in the office, but I still end up throwing food away because I put off cooking it for too long. I do love the idea of tracking what you actually usually make.

    • I struggled with the “putting off” issue too, Linda, especially with produce. Fruit I just had to cut back my quantities, but veg was a different story. One change I made to help that was to limit the fresh vegetable purchases to only the things i had a plan to use in the next 2-3 days. Anything without a plan or a more immediate need for, I buy frozen, and I even started picking up canned mushrooms instead of fresh for most soups and sauces. That helped a lot to reduce the waste, even if we don’t always use as much fresh produce as I’d like. But better to eat what we buy than toss what we waste.

  9. Great ideas here. I definitely need help in this area, as I tend to plan each meal as I eat it. I know, I know! Anyway, thanks 🙂

    • Lol, yes, been there. Planning is tough, and i still like to do sides on the fly, plus I have my emergency backups. So last night, despite the fact that it wasn’t on the plan at all, we had ham and cheese sandwiches.

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