Menu planning is one of the habits that makes the biggest difference in our family’s budget and my stress level. By taking a few minutes each week to plan out our menu and create a shopping list, I avoid buying food that we don’t need and won’t eat and eliminate the whole “standing in front of the open fridge wondering what to make” stress.
Yes, that’s right — I menu plan in just a few minutes each week with Plan to Eat, and I’ve partnered with them this month to bring you meal plannings tips and strategies!
Today I’m sharing the 5 strategies I use to simplify my meal planning process:
1. Be realistic.
The most important menu planning tip I can offer is this: be realistic about the recipes you really want to make and will have the time to deal with!
It’s tempting to create a beautiful meal plan full of gourmet meals and tasty side dishes, but realistically I know there will be at least one night where I don’t feel like cooking at all, and when we have a busy week planned, I tend to stick with super simple one-dish wonders that are easy to throw together.
While menu planning makes it easier to stick to food resolutions such as cooking from scratch or avoiding certain ingredients, it’s still important to be realistic and not just make a menu plan that you think you should make if you’re not really going to stick to it.
2. Organize your recipes.
My biggest menu planning struggle has always been sorting through all of the recipes in my head, in cookbooks, torn from magazines and saved in my browser bookmarks to decide what to make each week! Sound familiar?
For paper planning: What I should have done when I was planning on paper was taken the time to really organize those recipes in a binder or accordion file — printing recipes as I came across them and maybe even copying them out of cookbooks — to have them all in one place, organized by category for easy reference.
How Plan to Eat helps: What I do now is actually a two-step process. I save tons of recipes on Pinterest that I’ll probably never make, but I try to pick a few new ones to try each week. Once I’ve decided what we’re going to try for the week, I use the Plan to Eat bookmarklet to quickly add it to my account so that I can add them to my menu plan.
Already in Plan to Eat are all of our family’s favorite recipes, and those are categorized by course and tagged with things like “crockpot” or “gluten-free” to make them easy to sort through as my recipe box continues to grow.
3. Create a meal rotation.
That said, because all of my menu plans tend to be on the simpler side, I look for ways to rotate and repeat menu plans as much as possible.That means that our family follows basically the same breakfast and lunch menu every week. Other families create rotating 2-week or 6-week menu plans for dinner that they can repeat again and again, while still others follow a weekly rhythm so they know there will be one Mexican dish, one casserole, one Italian dish, etc. on the calendar each week.
Not to sound like a broken record, but the key here is figuring out what works for you!
For paper planning: To easily rotate or repeat your menu, be sure to use a notebook or file folder to save past menu plans so that you can refer back to them.
How Plan to Eat helps: Click the Edit Planner button in the top left corner of the calendar to copy, move, swap or delete your menu plan from one week to the next. You can even choose to just do one section at a time if you’d rather not repeat all three meals!
4. Plan for all three meals + snacks.
Which brings me to my next tip: While I know a lot of people (most people?) only really plan out their dinner dishes, we actually plan all three meals plus snacks each week. We don’t always stick to the plan exactly, but it ensures that we always have the ingredients on hand for those meals and gives us a list to choose from each day.
5. Share the menu plan with your family.
And finally, because my husband and I share cooking responsibilities, I love that Plan to Eat can sync with Google Calendar so we both have access to it without logging in. It also makes it easy to see the meals we have planned alongside any appointments we have scheduled!
For paper planning: Display the menu plan somewhere where the whole family can refer to it throughout the week.
How Plan to Eat helps: When viewing your Planner, click the gear icon on the far right of the screen. Copy the iCal feed URL and add it into your calendar software to import the calendar. (On Google Calendar, click the arrow next to Other Calendars and select Add by URL.)
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Do you meal plan? What’s your best menu planning tip?