How to Simplify Meal Planning for Busy Families

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Did you know that a study shows that on average, people make more than 200 decisions decisions related to food everyday?? While many of those are made basically on autopilot, that’s a LOT of decisions to make!

How many more decisions do you think you have to make per day as a mom? And than add that to every other role you also hold. You have huge mental and emotional loads on you, so anything that you can to do lighten those loads will help.

Even though I love food, meal planning is not one of my favorite things. Although I do love the feeling that comes after I’m done, and have a plan that I know will help me stress less during the week.

If you’re overwhelmed by meal planning, or you’re a meal planning beginner, here’s an easy to follow method to help simplify meal planning for your busy family!

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Picture of a clock on a plate with knife and fork. Text says How to Simplify Meal Planning for Busy Families plus free meal planning printable.

What is Meal Planning?

Meal planning is basically what it sounds like- a process of planning out your meals for you and your family for however long you want to plan them for.

Is Meal Planning Hard?

No- although you do have to put some work into it at the beginning. But after that, it’s pretty easy and you can plan your meals for the week probably in 15 minutes or less!

Does Meal Planning Mean I Can’t Ever Change What’s On the Schedule After it’s Planned?

No way! If something changes that day and you don’t have time to make what’s on the schedule, or you all decide you want to eat something else, then change it! It’s your plan and you can change it as things come. Life happens!

Does Meal Planning Mean I Have to Cook Everything From Scratch?

Nope! Your meals can be store bought, from a dinner planning service, semi-homemade, or any combination you want. You can cook everything from scratch, but I wouldn’t advise it unless that’s something that you love to do, you have time to do, and it brings pure joy to you when you do it.

You are free to get take-out or eat food at restaurants of course, but ideally meal planning means that you’ll make a lot of your food at home. Eating out costs more in the long run and it’s not as healthy (depending on where you eat I suppose).

Why Should I Meal Plan?

Meal planning is one of the simplest ways to:

1. Lessen your mental load as a mom.

When you meal plan, you know what you’re going to eat for the week and can shop for groceries based on those meals. After you’ve planned everything, you don’t have to stop and think about what you’re going to have on the day of.

No scrambling to find ingredients, or kids asking you a million times if they can have different random things. Everyone should already know what’s for dinner and you’re prepared to make it. One less huge thing to worry about!

2. Save money.

When you meal plan, you create a grocery list of meals for the week and then cook only what you need, which saves both time and money. This eliminates the need to make last-minute trips to the store, which can lead to costly impulse buys.

Meal planning also helps you stick to a budget. You can plan meals that are affordable and within your budget. And by cooking at home more, you’ll save money on food costs by not paying extra to eat from restaurants.

Breakfast foods on blue table top

3. Eat healthier.

Eating healthy is another benefit of meal planning. When you have a plan for what you’re going to eat, you’re more likely to make healthy choices ahead of time. You can create a more balanced meal and add in vegetables and fruits, while getting the quality and variety of foods that you want. (And avoiding a lot of processed foods.)

You won’t be standing in the pantry at 6pm, stressed and hangry, eating chips from the bag while also trying to figure out what to make for dinner. (I’ve been there, it happens!)

4. Manage food allergies.

For families with food allergies like ours, meal planning is essential for ensuring that we have safe ingredients, safe meals and everyone can enjoy dinner together. Being an allergy mom increases the mental and emotional loads on us even more, and meal times create a lot of anxiety.

Knowing ahead of time how I’ve planned for my child to have a safe meal lessens my anxiety (and his), and lets me give my time and attention to something else.

5. Spend more time with your family in the evenings.

Meal planning allows you to spend more time with your family. You can cook together, eat together, and even have family game night/movie night/or whatever kind of night you want during shared meals.

Overall, meal planning can help reduce your stress and help you live a simpler life. When you don’t have to worry about what you’re going to make for dinner, you have more time to relax and enjoy your life!

Have A Goal for Meal Planning

What are your goals for meal planning? If meal planning feels daunting to you, think about what you want to get out of it.

Do you want to cut your spending on eating out at restaurants? Do you want to have less stress during the week around meal times? Do you want your family to eat healthier?

Pick your goal(s) for meal planning and keep those in mind while you’re doing it. Meal planning does take some work at the beginning as you get your systems set up. But after that, it’s easier and you’ll be able to see your goals being met!

Woman at laptop writing meal plan list

How Do I Start a Meal Plan?

1. Create Your Master Food Lists

In order to get your meal planning started, it’ll make things so much easier on you if you create some “master lists” of foods. This way, when you go to make your meal plan, you have a lot to pick from, and they are all dishes that your family likes!

● Master Dinner/Meal List

Get the whole family involved and make a master list of favorite dinners/meals. Write them all down, along with where the recipe is located if there’s a recipe that you follow (website, a certain cookbook, etc.), so that you have it handy for later. Try to pick things that don’t take too long to make on a week night. And yes, simple meals like frozen pizza or scrambled eggs and bacon are meals!

● Master Side Dishes & Desserts List

After that master list of dinner dishes is made, go ahead and make a master list of the favorite side dishes and desserts of your family. Then you can easily pair side dishes and main courses together later when meal planning.

● Master List of Quick Meals/Plan B Meals

Then, make a master list of quick meals. These are meals that take 15-20 minutes for you to make and that you normally always have the ingredients for in your pantry and/or fridge. These are your back-up or “Plan B meals” on nights when something comes up and you need something fast, or you don’t feel like eating what’s on the plan for that night, etc.

● Restaurant Specials List

Lastly, if there are certain restaurants that your family likes to eat at, I would make a list of those and any days that they normally offer certain deals. Like kids eat free, family pack specials, or buy one get one free offers, etc. That way if you have a hectic evening or you want to plan in some of those meals, you can save money while doing it.

Don’t feel like you’re 100% locked into your meal plan. Things change, so you want a meal plan that’s flexible to fit your lifestyle.

● Other Helpful List Ideas

Other ideas for optional, but helpful master lists would be: meals we want to try, master pantry, fridge, freezer lists, and a master grocery list.

● That’s So Many Lists!

If that sounds like too much for you to tackle right now, just write down a couple of “Plan B meals” to start off with. What do you have right now in your pantry, fridge and freezer that you could make 2 or 3 plan B meals out of?

Then choose a plan B meal to make this week to replace a meal that you probably would’ve had take-out instead because you didn’t already have something else planned.

After you get one meal a week under your belt, then keep adding more, slowly but surely. Then when you feel up to it, go back to making your master food lists. Do it all in your own time- we’re going for progress and not perfection!

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Woman looking at open fridge writing on meal plan

2. Create Your Meal Planning System

● Decide how many meals you want to plan for in a week.

Now that you have your lists of meals, decide how many meals you want to plan for in the upcoming week. Be careful not to get overly ambitious and think that you have to cook from scratch for every single meal, or cook new things each time. Meal planning is supposed to make your life less stressful overall, so go easy on yourself.

I’m focusing on dinner right now, but you can also plan out breakfasts, lunches and snacks. It all depends on what works best for your family.

Some people like to meal plan for one week at a time, two weeks at a time, or a whole month at a time. I suggest you start with one week if you’re brand new to meal planning, that way it’ll be less overwhelming.

Later you can decide if you want to give a try to planning multiple weeks of meal plans. Or if you want to add in breakfasts and lunches. This is your meal plan, so you can do what you want!

● Consider family preferences and schedules.

Check your calendar for what’s coming up in the week. If there are certain nights that specific activities are already scheduled for, then take those into account. Work meal planning into your current family routine, and on those busy nights, plan an easy meal, crockpot/instantpot meal, or take out.

Try to be realistic with your time. Think about how much time you’ll actually have to cook each night, and how much time everyone will have to eat overall. Don’t plan to make a bunch of new dishes either. It all might sound great in theory, but you know that in practice it probably won’t happen that way.

If your family likes having specific foods on a certain night, then throw that in the schedule too. We always have pizza Tuesday. You might have a pizza night, or nacho night, or breakfast for dinner night, or whatever your family enjoys. Depending on how many meals you’re making, you could also add in a leftovers night.

● Schedule in your preparation time.

Now that you have all the meals everyone likes and an idea of how many meals you want to plan for, it’s time to make your meal plan preparation schedule for the week!

Decide what day:

  • you’re going to meal plan,
  • your new meal plan will start on,
  • you’ll do your grocery shopping, and
  • you’ll do your meal prep.

● Check what you already have in your pantry, fridge and freezer to find out:

  • what foods are expiring first,
  • what leftovers you already have that need to be eaten first, and
  • what other foods you have that you can already make meals from for the week.
  • Write down the meal ideas you can make from all of these.

By doing these things first, you’ll save money and reduce food waste by using what you already have. And you won’t have to buy as much at the store when grocery shopping!

● Fill out your meal plan schedule.

Take a look at the upcoming week’s activities and fill in any meals that you’ll be eating out, and any days that you already know what dinner will be. For example, pizza night or breakfast for dinner night is every Tuesday, and leftovers night will be on Friday.

Then add in the meal ideas you came up with from the food you already have. Then if you still have days that need meals, fill those in with the meals from your master lists.

Hooray, now your meal plan is ready!! *High fives*


3. Make a Grocery List & Go Grocery Shopping

Go through your meal plan recipes and figure out what ingredients you’ll need to make everything. Double-check your pantry, fridge and freezer to make sure you don’t already have the ingredients before you add those items to your grocery list.

Grocery shopping can be a real hassle sometimes. But thankfully since you have your list, it will be somewhat easier! Just stick to the list and shop.

I love ordering my groceries online for pick-up. If you want to save money on grocery shopping, I really recommend ordering them online.

Ordering your groceries online helps you save money by reducing impulse buys, cuts down on multiple trips to the store since you can just check your pantry while at home to see if you forgot something (which saves gas and your time!), and it saves your sanity (and time) since you don’t have to drag the kids along with you to the store!

You can also easily compare prices online now to see who is the cheapest on your items, since most stores offer online ordering.

If things are really hectic, you can often get your groceries delivered (depending on where you live), which also saves you time! You do normally have to pay a delivery fee, but honestly sometimes it’s totally worth it considering how short our schedules are on time. A lot of times you can find coupons for your first order, so be sure to check online.

Related Post: How to Spend Less Money On Groceries

Has a picture of a Weekly Meal Planner printable page that you can download for free, sitting on a table top with some markers, a succulent plant and paperclips. Title says Simplifying Meal Planning for busy families + Free Printable! Download Now!

4. Do Your Meal Prep

Meal prep can mean different things depending on what you have to cook in the upcoming week. And on how much time you have to meal prep.

It could mean washing or chopping vegetables and fruits, making salads, browning meat, organizing snacks, or even making whole meals ahead of time and putting them in the fridge or freezer (depending on when you’re going to eat them). It can be whatever works best for your family.

For our meal prep time, we make salads for lunches during the week, prepare snacks, wash produce, brown meat, and sometimes batch cook. I love to batch cook a couple of things that are great for both my son’s lunch and for us to eat at dinner time.

Then I’ll split them up and keep enough for us to eat the next day or two, and freeze the rest. That way we don’t have full meals sitting in the fridge for a long time, and we can pull the food out from the freezer whenever we feel like having it.

If you are tempted to skip doing any meal prep, I don’t recommend it. It’s going to make your life much easier during the week if you take the time now to get things ready and organized. You can always listen to a podcast or audio book, or watch a show on your iPad while you’re meal prepping to make it more interesting.

Or see if you can get the family involved in meal prepping to make it go by faster. Kids can help prep their own lunches and snacks, or help you with dinner prep (depending on their ages).

5. Decide Where to Keep Your Meal Plan

Are you going to post your meal plan out where the whole family can see? Like maybe on the fridge, on a whiteboard, or in a family command center? Or just keep it on your Google Calendar or in a meal planning app? Ours is just kept on my iPad for my own quick reference. Decide what the best location is for your meal plan.

It can also help you remember if you need to do any prep for tomorrow’s dinner, like thaw or marinate something.

If you’re asked five times a day what’s going to be for dinner, I’d say you should post it in a central location where everyone can see it. That way you can save your breath for repeating something else that your kids or spouse will ask you about.

If you’re thinking about putting your meal plan on your fridge, below are some really cute (and highly rated) options from Amazon!

Be sure to measure your fridge door space and compare sizes before you buy! I didn’t recommend any paper ones because I never have luck with the magnets, they always rip off the cardboard backing. Some of the paper ones also tend to curl, which bothers some people.

Keletop Wood Board Weekly Meal Planner Rustic Wood Sign with Clips

Magnetic Dry Erase Menu Board for Fridge Includes 4 Liquid Chalk Markers

Magnetic Dry Erase Menu White Board for Kitchen Fridge with Fine Tip Markers

Magnetic Dry-Erase Weekly Menu & Meal Planner for Kitchen Fridge + Free Bonus – Grocery/To-Do Lists Board & Markers

This one above looks really great, with the extra grocery/to-do list that you could use for whatever you wanted. I also like how it doesn’t stick out away from the fridge.

6. Enjoy Your Stress-Free Meal Plan!

After all of your hard work, now you can enjoy your stress free meal times! (Or at least stress free in that you don’t have to think about what to make!) As the week goes by, make any needed adjustments to your meal plan in order to make it work better for your family.

Again, after you have a few weeks of meal plans under your belt, use those as templates and rotate the weeks. You’ll soon have months of meal plans and you can rotate those in and out also- saving you lots of future meal planning time!

Meal Planning Tips & Tricks

● Meal Planning Tips to Help Stretch Your Budget

  • To save money, cut back on meat and have a “meatless Monday,” or another meatless meal day once a week.
  • Add other ingredients to your meat to make it stretch, like beans, oatmeal, or chopped up veggies.
  • Cook double batches or cook in bulk and you can cook multiple meals at once. Either have them as leftovers for another meal in the same week, or freeze and serve in the future.
  • Store your ingredients so that they last as long as possible. For example, fruits and vegetables should always be stored separately (except for apples and potatoes). Fruits give off a gas that speeds up ripening and can cause some vegetables to spoil faster. Read more about the best ways to store fruits and vegetables here and other food saving tips here.
  • Use good airtight glass or plastic containers for freezer meals similar to these or these. Air is what causes freezer burn, so try to get as much out as possible to help your food stay fresh longer.
  • Buy ingredients that you can make more than one meal from, especially if an ingredient is on sale. For example, if you buy a rotisserie chicken, you can use it on salads, baked potatoes, inside of quesadillas, or as a main course with sides.

● To Make Meal Planning Simple, Rotate!

Work smarter so that you don’t have to work harder! If you create a meal plan schedule for a few weeks (or more), rotate them and then add in a change or two each time. If you can meal plan for a whole month or two, then you’ll have even more variety to pick from for meals!

This also helps you when planning out your grocery list. You’ll always have a fairly good idea of what you need and you’ll know about how much things will cost, since you buy them often. This allows your grocery budget to be more predictable.

I keep my meal plan page digitally on my iPad and copy and paste last week’s meal plan onto a new page. Then I can see what we had last week and make changes. I keep the prior meal plan sheets in there to refer to and can always go back and copy one of those if I want. Keeping it digitally makes it super easy and simple!!

● Make Theme Nights

If you’re having a hard time coming up with meal ideas, let theme nights help you! Here are over 25 theme night ideas to help get you started.

Get the whole family involved in picking themes, the kids might really get into it! Since there’s so much variety in each category, you could even make a two week rotation of themes and the dinners would be different!

  • Italian Night
  • Asian Night
  • Sandwich Night
  • Meatless Night
  • Taco Night
  • Sheet Pan Night
  • Slow Cooker Night
  • Soup Night
  • Breakfast for Dinner
  • Seafood Night
  • Pizza Night
  • BBQ Night
  • Mexican Night
  • Leftover Night
  • International Night
  • American Night
  • Kid’s Choice Night
  • Indian Night
  • Grilling Night
  • Salad Night
  • Baked Potato Night
  • Snack Dinner Night
  • Take-Out Night
  • Mediterranean Night
  • Burger Night
  • Pasta Night
  • Comfort Food Night
  • Vegetarian Night
  • Low-Carb Night
  • Family Favorite Night
  • Casserole Night

● Use Meal Planning Apps or Services

If you’d like some extra ideas or a more handy way to create your meal plan, check out some of these popular meal planning apps to see if they work for you!

If apps aren’t for you, then writing with a pen and paper, or writing digitally on your tablet will work great too!

Here’s a free weekly meal plan template for you to start out with!

Download it today to start making a Weekly Meal Plan for your family’s meals!

Have some great meal planning tips you’d like to share? Put them in the comments and let me know!

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  1. May 24, 2022 / 3:44 am

    This is great! I also find it helpful to batch cook or prep ahead single ingredients for the week – one or two grains, one or two proteins, a few vegetables, and a sauce or two. Really helpful for busy weeknights.

    • Robin
      May 30, 2022 / 4:53 pm

      Yes- those are awesome ideas too, it really helps then that you can just mix & match on the fly! Super smart idea! Thanks for reading & for the comment!

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