7 Ways to make meal planning easier, faster and more practical for your family

Every single day my family needs to eat. And they insist on three meals a day plus sometimes snacks as well. It can be a lot. The biggest challenge for me is figuring out what to make. By the end of the day, I’m tired and usually my brain is on overload. That’s where meal planning comes to the rescue.

Through the years, I’ve tried different strategies for meal planning. Unfortunately some of them made me feel like a failure. Others just didn’t work. And still others took too much time that I didn’t have. For the last few years, my simple meal planning strategy has worked well for my family.

During these last few months of being at home and only picking up groceries once a week, I’ve had to be even more intentional with meal planning. It keeps my family fed and me sane!

Decide how often you’re going to the grocery store

The first step for meal planning is deciding how often you’re going to the grocery store. Whether you go once a week, three times a week or once every other week is going to make a difference in what you buy.

In general, I go once a week. Sometimes I end up with a trip in between there, but my goal is once a week. That’s been even more true during this year of social isolation when I’m only doing grocery pick-up. I’ve found that knowing I can’t just pop into the grocery store and pick up a forgotten ingredient or a fresh ingredient makes a difference in my planning.

While I know not everyone is staying out of the grocery store in person like I am, keeping trips to a minimum and not having to go back over and over for forgotten ingredients just makes life easier!

Keep a running grocery list

Being able to pick up everything you need during your grocery shopping trip is also key for effective meal planning. While my grocery list includes items for specific meals I have planned, it also includes everyday items that we go through like milk, bread, yogurt, eggs, cheese, fresh fruit, etc.

My favorite way to keep a grocery list is through using an app called Our Groceries. It is connected to our Alexa, so as I’m working in the kitchen, I can tell Alexa to add items to my grocery list. The list is also shared on both my phone and my husband’s. Pre-pandemic there were times one of us added items to the grocery list while the other was in the store shopping!

My mom uses a different strategy for her grocery list by adding items to her grocery cart for pick-up. That also works as does pen and paper, which is what I did before we started using the Our Groceries app.

Think practically about what you will make

When I first started meal planning, I’d come up with all sorts of ideas. I listed recipes new to us. I planned on cooking every night of the week even though I wasn’t doing that before I began meal planning. I had high hopes, I guess.

The reality is I don’t cook every night. Some nights I need something easy to make like frozen pizza, canned soup or grilled cheese. It may be a busy day or a crummy health day. So I learned to plan a few meals to cook each week and also to plan a few meals that don’t take as much effort. You just have to be practical about what your family actually does.

Make a list

Write down what you are planning to make over the next week (or two or however long you go in between grocery store trips). Add the ingredients to your running grocery list so you are prepared.

Be sure to go through the ingredients you have already for inspiration of what to make and use. Try also to plan items using similar fresh ingredients in the same week. For example, I often do tacos for dinner one night and salads within a day or two since both use fresh lettuce. Or I utilize the ground beef with chili one night and sloppy joes within a day or two.

Also add meal ideas that you always have on hand to your list. For my family this includes things like frozen pizza, chicken nuggets, mac and cheese, frozen or homemade waffles and homemade pancakes.

Decide what list format works for you

Perhaps my biggest meal planning secret is that I don’t plan meals for specific days. I tried doing that and it never worked well. So now I make a list and have found three ways that work well.

This is how simple my list looks.

Prior to the pandemic, I made a list that was divided in two with meals that I had ingredients for and those that required ingredients to be bought fresh. For example, if I planned tacos, I might need to buy lettuce. Or if I had my daughter’s favorite slow cooker potato soup on the list, I might need to buy a loaf of fresh french bread.

Now that I can’t stop by the store for just a few fresh ingredients, I make one big list of meals I have ingredients for. In my head, I know which of those meals have ingredients that need to be used sooner than later, but I don’t break up the list any more.

You can also add a section for meal ideas that you always have on hand. Again, nowadays, I just put it all on one big list. So part of my meal planning list doesn’t usually change. But seeing those ideas of other things we have helps me when I’m deciding what to make for dinner.

Add details if you want

You can get more detailed with your list if that helps you. You can add side dish items along beside your main dish or even in a separate section. I don’t usually do that simply because the main dish is the hardest one to pick! Once I know what it is, the sides fall into place.

You can also include recipe notes like a URL to a recipe or where you saw it. I have even printed out new recipes and kept with my list in the past. Now I have a drawer in my kitchen where I put the recipes instead.

Put the list where you’ll use it

I like having my list visible where I need it most: my kitchen. So I post my list on my fridge with a magnet. I usually have mine typed up (which is just easier for me and I can keep the recurring meals on there). I trim the paper down to the size of the list so it’s not a full sheet of paper and stick it on the fridge. As we have dinners, I mark off what I no longer have ingredients for.

The list works well because my family can also see it and put in their thoughts for dinner sometimes.

If it works better for you, keep the list on your phone. Or put it in a drawer. You could stick it in your pantry. I’ve even kept my list on Google Drive and shared it with my husband before. Find the spot that works best for you and your family and go with it!

About the Author: Stacey A. Shannon

Stacey A. Shannon is a freelance journalist and blogger who has been published internationally. She's also a Christian, a wife and a mom of two school-aged children. She started Families with Grace in 2019 to encourage Christian moms as they create homes filled with grace, love and faith.

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