Planning Menus — A Helpful Guide

Planning menus is a skill that is relatively easy to master and it can benefit your family in lots of ways — like adding variety to meals, introducing new foods, and helping keep to a budget. Use these tips and you’ll always have an answer for that dreaded five o’clock question: “What’s for dinner?”

You’ll find all the tips, plus a sample menu, and a sample grocery list below.

Secret Number One is identifying all of the main dishes and side dishes your family likes to eat. The less surprises, the less scowls and growls! Sit down with a notebook and make a list of all of these foods — everything from spaghetti to stir fry. Be sure to ask each member of the family for their input.

Once you’ve listed the meals your family likes, it’s time to gather the recipes in one place. And that’s Secret Number Two: Dedicate and organize a binder, folder, or recipe box with the most-used, most-loved recipes for quick reference, and keep it with your cookbooks, or somewhere easily accessible when cooking. If those recipes are in a cookbook, bookmark it so it’s easy to find with bright, colorful tabs — or photocopy the recipes and add them to the binder so everything is together.

Next comes the fun part. Fill in an empty weekly or monthly calendar with the meals. Secret Number Three is all about scheduling and sticking to it: Make sure to add in any special occasions, appointments, or other events that will be helpful when deciding when to eat which meal. If you have a birthday that month, you might want to make a note somewhere about any special meals or desserts you want to make or if you’ll be eating out instead. The less surprises, the less scowls and growls! Want to go the extra mile? Try to add in at least one thing you know for sure each person will love so there is something on their plate they are guaranteed to enjoy.

Secret Number Four: Be realistic about your schedule. While a pot roast and homemade rolls on Wednesday sounds like a lovely mid-week treat, it can turn into a stressful moment if your daughter has a two-hour dance practice that day and your son has to be at soccer right after! You could plan on using your slow-cooker several times throughout the week because it saves so much time, and one-pot meals are lifesavers on busy nights. You could focus on 30-minute meals and save the more involved recipes for the weekend or a day when you can dedicate the time.

Plan meals according to the way you like to eat with regards to things like your schedule or time constraints. If your life is hectic and busy, then planning one week at a time might be best for you. It might make things more simple to fill in a whole month of meals. Which brings us to Secret Number Five: Consider your natural grocery shopping habits. Are you someone who likes to pop into the market every other day on the way home from work, or are you someone who only shops twice a month? Are Saturdays reserved for serendipitous finds at farmer’s markets and roadside stands? Or does bulk shopping make more sense for your family? If you despise the market, go as infrequently as you possibly can. If you love it, you’ll find a little more flexibility in your menu planning.

Secret Number Six: Eat food when it is in season, which saves money and ensures an ever-changing variety of fresh ingredients. In-season produce is usually on sale (or free from your garden!) and can help you stick to a budget. Eating in season means your weekly menus in August will differ greatly from the ones in February. (But if your family prefers something more predictable, that’s okay too.)

If you are part of a CSA or something similar, you may not always know what you’ll be getting each week. It will be more difficult to predict your menus. Keep things a little more open-ended. For instance, you might want to simply label Thursday as pasta night and know that you’ll be adding veggies into the dish. Or Tuesday might be soup night and you’ll use whatever you get in the soup.

Secret Number Seven: A proven time and money saver is adding meals to your plan that are great for leftovers or can be turned into another easy meal. One favorite is a roast chicken on a Sunday night that can be turned into a pot pie, soup, enchiladas, or something else on Monday night. Or you can plan on purchasing a rotisserie chicken from the store with the same idea in mind.

Secret Number Eight: Don’t forget planning breakfasts and lunches if needed so that you don’t end up using your dinner ingredients for other meals. This may not be a big deal for you. Some families prefer simple breakfasts like oatmeal, cereal, or toast. And lunch is often served at school, with parents ordering takeout at work. So you may only need to think about weekend lunches.

Sample Weekly Meal Plan

Sunday
Breakfast:  Puff Pancakes with fresh fruit
Dinner:  Roast Chicken with vegetables, green salad, homemade ice cream (remove meat and put the bones in the slow cooker overnight to make a broth)

Monday
Breakfast:  Oatmeal with berries
Dinner:  Biscuit-Topped Chicken Pot Pie (chicken and broth from the roast chicken the night before)

Tuesday
Breakfast:  Smoothies and whole wheat toast
Dinner:  Quesadillas and salsa

Wednesday
Breakfast:  Cold cereal with bananas
Dinner:  Vegetable Stir-Fry with Orange-Miso Dressing and sticky rice

Thursday
Breakfast:  Whole Wheat Buttermilk Pancakes with maple syrup
Dinner:  Spaghetti, salad, and garlic bread

Friday
Breakfast:  Oatmeal or cold cereal with fruit
Dinner:  Homemade Pizza

Saturday
Breakfast:  Omelets with mushrooms and veggies, hashbrowns, fresh fruit, and muffins
Dinner:  Leftovers for kids, because Mom and Dad are going out!

Once you have your list of meals figured out, make your shopping list. Secret Number Nine is one you’ve heard a million times, but it’s worth repeating: Shopping with a list will save you so much time and money when you’re at the store. You’re less likely to impulse buy when you are armed with a detailed list. Also, shop at stores where you are familiar with the floor plan, so you won’t have to hunt for ingredients as much.

Separate your grocery list into three columns: Menu, We Have, and We Need. This helps me stay focused and curbs any panicking about forgetting something.

Sample Grocery Shopping List For Weekly Menu

Make sure to add a few extras to your grocery list to allow for lunches — like fresh or dried fruit, veggies, crackers, cheese, yogurt, or other healthy foods to use for snacks.

Secret Number Ten: Remember that some fresh items are more perishable than others. Take that into account when you are planning your menu and shopping. If you know you need cilantro for a recipe you’ve scheduled for Friday, you won’t want to buy it the previous Saturday, or you will discover it has gone bad when you’re ready to add it to your recipe on Friday night. If you don’t rely on canned goods very often, you will probably shop more frequently in order to pick up the fresh ingredients.

Secret Number Eleven: Display your menu where you can see it. Like in your planner or on the fridge. A dry erase board or chalkboard in the kitchen works too. The other bonus with a kitchen display is that everyone else knows what’s for dinner too. (You can even add illustrations for pre-readers!)

Lastly, go easy on yourself. Things come up. So Secret Number Twelve is: always keep a few backup easy meals ready to go in the freezer or pantry. This might be an extra jar of spaghetti sauce and bag of frozen ravioli that you reserve for emergency dinners, or when you’re just plain too tired for something more involved.

Bonus Secret: If you’ve read these tips and you’re still feeling overwhelmed, try a more formal schedule. Monday is breakfast-for-dinner, Tuesday is for tacos (or any kind of Mexican food), Wednesday is leftover night, Thursday is Italian, Friday is soup, Saturday is dinner out with friends or family, and Sunday is slow-cooker. This way you’ll always basically know what you’re making each night for dinner. It narrows the seemingly endless options, and once again…the less surprises, the less scowls and growls!

Best of luck in your menu planning!


Text and Images by Lindsey Johnson for Design Mom.

58 thoughts on “Planning Menus — A Helpful Guide”

  1. oh my goodness!! You are amazing, woman!!

    This is super menu-planning organization . I know that i will NEVER become this amazing. But, I am on a q uest for more organization in my life in general. So these are really great pointers/tips/suggestions! Thanks!!

  2. Love this! I can always use more help!

    When my husband and I moved to Scotland 5 yrs ago we were seriously poor. No money for treats or going out. I had to plan our menu meticulously to ensure we weren’t spending too much. We always have Taco Tuesday and Sunday’s are usually in the slow cooker. That way when we are home from church, and are starving, lunch is ready! Voila!

    I’ve learned that without a list we spend 3x {seriously, 3x!!!} more than with a list.

    I end up recycling the same recipes over and over…BUT lately I have been learning 2 new meals per month to add to my rotation. It’s been great!I also asked my sisters {I have 4!} for their favorite recipes. I made my own bound recipe book with them all. Makes it easy.

      1. I greatly enjoyed the blog post, too! I thought I should mention that.

        I very much appreciated this post, as well as the holiday pantry post from a while ago… and the post on mending clothes from a while ago. These posts are in my mom canon of favorite articles. Thank you so much!

  3. This is so timely. I haphazardly made my first meal plan last week. This is week 2, and we actually had some leftovers in the fridge last night instead of fast food wrappers in the garbage. AND we actually used the veggies in the fridge instead of throwing away rotten squash. I’m so proud of myself. Can’t wait to incorporate some of this advice. Thanks!

  4. I have been making a weekly meal plan for several years now and LOVE it. There is nothing more stressful to me than getting hungry in the afternoon and not knowing what’s for dinner! I aim to cook about three big meals each week (and only ever one new dish) and then use the leftovers or combinations of leftovers on the other nights. My husband and I also pick one day a week to cook together, which is great because I can plan a more time-consuming meal and we enjoy each other’s company while we work on it :)

  5. hooray for meal planning! i have been planning our meals for years and honestly can’t imagine going to the store without a plan. i totally agree that it is important to include breakfast and lunch, too. i even include snacks, too. recently, i started doing my meal planning by the month so that i could do one big shopping trip and my husband can do little ones every week (for things like milk, bread, fruit). it has been a lifesaver especially with a kid and another on the way.

  6. This is a great post, Lindsey! Last January, I really committed to meal planning and it has made a world of difference in terms of time-saving and keeping my food budget in check.

    I was using a pen and paper to draw up my menus, but recently turned to http://www.pepperplate.com, an online meal planning website. My favorite feature is that you can import recipes from favorite websites and automatically create shopping lists. You can also entire recipes in manually. The also have a smart phone app so you can follow the recipe on your phone or tablet as you cook.

    Oh, and I recently started printing out menus and posting them on the fridge. You’re right — my son loves it!

  7. This is a wonderful, wonderful post! I actually do plan my family’s meals and could not agree more with your tips (some of which were new to me). You’ve inspired me to be even more organised, for instance, writing the meals on a calendar instead of in my shopping notebook. Thank you so much for taking the time to write all this up!

  8. This is such a down to earth post. I have been planning meals for a while, and have found many a useless menu/planning tip on the web. My family would actually eat that whole menu! Please consider posting your menus more often.
    I try to make 1 large piece of meat on the weekend create left overs. A Turkey when it is on sale, or a roast. Then I freeze some for another week and use some leftovers at least once during the week. I also use weekends to prepare rice, put together a soup and bake bread. So the weeknights are really a reheat and/or final steps. The joke is my kids only ever eat leftovers.
    We are in the middle school years and sports are right in the middle of the dinner hour. So we have adopted a split meal approach for those nights. Something small but protein rich before we go and then our sides when we get home. For example 1/2 chicken breast before activities and a salad with a roll when we get home. Or for early activity nights a smoothie with yogurt and pasta when we get back.
    Also there are nights we simply are not all there at once. The crock pot saves us. Allowing each member to eat something hot. An important thing in a MN winter. Soup or pulled pork work well for us.

  9. I should not have read this just before lunch! Meal planning is definitley the best!

    Can I request a post? Lindsay, do you have great secrets to homemade pizza? I’m tired of mine always looking and tasting homemade. I’d love to create a restauraunt style pizza and not feel so bad when I don’t get to go out to eat.

    Beautiful pictures, too!

  10. Great ideas. I tend to have a vague plan as to what we are going to eat which is in my head and not on paper. It tends to be along the lines of pasta one night, soup/stew one night, Asian one night, chicken one night, pizza one night etc. It works pretty well and after 32 years of being married I have a familiar roster of meals. The biggest thing that helps me with meal planning is to have basic pantry items available at all times so I know I can find tinned tomatoes or chick peas or pasta in the pantry and carrots in the fridge and frozen corn in the freezer etc. There are always enough things to make basic spaghetti, soup; or stir fry in the house. If we want to change things up then I do add that to the grocery list for the following week.

  11. I found this very interesting but I’m so different. I keep lots of basics on hand and then love to create supper out of what we have/what the weather is like/what we feel like. I usually cook without recipes (unless I’m trying something brand new or ‘exotic’). I try to use up fresh stuff before shopping for more so that nothing goes to waste. When I shop, I have 1 or 2 meals in mind and then just make sure we have all the basics.

    One money saving tip that I love: When I open a package of any meat I always put at least one piece aside (1 chicken breast, part of a steak, 1 sausage – whatever). That little piece becomes a whole new meal (sliced sausage on home made pizza, steak in mushroom stroganoff, chicken in a stir fry etc).

    Also, I tend to make lots so we can have supper leftovers for lunch several days of the week (and my husband saves lots of money not having to buy lunch at work).

  12. i also secretly love menu planning, cooking, and grocery shopping…
    i have four very active children, including 15-year-old son who eats as much as the other 5 of us! i have found over the years that the best system that works for me a SEASONAL TOP 30 LIST. each quarter, i take a note pad and number 1-30 along the left. then i poll the kids and my husband for their favourite meals and enter them on the list with sides included, trying to space out the different types of entrees so we don’t have chicken 4 nights in a row. my younger two go to a school that publishes the school menus on a seasonal weekly rotation, so i consult that and then literally go down the list….i enter the menu number on to each daily square of my weekly planner . (i put the master list on my iphone –love the app called paperless on which i also have a master shopping list, which you can tick off as you purchase things.) some days are “try a new recipe” day, or “composed salad day” for the days where everyone is running from activity to activity (literally a huge salad, divided up by veg and protein—grilled chix, salmon, tuna,etc– which allows everyone to make their own personal salad , and served with crusty pretzel rolls from whole foods). this system saves me loads of time thinking about what to make and new items can be added to the list each season.
    i also make a big pot of chicken stock each week, which i freeze in ice cube trays and store in a plastic baggie in the freezer. they are great to add to rice, couscous or to make a quick cup of noodle soup. another trick is that i make a recipe of cookie dough, scoop it out with a small scoop onto a cookie tray and freeze, then place the balls into a plastic bag in the freezer…makes it very easy to pop a dozen onto a cookie tray whilst dinner is cooking and have an easy dessert, without much temptation left over.
    cheers! thanks for the great ideas!!

  13. I love seeing how other people meal plan! I don’t have quite the same amount of organization as you have, but I also don’t have as many children (only 3 for me!) I too use my slow cooker to save time and eat seasonally.

    Thanks doll,
    The Glamorous Housewife

  14. Great post! I love learning new menu planning tricks. I only have one to add, and that’s using an envelope for your list. You can write the menu on one side, the list on the other, and put coupons inside. I always seem to have more envelopes than cards, so this is a good way to use them up.

    I hate sitting down to plan weekly menus and a grocery list, but I’m always glad that I do. I can only handle one week at a time. I will do the menu and grocery list, while my husband usually does the grocery shopping. I’ve finally learned to be specific with brand/location/flavors if adding something unfamiliar to the list.

    I find it hard to incorporate slow cookers during the week. We’re often gone too long, and sometimes we forget to make time for slow cooker assembly in the morning. We usually take leftovers to work for lunch. Friday is ALWAYS our take out night. We are surrounded by delicious food, especially pizza. I have no shame calling for take out once a week, as long as it’s in our budget.

  15. I love love love having a plan for dinner days in advance. I tried simplifying with the pepper plate app awhile back and got discouraged, it wasn’t for me but I just had to share the app I found that I love!! It’s called meal plan. I love it! Happy planning!

  16. I love the shopping list organization – that’s clever because I’m always second-guessing myself in the grocery store.

    I do menu plan, although mine is a little looser than yours. My big secret is my supper notebook. I write down what we ate for dinner every night in a notebook. It’s a fun record of our family, it’s a source of menus (likes/dislikes), and where I found recipes I used. I mark Sunday meals as those take special planning to be ready when we get home from church, and I mark meals that I carried out to other people because some food/menus work better for that. I blogged it here: http://thriftathome.blogspot.com/2010/03/my-supper-notebook.html

  17. SPECK! You have speck listed on your shopping list. My husband just about died when I showed him your post and he read that (He read every word of your post quite closely).
    Where do you find Speck in Utah?

  18. Love these ideas and boy do I need this now, thank you! Would also love to know how you make broth from just the chicken bones and a slow cooker. You make it sound so easy but I have no idea how to do that.

  19. I really appreciate this. I have been shopping on the fly the past few weeks and when I do that I come home with nothing to make meals with or only part of the ingredients I need — plus I know I am spending way more than I need to, buying random stuff. On top of that I’ve thrown away way too much food that has gone bad in the fridge. I’m not always like this but right now I am the example of what not to do. Advice here is very helpful AND encouraging. Needed it.

  20. I love the ‘menu – we have – we need’ shopping list. That’s a great idea. I do a less formal and more disorganized method of that and have been known to forget a key ingredient. I also love your handwriting!

  21. I am a cooking newbie. How do I find out when certain items are “in season”? I haven’t been grocery shopping regularly for enough years to have this figured out in my head.

  22. This is basically what I do, too, at least some of the time. I have a chronic illness, and some days are better than others, so I always plan a couple of super-easy quick meals, or at least have lunchmeat and bread on hand for sandwiches. The only thing I would add is that I have this list on my fridge and I LOVE IT. As soon as I run out of something, I mark it off on the list. The number of things I forget to buy has dropped dramatically since we started using it! http://www.knockknockstuff.com/catalog/categories/pads/kk-pads/all-out-pink-pad/

  23. This post is so helpful. I try to plan ahead, but I LOVE your menu planning and shopping list process. It makes so much sense and doing it would help me each and every time I realize I’m missing that one ingredient that the recipe absolutely needs. Thanks for all of this great advice.

  24. I whole-heartedly agree with every tip in this post ( ; I like planning, too, and use my personal blog to store favorite family recipes. One day I’ll actually take the time and compile them all into a recipe book for my children- maybe when they move out on their own. I would like to get better with tip #6 and eat/prepare what is in season more. Maybe this year ( ;

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  29. I have been meal planning for nearly two years. I used to be so opposed to the idea because I, personally, love to get creative and go through an abundantly full pantry and just PICK what I want to make when the mood strikes. Well, enter three kids! I found that shopping for specific menu items saved me time and money, and still allowed all that creativity – but the creativity in planning meals happens on the weekend, when I make the menu.
    My friends have come to really enjoy coming to my house to see what is posted on my menu board – so much so that I sometimes take a photo of it and post it on instagram for them.
    I usually leave one or two days open, as my husband likes to take over on his days off, and he will plan those days. He doesn’t write it on the board, so it’s a nice surprise for me, too. Almost like going to a restaurant. If I could only find a bus boy to clean up after us…

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  34. O thank you for this pin. I really needed this. I have tried many attempts at planning and have only succeeded once. This post is really going to help. Thank you again!

  35. There are a lot of great tips here, I’ve been using plantoeat.com which is a drag and drop system that exports a printable shopping list. You can keep staples in the shopping list and arrange it in the order of your favorite grocery store. It has been a lifesaver for this busy mama.

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  37. I was forced to meal plan because when I got married I realized I didn’t know how to cook anything of substance! Not knowing how to cook forced me to rely 100% of recipes so I had to plan it out. I don’t have kids but my husband and I are very busy, so to save time during the week I double weekend recipes and freeze them. That way if I need shredded chicken, I can pull a ziplock out of the freezer so I don’t have to cook it. I also divide and freeze all my casseroles. Two people can’t eat an entire casserole before it goes bad. So I divide it, pre-cooking, into smaller dishes and freeze one! Perk is if I’m lazy or hubby is gonna be home alone, I can just pull one out and I know it’s healthy!

  38. Thank you for the tips – They are definitely going to come in handy in our household.

    Since you shared with us some of your tricks, I’d like to return the favor.

    I love fresh herbs (cilantro, parsley, mint) and I have found that when i stick them in a bowl or mug with about 2 inches of water, it keeps the greens alive for at least a week.

    I also love baby spinach leaves – and use a pyrex bowl with a rubber cover to store it. The trick is to add a paper towel on top of the leaves so that it absorbs the water and keeps the leaves fresh and crunchy.

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  40. I have been meal planning for several months now and I always have a hard tike coming up with meals everyone likes and isn’t too pricey as we have a family of 10 to feed. I’m going to try tye recipe binder idea qnd see more if it helps thanks.

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