obviously, I'm a huge advocate for meal planning. it has a lot of huge benefits (saves time, money, stress and encourages healthier eating habits when done right) with a minimal time investment (i do mine in about ten minutes every wednesday morning). but the big potential downside with meal planning (well, any planning, really), is that if your plan sucks... the whole week sucks. you might end up eating too much of the same thing, spending too much time in the kitchen, eating meals no one really likes, or ending up with a ton of uneaten food. be been fine-tuning our meal planning system for a few years now and i can tell you that all of those situations have happened here at one point or another. but to save you from meeting the same fate, here are a few helpful hints for making a meal plan that wont suck:
account for the nights you arent eating at home.
i feel like i shouldnt have to say this, but dont make a five or seven night meal plan if you know youre only going to be eating dinner three or four nights that week. this will save you a lot of time and money and wasted groceries.
dont repeat meals in the same week.
some meals i make (like curry lentils or black bean chili), are HUGE and feed us multiple times. to keep us from getting bored/sick of eating the same thing, i only serve that meal once the week i make it, freeze the rest in one-meal portions, and only pull them out once each week until they run out. added bonus: most weeks my meal plan is halfway done from freezer meals!
if you do freezer meals, balance what you put in and take out.
unless you have like, the worlds biggest freezer and dont mind eating food thats been frozen for three years, dont put more meals in the freezer than youre taking out on a weekly basis. this is just basic math.
plan for a "treat" meal in every week.
ok, i know typically the whole point of meal planning is to eat healthier/save money/save time/whatever and thats great and all, but pushing too hard for any one of those things gets old fast. so plan on one dinner each week being something good, even if its not the healthiest/cheapest/fastest thing there is. we typically eat really cheap and healthy, but every week i make sure we have something really nice like salmon (or in n out, if theres room in the budget...).
balance labor intensive meals with easy ones.
ill be honest: no matter how much i like cooking (which is more and more the older i get and more i learn to make), i do not like slaving over an elaborate meal (and the corresponding elaborate mess) every single day. so for every big, messy dinner like shepherds pie or mac and cheese, theres a meal that gets pulled directly from the freezer.
get the whole family involved.
even though the meal planning/grocery shopping/cooking is more or less my job, im only 1/3 of the people in this family that need to eat. so im always asking james and alice their thoughts on what were eating, what they like/dont like, and what sorts of new or different recipes they want to try.
plan for "leftover night" if necessary.
we dont end up with a lot of leftovers, and when we do, i typically eat them for lunch since im home all day. BUT if leftovers ever are an issue, we do what i like to call a "leftover extravaganza" and kill two birds with one stone: leftovers get used up and thats one less meal to shop/cook for.
keep to one "new" meal per week.
a great way to drive yourself (and your family) insane and spend all your money ever on groceries is to make your entire meal plan of new recipes that youve never made before. trying new recipes is an awesome thing to do (saying this mainly to myself because i really need to do it more), but they can use a lot of new ingredients and dont always turn out (or maybe you/your family just dont like them). so just to play it safe i recommend sticking to a once-a-week rule with new recipes: the worst case scenario is that youll have one lame night the whole week, but the best case scenario is that every week has an exciting new dinner.
keep it quick, simple, and flexible.
contrary to what pinterest may have you believe, meal planning should not involve complicated calendars or spreadsheets or eight hour days in the kitchen (unless youre into those kinds of things, then i guess go for it). heck, i dont even assign specific days for the meals on my plan. meal planning is supposed to make your life easier. if its not, then theres absolutely no shame in trying something else.
when done wrong, meal planning can be a total drag (i have very un-fond memories of a few times my mom tried to do the "month of freezer meals in one day" thing...), but by keeping a few things in mind, you can totally put together a plan that makes everyone happy.