Menu planning.
Does the very phrase make you smile or cringe? I know this won’t come as a surprise since most of you know what a nerd I am when it comes to food, but I happen to love menu planning. I think about it all the time and find it very therapeutic and dare I say, fun, to sit down at the computer and set up a schedule for our monthly meals.

However, I know that isn’t the case with everyone. Some dread the very task. But in the hope of making at least one person’s life easier, I want to share with you a few tips that have helped me become more organized and better able to stick to our stringent food budget.

Sit Down and Plan It Out.
I plan my meals two weeks at a time. Why two weeks? First and foremost: I don’t want to do extensive grocery shopping every week. Also, any more frequently (i.e. weekly) and it takes me too much time to write down the menu. I know that sounds crazy, but it is just as easy for me to spend the time deciding on recipes/meals two weeks at a time instead of doing the process each week. Any less frequently (i.e. monthly) and it is impossible for me to afford my groceries (since I want to do the bulk grocery shopping trip based on the menu) due to a bi-weekly paycheck. So every two weeks it is.

I plan the menu and subsequent grocery shopping list a few days in advance of grocery shopping because inevitably I need to add things to the list that I forgot and only remember as I’m working in the kitchen those next few days. Also, I have a white board on the side of my refrigerator that details my daily tasks and on the side, I keep a running list of food items I’ve run out of during the 2-week menu, like cornstarch, syrup, etc. and I add those things first thing when I sit down and plan the menu.

My Trusty Spreadsheet.
I have a little nifty document that helps me plan all of this out. My lovely menu planning spreadsheet. Below are two links to help you out.

Menu Planning Example: this is an example of the last menu I planned for my family, complete with the meals I planned and the comprehensive grocery list.

Menu Plan Template: this is basically a blank template of the version above. You can use this template for your own needs, if you like. To use it for yourself, click on the link and it will download to a Microsoft Word document. You can edit it to your liking and save it for future reference.

As a quick explanation (because it isn’t rocket science, I promise), in the table on the first page of the document, I list the meals we’ll have for dinner each night. At the top of each day in italics, I detail if there is any homemade baked good to go along with the meal (like breadsticks, rolls, etc.) so I can get a head start in the morning.

The second page of this document is where I list the ingredients I need for the meals. As I go along, I figure out what we want to eat on Tuesday, list the meal and any sides, and then I go to the second page and list the ingredients I need for the meal that I don’t already have on hand. I do this for each day in the menu cycle.

Once I’m done planning the evening meals, I add foods to the grocery list on the second page that I need for lunches, snacks, general milk supply, etc.

I’ve also added a little section under the menu planning table that lists treats I want to make during the week since I really only plan an actual dessert for Sunday dinners. I add those “extra treat” ingredients to the second page and then I know I have them on hand when the craving hits. And trust me, the craving always hits.

I print this document out with the table of meals on one side and the grocery list on the other and I take it with me to the grocery store. When I get home I post it on the side of my fridge so I can see the meals at a glance.

Grocery Shopping.
The big grocery trip happens once every two weeks, sans children I might add (the last time I took all four boys to the grocery store, the cart tipped over landing on two of my boys and spewing my 82 packages of Oreos for the Oreo Truffles I was making everywhere, so I prefer to go it alone when my husband can take care of the charges). I also plan to do a small (i.e. 10 items or less) grocery run for the second week to pick up any fresh foods that I may need that don’t keep well for two weeks, like mushrooms and bananas.

You can be really diligent and plan to use low-lasting foods the first week in your meals, but I find I usually have to run the second week to get milk anyway (we drink an exorbitant amount of milk in our house) so I’m fine picking up fresh foods along with that trip.

Money Back Guarantee.
I’ve used this method for a couple of years now and not only does it make my life easier, but I know it saves me money because if I didn’t plan out my meals, I’d be at the grocery store every day. And I don’t know about you, but I can’t get in and out of the grocery store without spending at least $30, even if I just went in for bread and milk. Happy Menu Planning everyone!

137 Responses to Kitchen Tip: Menu Planning 101

  1. Kandi V says:

    Thanks for posting this! I have been working on my own version of a meal plan, but I think I will combine it with yours. My family loves that I have found your site and now make lots of yummy food for them! Thanks again!

  2. Hillary, Jonathan and Lincoln says:

    I love all your kitchen tips! Thanks for posting this!

  3. Annie Jones says:

    Meal planning makes me smile.:)

    We get paid weekly, and I shop weekly (strictly according to my list), but I plan a month at a time. I even start adding meals to the next month’s menu if I see a new recipe I’d like to try.

    The key for us is to have a plan, but to also be flexible. A lot of times we have unplanned leftovers. We use those first and move the meal they replaced to the next month’s plan.

  4. Splendid Things says:

    Great tips! I also LOVE to plan our family menus. It is exciting to me to sit down with my recipe box (I often include your website now when I am planning out recipes!), coupons, store flyers and plan away! My husband teases me because I put my grocery list in order of how the items are found in the store so I won’t have to back track when I am in there. But to me that is ESSENTIAL! Cheers! Jeanette

  5. firewife says:

    I would love you to email me a copy. Thanks in advance, I love it

  6. mini-mcgoo says:

    Thanks for the tips! I am cracking down at our house…trying the freezer meals and attempting a more diligent menu plan. You do good work…keep it up!

  7. megan says:

    great post :) I’m currently trying to cut our food budget down and I seem to be failing at it. I get to the end of the month and I’m forced to choose between sticking to the budget and eating fruits and vegetables. so far I’ve gone the healthy route, but I need to do better at the budget thing :)

  8. Melanie says:

    firewife – can you give me your email address so I can send you a copy?

  9. rickandangie says:

    Great post, Mel. I used to cring at the thought of menu planning, but once I became a stay at home mom, it made meal time much LESS stressful! I currently do the weekly menu, but I may need to try the 2 weeks at a time…cutting out a big grocery store trip sounds delightful! And since you sent your template, why don’t you just send your list of all the possible meals you have, too. I’m sure you have one of those documents, right!?! That would take even more work out of it for those of us reading your blog. ;o)

  10. Lisa says:

    Thanks for sharing. Like many others, I’m working on planning better to save money. This should help.

  11. Tycksen Family says:

    Melanie-

    This is great. I also plan my meals 2 weeks at a time. And I always have to do a small run the next week too. I really like your template. Could you email it to me at [email protected] Thanks. Oh and I made you vanilla pudding cinnamon rolls the other day. I was so nervous to do cinnamon rolls. I loved all of your detailed directions. Anyway, they were a huge hit and I felt victorious. All of my kiddos loved them. Thanks.

  12. SHAKS Watts says:

    I love the spreadsheet idea! If you’re willing to share, will you send one to [email protected]?

    Also, as I peeked at your sample, I saw Hawaiian Haystacks on your menu. I have been searching for a good version. Want to share that too?

    Sheesh, I am so demanding, eh?

    Thanks!

  13. K's Mama says:

    Great post. Love it. Quick question… is the BBQ chicken in the crockpot thats on your meal plan on your blog? I looked for the recipe but couldn’t find it.-mrs v

  14. My Sister's Kitchen says:

    It’s nice to know I’m not the only “nerd” out there who gets excited about grocery shopping and menus! I notice you have the blt pasta on there. We’re trying that out this week too. It looks delicious!

  15. Emily says:

    This is great. I’ve been wanting to start menu planning for awhile now, but I think this is just the push that I need to actually do it. Could you email me the spreadsheet at emilymarie4 at msn dot com? Thanks so much, I always look forward to reading your blog!

  16. Jen says:

    I would love a copy! I hate menu planning… partly because something always happens to throw it out the window, and partly because all recipes are too big for my currently small family (me, my husband and a 2yo and 1yo) so we end up with tons of leftovers and too many meals planned to eat them all. I’m still figuring it out and my family is still growing so any help/tips are appreciated! My email is [email protected]

  17. Leisel says:

    I just have to say it. I know we’ve never met so I don’t want you to think I’m a super freak or anything, but I really like you! I’ve been actually thinking about this for a long time. On several occasions I’ve wanted to write to you and tell you how helpful your blog has been in creating a meal plan for me. Just coming up with ideas gives me brain freeze. Your blog not only has great ideas, but great recipes ta boot! I actually have a mental list of questions I’d love to fire at you because you’re the ultimate food guru in my book. And meal planning was one of them. I’m wondering if this is going to work for me because it seems like when I go shopping for just one week the kids eat all the food the first day. And then the teenagers open the fridge full of veggies and good stuff and say “There’s no food in this house!”-Oh yeah, tell that to Dad who just paid the bill! So I guess there is only one way to find out. I’ll have to give it a try. If you wouldn’t mind, I’d love it if you sent the document as an attachment to my email at [email protected]. Thank you for your willingness to share your great talent!!!

  18. Tia says:

    I love this idea!!! and I adore grocery shopping so I bet i’d be at the grocery store every day even if i din’t have to.

  19. TJ says:

    This is a great tutorial. Thanks for sharing. I’d love a copy of the template!

  20. Megan says:

    I love to menu plan too;)

    We get paid monthly, so I do up our menu for an entire month. I usually grocery shop for 1/2 the month at a time though, more for the produce than anything else. I KNOW that I have started saving lots of money since I started doing this. It also makes it easier to do more bulk shopping at Sams.

    Also, LOVE oreo truffles! I made them this year for a cookie exchange!

  21. Natalie says:

    I love this! Your template is beautiful, I’m planning on using it.

    I plan the meals a month in advance, too. But only shop every two weeks because our minds change a lot around here.

    I like to cook for 2-3 days straight, and the fourth night is called “Refridgerator Buffet.” That way, even the kids get excited for leftovers. :)

    I looked for the recipe for BLT pasta on your blog but didn’t find it. Could you post it sometime?

  22. je says:

    Thanks for sharig this. I just recently found your Blog and absolutely love your recipes and all your posts.

  23. Anonymous says:

    This is exactly what I need to do. I’m getting really tired of all my mini grocery trips. When I get home I’m almost always upset with what I forgot or with the junk I did buy. I would love a copy of your template too. Thank you, thank you! Teresa
    TRigell at aol dot com

  24. Tori says:

    Mel- I don’t think I could be anymore amazed by you!! I would love a copy of this!! Thank you so much!

  25. the mama monster says:

    thank you thank you! i haven’t been able to find any sort of templte that i like yet. yours looks like just what i need. i agree with the meal planning every two weeks. once i am in the meal planning zone i would rather not deal with it anytime soon.
    thanks again
    jackie

  26. CoralieandCasey says:

    It’s like you read my mind. Scary. I was just trying to plan two weeks of meals when I saw your post. Could you send me your file? I’d be forever grateful.

    lovesjunkmail at yahoo.com

  27. Megan says:

    I forgot to say that I use almost identical templates for planning & shopping. The only real difference is that I have my meal planning done for an entire month.

    I hope you don’t mind, I am going to stick a link to this on my blog because:)

  28. Loralee and the gang... says:

    Awesome tips! I tend to do good and bad with the menu planning – dash and run in the summer, but have more time for it in the winter. And I am glad to see you planned in a couple nights for leftovers. We almost always have them (except for when I cook your recipes – really!)

  29. Anonymous says:

    blt pasta? looked for it on the blog..couldn’t find it…is it there and i’m missing it?

  30. Julianne says:

    Couldn’t have come at a better time. We’ve been struggling to think of things at the spur of the moment for dinner, and I just told Ryan we really need to get back into making menus. We used to do them monthly, too…now we do them bi-monthly. (That is, when we actually do them).

    Nice work!

  31. April says:

    Could I have a copy too? [email protected]
    I’ve been trying menu planning off and on since I’ve had kids (7 years), and lately my method has been planning for the full month about 20 meals, but not putting them on specific days. I make a list of all the meals, and grocery shop once for all the indgredients I don’t have. I hang the list in my kitchen so I know what I have on hand. Then in the mornings I choose our meal based on what we have going on that day. That way I can thaw meat, make baked goods or whatever in advance. My method isn’t precise or perfect… I do have to do weekly or bi weekly mini grocery store runs for things we run out of, particularly produce.

    You make meal planning sound fun!

  32. Deals to Meals says:

    I love your blog! You do such a great job :)

    Hey…just a tip, you can use Deals to Meals and we do ALL of the work for you and tell you where the best deals are at all of your major grocery stores. I know you love to cook and come up with your own meals, but for those who would like some help doing that–our system is SO fun and easy!

    Also, I would love to talk to you about giving away a couple of memberships to Deals to Meals for your viewers/readers (and YOU!) so you can see what our service offers. I would also love to talk about advertising options as well.

    Thanks again! Our website is http://www.dealstomeals.com and you can email me at [email protected]

    Have a great day :)

    Shandra

  33. Carly Jane says:

    I linked to this post on my blog jeaninesmenus.blogspot.com

    I hope you don’t mind. This is fantastic.

  34. Jessica says:

    This is great information! Thanks Melanie :-) I love how you do your bulk shopping trip every two weeks and then a small fresh item trip the second week. This would really work for my family and hopefully save a little money in the process. I am going to give it a try. Thank You!

  35. Becky says:

    My sweet Mel,
    I know you have hundreds and hundreds of readers, but I know you secretly wrote this whole post just for lil ol’ me. Bless you! Thank you!! I LOVE it. I am the most unorganized when it comes to planning dinners, so I’m really excited to put all of your tips to good use!!! Thank you so much!!!

  36. Melanie says:

    Hey everyone, I just sent out the first round of the menu template to the addresses you’ve left me. TJ, if you are reading this, I don’t have an email address for you.

    Also, just to let you know, I’ll be posting the BLT Pasta recipe later this week for those that requested it, as well as a few others on that menu plan.

    Hope this helps!

  37. ParryLive says:

    Thank you for sharing. I have been trying to get organized and have had little success. This is going to help so much.

  38. Cammee says:

    I’m a total menu planning nerd as well. You beat me though, I don’t have my own spreadsheet! I am not a lover of the grocery store, so less trips are better for me.

  39. Cicily says:

    I LOVE your site! I was actually planning my meals for the week last night and absolutely dreading it! I made my husband sit down with me and do it (he doesn’t cook AT ALL)! I was so happy to see your post today! I will be using it next week, thanks!

  40. Jessica L says:

    On your spreadsheet under “treats to make this week” you mentioned granola bars, but I have searched your blog, and no recipe. Are you willing to share? I have been looking for a good recipe for them! Thanks for all you do, my family loves you!

  41. natalie says:

    This is my newest idea too! I plan an entire month in advance, but only for the weekdays. I try to make the week include a day of pork, chicken, and pasta. I shop every week. I peruse the recipe and then make my shopping list. This saves me so much time of dreaming of what I want to cook every night or shopping the grocery store aimlessly. Also, this helps you use the left over ingredients. Have fajitas one night and then the next night have fajita salad.

  42. Memória says:

    I don’t have children, and I live alone, but I still need to do something like this because I’m a student. Thank you for this post. I’ve saved the documents on my computer. I will start planning from now on. It will also help me save money. I’m always throwing out food due to spoilage.

  43. Melissa says:

    You are so awesome for posting this. You must have read my mind because my New Year’s resolution was to get better at meal planning! I LOVE your website and your RECIPES! I definitely have the most success with your ideas — last weekend the Divine Breadsticks were a huge hit and my hubby asked for your Easy Chicken Tacos (a staple at our house) ASAP :) Keep up the excellent work!!!!!

  44. kjgray75 says:

    Melanie,

    Thank you, thank you, thank you! This is just what I needed to help me accomplish my New Year’s resolution of better meal planning. I used your template and am all set with meals and a shopping list for the next two weeks! It took me a couple of hours tonight, but I’m sure it will go much quicker next time. Thank you again for sharing your wonderful ideas and fabulous recipes!

  45. Lydia Stewart says:

    Way to go! I have to hand it to anyone who meal plans! Thanks for the tips! They were much needed! You’ve got some great ideas!

  46. Anonymous says:

    thank you! thank you!

  47. Team Mama says:

    Something else I’ve done that helps with the budget- I HATE going to Sam’s Club or Costco even with a list not know ing how much it’s going to cost me- I always spend to much. I created a shopping list in Filemaker (I have a Mac) that gives me the item and the cost and when I make my list, it calculates the total for me so that I have a ballpark idea of how much it will cost me. I say ballpark because it doesn’t account for tax etc. I check my receipts every time I get home and update as needed. This helps me a lot and I may try one with prices at my local grocery store too. Thanks for your blog- I’ve enjoyed your recipes and comments!

  48. Ellen says:

    loved this post. I shop once per week and keep to a plan but now I will step it up a notch and use the spreadsheet! It really has saved money and I rarely have to throw spoiled food away.

    On another note, and I’m thinking you could answer this…I make an awesome cheescake and I want to bring one to a family as a gift. However, I use a spring form pan and I don’t know what to do about the bottom of the pan. I can’t take it off(I don’t think), and of course I can’t give it away with the cake. What do baker’s do? Do I cut a perfect circle out of parchment or something…maybe that would allow me to remove the bottom? Thanks for any help you can give me.

  49. Natalie says:

    Great tips! I fall under the “LOVE meal planning” umbrella, although I typically do it a week at a time (but have tons of recipes brewing in my head for the following week).

    A year ago at this time I didn’t really plan and I’m not sure how I did it!!

  50. Barbi says:

    Hi! I am a weekly meal planner, but I do it on a notepad that turns into a bunch of scribbles. I will give this more organized idea a try!

    (I deleted my previous email b/c I do not need you to email me your template. I copied & pasted it)

  51. Deanna says:

    Thanks for the tips Melanie! I too am a bit of a nerd when it comes to food. I just love everything about food. Finding a new recipe, grocery shopping, the preparation. Ahhhh, food. Meal planning has traditionally been fun too, though I lost the drive somewhere between weeks 6 and 8 of my most recent pregnancy. (Hard to think about food when you can’t stomach it…) My sweet baby is almost 4 months now, and I am so ready to plan my meals. Thanks for the inspiration!

  52. Melanie says:

    Hi Ellen, about your cheesecake question, I’ve found the best way to do this is to cut a circle of parchment paper about 1/2-inch larger in diameter than the sprinform bottom. Place this parchment circle on the bottom of the springform pan and fold and crease it up the edges of the pan. Layer the crust and cheesecake on top of the parchment paper. After it has baked, remove the sides of the springform pan and carefully peel the parchment paper away from the sides of the cheesecake. Loosen the cheesecake away from the bottom of the pan (using a flat spatula or knife) and pulling on the excess parchment, carefully pull the cheesecake off the pan onto a cardboard circle (you can purchase these at Hobby Lobby, Michaels or other craft stores). Trim the parchment close to the cheesecake and wrap the cheesecake in plastic wrap, if desired. I hope this helps! Let me know if you have any other questions.

  53. Ellen says:

    thank you so much for the information!

  54. i i eee says:

    Woman, YOU ARE A GENIUS.

  55. One of us says:

    Thanks for the great tips. You really have your act together. I’d love the template.

    Thanks,
    Elizabeth

  56. MrsHigs says:

    This is great! I’ve been trying to figure out the whole meal planning thing for awhile now and this will help so much!!! I’m going back to work more next week, so I won’t have as much time to run to the store so I can’t wait to do this. Please send me the file! Thank you!

    [email protected]

    Christine

  57. Anonymous says:

    Thanks for sharing this, it is very helpful. I am a mom/wife who works full time outside of the home and have been wanting to come up with something like this, and haven’t made the time. Now with your template I can get to planning! I have made many recipes from your site and been very impressed even though I don’t usually comment on each one. It’s great to have a go-to source for great, new recipes. Thanks again! -gina in Salt Lake City

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