Menu Planning

So it’s no secret that I love talking about menu planning. Not only does it save my sanity wondering what on earth is going to magically appear for dinner each night, but it saves my grocery budget, because I don’t know about you, but the more times I walk into the grocery store in any given week in search of meal inspiration, the more money I spend. Revolutionary and deep concept, I know.

I am constantly updating my Menu page where there are over 25 free, downloadable menu plans for you to use, ranging in topic from summer menu plans to winter menus, 30-minute menu plans to all slow-cooker menus. And, I just added two specialty menu plans: Brilliant Brunch and Here Comes Company (these both include instructions and tips on make-ahead options and planning). I’ve also done a post in the past about menu planning for large crowds and during major holidays I like to throw together a menu plan complete with make-ahead instructions.

Me + Menu Planning = Love.

Because I know many of you either use menu planning devotedly like I do or are wanting to start, I’m going to be offering more menu planning tips and solutions. But to do that, I want to know exactly what questions you have about menu planning.

Are you stuck in a menu planning quandary and need help getting out?

Are you in search of a specific type of menu plan?

Do you need help figuring out other details of a menu plan besides dinner? Are side dishes your nemesis?

Do you set out to put together a menu plan but get stuck and can’t seem to make it come together?

Submit any and all questions you have about menu planning below! I’ll be compiling the questions and posting regularly about solutions to specific conundrums that will help you and me.

Ask away!

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42 Responses to Menu Planning Q&A {Submit Your Questions!}

  1. Nicole Hunn says:

    I’m so glad you’re doing this, Mel! I’d PAY for this service. Seriously. I’m a terrible planner.

  2. Mel says:

    Nicole – we should all be thanking you. Without your gentle nudging, this wouldn’t be happening at all. Thanks for the inspiration!

  3. Michelle says:

    Your timing is absolutely perfect! Our topic for RS tomorrow night (!) is meal planning & freezer meals. We already have you highlighted in the handout as a great resource but now I’m seriously considering scrapping the class and just sending everyone to you with their questions. ;) OK not really, but we will be repeating ‘melskitchencafe’ A LOT. Thanks for sharing your skills with the rest of us!!

  4. Jennifer says:

    Yes side dishes are my nemesis. They need to be very very easy and healthy. After making the main dish, I’m usually out of time and energy. We are running every which way on weeknights. I would love some ideas! I tend to throw some frozen veggies on the stove as an afterthought. I definitely need planning tips. Thanks Mel!

  5. bluebaker says:

    Hi Mel- I’ve been trying to solve the problem of trying to please everyone- and also changing my mind, or times when nothing sounds good. Do you ever have those times?
    Do all your kids like all the same meals? My cooking and planning have improved so so much since I’ve been reading your site. I usually come here when I can’t think of what to make. Thanks for having it all organized and ready for us.

  6. Raquel says:

    Hi Mel! I used to cook almost exclusively from Martha Stewart’s Everyday Food magazine. I just loved the simple, tasty food and the fresh ingredients. Unfortunately, they stopped publishing the monthly version of it. I love to try new recipes, and usually have several on my menu plans each week, but I am also really picky about the ones I use. Your site has now replaced my Everyday Food magazine. I am cooking my way through the recipes from your archives. Quite a few of your recipes have made it into my version of your “tried and true” binders (crispy southwest chicken wraps, creamy white chili, Asian chicken lettuce wraps, oatmeal coconut chewies, braised brisket, banana bars with whipped cream cheese frosting, etc.) You have also inspired me to bake a lot more bread from scratch than I ever had before. I guess I just wanted to write to let you know that it has been lovely having your site as a resource and it has been a pleasure to get to know the little part of you that you share with us here. After a few months of making lots and lots of your recipes, you are my go to for choosing a new one. Thank you for sharing all this with us.

  7. Celia says:

    Side dishes are a bit rough.
    We have a lot of dietary restrictions: no dairy, sugar, beef, pork, no to few raw veggies, no citrus, and one gluten-free. And a possible nut problem with the baby. So we eat a lot of chicken, turkey, and fish. It becomes a bit dull and I get in a rut, so side dishes are something I’ve been trying to work on.

  8. Lori says:

    I want to be a better menu planner! Here are my questions:

    1) How can I get my family on board with menu planning. I want all of us to be happy with the meals I prepare. Do we sit down and plan together? Do we each get one night to choose what is on the menu? (I have a husband, 10 year old daughter and 7 year old son.)
    2) I love trying new recipes – how do I incorporate these into my menu plans?
    3) What is the best day of the week to sit down and plan? Is it better to shop only once per week?
    4) How can I organize my recipes better? I love to be organized, but when it comes to recipes, I have them stashed in 20 different places. Blogs, websites, Pinterest boards, my recipe box, cookbooks, etc.

    Thank you for your help!

  9. Dawn says:

    I struggle with side dishes a lot. Some quick, healthy, tasty, and affordable side dishes to add to my recipe file would be most welcome!

    I also tend to menu plan based on whatever sounds good when I sit down to plan and that is not always cost effective. Any tips for in season meals to keep costs down?

    I just look forward to seeing whatever you post about this topic! Your web site has been a true gift to my family and is my go to web site for meals! Thank you for sharing with all of us!

    Now I should go figure out how to organize recipes from all over the web, torn out magazine pages, and cookbooks.

  10. Helen says:

    I need help with the shopping part :-) I would be interested to know how you put together your shopping lists once you get the menus figured out? … also do you have a master list of things that are standard that you always buy?.. And finally, how much do you plan at a time… 1 week, 2 weeks… a month…. Then how often do you actually shop? I don’t like going to the store more than twice a month, if I do need milk, eggs, or some fresh produce I usually send my hubby on his way home from work or send a teenager on an errand.. I want to go to the store as little as possible..

  11. Rebecca says:

    I’m with everyone else. SIDE dishes. Cooked vegetables that I actually want to eat. Not covered in sauce and cheese. :( Planning the main element in the meal is easy for me. Finding just the right thing to go with it is another story.

    What about menu planning for a whole month?

  12. Misty says:

    Hi Mel! I love your website and I use a lot of your recipes often! You have made me a good cook! :)
    I would like to know how much you spend monthly on food…or even how much you spend on a planned menu…..

    P.S. My neighbor is your Aunt, Jeanette Weaver! :)

  13. Marcia S. says:

    Thank you for doing this! I rarely plan ahead, and I would like to learn to do it. I am one of those people that goes to the store 3x a week, and spends too much. My problem is my husband wants meat and potatoes, my older children want tacos and pasta. Only my daughter would eat a salad for a meal. I have a hard time pleasing everyone, trying also to keep it healthier, and also I like things quicker on weeknights. Ugh! I appreciate any help!

  14. Malinda says:

    My request is for a substitute meal for those days when you don’t have time for what you planned, or by some odd happening at the grocery store (3 kids tearing things off the shelves at any given time), a key ingredient did not get purchased for the planned meal. Something quick and easy with practical ingredients so I don’t end up going out or ordering pizza. Thanks Mel, you are a peach!

  15. Shanell says:

    My nemesis are the side dishes to complete the meal – and balance out the nutrition AS WELL AS getting a good variety during the week (varying the meats – and the carbs) so I don’t end up eating chicken too much, or serving rice back to back, or having broccoli three times in a week. Getting the variety makes it just difficult enough that I avoid the task all together, lol!

    Love your site!

  16. Laura says:

    Using leftovers effectively and using leftover ingredients in subsequent meal plans always eludes me. Also, anything on keeping costs low and having stuff in the plan for extra busy nights. Two nights a week for us have to be either crockpot or freezer meals or we’ll just wind up ordering out pizza or chinese for sure due to short timelines.

  17. Tamara Bahr says:

    I get Bountiful Baskets each Saturday, so my problem is that I have lovely asparagus, and I need a fast, inexpensive main dish to pair with the asparagus or squash or brussel sprouts.

  18. adrienne says:

    This is how I plan: I first look at my week ahead and decide if I need a quick meal on a certain night as everyone has to be out the door quickly, a regular dinner, or a crockpot meal if I’m gone all day and no time to cook. Then I look to see what ingredients I have on hand and what’s on sale at the grocery store. From there I look through my pinterest or recipe binder to find recipes. (My recipe binder is full of tried and true recipes divided by beef, fish, chicken, side dishes, crockpot meals, etc.) Then I prepare my grocery list by area of the store, i.e. produce, dairy, meat, canned goods, etc. I often shop Costco, Trader Joe’s and SuperTarget and by making the list this way, it is quick and easy to shop no matter where I am. I also find it essential to plan lunches for weekends as that is when I get stumped because, of course, we are all hungry and if I don’t plan, there’s nothing to eat except mac and cheese! I do this weekly, since I have to replace produce and milk at least that often, but plan as far in advance as works for you. I do it on Sunday afternoons, but I find this enjoyable and not stressful, so don’t do it on Sundays if it stresses you out :)

  19. Krista says:

    I would like to try a “meatless Monday” concept but don’t have a plethora of vegetarian or fish dishes. Also, I have a hard time with planning lunch. Hubby is trying to pack a lunch for work but we aren’t good at being planful about it and end up just throwing a bunch of random stuff in a bag. I’d also like to pre-cook or prep things for the week on the weekend but not really sure how to do that. Seeing a weeks worth of meal planning and prep on your site would be great.

  20. Ali says:

    This is a great idea!

    What tricks do you use to keep costs down (besides going to the store less)? Do you buy everything at one market, or shop around?

    What do you ALWAYS have on hand at your house?

    Yes, yes… side dishes. Please enlighten the world.

    When you plan do you have a budget for the week/month in mind?

    What foods fill up your boys’ tummies the best? I’ve got one that is looking through the refrigerator about an hour after each meal.

  21. Jamie says:

    Hi Mel! This is great! I hop on your site to plan my menus each and every week! I would say 95% of our meals are yours! :) I think my biggest hurdle is planning ahead for things like pre-cooked chicken for a recipe or planning to cook more for leftovers to use in a recipe later in the week, or for cooking enough to freeze for another meal in a few weeks. Thank you for all that you do!

  22. Kayla says:

    I would love meals that are not to difficult, easy, and inexpensive to make! I know that can be a lot to ask.:) With a new baby in the house, homework, 3 kids, and a husband that travels dinner time can be interesting. A friend of mine put together a shopping list by section of the grocery store. She made columns like produce, dairy, meat, panty, household, etc. this has saved me lots of time and money grocery shopping! I usually come home with everything I need. So there aren’t as many extra trips to the grocery store. Love your site! There are lots of recipes from your site that are used frequently in our home. Thanks!

  23. Nichole says:

    I’m with Laura. I have a hard time using leftover ingredients without making the same recipe twice. Especially if the ingredient is not common or something that I use on a frequent basis.

  24. kristin says:

    I have a hard time with breakfasts for my young kids. One likes eggs, the other doesn’t. They both love carbs. I have exhausted the muffin concept. I got away with hiding zucchini, carrots and sweet potatoes in them but they no longer seem to go for it even when they’re sprinkled with chocolate chips. Pancakes and waffles are always a hit. I usually add pumpkin and fruit to the batter. Crepes and ebelskivers are hits as well but they are reserved for weekends since they take so long. So I would love some other weekday breakfast ideas that are packed with protein other than the toast, cereal and oatmeal rotation we have going. Anything I can make the night before is a bonus! Any smoothies your kids love?

    I would also love advice on how to keep my grocery bill manageable. Menu planning has definitely helped. My husband and boys are meat lovers but I only like to buy the highest quality meat and that gets expensive. Have you found any tried-and-true veggie dishes for meat lovers? How do you repurpose a roast in the crockpot for the next day to save money? Any other tips on saving money?

    Lastly, (sorry for the abundance of q’s!) I am always a little rattled around dinner time. My baby wants to be held all the time. My boys (5 and 3) like to help in the kitchen and so I like to include them but they’re not old enough to actually help with the heavy lifting (i.e. being around sharp knives, sautéing veggies on a hot gas oven range, etc.). How do you get your kids involved in meals when you have a little one attached to you?

    Thanks for your fabulous website!!

  25. Robin E. says:

    I posted a comment about 10:40 am yesterday, and it isn’t posted here yet. Since so many comments after mine have been approved, I suspect yet another blog’s filter has sent my comments to spam oblivion. I don’t know why this keeps happening! I’ve never spammed anyone before and my comment was much along the lines of these others. I just putting this in to see if something goes through.

  26. Whitney says:

    Hi Mel – Awesome comments – The shopping list and sides mess me up. I know you will enlighten us with all your wisdom on planning!

  27. Mel says:

    Hi Robin – this recent comment came through just fine. I just checked my spam filter and your other comment isn’t there so it didn’t get spammed – but it looks like you did submit a comment via the form in the post. Those comments come directly to my email and aren’t posted in the comment thread. I have the one you submitted yesterday and will compile it with the others. Thanks!

  28. Robin E. says:

    Well, now my comment complaining about comments not going through has went through. Sigh.

    Anyway, I find menu planning essential, as I am not one that can just look through the pantry or fridge and come up with dinner. However, even though I absolutely must make a weekly menu and shop and cook from it, I still struggle to get one made. I am almost never motivated to think of what to eat for the coming week and end up begging my husband and kids for ideas. I even have a master list of meals we regularly eat (over 60 meals), but even that doesn’t give me inspiration. On the other hand, using someone else’s menu doesn’t work well for me either because as much as I enjoy trying new recipes I have at least a few nights each week that just need to be no-extra-thought-required meals.

    Also struggle hugely with side dishes. I want to serve sides that are healthy and heavy on fruits and veggies because increasing our intake of those is very important to me. However, it’s way too often just a couple bags of frozen veggies or raw fruit or veggies. Boring.

  29. Kendra says:

    I agree with Krista… Would love some tips on prepping weekday meals on the weekend to help reduce the chaos that often occurs during the week. Also, easy/healthy lunch ideas would be great. Thanks so much Mel – your site is amazing!!

  30. heather says:

    Absolutely, veggie side dishes that are easy/quick to make. Running out of ideas and we are in a RUT!!! Also, someone else already said this, but making dinner the second night using leftovers from the first night. I have ideas but no real recipes to follow. Thanks again, love the recipes here!

  31. Jane says:

    I’m with others about side dishes, I’m typically pretty boring when it comes to side dishes because of cost and time-I’d rather focus on the main dish. I also try to plan meals that use similar ingredients, not that I want a whole week of too similar meals, but if I’m going to buy cilantro, ginger, specialty cheese, etc I’d rather not waste it so if I could plan two recipes that use similar ingredients that would help. I also glanced and saw someones question about what staples you have in your pantry/fridge. I’d be curious about that as well-I know that when I plan meals to save money I try to plan meals that use what I have. Thank you for your wonderful blog!!!

  32. Kim in MD says:

    Menu planning is what I love to do! I am so excited for this, Mel! :-)

  33. Kammy says:

    I love the IDEA of meal planning, and have done it on and off for about seven years. One month on, three months off, two months on, one month off. I guess I am like a lot on here: four different tastes, restrictions. Older boy (12) will eat just about anything (or will try it). Youngest (6) eats barely anything but eats all veggies, fruits, nuts and cold (not cooked) cheese. One of us is gluten free. It is exhausting trying to cine up with something…anything. I used to love to cook meals for my family. Now it just frustrates me. I would love some help. Please!

  34. Mimi says:

    I’m confounded with having a menu plan in place and then going to the grocery store only to find the produce/meat isn’t available or looks bad, or alternately, other produce/items are a better bargain and are in better shape. Then I’d have to switch course and make something else or run around to different stores to get the right ingredients. Can you offer some solutions?

  35. Danielle Hale says:

    Can you come up with a “Low dish” menu. Let’s face it, cooking is fun….dishes, not so much. Yesterday I made blueberry muffins and they were really good, but they left so many dishes behind that I got worn out by the end. Some weeks I just don’t want to deal with piles of dishes. Your one pot southwest chicken and rice comes to mind….anyway, it would be nice to have a bunch of low dish options type recipes all in one place. Thanks!

  36. Lillie says:

    I like to cook, but I hate planning meals. I think partly because our evenings can be busy and unpredictable. Also, I am a pretty good cook but definitely a recipe person. I don’t make things up. That said, I wish I were better at having supplies on hand when things don’t work out as planned and I’ve only shopped for specific recipes. Also, I’ve mentioned this before, but I’d like to know how you approach keeping your family stocked in bread. Thanks!

  37. Renee says:

    I agree with Robin. I have a list of meals but still get overwhelmed. I’ll make something and my kids will pick their plate which leaves me frustrated. My rule is that I only cook one meal and that is what is for dinner. My hope is that the kids will eventually come around. Side dishes are a challenge too. Mel, help the overwhelmed we beg of you :-)

  38. Laura says:

    I’m getting so much better at this and it’s made a huge difference in our budget and my sanity! I still struggle with timing for cooking dinner as anytime I try to cook at 5 my kids make it impossible and I struggle with planning ahead and having variety in school lunches.

  39. Priscille says:

    This is fantastic! I constantly plan on planning, but I just can’t seem to get my planning together! Clearly I need a better plan ;)

  40. Emily says:

    I’ve been meaning to comment for a while and am just getting around to it. My biggest menu planning “issue” is when a recipe calls for just part of something that is not a “regular” ingredient and I have leftovers that I don’t know how to use up. The biggest ones I can think of right now are green onions, mushrooms, cilantro, coconut milk (although I think your muffins solved that one!) and sometimes canned tomatoes or tomato paste. I know I should just plan other recipes that use up those ingredients but I often can’t come up with anything. I need a really comprehensive recipe index listing each ingredient. I do love menu planning and budgeting though, and am excited to learn more.

  41. Cristy M. says:

    Lunches! I am stuck in SUCH a lunch rut right now. My 4 year old is completely sick of soup and our 18 month old is tired of avocado pieces, chicken nuggets and hit dogs with veggies. We also do a lot of PB for the baby. Help! And thank you so much for doing this!

  42. Anna says:

    breakfasts! oh boy those are the toughest for me! i have a newborn so waking up early to make breakfast would require me not sleeping. so i have to throw something together super fast for my starving family to eat before work. Tips on how to maybe make ahead? or? oh and my husband does not believe anything sweat counts as a meal.. so has to be savory.

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