Menu Planning 101

Menu planning. Does the thought make you smile or cringe? I haven’t always been a menu planning believer, but I can honestly say, the minute I started actually doing it, my life (and sanity) was changed for the better. I kind of love it now. And I love the peace of mind that comes knowing I won’t have to scramble to figure out what to make for dinner later that week!

Armed with the right strategy, menu planning doesn’t have to take a long time. If stay really focused (er, and not get lost in the abyss of Pinterest), I can have a weekly menu planned in 10-15 minutes.

Below, I am sharing with you a few menu planning tips to ensure that weeknight dinners can come off without a hitch…and you’ll still have your sanity intact. 

15-Minute Quick Weeknight Homemade Spaghetti Sauce

Sit Down and Plan It Out

  • I recommend planning meals for one or two weeks at a time. My preference is two weeks at a time – this way I’m only doing one large grocery shopping trip every two weeks (with a quick trip in between to pick up fresh produce and such). This saves time and money.
  • I always plan at least one or two nights of leftovers into our weekly plan. That means for a given week, I’m only planning out 5 or 6 dinners.
  • Keep a running list of items you need to pick up at the store. I keep a small white board on the side of my refrigerator where I can quickly jot down ingredients that I’ve used the last of – I glance at that list every time I am doing my menu planning and add those ingredients to my shopping list.

Paper vs Electronic vs app

There are a lot of options these days on how to plan a menu. The old-fashioned pen and paper method may work for you, whereas filling in a simple template on the computer may work for someone else (I’m sharing the menu planning spreadsheet I’ve used for more than a decade below). 

There are also tons and tons of apps out there promising to make menu planning a breeze. The one app I’ve used personally and recommend frequently is Prepear. It’s free and very user-friendly. 

However you plan your menu, make sure you have an easy way to access it when you are at the store. As in, if you’ve scribbled your grocery list on the back of a receipt, take it with you (or at the very least, snap a photo of it with your phone before you go!). 

White plate filled with meatballs drizzled in sweet and sour sauce and roasted vegetables.

My Template

Before using Prepear, I was a dedicated, true blue through and through electronic menu planner on my computer faithfully every two weeks. {And I still opt for that some weeks – old habits die hard.}

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

Menu Plan Template: here’s a blank template to fill in with your own meals and grocery list. Click on the link and it will download a Microsoft Word document. You can edit it to your liking and save it for future reference.

You can see from the template that I usually only planning out dinners. But you can easily add in breakfast and lunches, too. 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.

Fluid Menu Planning

If the thought of a super structured menu plan where there’s a meal plugged in religiously every day of the week has you feeling a little anxious, consider doing more of a fluid menu plan. 

Here’s how it works:

  • Instead of planning a specific meal for Sunday and another one for Monday (and so on), decided how many dinners you need to make that week and write down the meals you want to make in a list rather than adding them to a specific day of the week. Make sure to get the ingredients you need for those meals at the store and then as you go through your week, decide each day which meal you have time for (or are in the mood for!)

White plate with cilantro lime rice, black beans, sweet pork and toppings.

Grocery Shopping

My big grocery trip happens once every two weeks. I also plan in a small (i.e. 10 items or less) grocery run for the second week to pick up any fresh foods that I may need.

I don’t plan my  menus around coupons or store sales, but you could definitely do that if it fits your style and is something that could help save a few dollars.

Money Back Guarantee

I’ve used the basics of this menu planning method for over a decade, and not only does it make my life easier, but 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! 

Not only that, but having meals planned out means we aren’t opting for fast food or takeout when there’s no idea what to make for dinner. And that definitely adds up! Cooking at home is much more budget-friendly.