The meal planning system that saved my sanity

A lot of people have asked me for the details about my meal planning system that I mentioned in Friday’s post. I’m here to please, so here it is! First, a summary of the situation:

I have six kids under the age of nine. I’m scatterbrained and easily overwhelmed. I have no natural gifts for cooking. We also avoid most grains and processed food, which means no bread, pasta, tortillas, or any other foods that make life easier. A couple of my children are picky eaters.

Despite all of this, dinner is rarely a source of stress for me.

Out of sheer necessity I created a meal planning system when my first child was a baby, and, with a little fine-tuning, I’ve used this same basic system pretty much every week for the past eight years. It has helped me kick things up a notch when things are going well, and has kept everyone fed through survival seasons. Of all the systems that have come and gone in my years as a parent, this one has been the most helpful and effective.

meal planning title The meal planning system that saved my sanity

1. I find the right kind of recipes

I pretty much only cook recipes that I have found in a trusted cookbook or on sites that offer user ratings. Maybe in a different phase of life I’ll be able to try dishes that I find on Pinterest or cooking blogs, but right now my life has no margin for error: when I try a recipe that I’d pinned and it ends up producing a bubbling mess that is somehow both liquefied and on fire, this is a huge deal. We have no budget for last-minute takeout, and having six hungry kids and no dinner is not the way you want to start your evening (see Mama H’s hilarious-because-it’s-true post for a glimpse of how things typically go around here after 6 PM).

When I’m looking for new meals to try, I go to Food.com or Allrecipes.com because they have user ratings. I search on main ingredients that we like, and choose ones that are rated well. My theory is that if a hundred people have reviewed a dish and it gets something like 4.8 stars, it can’t be entirely bad. Sure enough, I don’t think I have ever once cooked a highly-rated dish that we disliked.

2. I organize my recipes in a simple, functional system

I have two recipe-related folders (they’re on my computer, but paper folders work fine too):

  • Recipes to Try
  • Recipes We Love

When I find a new recipe, it goes in the Recipes to Try folder. If we like it, it gets moved to Recipes We Love (if we don’t, it goes in the trash). I find that any categorization beyond that overwhelms me; it’s easier for me to scan through my folders at mealtime to find what I need than to deal with categorizing dishes by ingredient as I file them.

meal planning recipes to try The meal planning system that saved my sanity

Having our meals categorized this way helps me manage my time and energy: if we have a busy week coming up, that is not the time to be experimenting with new meals, so I can pick dishes from the Recipes We Love folder and know that they’ll turn out well.

(A note about sides: If I have a side dish recipe, I file it in one of these two folders along with the main courses. However, I only rarely cook sides. For simplicity’s sake, I do things like sliced apples; prepackaged steam-in-the-bag broccoli; rice made in the rice cooker topped with cheese; microwaved frozen peas or green beans; or other stuff that doesn’t require much preparation on my part.)

3. I keep my recipes in Evernote

I use the free program Evernote for the categorization system I described in #2. You don’t have to do this — I used paper and file folders for years, and it worked just fine — but I find that Evernote makes things run even more smoothly. (Joe commented the other day, “I wish I could find something in my life that I love as much as you love Evernote.”)

I add recipes to my Recipes to Try or Recipes We Love folders in Evernote two different ways:

  • Typing them in by hand (I might do this for a dish in a cookbook, making a note with the title “St. Basil Soup,” and just saying something like “12 Months of Monastery Soups, page 6″ in the body).
  • Using the Evernote web clipper for ones I find online. This handy browser extension will clip an entire web page to the folder of your choice.

meal planning evernote2 The meal planning system that saved my sanity

Evernote keeps your content synced across all your devices, so when it’s time to cook, I just prop up my tablet in the kitchen and call up the night’s recipe.

meal planning evernote1 The meal planning system that saved my sanity

4. I plan the week’s meals the weekend before

I am not naturally consistent or self-disciplined, however, I’ve found that getting my meals planned and my grocery shopping done before the week starts makes all the difference in how our entire week goes. A few notes on how it plays out in practice:

  • I have my calendar open when I plan the meals. This sounds obvious, but I can’t tell you how many times I scheduled an elaborate meal for the same night we were going to be out at an activity.
  • For busy nights when I won’t have time to cook, I plan crock pot meals, leftovers from the night before, or frozen leftovers.
  • I plan dinners only. I’ve found that planning breakfasts and lunches overwhelms me and is not really necessary; I stock up on a few things we like and play those meals by ear.
  • I write in a Leftovers Day almost every week, which forces me to use items that are languishing in the freezer or pantry.
  • I don’t plan weekend meals. Saturday and Sunday nights we might clear out leftovers, eat at a grandparent’s house, grill in the back yard, or swing by the store for a spontaneous new meal.

5. I keep a few intentionally boring alternatives for picky eaters

I’ve always believed that kids need to eat what they’re served. But then I had my fourth child, who only likes about five foods and really would choose starvation over eating anything outside of that list. For her (and any other kids that happen to be in a picky mood that night), I keep a couple of very simple, unexciting things on hand that they can have if they don’t like the main course (chicken nuggets, packets of frozen rice that can be easily microwaved and topped with cheese, etc.)

When I sit down to do my weekly meal planning, I choose dishes that most of us will like, but I know that I have some fallbacks in case anyone just can’t deal with the main course. That way the picky eaters don’t go without dinner, but they’re incentivized to try new food since they get sick of having the same things after a while.

6. I add email reminders to my calendar

meal planning calendar The meal planning system that saved my sanity

For any meals that require effort from me other than wandering into the kitchen a half hour before dinner time, I put notes on my Google Calendar and schedule email reminders. If it weren’t for the emails saying “START CROCKPOT MEAL!” that I have sent to myself around 11 AM on days that I’m using the slow cooker, our dinners would be ready around midnight.

7. I print my weekly dinner plan and post it on the fridge

When I have my meals planned, I enter them into a Google Doc, print it, and slide it into a plastic holder on the fridge. For me, this step is not optional. Having the meal plan posted in the kitchen means that I see it every time I walk into the room, and I can’t lose it.

meal planning menu The meal planning system that saved my sanity

(Here’s a template Google Doc of the meals list, and the menu holder for the refrigerator.)

8. I do all my shopping before the week starts

meal planning shopping The meal planning system that saved my sanity

I don’t have the kind of life where I can swing by the store in the middle of the week; leaving the house is always a voyage of epic proportions, even if it’s just to check the mail. And since I always count the milliseconds until Joe gets home in the evening, it’s painful to have him get home later, even if it’s twenty minutes for a quick store trip. So after I get my meals planned, I shop for everything we need during the weekend, so that I don’t have to disrupt our week with trips to the store.

9. I think carefully about how to use leftovers

Before I put leftover food away at the end of the night, I think about how it would be best used. I do some combination of:

  • Storing a large quantity in the freezer for a future dinner.
  • Storing a large quantity in the fridge for another dinner this week.
  • Sending some to work with Joe.
  • Freezing small portions in Ziplock snack baggies for easy lunches.

Again, this step is probably obvious to other people, but I used to find that too often I was just throwing extra food in the refrigerator without thinking about how to use it, and then I’d forget about it and it would go bad.

* * *

So that’s it: the meal planning system that has served me well week after week, through all sorts of chaos. If you have any good meal planning tips, I’d love to hear them!

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Enter the Conversation...

78 Responses to “The meal planning system that saved my sanity”
  1. Cristina says:

    This is great and really helpful! I do something very similar but not nearly as technologically savvy :)

    I really appreciate that you don’t plan breakfast and lunch–I always felt like a bit of a meal planning failure because even if I do make big plans for pancakes or fancy egg things on specific days I never end up following through with the plan. I think there are too many variables that can go wrong in the night that will make any thought of super breakfast meal preparations fly right out of the window in favor of coffee for me and peanut butter toast for everyone else first thing in the morning. Now I just try to keep ingredients on hand for our good mom-got-enough-sleep-and-can-function-in-the-kitchen breakfasts and then I don’t start the day with a big breakfast fail because there wasn’t a plan to fail at!

    And now that you’ve shared your meal planning system I think we need a list of your favorite go-to recipes too :)
    Cristina recently posted..Five

  2. TracyE says:

    I completely underutilize Evernote!! I pre-plan our meals for the week, not necessarily designate each day, however a plan for the week is key. Perhaps I’ll take a look at organizing a bit better with Evernote. Thanks for the idea!

  3. Amelia says:

    This is basically what I do as well…except not quite so organized. And, we never have enough leftovers for another meal (we usually end up eating leftovers for lunch).

    The other thing I do, is one the side of my week plan, I keep a list of “alternate, last minute meals”. These are for days when something last minute happens and I don’t have time for my planned meal….it’s something i can throw together quickly and easily (and we always have the ingredients for).
    Amelia recently posted..What I Wore Sunday

  4. Debi says:

    I have a large vegetarian family and I have no patience for following recipes-kudos to you! On my Google Drive, I have a spreadsheet with a dozen nutritional powerhouse vegetables and fruits that I’d like to see the kids push around their plates once a week. That’s my shopping aid. For serving, I list meals by category. We rotate between Oatmeal, Cereal and Eggs for breakfasts. Lunches and Dinners rotate between salads, soups, sandwiches, rice, potato, pasta and cooked veggie meals. I use random.org to put them on a two week rotation, print it out and post it on the fridge. Within that framework, none of the four adults in the house bolt when asked to do stove duty.

  5. I do my meal planning on paper, on the fly. I never seem to have the computer nearby when I suddenly have the 10 to 15 minutes free to plan, but essentially we have the same tactics. Plan it, check for ingredients, shop all at once. I keep a running shopping list posted on the fridge so that we can (theoretically) jot down an item when we’re running low.

    Also, those side dishes save our meals from the tantrums and sulks of an unhappy diner. With eight of us eating, the likelihood of someone not liking something on the plate is pretty near 100%. We teach our kids that it is bad manners to complain about your food and point out that there are plenty of options on the plate. We insist that they take one bite of every option and call it the “No Thank You Bite,” but that’s it. If they don’t want it, fine, eat more of the side dishes and practice your good manners.
    Christie Martin @ Garden of Holiness recently posted..Because it is Monday

  6. Erika Evans says:

    I love Plan to Eat (google it) as much as Jen loves Evernote!

  7. Valerie says:

    Oh my gosh I needed this post! As our family keeps growing I’m realizing that the days of staring at the fridge and finding something to eat at the last minute are over. But I’ve been overwhelmed by trying to figure out a system. Food is not my passion and I usually wish we didn’t have to eat at all. I’m going to put some of these ideas to use right away.
    Valerie recently posted..Love Story: Part One

  8. elizabethe says:

    this is almost exactly what I do. I have a lot of beloved cookbooks I like to flip through for inspiration and I keep my recipes in Macgourmet where I can search them easily.

    I also have very minimal organization on the recipes themselves. I like to just scroll through a bunch. However, I do always add a seasonal tag to each recipe. When I am planning, I search my recipes by season so I don’t have to look through recipes with tomato and basil in the winter or butternut squash in the summer. Off-season produce is really expensive, if not impossible to find sometimes. If it’s a non-season specific recipe, I tag it with all the seasons so it will come up no matter what.

    Once, after reading a glut of those “be chic like a Parisian woman” books (which I LOVE btw, don’t get me wrong) I tried to be all European and just shop for what we wanted when we wanted it. I live in an urban area so we are out walking everyday and we live two blocks from a grocery store so, I figured, I could do it! I tried it for a few weeks.

    I found it was not hard logistically or physically to swing by the store and get stuff on the way home, but every time it came to swing by the store and figure out what to eat I was like “I have to think about this AGAIN! ARGH!.”

    Recently menu planning got a jillion times easier because after five years of experimentation (maybe I put in my 10,000 hours), I have figured out my favorite method for cooking every cut of meat that we typically use and I just don’t deviate from that. Instead I vary the spices/marinade. If I find a recipe I like, I don’t try to replicate the whole recipe, I figure out how to use the new and intriguing part by adapting a recipe I already know how to cook.

    Also, I have figured out what reheats well, so I try not to actually cook more than once a day. I cook during breakfast or lunch and assemble and reheat everything when it’s time to eat. This means also the kitchen only needs to get cleaned once a day.

    And just fist bump to the rice cooker. life saver. Mine keeps the rice warm, too.

  9. This is pretty similar to what I do, except we do ours on a two week cycle, with the last day falling close to payday. I also have to have my calendar out and all my meals are on notecards, separated out by main and side. I do a side meal with the main meal (but I have three older boys), if I didn’t do a side there wouldn’t be enough food!

    I keep the plan on my fridge too. My meal plan is a “tool”, so if something comes up I can switch the meals around. And I keep really easy meals (frozen pizza, toasted ravioli) on hand always in case of emergency. If we don’t use them as a meal we can always have them for lunch. I plan out lunch and dinner, but lunch is more leftovers from night before, salad and sandwiches, hot dogs, etc…We do go to the store down the street during the week, but it’s a must to keep fresh produce and milk in the house. Again, I have slightly older kids, so not everyone has to come along or hubby can swing by on his way home. I hate meal planning, but I hate dealing with a bunch of hungry kids and no food in the house even more, so planning twice a month it is!
    Amy @ Consecrated Housewife recently posted..Zoo Day

    • Oh, (as if this comment wasn’t long enough) forgot to add I tend to do themes during the week. For example, we always do pasta on Tuesdays because hubby plays hockey that evening and likes to have the extra carbs. Tacos on Monday because it’s an easy meal and that is Boy Scout night (and everyone eats it).
      Amy @ Consecrated Housewife recently posted..Zoo Day

  10. Annie says:

    I plan a menu for the week, but the most successful weeks we have is when we come home have dinner and then I cook dinner for the next few nights so we just have to reheat the main course and make quick sides like salads. This is my first year packing school lunches and that takes more brain power than I usually have at 9pm.
    I feel like I am constantly at the store with just 3 of us! It would be easier if I could convince my family they don’t NEEEd to eat.

  11. Josee says:

    Great new design! Wow! Keep up the great work and God bless you all.

  12. Lindsey says:

    Thanks for the details Jen! It’s very inspiring. I’m still overwhelmed but know I need to do it. For me, one of the complicating factors is trying to shop according to sales (it seems like if I just pick meals at random, I end up choosing meats that are not on sale), and when to shop (I often have to take my 4 kids to the store, and I cannot abide doing that on a weekend day. It’s so horrifically crowded!)

    I’m going to be pouring back over this to try to glean some ideas that I can use in our family life. I guess I might need to join the 21st century sometime soon though, in order that programs like Evernote could be useful for me (I have no tablet or smartphone).

  13. LPatter says:

    Wow! I have a job as a DRE for our parish, a hubby in Pharmacy school, and now Kindergartner and 2 year old who are “in school” (2 yo goes 3 AMs a week for mom to have some work time and her to meet some friends) – and we have one car – so shuttling is a big part of our days, as is mental juggling. I’ve worked on schedules and cleaning, home organization laundry and work organization a LOT in the last year – but meals have still fallen by the wayside. (We are not the “born organized” types! I used to be able to fly by the seat of my pants – but not now with 3 other human beings in tow!) Hubby is an awesome cook (and chemist, lol), so he can throw together annnnything if we have a few things in the cabinet. But this year he’s in rotations and I really want to be able to have meals planned and ready when he gets home. I am happy to see this post because even though it mentally still feels beyond me, if I can “peg it” into my already established (or being established now as we get into school) routines, all I have to do is make myself follow the directions. I am short on recipes for us, and sometimes recipes make me overplan (my mom keeps reminding me of the glory of simple dinners like BLTs or breakfast for dinner, which we do sometimes!), but I think its time to get a system in place.

    Can you share some of your favorite crowd-pleasing low-carbs? We love meat but it gets expensive!

    Thanks Jen – hope you have a great week!

  14. Jen Zug says:

    I, too, am scatterbrained and easily overwhelmed, so I created a Don’t Make Me Think menu plan.

    Also, I own a small business and work from home during school hours, so I have to be really on top of the dinner plan because misstep in the schedule has a domino effect.

    1) I have a 4 week rotating menu that I keep in my google calendar. It’s a combination of fast & easy meals and crockpot or rice cooker meals, and 2 leftover nights.

    2) I use the Shopper app on my iPhone and created a template shopping list for each week’s meal plan, plus a template for weekly staples I always have on hand. When I make my grocery list, I simply pull up my templates for the week, check the items I’m out of, and copy them to the week’s shopping list. Boom. I’m done.

    3) Before I make the shopping list, I check my google calendar for events and activities and rearrange that week’s dinners as needed by simply dragging & dropping the menu calendar from one day to another. But most if the time I don’t need to do this.

    I got really overwhelmed trying to figure out what to make every week and reconfiguring my menu and shopping list, so this method saves me a lot of brain cells.

    Two more things:

    1) My family helped me compile a list of favorite dishes to rotate.

    2) I swap in new dishes when we get bored with something.

    3) I have a fall/winter rotation and a summer rotation (we have distinct seasons in Seattle, so pot roast in July won’t do.)

    4) the structure of this plan actually allows for super easy spontaneous changes of plans due to schedule or craving. I just drag and drop the meal to a new day.

    5) I use the Home Routines app on my phone to trigger a “prep tomorrow’s dinner” task in the evening, which usually means thawing a hunk of meat, and a “prep today’s dinner” task which could mean start the crockpot or make the marinade.

    Yes, I know that was more than “two more things.”
    Jen Zug recently posted..Day Trip to Mount Rainier

  15. Cheryl says:

    Seems to me like you all are a bit over-the-top on this meal planning stuff. But it could be my smaller number of children (2) and the fact that I live in France… I did try meal planning off and on for a while, but I just can’t deal with it somehow. It was always frustrating to plan something and then arrive at the store and find that the key ingredient wasn’t available, or as someone mentioned above, have it actually be a day when I was too busy to make the big elaborate recipe I’d planned. I tend to plan well if I’m having guests, but otherwise, I plan some in my head according to what I find for a reasonable price at the store on my weekly shopping trip, and what’s in our weekly organic vegetable basket from our coop. I kind of like the challenge of coming up with stuff, and I almost always can. There are definitely the almost weekly stand-bys that come to the rescue like old friends when I can’t seem to come up with anything and need a rest…

  16. deltaflute says:

    So I cant plan that far ahead. Because we’re on a tight budget and food in Canada is more expensive I have to plan my meals according to sale ads. Right now ground beef. Next month is turkey because Canadian thanksgiving. That helps slightly. But you never know for sure.

    I dont plan breakfast or lunch too much either.

  17. Lauren says:

    Interesting to know that I do something very similar! Instead of printing out a paper for every week, I have a white-board calendar on the side of our fridge. At the beginning of the week, I write in with a dry erase marker what the meals for the week will be. This is helpful for me because usually I’ll write it in and then an hour later I might re-think the order of the meals and switch some things around.

    Evernote is intriguing though…all this time I’ve been doing a mix of a black box with paper recipes, and meals I have online….might be time to just convert the whole thing to the computer!

  18. Anna @ IHOD says:

    I use evernote for everything but never thought to use it for meal planning. Brilliant! Thanks for the tips. Eating it up! Pun intended;)

  19. Jennifer this is brilliant! I think that a blog may not get this across, but your system is actually simpler than you might think at first glance. Making the decision on what to plan right up front is key.
    I have five children but they are teenagers (or almost) and now the demand has changed from looking for recipe ideas to serving enough food.
    Thank you for a very practical and fabulous post!
    Mary Sheehan Warren

  20. I know that I need to use a meal planning system. Since my husband died, we have eaten out so many times, it’s embarrassing. But it was easy though not on the wallet. We also have the added complication that I MUST eat gluten-free but the kids don’t have to. It’s sometimes easier for me to get something for them to eat and then eat a bowl of cereal or a sandwich on my gluten-free bread. However, then I am feeding my kids crap. So I signed up for an on-line plan where they email menus to me each week. Problem with this is that I have to spend too much time customizing for my picky eaters and for myself. Hence, I paid for it but I don’t use it because it’s too much hassle.

    All that is my way of saying, I think your meal planning system is something I can do. I realize if I stick to a very simple plan of meat, veg, fruit, and gf starch, we can all eat the same thing and it’s simple enough I can handle it each night. The kids and I are really committed to saving money this year because we are planning a once-in-a-lifetime homeland tour to their birth country for next year (either March or June). They are old enough now that I feel the time is right. This means, like you, there is no margin in the budget for error or impulsive meals out.

    Thanks for taking the time to share Jen!
    TheReluctantWidow recently posted..How to Treat Young Widows

  21. K says:

    God bless you, Jennifer Fulwiler. God bless you.

  22. Jack says:

    Your idea is great! I would like to know what I will eat in the next few days. I think this could makes me calm and very organised. :)
    Jack recently posted..Catering

  23. melody says:

    Great ideas… very much appreciated. I’m organizing my life (again) so this is timely. Evernote is now mine… Just have to have to figure out how to use it now. Thank so much! :)

  24. OK, what does this tell you about me: I just got an invitation to the ceremonial firing-up of the new oven at the newest branch of our pizza place.
    No, seriously. I did.

  25. Kaitlin @ More Like Mary says:

    Thanks for sharing! Meal planning is a source of constant stress for me and I’m just now sliding into a system very similar to yours. If you can do it with 6 kids, I can do it with 2! Thanks for the encouragement.

  26. Amanda says:

    Thanks, Jen, for sharing! You inspired me to “dust off” my evernote account and add the safari evernote clipper to start adding webpages easily. I agree about using trusted sources. In general for us over the years, that has been Cook’s Illustrated and their various cookbooks and paid website (storing 15 years of magazines) as well as a few others – The Joy of Cooking, for instance. What I love is that after years of using their methods and recipes it is not a big deal for me to throw together a meal, sans recipe. I still like to plan with them but something like, say, roasting a chicken or making my own tomato sauce, taco meat with my own seasoning mix, a lasagna, etc. no longer require me to use a a recipe, all the time. And variations. So I’d say learning to cook is really important. I also do best when our weeks are planned out and now that school has started, I think we’ll get back to that. :) Off to plan and print!

  27. Kris says:

    This is awesome. Thanks!

  28. Steve T. says:

    Jen, do you use Evernote Food? Or just straight-up Evernote?

  29. Ana says:

    I’ve recently had my 5th and am definitely taking the whole feeding of the multitudes thing more seriously. Dreading the extra milliseconds of an unplanned grocery stop for my husband was toooo familiar! THANKYOU and God bless

  30. Martina says:

    Isn’t it crazy how absolutely necessary our lives have to be organized lest the whole house fall down around us? Thanks for the tips! We plan on calendarizing the whole year but I thought it was more important to get the school lesson plans done first. It’s on my short to-do list. :)

  31. Bonnie says:

    This is a really great plan. One thing I do is make sure I hit nearby sales and stock up when meats are on sale. It takes a little more time, but I buy bulk and then repackage it into what our family uses per meal: for instance, four chicken breasts per package. I mark the package with what it is, number of pieces and date, and then I when I see a sale I check to see where our stock is at: if I don’t need more I don’t buy it. I usually take out our week’s worth of meats on Sunday night and put them in a pan in the refrigerator (to prevent drips into the rest of the fridge) and they are thawed when I’m ready to make the meal each evening. For instance, I buy whole long pork roasts (about 15 lbs) and cut it into about 5 pieces, about 2 lbs a piece. With that I can make a roast or slice it for pork chops or cube it for stir fry, stuff like that.
    I usually spend about 15 to 30 minutes per week repackaging my meats after a shopping trip. I know that’s a lot of time, but this way I never run out and never need to go out during the week for shopping. In a rushed time I can microwave something to thaw it, and usually can stay on schedule that way.
    By the way, I LOVE the idea of putting your week’s menu on the fridge. I can see how that acts as a reminder every time you open the fridge, and reinforces the plan and adds to the automation of it. Great idea!

  32. Wow, thank you! This was very helpful. I do something similar except on paper. I have an awesome menu planner from Sweet Tea Paperie that goes to the store with me every week.
    micaela @ California to Korea recently posted..All The Links

  33. Oops! Hit publish too soon. I realized recently that I don’t use recipes anymore. Our rarely anyway. Since going mostly Paleo/PHD, I usually just make different variations on whatever protein we are having that night. It’s probably the lazy in me, but I like it like that.

    I really like your suggestion about planning ahead for leftovers. I already pick hubby a lunch from leftovers, but anything else risks getting lost at the back of the fridge. Good tip. Thank you!
    micaela @ California to Korea recently posted..All The Links

  34. This is a great system!! I don’t use Evernote, but I started a food blog a few years ago (which has now evolved into a “all about my crazy life” blog), and it’s easy for me to go back and find our tried-and-true recipes. I LOVE making meal plans for the week, and I like to give myself a little bit of leeway; for example, I absolutely have to cook everything on our weekly meal list, but it doesn’t necessarily have to be made on the day which I assigned that meal. We’re also on a strict budget, and this has helped us so much.
    Marisa@Mia Cucina, Mia Famiglia, Mia Vita recently posted..Mama Milk Smoothie

  35. Rachel says:

    The restaurant style queso and crockpot chicken tortilla soup in your screenshot are both delicious!

  36. This is very similar to mine; I also do only weeknight dinners and no lunch or breakfasts. I do plan Saturday and Sunday breakfasts, but only because they’re the same thing every week (pancakes and sausage on Saturday and bacon, eggs, and muffins on Sunday). I do also try to hit a different meat most nights (chicken/beef/pork/sausage/fish once a week). I’ve also found that this type of meal planning really reduces food waste, which is a huge plus. My shopping happens first thing Monday morning, and usually there is nothing left in the fridge after Monday breakfast, which is what I prefer.
    Mary Sullivan recently posted..7 Quick Takes, Volume 5

  37. Momma Ley says:

    I love reading your blog. I really love it when you post things that make me go, “I’m not the only one who does this”. I’ve scaled down on my menu planning (sort of). I now do monthly menus in which we have the same food every week. So taco Tuesdays, fish fry Fridays… that sort of thing. It has allowed me to buy in somewhat bulk and get good deals like salsa on sale, which I would never normally buy 5 jars of- but hey, if we have taco Tuesdays for the next month, why not?
    Momma Ley recently posted..Aaaah!

  38. Great idea to tag recipes by season! I’ve recently been playing with ways to get my meal plans more computerized but so far I mostly just write it on a calendar. I am super technology focused otherwise (I have a computer hanging over my stove even; no joke) but… Perhaps the fact that I started the whole system while recovering from a c section 4 years ago might have something to do with lack of tech & starting a new system / changing existing ones is HARD.

    Anyway, this month I’ve been trying Pepperplate which is great but I got overwhelmed by the number of recipes I had to input (can’t just type “oatmeal” on a day, sadly). It apparently creates shopping lists & stuff for you which I thought sounded nice… Being able to save recipe (a la Evernote description) I think is key feature required.

    Probably doesn’t help that I plan a month at a time. I also plan all three meals (but not snacks).

    Keys for me was to identify what was most important (ie goals of meal plan) In my case I decided time savings & keeping high variety are the goal. Saving money would be nice & I dearly would love to take advantage of weekly sales better but that conflicts with my goal of saving time (meal planning every week while looking at flyers is excruciatingly slow with me in charge!) We need to plan variety because otherwise we would have cereal for breakfast, sandwiches for lunch & hunk of meat with rice or potatoes and some kind of vegetable. We had embarrassingly picky eater until we deliberately upped our variety. Besides, lack of variety for us led to constipated kids (who knew!)

    I make the whole family give suggestions for meals. I also do theme nights based around ingredient (fish, pasta etc) or country (Greek, Chinese etc).

    I tend to make double whatever I am making and throw in freezer for a month later, so if I plan lasagna one night, I’ll add freezer lasagna the next month. I try to keep 6/7 of my meals something I find easy to cook every week. Stuff that requires oven or cooking during peak electricity times is clustered towards weekends, holidays if it can’t be prepped in advance.

    I shop a week in advance & feel free to swap around meals within the month. That way if I just don’t feel like making something I have a pile of options!

    Like your idea for meals to try & meals we love – going to try it!

  39. Amy says:

    Great new web design Jen! I enjoyed reading your post on all that you do to organize for meals! I seem to have something similar in my head.. it goes something like this:

    1. I do a beef meal one night, then chicken or pork the next. I keep both on hand in the freezer at all times. I ALWAYS have tacos on Monday night. Everyone likes it, then I always start the week with beef. It’s easy, and I can’t think on Mondays to do anything complicated..;)
    2. I have about 10 -15 recipes in my head that we all generally like, and make them throughout the weeks.
    3. Every morning I ask myself what protein I want to use, then think of a meal. I plan on thawing that meat right after lunch, unless it’s a roast.. that takes longer. I always keep veggies like broccoli or green beans on hand as a side, along with rice and quick potatoes.
    4. I start the meal about half hour before, or sooner if the meal takes longer and it needs more time.

    That’s pretty much it! lunches and breakfasts are cereal and sandwiches with apples and carrots. On weekends I might do a harder recipe, like homemade meatballs, that take more time.

    I’d also like to note I’m blessed to have a wonderful husband who’s willing to jump in and get veggies going, or get things started and chop all the things I need! (I think he’s just hungry and helping makes things go much more quickly..;)

    God bless!
    -Amy

  40. On the weekends I go through all my recipes that are tried and true. Then I try to find one new recipe to try. I make a grocery list and do the shopping for the week. I ALWAYS post my weekly meal plan on the fridge. Then after all that planning it all goes south when I think that 8 people are eating here but only 3 show up, or I think that 2 will be here and 6 show up. This is what happens between raising kids, and empty nest. It never gets easier, sorry.

  41. Dreena says:

    I love my Evernote too. SO much. And using it for the cookbook is a good idea; had not thought of that. As I did my menu planning today I actually thought, “there has to be an easier way.” I have so many collections of recipes stored everywhere — and I want to start consolidating them for my girls. THis is a fantastic idea. Thanks, Jen!
    Dreena recently posted..Double Trouble Back to School

  42. Gloria says:

    Dear Jen. Im a big fan. Thank you so much for this post. Very helpful. Its something I did when I had 1 kid but now with four its another story. I cook 2-3 meals for dinner only normally. Its crazy. I live my life for thinking ways to simplify this but somehow we go back to the same again! Term time comes around I will put your ideas into practice. Thanks again!

  43. Peg says:

    Your cute baby looks a lot like his dad, imo:):) Also, love your new blog look!

  44. Leanna says:

    This is really similar to my system, although I love love love to cook and get bored eating the same dishes so I usually try 1-3 new recipes a week, and, because our family is still small, invest in some fresh ‘ready to cook’ meats from the grocery store for hectic nights.

    The one thing I find super helpful is getting the majority of my groceries delivered. It means I can see the final total and remove treat items if we’re way over budget, and it saves me a long & exhausting trip to the grocery store with two babies. We also don’t have a car and it gets difficult to carry everything home.
    Leanna recently posted..Latin is for Lovers (or, How We Met)

  45. elizabethe says:

    Meant to add that I hope you will soon post up about the system you come up with for scheduling your homeschool year.

    • Lynne says:

      I just wanted to say that one tool I’ve found very useful is Managers of Their Homes. The book has tons of suggestions, especially for large families, and provides a chart for visually organizing blocks of times for each child throughout the day. It’s the only way I’ve found that helps me see how I can fit it all in.

      • elizabethe says:

        I have heard of that when reading Holly Pierlot’s book. I’ll have to finally get it.

        My problem is that I’m pretty sure I know what I want my finished product to be, but I’m not sure I’m getting from nothing to schedule in the best way. I’m sure Jen is doing some homeschool hack that is totally simple but brilliant.

        I always went back to one of the old quick takes and came across the “Joeschooling” (no work or planning by hometeacher, kids get into Yale) post. I want to know if any Joeschooling has happened.

  46. Jeni says:

    Wow! You never fail to amaze me with your wonderful posts. So helpful!
    Jeni recently posted..15 Reasons to Wear the Brown Scapular

  47. April says:

    Thank you so much for this! I have been thinking about this for a couple of weeks now. Now that my husband and I have been leaving the house EARLY in the morning to go to the gym which means an earlier bed time, therefore needing a plan for meal making and furthermore cutting out the stress of going shopping during the workweek and trying to make a meal that night. Anyways, all that to say, THANK YOU!

  48. Kirsten says:

    THANK YOU, THANK YOU for sharing this. I’ve had a gazillion false starts with meal planning and this helps. I’m in love with Evernote, so I am totally on board with this type of planning (and the simple categorization, thank you.)

    I think the hardest thing for me is finding meals that 1) Keep enough variety that we don’t get bored, and 2) Accommodate the range of food sensitivities contained within my family.

    This really should help cut down on the crazy. :)

  49. CHSmith says:

    I’ve been using Food on the Table, which I love. It links with your grocery store to download their sale items. Then you choose recipes using the sale items, and it adds the ingredients to a list you take to the store with you. It’s also available as an app. Recipes you like, you just add to your recipe box in the app.

    The only thing I write out by hand is the week’s meal list (supper only) on a 3X5 card and stick on the fridge. Most leftovers go to work with my husband for lunch.

  50. Lynne says:

    For someone who claims to be scatterbrained and easily overwhelmed, this is an amazingly organized system. So organized that I’m not sure that I (who am scatterbrained and easily overwhelmed) can do it. Anything that involves a weekly commitment of planning, typing and printing is getting out of my range. But I’m in desperate need, especially since today–the first day of homeschool for the year–was a marathon of craziness. Anyway, I want to check out Evernote. If nothing else, I’ll spend some fruitless hours trying to figure out something I don’t need and won’t efficiently use–all in the name of organization!

    • Bonnie says:

      You know, a small 8×10 (magnetized) eraseable whiteboard on the fridge could replace the typing and printing of the weekly menu. I got one of these whiteboards at the Dollar Store (everything $1) and the marker is attached with a string (so it doesn’t “walk away”). 5 minutes max to write your menu for the week, right?

      Paper works just as well as a computer (a legal pad sheet) for your (real or tentative) menu lists for a month or more so you can refer to what you had each week so you don’t repeat the same things too often or forget menus that you haven’t made in a while. You can stick that to the fridge too with a loose magnet. That also can help with making a shopping list, because you’ll see what you used up and need to get more of or what you are planning to have and need to buy. When it’s filled up both sides, copy what you want from it to a new sheet (menus for a month), and throw the old one away.

      When you are cooking something like spaghetti with meatballs or chop suey or meatloaf or chili, make twice as much as you’ll use and freeze the rest for a “crazy day” thaw, heat and serve meal.

      If you need recipes to cook, get a 1″ binder and a bunch of those plastic binder protector sheets (they’re cheap at “back to school” time; 10 for a $1) and print out recipes on 8 1/2 x 11 paper in a larger font, and insert into the protective sheet (stays clean when you’re cooking) and this props up well on the kitchen counter. Easy to wipe spills or spatters that might get on your pages. And the recipes are easy to rearrange if you want to group them.

      These are some of the ways I manage meals around a busy schedule. Hope they’re useful to you.

      • Bonnie says:

        One more thing: I keep a small piece of note paper (anything around 3 x 6) on the fridge (with a magnet) that I use to write items I’ve run out of or will soon run out of that I don’t buy often : soy sauce, a spice that’s almost empty, tape, noodles, kitchen garbage bags and so on. I scribble it on the paper as soon as I notice we need more, since my brain WILL NOT HOLD THIS INFO LONGER THAN 15 MINUTES. I make sure I check the reminder paper when I’m making a shopping list. Nothing I hate more than coming back from a trip to the store and realizing I forgot the bottle hot sauce I needed. The paper becomes a mess of scrawled words and items crossed out, but it serves me very well as a reminder.

        I usually take the sales paper with me with items I must buy circled, and I’ll write my needed items right on the sales paper in any white space I can find (usually the front on the top or bottom margin). That way I don’t lose my shopping list.

  51. I have written several posts on meal planning, and I have the same exact system as you except my meals are in binders.

    During the summer (when everyone is home and our schedules are more relaxed) I still do the menu planning, but instead of assigning a meal for a specific night I plan meals by numbering them 1-6, and then based on what we’re doing that day I’ll select one of the meals.

    I’ll have to look into Evernote, though …
    Maria @ La Dolce Vita recently posted..In which I almost got arrested. Really.

  52. Jeanne says:

    It is too hot to cook. We eat two point five meals a day. I coupon here in Florida. If I am not cooking, we eat out and figgie that into the budget. Total budget for all food is $160.00 a week for the two of us. When the foster kids come to live with us, I expect it to jump to about $195 a week. Where’s your coupon book? Just wondering.

  53. Jeanne says:

    Also, no cake no carbs, no candy and never any cookies or nasty juice that has stuff that diabetic folks like hub can’t have. We drink water =more healthy. My hub prefers to eat out. It is less hassle. We eat a lot of salad bars here in Tampa Bay. We don’t eat a lot of meat. We try low fat cooking.

  54. MamaH says:

    Pardon me, but to what do I owe this honor?! I get the J Ful plug again, for Battle of the Bedtime?!?!? You’re the best!!:)And ps, it’s almost Battle Time over here on the East coast. Less than 2 more hours folks, and it’s GO TIME. Let the St Michael prayers and jumping jacks commence.
    Oh Missuss FULLLwiler. I need to print this post out and live it, breathe it, possibly consume it. Maybe through my eyes. I am so so bad at planning mealtimes, so I am very grateful that you shared your secrets here. You’re always sharing something cool! One of the many reasons we all love you:)

  55. Jen I do very similar to you! I only plan out dinners and I carefully freeze tons, so that if necessary, we can live for a week on freezer meals, or once or twice a week of me not cooking. I have found a really great breakfast burrito recipe which helps my husband get out the door quickly in the morning and I especially appreciated their protein content when I was first trimester gross… Now that definitely uses tortilla shells butttttttt there you go. Here’s the pin along with a few other freezer meals: http://pinterest.com/pin/118219558938161176/
    Carolyn Svellinger recently posted..7 –uhh 5 Quick Takes #2(7!!)

  56. Abigail Benjamin says:

    We are on a really, really small food budget for a large family. I found that the best cost saving measure I could do was to go grocery shopping with my husband on the weekend. We go grocery shopping at the discount grocery store on Sunday night. We only take the “little kids” and use the small car, so it feels sort of like a date. I can’t believe what better food choices we make for far less money when its two heads planning meals instead of just one.

  57. Emily says:

    I like to work in months/seasons so we can eat foods that really keep us in the spirit of the seasons (others probably do this naturally, but for me it was a lightbulb moment when I figured out that grilled chicken and zucchini go better in July than in January). So, for a year straight, I planned out weekly menus for a month at a time and saved/filed them. Once that first year passed, I basically reused my monthly menus from the previous year as each new month began. I could then take the full monthly menu and rearrange the meals on any given week or across the various weeks to accommodate busier or slower days within “this year’s” month. I also will change it up and rotate in a new recipe whenever since I already have the basics decided upon.

  58. Jeanne says:

    Everyone or y’all as we say here: please use coupons. Couponmom.com and southernsavers.com and target.com and publix.com I have a binder to store my coupons. IN it goes a pair of kids scissors and a calculator. I use sheet protectors and file folders to put different types of coupons.
    My local Publix grocery allows the competition coupons. But you cannot double coupon. They have a program on publix.com to make your list.
    For meal planning I use Women’s day or Family Circle mag. Or you can use Allrecipes.com But now there is just the two of us and a loud Beagle. We are getting foster kids and we get help with the added expense. I also have a serious amount of cookbooks. I take my recipes as a list with me ..copies only to shop.

  59. Jeanne says:

    Thank you God I saved $35.00 last week on my food bill using competitor Target coupons in Publix. Total bill for half week’s groceries was 70.00 bucks.

  60. Thanks for this post, it gives me confidence that I CAN conquer dinner with our little family of three. What has helped us has just been a big “menu” on the fridge of “Meals We (let’s be honest, particularly my husband) Like to Eat.” Once a week, I ask him to pick a couple off the list and plan accordingly. It takes the thinking out of the equation and I *know* he’ll eat what I cook.
    Jessica @ Grumbling & Gratitude recently posted..7 Quick Takes 50

  61. Beth Anne says:

    I recently just started utilizing evernote for recipes along with the webclipper and LOVE IT! I even have evernote food app on my tablet.
    Beth Anne recently posted..Swagbucks ~ Five for Five!!

  62. Erin says:

    Thank you for this awesome post! Would you have interest in sharing recipes that your family loves? Thanks for considering Jen!

  63. CarrieAnne says:

    My issue is this:

    Hubby HATES veggies. Hates them. So… It’s tricky to meal plan. Just me and my kids and voilà! I’m vegan and my kids happily eat vegetarian foods that are veggie-based. It’s a struggle sometimes. I’ve resigned myself to having two meals prepared at dinner.

  64. Karen Bell says:

    This is so helpful! Thank you! It feels like cheating to ask, but might I ask for the recipes in your rotation? : )

  65. Janelle Dunn says:

    I have 6 kiddos too – and I think I’ll be checking out Evernote SOON.

  66. I love to see how other people menu plan.
    EML @ Barefoot and Sometimes Pregnant recently posted..How I Menu Plan

  67. Tracy says:

    Great post … my meal planning system is very similar to yours, I don’t plan breakfast or lunch either. We generally use leftovers for lunches during the week. I plan out 7 dinners and make sure I shop for all the needed ingredients beforehand. I don’t assign a specific day to each meal though … it makes me feel like I have freedom to choose (from my list of 7) what I’m in the mood for. Thanks for the tip about Evernote, I will definitely be checking it out :)
    Tracy recently posted..Relaxing “Me Time” Helps Prepare for Fall Schedule

  68. Lissa says:

    Thank you for this! Such great ideas. :)
    Lissa recently posted..Frugal Finds for Practical Scrappers