This is what happens when you don’t have a dinner meal plan… You’ve worked all day. You just got home after picking up the kids. You’re hungry. The kids are hungry. That last thing you need is to come up short with dinner.

A good dinner needs a good plan. Imagine getting home from work knowing exactly what your dinner will be. You just have to go through the steps to put it together. How would that feel? No more scrambling, no more last minute decisions to order Chinese or pizza just because you’re starving… That peace of mind is what a dinner meal plan can do for you.

Pick the day you want your meal plan to start

Many pre-made meal plans, or note pads for creating them, start on a Monday. I’ve personally found shopping on Fridays works best for me. Therefore, my meal plan starts on Friday at dinner. Start your week on the day that works for you. Start on either the day you shop or the day after. That way you start using your fresh stuff right away!

Inventory your kitchen

I mean this in the loosest sense. Is there anything you have a lot of that you want to use up? Is there anything you need to use up soon or it will go bad? These things can spark ideas and shorten your shopping time.

Be aware of cooking times

It’s no fun getting home from work, getting the cookbook out, starting the recipe, and then getting to a step that says “simmer for 1 hour”. Whoops, that’s going to cause a problem! I specifically plan my pizza for the weekend when I’ll be around to tend to the dough and a roast chicken for Sunday when there’s time to let it get delicious. Make sure busy weeknight meals are either short on prep and cooking time, or mostly made ahead of time.

Keep the meals balanced and varied

Have vegetables incorporated into each and every meal. If you want to cook something the kids may not be interested in right off the bat, make sure you have a 1 or 2 types of raw cut veggies on the table. Have cut fruit on the table as well. Use whole grains as much as you can. Don’t have chicken every night. Read more about balance here.

Incorporate a theme night

Does your family love pasta? Love Mexican food? Love pizza? Pick one and repeat it every week. This is something kids will grow to find comfort in. Bonus, they may even look forward to it.

Ask your family what they want to eat

This is especially helpful if you’re having a hard time coming up with new ideas. Asking for requests also encourages kids to have a stake in the process.

Time your produce right

Schedule meals that use wimpy produce like delicate lettuces, greens, and summer squash at beginning. Schedule the meals with hearty produce like onions, beets, and winter squash towards the end. This also goes for fresh animal proteins. If you want to have fish in your meal plan, you’re likely going to want to have it within a day or two of purchase.

Limit the number of new recipes

We all love trying a new recipe, but doing them night after night can get exhausting. New recipes take extra time and more focus than a recipe you’ve made over and over again.

Plan a pantry dinner

Build in a day for a meal using mostly pantry or freezer items. This is great in the event that something comes up and suddenly no one is going to be home for dinner. It’s great to have a buffer so that if one of your planned nights gets bumped, you’re not going to end up with a dinner’s worth of extra ingredients going bad.

Build in a day for leftovers

Some families have leftovers that can build up in the fridge after several nights of home cooking. It’s best to make an effort to eat them up before your next shopping trip. Likely, if you have growing teenagers, or frequent visitors, this isn’t you. You’ll want to skip this.

Write it all down

Once you have a week’s worth of ideas, write it all down. You can use a chalkboard, whiteboard, paper, or whatever else you prefer. I personally like to use a piece of paper. Then I can save them and go through past weeks for inspiration. If you’re using recipes, include the page number next to the recipe in the book so you’re not scrambling to find it when everyone’s already hungry.

Take a picture

Once you finish the list, take a picture with your smartphone. This will come in handy when you’re out grocery shopping. I like to double-check the dinner meal plan in case there’s anything I forgot to add to the grocery list.

Here’s a sample 1 week dinner meal plan

Friday: Pan-roasted Halibut (Med pg 250) with sautéed Swiss chard and lemony brown rice
Saturday: Homemade pizza – kids suggested the toppings (bacon this week!)
Sunday: Roast chicken with carrots, potatoes, onions, and simple arugula salad w/balsamic vinaigrette
Monday: Farrotto with parmesan (Med pg 130) and roasted squash
Tuesday: Taco Tuesday: corn tortillas, taco seasoned beef & black beans, plus the fixings. We typically have cheese, olives, celery, guacamole & salsa.
Wednesday: Pantry meal: pasta with sun-dried tomatoes and artichokes (Lidia pg 116)
Thursday: Leftovers

Raw veggies for the week – snap peas and carrots
Cut fruit for the week – pineapple and pears

In Closing

The most important thing you can do to get started is to schedule time to plan out your dinner meal plan. You’ll be surprised how much can be accomplished in 30 minutes. Think about what you are currently doing for meals and incorporate a point or two above each week. Good habits form slowly. Take your time and be patient. Figure out what meals work best on what nights for your family.

Oh and here is a real life meal plan example (My Menu Plan #1) along with the follow-up on how the week went (My Menu Plan #1 Results)!

Happy eating!