Meal Planning 101. A busy mother's guide to meal planning.

WTF Are You Making For Dinner Tonight? (Meal Planning 101)

Not knowing what you’re going to make for dinner sucks. So does sitting down and meal planning for the week. But which is worse?

Dinners don’t have to look like they came out of a foodie magazine. Even if you hate to cook, you can make healthy meals for your family that don’t take a lot of time or effort. All you need is a bit of forward thinking – and that means meal planning.

I go in waves. When I do it, I feel organised, in control and proud of the meals I make. I wonder why I don’t just do it every week. Other times I’ll sit with my blank meal planning chart – and come up empty. I’ll half-heartedly shuffle through my recipes, feel annoyed that I’m wasting time and finally head off to the supermarket without a game plan.

Food shopping without a plan means buying random stuff. Within two days I run out of crucial ingredients to make a proper meal, end up pulling pizzas out of the freezer – and have to do more food shopping (grrr….).

I’m on a roll with meal planning now and ready to share my streamlined system for making it fast and easy to do every week without fail.

1. Print out a 21 Meal Ideas Action Sheet

Having 21 different meals listed in one place gives you an instant source of 3 weeks of inspiration to choose from.

Choose dishes which fit these criteria:

1. Your family likes it.  2. It’s a no-brainer to make.  3. Easy to find ingredients.

This’ll be your go-to list for easy meal planning each week. If you’re ever feeling more ambitious, go off-piste and try something more adventurous, but for this list – keep it simple.

If you’re short of ideas, dig out your cookbooks. Which recipes are the most successful in your house? Ask your family for input. Search online for more recipes that fit the criteria.  (Some recommended links below.)

Jot down where to find the recipe in the notes column.

Step one takes a bit of effort, but it’s an investment that’ll save you time (and money) from now on.

2. Print out a Weekly Meal Planner (plus a few extra to have handy for the coming weeks)

Plan your week’s meals. What  does the week ahead look like? Is hubby here or away? Are you out for dinner? Have guests staying? Do the kids have extracurricular activities or play dates? Are there days you’ll be running around and with no time to prep? Planning meals around your schedule and lifestyle is the key to success.

3. Make your shopping list

Never, ever hit the shops without a list. Even if you order on-line, stick to your list. Look at your meal plan and write down the ingredients you don’t have. Scan your fridge and cupboards for other basics or extras you need (milk, bread, cleaning products, etc.).

Once you’ve bought your food, freeze the meat and fish you aren’t using until later in the week.

Put your Meal Planner where you can see it. Check what’s planned for the next day so you can defrost anything in the fridge overnight.

Keep a stash of Weekly Meal Planners and 21 Meal Ideas in a plastic protector in your kitchen.

Make meal planning a habit – schedule it in each week like an important appointment.

**UPDATED Sept 2020**  I have been using Gousto meal kits for the past 3 years for 2-4 meals a week! I simply click on whichever dishes make me drool and a box with all ingredients and an easy-to-follow recipe card arrives to my front door like magic.  If you live in the UK and want to give Gousto a try, here’s my link to get a special discount.  (This has changed my life when it comes to all of the time I save in meal planning, food shopping and feeding my family!)

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Do you meal plan? What are some of your family’s no-brainer dinners? Please join in on the comments below.

photo credit: BrittneyBush via photopin cc

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  1. Leslie Creus on September 25, 2013 at 7:31 PM

    Great ideas! This is something I must do! Thanks a mil for the ideas!

    • Kelly Pietrangeli on September 26, 2013 at 1:20 PM

      Happy you’re feeling inspired Leslie. Now I’m going to invite you to turn your ‘must do’ into a ‘WILL DO‘! This subtle shift in language makes a huge difference. Please let us know how you get on with your Meal Planner Action Sheets. Good luck!

  2. Stacey on September 26, 2013 at 2:52 PM

    One of my kid’s favorites is tuna casserole. I’m not a huge fan, but I can guarantee they’ll eat dinner. My favorite is a crockpot BBQ chicken recipe. It’s so yummy! I also plan lunches, so I have what I need on hand for my kid’s school lunch throughout the week. It is a lot of planning to feed my family (there are 7 munchkins), but it makes my life a lot easier in the long run!

  3. Kelly Pietrangeli on September 26, 2013 at 4:10 PM

    Stacey I love how you causally mention at the end that you have SEVEN (not a typo) SEVEN kids to feed! You must laugh when you hear of some mothers who make different meals for their children if one of them doesn’t like something. In your house I can imagine it’s “like it or lump it”! Thanks for joining in Stacey – we look forward to more of your tips and insights here on the blog 🙂

  4. Theressa on September 28, 2013 at 3:12 PM

    Ahmagah! What a lifesaver you are! These meal planners are fab 😉 + so desperately needed. I’m much like you. I know I should plan, but feel like I’m wasting valuable time doing it when in the end I wind I wasting more time than necessary! So printing these out. Thanks so much 😉

    • Kelly Pietrangeli on September 29, 2013 at 8:11 AM

      Glad you hear the Meal Planners are kicking you into action Theressa! Sometimes you just a tool to give you an easy ‘fill in the blanks’ way of getting it done. When my son was 9 he used to get paper and a ruler out and draw these up for me every week. We experimented a lot with different formats and ultimately this design won out. Big white boxes without Breakfast / Lunch / Dinner taking up valuable space – and with a big area for notes. I love it so much I was excited to go into In-Design and create a pro version of it. Although his hand drawn ones were so cute… 😉

  5. Amie on September 30, 2013 at 6:47 PM

    I hate meal planning…but you are helping me! I printed out several of the 21 meal ideas and made categories – 21 crockpot meals, 21 gluten free meals, 21 quick and easy meals…right now I’ve only filled in about 10 on each sheet – allowing me to add as I find more meals! I am using a white board for my 7 day meal plan – I’ve displayed it on the counter for everyone to see. Thanks for the inspiration 🙂

    • Kelly Pietrangeli on September 30, 2013 at 7:55 PM

      Amie, you’re so welcome! I love how you’ve adapted your own system for the 21 Meal Ideas Action Sheet to make it work for you and your family 🙂 So far I have a Summer and a Winter edition as I have to keep it SUPER simple or I’ll freeze up at having too many choices when I sit down to meal plan each week. Thanks for sharing what’s working for you!

  6. Monica @ TheYummyLife on October 1, 2013 at 2:39 PM

    Thanks for the link love, Kelly! I’m honored to have my blog included in your “recipe inspiration” list. 🙂

  7. Elizabeth on January 13, 2014 at 7:15 PM

    I meal plan dinners most weeks of the year & am starting to plan breakfasts as well now. During school term I take the weekly school lunch menu & then work out dinners for our family so I make sure my children don’t end up eating the same thing for both lunch & dinner. Most of my friends laugh at me & my “lists” but I hate doing dinner on the run & this way I not only know what we are having but also know I have the ingredients to prepare it & on nights like tonight when we have swimming lessons after school I can make dinner during the day making it very quick & easy to feed 2 hungry boys when they get home from swimming !!

    • Kelly Pietrangeli on January 13, 2014 at 8:02 PM

      That’s FAB Elizabeth! Making it up as I go along doesn’t work for me either. Our friends can laugh – but if it works, it works! You Go Girl! 🙂

  8. […] 3: Find healthy recipes and plan out my meals. When? Saturday afternoon when the kids are at the birthday party. (Schedule it […]

  9. […] To get a meal planning habit, create a ritual of doing it on a set day each and every week without […]

  10. […] of a recipe from a magazine or a friends’ cookbook (which saves me buying the whole book). For meal planning I simply scroll through my recipes and when cooking use either my iphone or iPad propped up on the […]

  11. […] a big effort! I shop once a week and I plan out all three meals using the Project Me meal planners. It’s the one part of having a big family that I could totally do without! But, just like so many […]

  12. […] Meal planning, buying birthday presents, sending cards, paying bills, booking flights, figuring out the costume […]

  13. Susan on August 11, 2014 at 5:29 PM

    Hi Kelly,
    I *really* like this post. I think it’s seriously one of the best, most concise articles I’ve ever seen written on meal planning. Thank you for sharing your expertise & for making this dreaded task easier than I ever thought possible.

    I would like to pass on one thing that I’d like to challenge a little. In the title, the “WTF” part. Why does the “F” need to be there? I’m not a prude & my language has been far from pure, so I’m trying to clean it up. I guess that’s why I’m starting to notice things like this in our culture a lot more. I’m not sure when it became so popular to use the F word or even references to it. Personally, there are a lot more words out there that are far more descriptive & a lot less offensive. I’d like to see us all stop & rethink the use of those words & then choose other ones that will serve us better. Let’s reserve those words for occasional bouts of blowing off steam like they used to be. Words lose their power when they’re overused. The F word used to be grand daddy of them all. When this one loses its juice, I’m not sure what’s next, but I don’t think I want to be around for it. And I surely don’t want to hear it coming out of the mouth of my thirteen year-old daughter. We’ve all gotta’ start somewhere. Just a thought…

  14. Susan on August 11, 2014 at 5:35 PM

    P.S. I broke my own personal rule when I shared your post on my FB page because I thought the article was that good. My personal rule? I typically never share anything with profanity or references to it in the title or elsewhere. I can’t be alone in my no profanity sharing rule. Think of the others who didn’t share because of this.

  15. Kelly Pietrangeli on August 11, 2014 at 11:59 PM

    Hi Susan – I’m so happy you like the blog and thanks for sharing it, despite the title!

    I appreciate your honesty and actually do see your point. I’d never use the F word in front of my kids and think that title must have popped into my head in a fit of exasperation over how I used to feel when I didn’t know what I’d feed my family. I actually wrote it before I launched Project Me and then published it alongside several others all at once during launch week last year.

    It’s probably not great for sharing or SEO so I will consider changing it!

    You’re a star for flagging it up in such a friendly way. I call that a feedback sandwich! Two positives with the constructive in between

  16. […] come in leaps and bounds in the Planning department, I now have a system for Meal Planning that […]

  17. […] Anything from organising photos and videos, decluttering and purging old toys and clothes – to taking a course or attending a workshop, making a career change, getting into a fitness groove or meal planning healthy dinners. […]

  18. Dee on June 8, 2021 at 3:51 PM

    the ‘F’ is for FUDGE.

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