Effortless Meal Planning for Busy Families: The Simplest Ideas to Streamline Your Cooking Routine

If you’re like most families, meal planning is probably a bit of a struggle.  I’m super super excited to share with you my favorite meal-planning ideas for families that absolutely have worked for us over the past 15 years!

A few weeks ago, I was chatting with some girlfriends about budgets.  One friend started talking about their family’s budget struggles.  The biggest money waste for them, eating out.  I’m no spring chicken when it comes to budgeting and cutting back and you may remember that I posted about our combined accelerated debt payoff many years ago.  I get it and know that eating out is a huge money suck.

Let’s face it, whether we work full-time or simply are chasing our kids around all day, it’s easy for the day to get away from us.  I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but even crappy fast food is expensive lately.  I don’t think this trend will stop either.

But this conversation with my friends made me realize, that meal planning is something that probably every single human-being dislikes to some degree.

Before I delve into my favorite meal-planning ideas for families, let’s chat about the benefits…

What are the Benefits of Meal Planning?

1.  Budget Saver

Meal planning is a HUGE help in avoiding unplanned eating out.  I for one HATE every time we have had to eat out because I didn’t plan the meal.  I enjoy eating out, but on my terms, not because we have to.

2.  Healthier

When you plan your meals, you can more easily make better food choices and introduced a variety of foods.  You can intentionally plan for fruits, vegetables, and nutrient-dense food which make for a healthier family.

3.  Control Portions

Whenever you eat out, the proportions are generally much larger.  Plus, when we eat out we tend to try to “clean our plate.”  This is no bueno.

4.  Less Waste

By planning your meals, you’re able to plan ahead for future meals and utilize all the food you have to the fullest.  For example, a roasted chicken can be used to make chicken stock and an awesome soup (with any leftover chicken) days later.  You can really improve your efficiency game through a little planning.

5.  Save Time

You will absolutely save time preparing food and shopping if you meal plan.  No more running to the store last minute or staring into the refrigerator or cabinets trying to figure something out for dinner.

6.  Variety

You can introduce more variety into your diet through meal planning. Your favorite restaurant may have 20 options.  Meal planning at home…countless.

7.  Introduce Quality

We are able to buy free-range, organic, grass-fed meat.  There is no question as to the quality of the food we are consuming when we meal plan ahead based on what we can source at the time.

8. Allergy-Free Adjustments

Also if you’re just adjusting to meals and eliminating some ingredients, it’s so much easier to figure out substitutions when you plan ahead.

Factors Affecting Meal Planning

– Shopping Schedules/Routines

You may go shopping every two weeks or weekly.  You’ll want to consider how often you go to the store and what kind of fresh foods you need for different meals or how long they will keep for your meal plan.

– Budget

If you’re on a limited budget, you’ll want to try to find budget-friendly meals such as Carbonara versus steak or roast.  I know when our budget was a little leaner, we would have one or two more expensive meals a week and rely on the budget conscience ones the other days.

– Pantry/Freezer Contents

To eliminate food waste and use foods when they are at their peak, you can plan your meals around what you have in your cabinets and freezer.  This keeps things fresher and better-tasting, freezer-burned food – no thanks.

– Family Plans

So many families are busy and have events going on throughout the week.  For the days that are more hectic, you can plan a simple slow cooker meal or an Instant Pot meal.  You can also choose to eat out on the evening of a particularly busy day, on your terms.

– Family Input/Preferences

It’s been super beneficial to get the family involved in picking meals for the week.  As kids get older, they can be a great source for remembering meals that you may have long forgotten.  Plus, when they help pick it, they are more apt to embrace the meal (at least mentally).

– Seasons

It’s really a great idea not to cook chili on a hot day.  Seasons come and go and summertime is a great time to eat more fresh meals that are lighter.  If you live somewhere cold in the winter, meals that are hearty are more satisfying and fit better.

Meal Planning Ideas for Families – 4 Plan Types

I promise we’re going to get to my simple meal-planning ideas for families but before we do, let me explain 4 Types of Meal Plans.

1.  Freezer Stocking Plan

One of the great things about cooking meals is that often, multiplying the ingredients to double or triple a recipe is not super difficult.  You can pick a meal or two every week and make multiple quantities of the same meal.  Eat one and freeze the extras for another meal, another week.  This is a HUGE timesaver and builds your freezer meal supply quickly without a long and tiring day of freezer cooking (which I am a fan of by the way and plan to post about that in the near future).

2. Food Prep Meal Plan

One way to simplify meals and offer different varieties is to do some food prep for the week which will cut down on cooking time.  For instance, one week we may have chicken in multiple meals such as enchiladas, salad, or soup.  In this case, you can cook all your chicken (without the seasoning) at one time and then use the cooked chicken in the meals you have planned.  This is another great time saver.

3.  Rotational Meal Plan

This is a very simple meal plan that relies on a basic rotation of meals.  Maybe every Tuesday is Taco Tuesday or you do pizza night.  You can have your meal plan rotate as much as you like but you do not need to reinvent the wheel every week or even month if you have a set plan that you recycle consistently.

4.  Basic Meal Plan

I saved this meal plan for last because it is probably the most common.  Honestly, this is my fallback and the one I do most often.  For a basic meal plan, you simply make a list of the meals that you plan to have over a given period of time, make a grocery list, and stick to it.  I find that some flexibility on what we have on any given day is good but we tackle those meals I’ve planned to have for the week and I don’t deviate.

My 4 BEST Tips for Family Meal Planning

Alright guys, now we’re going to get into the meat of meal planning.

For some of you, meal planning is just a simple process…you pick out meals and then buy the ingredients.  I have four major time tips to simplify and save time in meal planning.

  1.  Master Meal List – I make a list of all the meals my family likes organized by main protein source, (i.e. poultry, no or low-meat, beef, camping, soups, etc.).  These meals have been tested by my family and approved.  Any meals on this master meal list that my family no longer loves, I remove.
  2. Meals to Try List – You can make a list of meals to try but I find the easiest way to keep track of anything new I want to make is to take a picture on my phone.  A quick screenshot of the recipe on a phone is simple and very fast.  Periodically, I scroll through my photos and try to incorporate a new recipe into our plan if we’re in a lull or need another idea.  If it’s a winner it makes it to the Master Meal List. I also love to use the Paprika App to keep track of new recipes to try from internet searches or Pinterest.
  3. Recipe Binder or Family Cookbook – I have a whole series about creating a family cookbook.  If you’re interested in checking that out, I recommend you start out with how to create a family cookbook in Microsoft Word.  I use my cookbook as a way of keeping the recipes my family loves easily accessible.  All my Master Meal List meals are in my cookbook.  I tweak recipes to our preferences and keep my cookbook updated.  If you decide to do this, you will not struggle to find recipes when you make your grocery list or cook your meals.  You can also keep a recipe binder with printable recipes if you prefer not to create a cookbook.
  4. Make it Visible – Make your list viewable by all your family members.  By doing this, you eliminate the never-ending question, “What’s for Dinner???” from 5 different people at 20 different times during the day.  This is a simple meal planning board I made but you can simply write your meal plan on a calendar.  Whatever works for you, just make it visible to keep you on track and your family informed. Since I shifted my meals to other days of the week, I put a checkmark next to the meals we had that week.

Alright friends, if you have a tip to share, I’d love to hear it!  Are you one of the rare people who love meal plans?  If so, please share in the comments below!


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