May 2, 2017  

Organized Meal Planning: My Practical & Flexible Method

There’s no question about it – our house runs the smoothest when I make meal planning a priority. Can you relate to the cringe I feel when I come home after a long day and am asked the dreaded question: “What’s for dinner?”

Trying to figure out what to prepare for dinner at the last minute is never fun. Everyone’s stomachs are already growling, you can’t for the life of you think of a single meal idea and you’re naturally missing an ingredient for every meal you do manage to think of.

I’m not the best meal planner in the world. In fact, there are many weeks where I forget to make a meal plan (only to later regret my lack of preparation). I don’t really enjoy cooking and would much rather stay out of the kitchen, but unfortunately meal planning is unavoidable for me.

I’m guessing you also don’t have the luxury of having a personal chef or enough money to eat out for every meal, right? Meal planning is one of the most important organizing habits because it is crucial for an organized household.

My Personally-Tested Meal Planning Method

In my quest to make mealtime less stressful, I’ve tested out several different meal planning strategies. When you hear “meal planning,” you might immediately envision a perfectly organized calendar where each day of the month has meals assigned to it. While that is a great system, it didn’t work all that well for us personally. Meal plans that assign meals to specific days of the week don’t leave wiggle room to make adjustments, and that lack of flexibility was often more of a hindrance than a help to us.

Our schedules are all over the place right now. Sometimes we’re both home by 5 p.m., while there are other days when we aren’t home to eat dinner until after 8 p.m. Because our dinnertime fluctuates and is pretty unpredictable day to day, I use a meal planning method that keeps us organized while also giving us the flexibility we need.

Rather than assign meals to specific days, I jot down one big list of meals that I know we have all the ingredients to make. I aim to add a variety of meals to the list, ranging from super easy and fast meals for those late nights to a few new recipes to try out when we have more time to spend in the kitchen. This list is in no particular order.

The beauty of this meal planning method is that it allows us to choose a meal that fits within the time constraints of our day. If we are running late and feeling tired, we know we can choose one of the super simple meal ideas on the list. We also enjoy having the ability to select a meal based on our mood that day.

It saves us so much stress to have all of our meal options written down for easy reference. This avoids the dreaded “What’s for dinner?” question every night and it helps to know we have all the ingredients necessary so we don’t have to make a last-minute dash to the grocery store.

I shared a bit about my meal planning organization on Facebook Live last week, and am adding the video below if you’d like to watch. Then keep scrolling down for a quick step-by-step of how to keep your meal planning organized and flexible.

1 | Inventory the ingredients you have on hand.

Before you begin writing down meal ideas, it’s smart to do a quick inventory of the ingredients you already have in your fridge, freezer and pantry. This will keep your grocery spending in check and ensure you don’t waste the food you already have. Pay extra attention to expiration dates on perishable foods so you are sure to incorporate these items into your meal plan this week.

I don’t make any kind of fancy inventory list. I simply scribble the basics onto a Post-It to serve as a reminder when I sit down and brainstorm meal ideas.

2 | Create a list of enough meals to last until your next grocery trip.

Next, write a list of meal ideas that incorporate as many on-hand ingredients as possible. This will keep your grocery budget smaller and prevent you from wasting food that may be expiring soon. As you’re meal planning, stick mostly to familiar meals that your family enjoys and that you know you can prepare quickly. If you have a recipe book of your family favorites, flip through it and remind yourself of some old favorites you haven’t made in a while. If there is a new recipe you want to try, add it to the list for some variety.

We normally stick with simple meals and have some go-to dinners that we rotate through often, like tacos and burgers. I mostly stick to familiar meals that I know require minimal preparation. I try to also add one new recipe that I’ve been wanting to try, usually something I discovered on Pinterest that made my mouth water.

Aim to add enough meal ideas to your list to get you by until your next grocery store trip. I personally try to limit grocery shopping to every two weeks, so I make sure to have at least a dozen dinner ideas on my list.

Bonus Tip: I always keep two “emergency” meals on hand. These are things that require absolutely no work to prepare besides sticking them in the oven. They are reserved for those really long days where you’re running way behind, there are no clean pots and pans left in the kitchen, or you simply don’t have the energy to even boil noodles. It’s amazing how many fast food runs we avoid by simply planning ahead for these “emergencies”! My go-tos are chicken strips and tater tots, frozen pizza and freezer meals.

 3 | Add missing ingredients to your grocery list.

As you are brainstorming your list of meal ideas for the next week or two, start a grocery list of all ingredients you will need to purchase to complete each meal. This will ensure you have ingredients on hand for every meal on your list!

Don’t forget to also add any staples, like milk and butter, to your grocery list. I only plan meal ideas for evenings, since we eat basic sandwiches for lunch and the same few things for breakfast every day. Once I’ve finishing meal planning our dinners, I check to see what breakfast and lunch items we are getting low on and add any needed foods to my grocery list.

This happy kitchen is full of whites, blues and greens. Shows even small kitchens can look pretty!

4 | Go grocery shopping.

One key thing I’ve learned with meal planning is to plan to buy groceries as soon as I create our list of meals. It’s one thing to make your meal plan, but that work is useless if you don’t pick up the groceries you need to prepare those meals. For my meal planning method to work seamlessly, I need to have ingredients in my kitchen for every meal on my list. That’s why I usually plan to do meal planning and grocery shopping on the same day.

5 | Display your meal plan in the kitchen and cross off meals as you make them.

Hang your final meal list on the fridge or in a central place in your kitchen, and cross off meals as you make them. I write my meal list on one of those cheap paper pads with a magnet on the back that you can usually find at the dollar store. It can be fancy if you want it to be, but a plain piece of notebook paper will work just as well.

This happy kitchen is full of whites, blues and greens. Shows even small kitchens can look pretty!


Do you have any tips for organized meal planning? I’d love to hear your meal planning strategies. Share your method in the comments below!

Happy meal planning,

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About the author

Emily Counts is the founder of Small Stuff Counts, a home and organization blog she created in 2013. Her goal is to help moms make home life easier so they can create beautiful, organized, and thriving homes. She shares life at home as a mom juggling two young kids and being a working mom with a corporate job. The Iowa-based blogger lives in the suburbs of Des Moines, Iowa, with her husband, two children, and rescue dog. Emily has collaborated with brands including The Container Store, Cricut, Command Brand, Bissell, Sam's Club and Rubbermaid.

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