I have been meal planning for over 20 years. I started creating a menu after my mom passed away in 1993. Up until that time she watched our sons for us while we were at work. When she passed away, I began working evenings and Michael watched the boys. He had to make dinner for our four-year-old and six-year-old sons when he got home from work.
Michael had a hard time putting together a meal, so their dinners consisted of lot of pancakes. However, if I gave him a 'meal' to make, he had no problem cooking it. With that in mind I started making a weekly menu which helped Michael feed our growing boys a decent meal rather than pancakes very night.
That was 24+ years ago, and though I've changed the process a bit since then, I still create a menu. Originally my menus were made for two weeks at a time but now I just make them monthly.
When I meal plan I try to incorporate at least one new recipe each week, but there are always those meals that pop up over and over – my Mom's Spaghetti sauce, chicken and dumplings and tacos! I guess you could call those types of dishes our 'go to' meals.
I try to arrange my menu so that our proteins are spread out throughout each week so that we're not only eating chicken one week and then beef and fish another week. I do the same with vegetables and starches. I make sure that we're not eating broccoli and/or pasta on back to back days. It takes a little work…but since I'm only creating a menu once a month it works.
Another thing I consider is 'how' the meal is cooked – grilled, baked, Instant Pot, air fryer, crock pot, etc. I try to use my Instant Pot at least once a week so I incorporate that into my menu. I try not to use the grill on the day before we travel because we like to have it cleaned and stowed by that time, so I take that into consideration when preparing a menu.
My menus are not set in stone, you will find lots of 'cross-outs' and arrows moving meals from one day to another because things come up and we have to rearrange our schedule. No big deal. If we're not in the mood for stroganoff on a given day but are craving BBQ chicken…that's what we have.
Meal planning was my saving grace when I was working fulltime and had a family to raise. Each morning before I went to work I checked the menu to see what was for dinner and took whatever I needed out of the freezer. Easy peasy!
My menu was prominently displayed on the refrigerator when our boys were growing up and their friends quickly learned that fact. They'd examine the menu and often decide when they were 'available' to have dinner at our home.
Little did I know that all those years of meal planning was going to come in quite handy with our full-time RVing lifestyle! Now I automatically take our travel plans into consideration when I make my menu. When we have a particularly long travel day I plan a meal that is easy and quick. Taking a package of frozen spaghetti sauce or soup out of the freezer in the morning before we hit the road works well.
My Instant Pot works wonders on travel days too. I'll often prep everything the day before so all that I have do when we get to our destination is throw everything in the pot, put the lid on and push the start button. Or I plan a meal like Penne & Meatballs where all I have to do is open a jar and some bags and dump it all in the pot. Love it!
In that same line of thought, I plan around days that I know that we'll be sight-seeing and plan meals that will accommodate those plans. Often, we'll have a picnic lunch in the middle of our sight-seeing day or stop at a local establishment that has been advertised as a "don't miss" place, like Mrs. Wilkes Dining Room in Savanah, Georgia.
Your menu can be as simple or as elaborate as you want. I originally started with just planning dinners, then added breakfasts and lunches when I was no longer working but Michael was still active duty Army. Including breakfasts and lunches helped me get him fed before he left for work each morning and gave him a variety for lunch rather than just a baloney sandwich every day.
Now I just plan our breakfasts and dinners as we usually only eat two meals a day. Although you will find lunches listed on our menu for travel days and days that we have some sight-seeing planned. It makes it so much easier, for me, than having to 'think' on those mornings and come up with something off the top of my head.
While my menus include a protein and side dishes because that's what works for me, you can make yours whatever way works best for you. Our daughter-in-law, Amanda, makes a weekly menu (I'm so proud!) but it's not as detailed as mine. She normally only includes a main dish on her menu and just adds whatever sides she chooses to make when she prepares the meal. It's what works for her.
I find that meal planning helps with grocery shopping, saves money and space as I normally only buy what I need. I don't go to the grocery store and just aimlessly fill the cart up, I know exactly what I'll need for the week…not that there aren't any impulse purchases at all!LOL
Along with my meal planning comes some organization and to help with that I use an app called Out of Milk. Out of Milk is a grocery list app that allows me to put together several lists as I sometimes have a list for the grocery store, Walmart and the Commissary running at one time.
The app will also keep track of what's in your pantry, which I find very helpful when meal planning. I have a list of what's in my freezer, panty and my 'extra' storage area that I can browse through while I create meals to add to my menu. You just have to remember to add and remove items as you use or purchase them.
Out of Milk has a couple of features that I really like. I can use it on my phone and on my laptop. The app syncs between my phone and laptop giving me the ability to use it while I meal plan on my laptop and then to use my phone at the grocery store while I do my shopping. Plus, I can share the list with Michael so that he can go to the store and have the list at his fingertips! I've been using Out of Milk for over five years and really find it helpful…try it and let me know what you think.