I never really considered what my meal planning style was until I was desperately trying to plan dinner for the hubs and I, with a baby that needed feeding, too. I knew I had no interest in planning and cooking 2 meals a night, so I needed to find a way to have simple meals that I could have ready fairly early in the evening. I remember dreading the task of sitting down each week to choose the meals we would eat because I was always starting from zero. Having freezer meals on hand was a great first step in having some of the work done before the week started, but I hated feeling like the bulk of the decisions regarding dinner was falling on me, on Sundays, when I already had a ton to do. I would sit at the kitchen table, thinking, thinking, thinking of meals we liked. I would look through my recipe notebook, look on Pinterest, ask my hubs what he wanted. Then, I realized I needed to choose a planning STYLE. I needed a framework so I didn’t start over every.single.week. I often bounce back and forth between a couple of these styles, depending on our schedule and the season, really. The goal is not necessarily to choose a style that you will stick with forever, but to have a starting point to generate ideas. So, one week you COULD work within the ‘Choose a Protein’ style while the next week, you just may want to make even fewer decisions and go with a ‘Theme Night Week’.
If you’re looking to get rolling on meal planning like, last week, I highly recommend one of the first two styles. As you hone your skills, you’ll be able to work in some of the other types of planning styles, but the first two are the simplest to just start doing. By choosing a style, you’ll have a head start on how to organize your Meal Planning Playbook when you get ready for that.
1. Themed nights of the week
Now, it may sound boring, but that myth will SO be debunked if you stick with me here at Meal Planning Mama. Just trust me, taco night will never be the same, unless you want it to. Gone will be the Tuesday nights where you’re always stuffing seasoned ground beef into a crunchy corn tortilla. Here are some of the most common theme nights:
- Pasta Night
- Burger Night
- Taco Night
- Soup & Salad
- Potato Bar (so fun!)
- Br’inner (Breakfast for Dinner!)
- Pizza Night
- Grill Night
- Slow Cooker Meal
- Seafood Night (I always forget to include fish if I don’t have a specific night)
- Stir Fry Night
- Sammie Night
- Leftover Night
For this style, you simply choose a theme for each night of the week and then plug in a dinner that fits. To get the most of this style of meal planning, repeat the same themes on the same days of the week, each week. So, Mondays might be Pasta Night, Tuesdays are Taco Tuesdays (shocker!), Wednesdays are for fish, Thursday might be leftover night (my favorite!), Friday is Pizza Night, Saturdays are for grilling out, and Sundays are Soup & Salad. Done. Later, we’ll discuss adding variety to each of these options.
2. Choose your own Proteins
For a long while, I went this route. I was pretty good to go by just mapping out a different protein each night of the week. But then…I got SO.BORED. I felt like I was always making the same old pork chops on Pork Night, grilled chicken on Chicken Night, etc. I will say, one of the biggest benefits that Wildtree has offered our family, is adding some variety to our menus. There are lots of cuts of meat that I NEVER cooked with that are in our usual rotation now. And, because I have a good variety of Wildtree oils and spices, I’m able to mix up the flavors of those meats. These days, I feel like a total slacker if I put meat in the freezer without it having some kind of seasoning.
Here are some of our more common ‘Protein’ choices:
- Chicken: Buh-bye boneless, skinless chicken breasts. Let me introduce you to your often ignored, but oh-so-delicious friend. We especially heart you chicken thigh, drumstick, and wing. And, dear ground chicken, you make a pretty rockin’ Teriyaki Chicken Burger, too.
- Beef: Ground beef-check. We also LOVE flank steak, fajita meat (found in the meat department, raw, and already sliced–AND cheaper than flank, usually), and a good roast. I’ve yet to become a huge fan of steak tips, but I know some people that love them. And, don’t forget–a rib eye or sirloin is a nice splurge for a weeknight treat.
- Pork: Bacon. That’s it. I could eat bacon every meal and never get bored. If you do want to venture out, though, pork chops, pork tenderloin, pork roasts, pork belly (a fun and fatty relative of bacon! BAM!!), and pork butts or shoulders offer so much variety.
- Seafood: Our faves are salmon, haddock, shrimp, and cod. Cod works great for homemade fish sticks because it’s not so flaky that it doesn’t hold up and the flavor is light and not too fishy. I have ventured out and cooked tuna at home recently and the hubs and I loved it. The kids ignored it completely.
- Veggies: I DO want to include a Meatless Monday into our rotation soon. Great options for us are portabella mushrooms, because the texture is pretty hearty and beans because we can easily flavor them. A veggie taco night would be great, too.
- Turkey: It is not just for Thanksgiving! I love ground turkey, and, if you add a splash of grapeseed oil in it, it really keeps its moisture. I think. My husband doesn’t agree, but, whatevs. You can also get a turkey roast almost any time of the year. These are great for a roast one night, then slice it for sammies the next (and the next, and the next).
- Eggs: SOOOO versatile and filling.
- Meat & Cheese Board– This is my new favorite and it’s perfect for a weekend night. Grab a variety of meats (we include salami and pepperoni so the kids will be psyched about it, too) and small triangles of cheeses from the grocery store, slice some pears and apples, throw some jam on the plate and toss out some crackers. You can go really fancy and add olives and nuts and VOILA! You’ve just made a cheese and charcuterie board AT HOME. It’s super easy, relatively cheap, and everyone in the family will find something they like.
3. Time, sweet Time
One thing I’ve noticed over the years is that many people need to meal plan based on time, above all else. If there is a night of the week where the family walks in the door 5 minutes before you’ll want to eat, it doesn’t matter WHAT you have planned, you’re going to want a meal that is either warming in a slow cooker or sitting in the fridge and ready to heat up. This third style category pretty much trumps all the others. If planning based on how much time you have, especially because the times you have nightly either 1) vary significantly or 2) are almost always 15 minutes or less, seems the most realistic for your family, then I’d challenge you to choose a second style, as well. Eventually, you’ll have a ton of choices from the other categories, and having a style like ‘Taco Night’ will help you quickly choose to cook a pork shoulder on Sunday and use a portion of it for pork tacos on Monday. See how that how works? Or, maybe you choose your second style as ‘Choose your own Protein’. Then, if you have a night where you have 15 minutes to get food on the table and it’s Seafood night, you’ll know that shrimp, cooked in a sauce, served with steamed veggies and cooked parboiled rice is the simplest and fastest way to get dinner done in under 15.
If planning based on how much time you have seems the most realistic option for you and your family, especially because the available cooking time you have nightly either 1) varies significantly or 2) is almost always 15 minutes or less, then I encourage you to choose a second style, as well. Eventually, you’ll have a ton of choices from the other categories, and having a style like ‘Taco Night’ will help you quickly choose to cook a pork shoulder on Sunday and use a portion of it for pork tacos on Monday. See how that how works? Or, maybe you choose your second style as ‘Choose your own Protein’. Then, if you have a night where you have 15 minutes to get food on the table and it’s Seafood night, you’ll know that shrimp, cooked in a sauce, served with steamed veggies and cooked parboiled rice is the simplest and fastest way to get dinner done in under 15.
4. Advanced Styles
If many of your evenings leave little time to actually COOK dinner, then you’ll really want to consider some of the more advanced styles. I call them advanced simply because they take some more upfront planning and doing, not because they are complicated. Here are some of my faves with a brief description. Each will be given its own time in the spotlight in other posts.
- Cook Once, Eat Twice: Cook a large piece of meat or serving of pasta and use it for two or more nights, in different ways.
- Batch Cooking: Prep multiple portions of meals at once, and store them to eat throughout the week.
- Make Fast Meals: Super fast, done in under 30 minutes and with groceries that you can always have on hand, meal options.
- Pre-cooked, frozen meals: You’ll do all the work beforehand and will just need to heat up the meal. YES!!!
So, if you’re looking to get started TODAY, here’s what to do. Choose a style, make a list of the days of the week you plan to eat at home (or grab my weekly planning page to the right) and map out your week.
Want a video instruction of how to choose your meal planning style, including printables and a sample monthly meal plan? Click below to join my ‘Insiders’ Club’ for my meal planning basics course and you’ll get ALL of those things!
Note: The links in this post are affiliate links. Read my disclosure policy here.
Too many recipes got you like....AGHH!?!
Grab my free audio training + workbook so you can simplify meal planning by decluttering the number of recipes, Pinterest pins and cookbooks surrounding you (aka NOISE!) when you sit down to decide what you're feeding your family.