The meal planning trick that made it finally click for me

09
13

I’m not a good meal planner. I really enjoy food and cooking so anytime I would plan out a week of meals there would inevitably come a day that I just didn’t feel like eating was on the menu.

I’m also pretty bad at eating leftovers but I’ve learned to embrace them as I’ve gotten older.

Food, eating, and specifically eating out, is where Justin and I differ pretty dramatically. I love the process of cooking and creating a meal, especially when we have friends over. Justin sometimes sees created stress or “wasted” time when we could just keep a meal simple with hot dogs and chips.

I’ve tapered back on my requirement that everything must be homemade when we have friends over, and even went with hot dogs and chips for some summertime pool parties, but I’ll always love the process of cooking and setting up a table for friends and family.

I get that from my mom. She’s the queen of hosting, makes delicious crowd-pleasing food, and no one can beat her table presentation.

So when it comes to basic family dinner during the week, I always default to cooking everything. It’s how I was raised, and I’m really grateful for that! But as a working mom who cannot always prep during nap time, that became a stressful process starting at about 4:30 everyday.

What doubled the stress for about a year is that 4:00-5:00p was Luke’s hardest hour of the day. He needed me and would cry and cry if I would try to do anything in the kitchen.

To this day, he’s the one way more likely to wander into the kitchen if I’m cooking or preparing any food to see what I’m doing and thenΒ always ask for fruit snacks.

As both boys have gotten older I’ll include them in the process which is really fun for all of us. If it’s something I can’t let them help with (if I’m at the stove, for example), I’ll give them each a bowl, some measuring cups or spoons, and pour a bit of flour or oats in their bowls for them to “cook”. It makes them feel involved but keeps them out of what I’m working on.

There are a lot of things that they do really help with! Cookies, jello, rinsing fruit, turning the handle on the fruit peeler/slicer, rolling out dough, etc. If you have kids and haven’t involved them yet but feel like they may be at an age where they can help, I encourage you do it!

So, back to meal planning. A lightbulb went off earlier this summer when I was trying to really wrap my mind around planning a week of meals that made the whole process seem much less daunting and actually a little bit more tailored to my needs.

Only plan 3 days of meals.

I realize that those 6 words may fall completely flat for you, but the instant I realized that I didn’t have to do the entire week I felt like I could handle the process.

So I started doing that and it worked! I would plan out Sunday-Wednesday meals, and one of them had to be leftovers. Usually I would try to make Monday’s dinner something that we could eat again on Tuesday because we host a bible study on Tuesday night and it’s better not to destroy the kitchen with cooking that day.

Then by about Tuesday, or sometimes Wednesday morning, I would plan the rest of the week’s meals. At that point I would either order the groceries online from our local grocery store, or just fit in a quick trip with the boys. It was always a smaller load because I had already gotten the larger weekly groceries on Sunday of that week.

Condensing the task down to 2 “bite sized” tasks led me to having so much more success with meal planning, and therefore lowered my stress level dramatically!

So if you, like me, have never been able to meal plan like you see the magicians do on Pinterest, try dividing the week in half and only tackling 3 days at a time.

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Comments (72)

  1. Posted September 13, 2017

    I used to meal plan and prep but can’t seem to get back into it. I think three days is a good rule. It leaves time for spontaneity too!

    Charmaine Ng | Architecture & Lifestyle Blog
    http://charmainenyw.com

  2. Crystal says
    Posted September 13, 2017

    This is a great tip! Following to see if others posts what had worked for them to get additional idea. πŸ˜‰

  3. Valerie says
    Posted September 13, 2017

    Such a great idea!! I was planning mon-fri and its just too much and a lot of food gets wasted. I cant wait to do this!!

  4. Pam Willis says
    Posted September 13, 2017

    The grocery store is an hour plus round trip so I plan and shop for 2 weeks at a time. We have been doing Whole 30 for 9 months now so I cook 3 meals a day too. I bought a pretty cool meal planner and it makes it fun and keeps me organized too.

    • Amanda says
      Posted September 13, 2017

      I’m sorry, you’ve done Whole30 for NINE months!? You are my hero.

      • Ashley says
        Posted September 13, 2017

        RIGHT???!!!!!!!

    • Kathan says
      Posted September 15, 2017

      May I ask you which meal planner you used? I’m starting my next Whole30 to start in Oct and could use all the help I can get!

    • Alicia says
      Posted October 8, 2017

      I also would like to know which meal planner you used! Starting my first whole30 soon!

  5. Anna says
    Posted September 13, 2017

    I usually meal plan for 4 meals but don’t pick specific nights for them. Then I can just pick one off the list that I know we have time for and I know we already have the ingredients on hand. Then the other 3 nights we just eat pizza, leftovers or whatever we find.

    • kait says
      Posted September 13, 2017

      This is how we do things too! Fridays are almost always FIO nights— figure it out that day based on what comes up since Fridays seem to be our most spontaneous nights.

      • Dana says
        Posted September 13, 2017

        Figure It Out Fridays! I like that! We also sometimes have Whatever Wednesdays. πŸ™‚

  6. DonnaS says
    Posted September 13, 2017

    This sounds do-able! I hate having to come up with an entire week’s meals. When I ask my family what they would like it’s always “I don’t know.” That is so not helpful!

    • Jennifer says
      Posted September 13, 2017

      My battle as well!! I’m starting to just cook what I want and if it’s a no go for them they are on their own. Of course with no help it’s always ” there’s nothing in this house to eat”
      Struggle is real
      That’s why I can’t wrap my head around meal prep either. But great ideas here to maybe start small.
      Thanks

  7. Tasha Colley says
    Posted September 13, 2017

    This is what I do too! We also subscribed to boxed meal services (such as Home Chef, Blue Apron, Plated, etc.) which will take up two days. Right there, I have 5 days planned! I can count on at least one or two meals being used as leftovers, and we also like to try to plan one night eating out. It is so much more helpful to not feel like you have to plan a completely different meal for seven nights every week!!

  8. Karen Garren says
    Posted September 13, 2017

    Good thinking k8! We need to cut ourselves some slack. The job gets done, and done well with a little accommodaton. Thank you for writing on this topic. I enjoy your posts and content! 🌞

  9. Stacy says
    Posted September 13, 2017

    Great idea! I too, am just bad at meal planning. I only like to go to the grocery store once a week (or two if I can), and what I’ve found that helps is having an idea of the meals we will have, but not assigning them to a specific day. That way I can have a list of 5-7 meals for a week, but if I feel like making a less daunting meal, I have the flexibility to “move” them around.

  10. Lisa says
    Posted September 13, 2017

    Such an easy concept and I think I can get on board with this! I have tried weekly meal planning several times now and have failed miserably every time! I think as moms we also try to do it all, but sometimes we need to be reminded that smaller steps are perfectly OK! Thanks for the tip!

  11. Hannah Murphy says
    Posted September 13, 2017

    I sat down and planned a whole month. I change a couple of them up now and then, but it’s so nice to just always know what’s for dinner and what to plan for the week.

    • Brooke says
      Posted September 14, 2017

      Do you use the same plan month to month?

  12. Posted September 13, 2017

    This makes so much sense to me. For instance, when I tried grocery shopping for an entire month all at once, it felt overwhelming. Now I just try to shop for a week at a time and it feels much more manageable.

    And I’m with you, planning for a whole week can feel daunting. Doing three days at a time feels so doable! Thanks for the tip!

    Chelsey
    http://www.chelseynelson.com

  13. Posted September 13, 2017

    Yes to this!!! I always plan to cook 3 dinners a week, and my husband and I eat the leftovers or eat out the rest of the week.

  14. SARA says
    Posted September 13, 2017

    Post some of your favorites!! I’m always looking for new ideas and since you’re local, any shopping tips.

  15. Emily says
    Posted September 13, 2017

    This is what I do too! I usually plan 3-4 meals and then we either FFY (fend for yourself) one night which means leftovers or anything else you feel like eating (a sandwich, cereal, etc) and then we eat out or get take out on the weekends. I only shop once a week too, I hate grocery shopping! So I go Sunday and get it over with so I don’t have to think about it the rest of the week. It all seems to work out pretty well that way πŸ™‚

    • Crystal says
      Posted September 13, 2017

      My sister calls them YOYO nights…Your On Your Own. πŸ™‚

  16. Jess C. says
    Posted September 13, 2017

    I have had to scale myself down a bit in this area too and get comfortable with the fact that BLTs and chips are perfectly fine for a week night meal and it doesn’t always have to be a production, but I am glad I did! I love cooking and often have to work at finding budget friendly meals that we can all enjoy within the meal planning process. I am glad you wrote on this, I’ve always wondered how you do it and what you like to make!

    • Amy says
      Posted September 13, 2017

      This is so true! I used to think dinner had to be an hour-long complex recipe. Now, quesadillas from leftover chicken, BLTs, grilled cheese–they’re all fair game!

  17. Megan says
    Posted September 13, 2017

    I have learned the same thing!!! I have been struggling for a few years with meal planning, and always working under the notion that a full week has to be planned out all at once. I would spend hours sometimes planning full meals (including breakfasts and lunches) for a full 7 days, shopping, and putting stuff away, only to inevitably find that the plan always gets derailed at some point! Almost every single week, halfway through, our schedules would change unexpectedly, things come up, or we just really don’t want to eat another chicken and veggie dinner! Some nights I come home from work so beat that I just cannot muster the energy to cook a full meal, so take out it is! But a few months ago I too just started embracing the idea of just doing a few days at a time. Yes, it means more trips to the store, but it’s worth it to avoid wasted groceries, and all that time planning to no avail.

    I hear ya sister!!! So less stressful!! Glad to hear you’re finding a system that works better for your family!

  18. Katie says
    Posted September 13, 2017

    I’m always fascinated to see other people’s meal planning strategies, especially when little kids are involved πŸ™‚

    For us I usually plan 3 meals during the weeknights also. Between church, family stuff, and friend stuff, we seem to have at least 1 night where we eat away from home, and I hate wasting leftovers, so we eat them one night too.

  19. Victoria Sanders says
    Posted September 13, 2017

    That’s what I do also! I work late on Thursdays, so I make sure I have a plan for Monday through Wednesday and let my husband and daughter do something special (usually just McDonalds, but I choose my battles) on Thursdays while I’m at work. Then Fridays we usually pick something fun to do together in the kitchen; our go-to’s now are make your own pizza or Hobos on the grill. Then we usually go out on Saturdays and then Sundays is more relaxed. I agree with you, trying to plan out 7 days is very overwhelming for me too. I start to think, “Do I even know enough recipes for 7 days?!?”

  20. Tammi says
    Posted September 13, 2017

    GREAT IDEA!! I have the same exact meal-planning woes you do! I’ve tried making meals ahead of time and freezing them but they taste like crap when I cook the. I’ve invested in some glass casserole dishes and sturdy wax paper so we’ll see how it goes

  21. Stefanie says
    Posted September 13, 2017

    I only “cook” 3 days out of the week as well. Leftovers have to be a part of our lives if I want to have healthier meals. Great post!

  22. Marah Leinbaugh says
    Posted September 13, 2017

    I loved this post! Thanks for your tips. I also did not like meal planning for the reason that sometimes I’m not in the mood to eat what is on the menu, but a budget that has become much tighter lately made planning an absolute must. I have discovered a couple things that have helped me tremendously so far. Before I was trying to shop for groceries for two weeks at a time. I did this thinking I was saving money because we shop at Aldi and our nearest one is 30 minutes away. I have come to discover for us that shopping for only a week at a time is much less daunting and saves money, as things don’t go bad if last minute plans change. The other thing I like is to have a list of seven supper meals and the indredients ready to prepare any of them and then I can choose from that list of seven according to what everyone feels like having or what is best to prepare for what is going on day-to-day. This has really helped stick to our budget and stretch what we have on hand if we need to. Thanks for your posts!

    • Sharon says
      Posted September 13, 2017

      We lost a third of our income and with added medical bills I have had to be creative. I found preparing veggies / burger patties / precook bacon to reheat etc ahead a time helped. We also have breakfast night.

  23. Blkbear says
    Posted September 13, 2017

    I’ve been doing this for years now. Do enough protein for three or four days, buy frozen veggies as well and portion them out in ziplock bags, to add to a protein. And then I can whip up potatoes, rice, quinoa or beans or a couple of crock pot meals to round things out for those times I don’t want to cook. Left overs from eating out get factored in to meal planning as well, especially those two for one deals. Eat one there, take the other one home, sub something else for the fries if the dinner comes with them.

  24. Megan says
    Posted September 13, 2017

    On Sunday mornings, I plan meals through the following Saturday. I don’t usually assign a specific meal to a specific day, so that way I just make what I feel like/have time for when I get home. I like to keep some simple meals in reserve in case I get off work late, and my husband has to start dinner. I always leave one night open – it’s usually a Friday, but it’s flexible if I get home really late or just don’t feel like cooking. Saturday night is almost always homemade pizza night.

    My husband does the grocery shopping, and I chop everything up on Sunday during my daughter’s rest time. Even if I do it when she’s awake, my husband can watch her, or she entertains herself. During the week, I pretty much just have to throw stuff in a pot and stir.

  25. Leigh says
    Posted September 13, 2017

    I plan for a full 7 days, but I always know what 3 of those will be– leftovers/carry-in on one night, breakfast-for-dinner on another (not always the same breakfast, but I know it will be egg-based), and freezer night, where I pull a main dish out of the freezer and make only a side (like baked ziti and fresh roasted broccoli). The key to the last one is to have Today Me help Future Me by doubling the recipe whenever I cook something freeze-able. πŸ™‚

  26. Posted September 13, 2017

    So simple. Yet so smart!! Plus you get to better think about what you feel like having! Thanks for sharing!

  27. Alison says
    Posted September 13, 2017

    I use the May Designs Meal Planner (https://www.maydesigns.com/shop/build/book.classic/?insidePages=meal-planner) and it has changed my meal planning game. Usually Sunday nights, I select the meals we’ll eat for the following week and write them down on the left side page and then go recipe-by-recipe and list all the ingredients we’ll need on the right side page. And since it’s all contained in one book, I can look back at previous weeks to get inspiration for the following week’s meals if I’m hitting a wall.

  28. Jj says
    Posted September 13, 2017

    Love it, what a sensible solution!

  29. Bridget says
    Posted September 13, 2017

    I just bought a used (older) cookbook that follows this same concept. Three meals and options to prep some in advance. It’s called Robin Rescues Dinner by Robin Miller. So far, the dinners are interesting but nothing overly complicated or time consuming. I’m sure the book is available used online super cheap if anyone is interested. (No affiliation, just like the concept and the recipes)

  30. Shara Campbell says
    Posted September 13, 2017

    B/c of my health, I was out of the meal planning for several years. I’m back in the game again, and here’s my tips: 1) find 10-14 meals that are your family’s favs and rotate them. 2) I gave each night a “theme” …. Monday: meat & veggie; Taco Tuesday; dinner is at our church on Wednesday evenings; Thursday: Pizza; Friday: Casseroles; Saturday: Game Day food; Sunday: Crockpot meals. 😊

  31. Brittany says
    Posted September 13, 2017

    I don’t have children, but both my husband and I work full time. Our solution has been to meal plan and grocery shop together, that way one person does not get stuck with all of it. For us, I also find planning 4-5 meals is the way to go. We usually have one “date” night (even if it is just pizza) a week and a leftover/cereal/cold sandwiches night when we are both exhausted. This system works best for us and has led to a lot less wasted food and stress.

  32. Amy says
    Posted September 13, 2017

    I’ve had to adjust to two grocery store trips per week, as well. I really like that the food ends up being fresher. A lot of times the produce or meat I bought on Sunday were a little iffy by Friday or Saturday. And, if we ended up having a meal or two away from home unexpectedly, a LOT of food would end up getting thrown away. But, with two smaller trips, it doesn’t feel as overwhelming to swing by the store after work and get food for the next 3-4 days.

  33. Nancy says
    Posted September 13, 2017

    I do this with my teenager. With our schedules it really helps out so much and less stressful in many areas.
    This also saves me money because there is a better control over money, what we eat according to our plans for the evening.
    Plus there are leftovers which double in saving money, time, and extra planning after our busy days.

  34. Becky says
    Posted September 13, 2017

    I just started doing this too, and having only 3 meals to worry about at a time is so much more manageable! I hadn’t thrown in leftovers though, so that can be my 4th :). Thanks for sharing!

  35. Kate says
    Posted September 13, 2017

    I like this idea. I’ve recently started doing “theme” meals. Monday- grain bowls, Tuesday-tacos, Wednesday- pasta…etc. It leaves room for variety but eliminates some of the planning/decision making.

  36. Emily says
    Posted September 13, 2017

    Would you consider posting your meal plans every once in a while? I’m always curious to find out what other busy women do!

  37. Kathy says
    Posted September 13, 2017

    I always try to make something on Sunday that can be used later in the week. My favorite is a roasted chicken or extra grilled chicken. Then a few days later use the extra chicken for a casserole, enchiladas, chicken salad, etc.

  38. Louise Mulholland says
    Posted September 13, 2017

    Oh I enjoy how real life you are with your posts. I totally get your AHA moment. Really great idea. I like the idea of meal preps but couldn’t really wrap my head around 5 or more days in advance as I like things as fresh as possible. Lovely to see how you involve your boys.
    Thank you for your post.

  39. Posted September 14, 2017

    I love this post!! I plan 7 days of meals usually, for when I go shopping. But I find it really hard to stick to and struggle when I come home and really can’t be bothered to cook what I had planned 6 days ago!

    I’m for sure going to try your 3 day rule!
    a life of a charlotte
    x

  40. Caroline says
    Posted September 14, 2017

    I plan 8 meals a week (Dinners Sat-Thurs and lunch Sat/Sun) but do not set them on specific days. We eat out Friday. I just have 9 things ready to make. I couldn’t keep up with specific days/some nights are busier than others. Wednesday is always crock pot night and we are vegan so many other meals only take minutes to throw together. Vegan burgers cook in 3 min! Also I get groceries delivered from Amazon or Aldi either Wed or Thursday so no store shopping for me!

  41. Posted September 14, 2017

    I actually like this idea – planning half the week at a time. When I’ve planned the whole week either something comes up and we have to adjust or else what sounded good Sunday in the plan is not appealing by Thursday when it is time to cook…

  42. Melissa Bartels says
    Posted September 14, 2017

    Great idea! For years I have been writing all of my meals ideas on blank calendars then save them in a folder. Now when I meal plan, over my folder out & can easily find what we liked & also add new ideas. So much better than sitting down to plan and having to think about tried & true family favorites every time! Saves me a ton of time. Blessings all!

  43. Sasha says
    Posted September 14, 2017

    I have a list of all the meals (about 20) that I cook that my family likes on my iPhone. I usually look through the list and pick about 3-4 meals to cook for the week. It really helps to see and think about everything I could make, so I can think– oh, we haven’t had that in awhile… and no one gets tired of something. Every now and then I try something new and add it to the list!

  44. Andrea says
    Posted September 14, 2017

    Um, I love this tip…thank you so much for sharing! Meal planning has seemed super daunting to me especially since having my second baby two months ago. This is a WAY better way to approach things!

  45. Jena' Bowen says
    Posted September 14, 2017

    Great tip! Thanks! I tend to get overwhelmed with meal planning and usually just end up “flying by the seat of my pants.” Planning meals for 3 days seems much less daunting.

  46. Hilary says
    Posted September 14, 2017

    I have tried my hand at meal planning so many times and never manage to make it happen – probably because, like you say, I try and plan too many days in advance. I started ordering my groceries online recently as my 6 month old can make it quite difficult to take quick trips to the store and it has made such a difference for me! Thank you for the post!

  47. Tracy says
    Posted September 15, 2017

    How exciting, to find a way to make this work for you!! I have been a dedicated meal planner for well over two decades, but when I started working full time (my kids were 19, 18 & 15!) all my plans kept falling flat! I would plan the things I wanted to eat, but I wasn’t home to cook them, and my baby adults didn’t want to cook what I planned. I had to make some adjustments and now I include the kids by asking them what THEY want to cook. Meal planning is back to working well again. Except at the end of the school term, when we all lose the will to cook and eat properly! Then we resort to pretend food that needs little preparation, because we’re just trying to get to the end. Bring on the school holidays, I say. This teacher-mum is tired!

  48. Katy Posey says
    Posted September 15, 2017

    Love your shirt in this pic! Mind sharing where it is from?

  49. Michelle says
    Posted September 16, 2017

    OMG. Why didn’t I think of this? You’ve changed my life for the better. I’d much rather go to the store twice in a week (or three times) vs. deal with the mental strain of planning 6/7 days of meals.
    I keep a running list of go-to/favorite meals in my planner, which helps some, but making a shopping list for 7 days seemed daunting. I can handle 3!

  50. Jo says
    Posted September 17, 2017

    I love routine! So I plan 7 days and it’s really simple, beef, chicken x 2, prawns, omelette, mince, fish. I get veggies as I go. That’s it. My husband and I both work so the rule is whoever gets in first starts dinner. If we have a birthday or meal out I just adjust accordingly. And sometimes we have a “Make Do ” dinner πŸ˜‰ basically please yourself! I have 2 teenagers and they always eat what I put in front of them and we always eat together at the table. Love reading different ideas for meal times.

  51. vicky t says
    Posted September 19, 2017

    we love leftovers and I have been meal planning only for a few days too and it works magically, it takes away much unneeded stress! Ha.

  52. Jessica says
    Posted September 20, 2017

    I do the same – three days at a time. I can’t handle a whole week because our lives are busy and we always end up wasting food if I plan 5-7 days. I think I secretly don’t like to be tied down to that much structure. But whatevs, it works for us.

  53. Krystal says
    Posted September 25, 2017

    Oh man, I have been struggling with meal planning forever! I came across this post on Pinterest and holy moly. The biggest of lightbulbs exploded in my head lol. This has truly been a mind-blowing idea and I don’t know why it never occurred to me. I’ve been doing this in the weeks since I saw this post, and by god IT’S WORKING. I feel so much freer and less like a failure! I can be so hard on myself, so not being able to meal plan or stick to the plan or whatnot was just one more thing I could rag on myself about. So, not only has this great idea helped me schedule and grocery-wise, it’s also been a bit of a pick-me-up each day, which is no small thing! (Ha ha, see what I did there? Unintentional but too good not to leave lol)

    Thank you so much for helping this lightbulb go off in my head as well!

  54. Annie says
    Posted October 8, 2017

    I struggle with planning too. We are just so busy wit with kids’ sports that we eat at 4:00 or 8:00. I started keeping my meal plans so I can already have a week done if I need to in a pinch. I also found healthykidshappyhome.com who posts her plans each week. We tend to like most of the foods she plans so I don’t have to think on my own too often. Lol!

  55. Beth says
    Posted October 8, 2017

    I usually only plan 3-4 (when I plan…lol) because I am good with leftovers and fill in with quick meals too..protein topped salad, sandwiches, homemade make your own pizza…

  56. Tami Torres says
    Posted October 8, 2017

    I not only meal plan I also make all of the meals for Sun-Wednesday on Sunday. This way I don’t have to worry about cooking anything just reheating when we get in from work/school with the kids. It’s definitely reduced my stressed level during the week.

  57. Tanya says
    Posted October 8, 2017

    I meal plan two weeks at a time. Buying all meat and non perishables at once. I pick up fruits, veggies, and milk about once a week to go with planned meals.

  58. Posted October 8, 2017

    Great plan!!! I come up with meals for the things I have in my freezer whether it’s 7 meals or 12 and then just start moving through it as I can. Sometimes we eat elsewhere and so that meal just gets shifted to the next day. I am a loose planner.

  59. Anna says
    Posted October 8, 2017

    I love it! I was struggling today to figure out what we would eat past Wednesday. I’m going to set it aside for now, then come back on Wednesday and plan for the rest of the week!

  60. Nikki says
    Posted October 9, 2017

    I just started meal planning a month ago and began with this same thought! It helps to shorten the length of time I spend in the kitchen so that I can tend to my Little’s. What a concept. πŸ™‚ I’ve also been more successful at sticking to my goals because I don’t have to eat the same thing for days on end. YAY!

  61. Little Geek says
    Posted November 11, 2017

    Thanks fot idea! Want to try it out!