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Smart Meal Planning Ideas for Your Family

Updated on August 3, 2012

The Perfect Meal

Don't you wish you could prepare a meal like this every night?
Don't you wish you could prepare a meal like this every night? | Source

Creating Meal Plans

Six o'clock rolls around, and there is no meat thawing out, nothing on the stove, and the oven is cold. In other words, there is no dinner for your family. So, will it be pizza or Chinese tonight?

This may happen often in your household if you do not have a meal plan or strategy. Your family expects a good meal every single night, but it is so hard to keep up!

Instead of rushing around the kitchen at the last minute, or spending extra money on take-out, follow these tips and ideas to plan ahead. These strategies will reduce mealtime stress and allow for an enjoyable dinner experience for the entire family.

Monthly Meal Planner

Start with what you cook best. Think of those time-tested recipes that your kids keep asking for. Make a master list of these no-fail main dishes. Your goal is to have at least 30 on the list, but if you only have seven, start with seven.

Once your list is made, simply make them and check them off as you go through the month. It helps to put the meals in categories, for example, the chicken dishes, beef dishes and meatless dishes. That way, you can rotate meals and not have chicken five nights in a row. Each week or two, try out one new recipe. If it is a hit, add it to your list. If not, try again the next week. When you cook the last meal on the list, start over!

Planning Meals for the Week

If your successful recipe arsenal is not very big, you may want to start with a weekly planning strategy. Pick a day of the week to plan your meals. Sit down with a few cookbooks or magazines and pick seven meals for the next week. These are some tips to consider:

  • Pick a variety of meats to serve.
  • To save money, plan your meals around your grocery store's sales ad.
  • Let the kids help pick meals by going through the recipes together.
  • After you eat the meal, make a notation if it was one you liked or disliked - for future reference.

Most importantly, write it down! A meal planning chart will keep you organized, but it also "warns" other family members about what is coming each night. That way, they can make their lunch plans accordingly.

Meal Swap

Do you agree that food usually tastes better if someone else makes it? Meal swaps are a great way to try meals prepared by your friends or family. This is how a meal swap works:

  1. Form a group of 4-7 families that are roughly the same size. Notify each other of any food allergies or dislikes.
  2. Each family is responsible for cooking 4-7 batches of one recipe, depending on how many are in your group.
  3. Use foil pans or Ziploc bags to transport your meals so that you won't mix up your dishes. Recipes that freeze well work best.
  4. Get together to exchange the meals so that each family ends up with one of each dish.

This method is fun and gives you the chance to try something new. It is also easier to cook several batches of the same recipe versus a week's worth of different dishes. You will save time and money on this one.


Casseroles are easy to freeze for later.
Casseroles are easy to freeze for later. | Source

Cook All on One Day

If you are so busy during the week that cooking a decent meal is almost impossible, consider preparing all your family's meals on one weekend day. For example, you might spend several hours on Sunday prepping 5-7 meals for the week ahead. Some tips for this method are as follows:

  • Make dishes that will freeze well, and store them properly.
  • Cook a few casseroles so that you just need to reheat them later in the week.
  • Keep fresh vegetables on hand to round out each meal.

Cooking in Double Batches

If the thought of cooking five or seven meals at once is too overwhelming, though, then try cooking in double batches. Whenever you make a meal, double the recipe and freeze the second half. After you have a few meals stocked up in the freezer, you will only have to cook every other night.

Be sure to label your dishes with the date and wrap them up well to prevent freezer-burn. Organize the meals neatly in your freezer, so they don't get lost!

Weekly Meal Theme Ideas

  • Casserole
  • Soup and Sandwich
  • Make Your Own Pizza
  • Mexican Fiesta
  • Grill-out
  • Salad Time
  • Stir-fry
  • Italian Night
  • Breakfast for Supper

Meal Themes

To make meal planning easier, create a basic template or guide to follow for the week. For example, you may have a Meatless Monday or a Fish Friday. So, for Monday, your choices are narrowed down to vegetarian meals and then seafood for Friday. It is easier to fill in a meal category slot than to start from scratch every night. Some other meal theme ideas are listed to the right.

The meal planning template example below will give you an idea of how this strategy works.

Meal Planning Template Example

Day of the Week
Type of Meal
Week 1
Week 2
Week 3
Week 4
Meatless Monday
Greek pasta salad
spinach quiche
vegetarian bean chili
eggplant parmesan
Mexican Fiesta
chicken enchiladas
beef flautas
shrimp soft tacos
Soup and Sandwich
reubens and tomato soup
cheese panini and okra gumbo
muffuletta and vegetable soup
deli subs and cream of broccoli
baked ziti
spinach lasagna roll-ups
cashew shrimp
chicken teriyaki
pepper steak
chicken and broccoli
pork tenderloin
greek chicken
grilled pizzas
chicken cacciatore
sausage and wild rice
macaroni and beef
chicken and rice

List main entrees on your meal planning chart and add fresh sides as needed.

Family Meal Planning

A final idea is to give each family member a day of the week to plan a meal. Let them pick a family favorite or look for a new recipe to try. When the kids pick meals, allow them to help out in the preparation as well. A bonus to this method is that since the kids are involved, they will be more likely to eat what is served!

Try out one or more of the above ideas for meal planning and see how your six o'clock hour is transformed. Family mealtime is important, so make it the best you can. If you have another tip on planning meals, please share in the comments.

Eating Meals Together as a Family

How many nights a week does your family sit around the table for a home-cooked meal?

See results

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