One of the easiest ways to curb spending on eating out, as well as keeping to a grocery budget is through meal planning. Your menus can be weekly or monthly, include all three meals or just dinner, but menu planning is your friend in the battle to embrace frugality, simplicity, and using what you have!
Just beginning to menu plan? All you need are five simple steps to be on your way to easy, sanity-saving meals for your family, which include my favorite tips and tricks (theme nights are the best!).
5 Steps To Simple & Easy Dinner Meal Planning
1. Get your calendar.
Download and print a free calendar for the month (I like Calendars That Work) or just type the days of the week in a word processing program to print out. If you’re comfortable with a calendar program like Google Calendars or iCal, use that and if you’re feeling crafty there are lots of cute menu board ideas out there whether it’s dry erase or chalk – Pinterest is your friend here.
2. Look at your family’s activity calendar.
Note the nights you’ll be coming in late and plan to have quick meals or slow cooker meals on those nights. Plan take-along meals for any kids sports or activities that happen at the dinner hour.
Obviously, note the nights you won’t be eating at home!
3. Plan with what you have.
Using a paper list or a quick mental run-down, whatever works for you, look in the freezer for items to use, including meats and vegetables. Check the pantry, too, making a note of staples you might need to pick up (pasta, etc.). To really help minimize waste, check all the nooks and crannies of your fridge and plan meals to use up all the vegetables and any leftovers (soups and frittatas are great for this!)
4. Assign a certain theme or ingredient to each day.
This is optional, but it really helps your meal planning go quicker- especially in the beginning when you’re still figuring out this whole planning thing! You don’t have to always plan exactly to the theme, but it can serve as a starting point for finding a meal. It’s also a really good way to stick to a goal you have for your family like eating a meatless meal or adding more beans or fish to your diet.
Here’s an example of a themed menu week:
Monday– Meatless Monday
Tuesday– International (i.e., tacos or curry)
Saturday– Pizza night (or alternate with Pizza and Burgers, like we do)
Sunday– Free/On Your Own (leftovers, quick meal of pasta, or eat out- in other words, flexible!)
5. Start filling in each day with meals.
My biggest tip: start with things that your family likes.
If it helps, make a list of “family favorite meals” and keep it with your menu planning things, adding to it as you find new meals. Another way to record what your family likes and what you’ve served is to keep all your past menus in a binder (this is what I do). After awhile, you’ll have a super resource that’s easy to look through for ideas. It also aids in cooking seasonally, as you’ve got a record of what you ate for every month of the year.
Plan for any new recipes as well, but just 1 or 2 each week. I find it takes more time to plan with new recipes, so I plug in only a few and if it’s a busy time, there may not be any new items on our menu that week.
That’s it! Once you get your system down, it should only takes about 10 minutes to plan a week’s worth of dinners. It may take longer if there are some new recipes you want to try or have a lot of ingredients to use up, but that’s fine occasionally- and actually one of the good reasons to have a plan!
I’ve linked all our past monthly menus below to help with inspiration, ideas- each includes recipe links to our family’s tried-and-true meals. They are separated by season because that’s our goal here – that and using our preserved foods. It’s also because that’s the way to spend less- by planning around what’s in season and least expensive.
Seasonal Dinner Menu Ideas by Month: