3 Hot Tips to Make Menu Planning Simple

Dinner is the most important family time we have every day, but often we go into it harried and exhausted. We are hectic, getting food on the table with no energy left.

A menu plan is supposed to solve that problem, but somehow our efforts rarely seem to pay off. There seems to be some menu planning magic we’re missing.

What we’re actually missing, however, is how simple it’s supposed to be. We make it complicated because getting meals on the table is a complex project, but a menu plan should streamline and simplify.

All kinds of issues complicate our food decisions and needs. Allergies, sensitivities, health considerations, and pickiness limit our options. Too much repetition and everyone grows tired and bored with the meals that are supposed to bring unifying fellowship. Once you have the menu plan, you have to make sure the right ingredients are on hand. Plus, even with a plan, you still have to actually make the meals, which seems to take more time than expected.

We tend to plan for an ideal, but it never matches our reality. Then we blame ourselves or others, when really our planning was destined to fail us.

Decision fatigue is real. A menu plan should simplify meals because it reduces the number of decisions we have to make on the fly. However, if we add more decisions and more contingencies to the plan in an effort to set up the perfect plan, our plan will crash and burn – and so will we.

Decision fatigue is real. Here are 3 hot tips to make menu planning simple and reduce the number of decisions we have to make on the fly.

Create a template for your menu plan.

Using a customized template for your menu plan will make your meals simpler and faster to get on the table – and also easier to shop for and quicker to plan.

As wives and mothers it is a part of our responsibility to feed our people. We want regular, wholesome dinners for our family because eating together builds our relationships and fosters love and joy and peace. Eating together is at the heart of having a convivial home. Yet nothing steals that joy and makes dinners stressful instead of cheerful like feeling unprepared and ill equipped – even though we’ve been doing this every day for years.

Take the thinking out of the repetitive process of meal planning by using a template, a pattern for your meal types and meal combos so that you can enjoy meals together as a family more reliably.

There are many strategies out there on how to make a menu plan.

All the variety can make it an intimidating process if you have little practice, but the variety of options means you can endlessly riff off of your plans and not get bored doing the same thing over and over again.

By having a menu plan formula, you can have variety without starting from scratch every week – or worse, every day.

Template Type #1: Dinner as a 3-part combo meal

Before you can make a week’s worth of menu options, you have to have a solid basis for what makes a complete dinner. Although you might need to amend this to fit any dietary requirements and restrictions you may have, generally a complete meal includes

  1. Protein (generally from meat)
  2. Bulk (generally from starch, but could also be vegetable-based)
  3. Green (vegetable or salad)

Now, you don’t necessarily need three separate dishes every dinner, but a one-pot dinner should still contain sufficient proportions of each of these three types to be satisfying.

For example, spaghetti can involve all three:

  1. Meat
  2. Pasta or spaghetti squash
  3. Tomato sauce, onions, and other possible additions like zucchini or spinach

Still, a plate with only one thing on it can look a little sparse, and a meal is made satisfying partly by its visual appeal as well as its belly-filling ability. A salad is a quick and easy way to add more green, more bulk, and more variety to the dinner plate.

Instead of starting from scratch each and every meal, think of each meal as a fill-in-the-blank combo meal. You need a starch, a protein, and a vegetable. Those elements might be served together, but if they are each on the table in some form, you’ll have a healthy family dinner that will fill up hungry tummies.

Some 3-part combo meals might include

  • chicken thighs, rice, and grilled zucchini
  • meatballs, mashed potatoes, and salad
  • sandwiches: lunch meat & cheese, on bread, with tomato and lettuce
  • casserole: pasta, tuna or turkey, and peas or broccoli

Stir-fry is another one-pot meal that includes all three, with a meat and vegetables mixed into rice, all held together with a sauce. If there is a variety of vegetables within your stir fry, it is generally adequate alone on the plate. I like to include onions, peppers, zucchini, broccoli, peas, and carrots in my stir-fries. All those colors combined makes it an appealing stand-alone option for dinner. Stir-fry is also simple to customize the proportions to your family’s taste and sensibilities. It can be heavy or light on the meat, strong or simple on the vegetables, or big on the bulk of rice or not – a recipe need not dictate amounts.

Let your own preference and your family’s needs be your guide.

Often, though, a dinner will consist of three separate items. A chicken dinner would be supplemented by roasted potatoes and green beans. A pork roast might have rice and roasted broccoli on the side.

If you think in threes as you put your dinner options together, you’ll have complete and wholesome dinners that don’t take a lot of thought to put together. With the options in Simplified Dinners, you have meat-based or one-pot options, as well as variations on vegetables and salads and starch side dishes that make putting together a three-part meal a snap.

Template Type #2: Weekly Dinner Themes

When we sit down to menu plan each week, it can feel like there are a lot of slots to fill. However, we can make planning easier on ourselves by choosing a theme for at least a few days of the week and maybe every day of the week.

For example, you can plan Monday as a chicken day and Tuesday for tacos and Fridays for pizza. You can also theme days based not on the meal itself but on the preparation method: Wednesdays might be crockpot day because the afternoon is so busy or Saturday is for grilling because Dad is home.

By limiting your options but still having variety available within the limitation, you are able to make a plan that doesn’t feel repetitious and boring but still allows you to make the plan quickly and remember the plan easily.

Themes like these create routine in our week. We know every Sunday, whatever specific meal might be planned, to pull out chicken from the freezer. We know Wednesday morning needs thirty minutes reserved to get dinner into the crockpot.

Themes make dinner simpler and more streamlined without creating ruts.

Planning with meal themes helps us get meals on the table with less decision fatigue, less stress and less thinking. We don’t need to resort to fast food or take out or freezer meals in order to quickly get meals on the table. We just need to do a little bit of upfront planning and strategic thinking that pay off for years down the line.

You need to plan ALL the meals, not just dinner.

I know it seems overwhelming.

I know even just planning dinner sometimes seems overwhelming.

But, seriously, who wants to wake up and decide in the pre-coffee fog what to feed the troops for breakfast? It has to be decided ahead of time.

Everyone talks about how much planning out dinners saves you from mental effort and decision fatigue, but that’s only 1/3 of the meals you feed people!

Imagine if all the meals were planned – how much mental effort and decision fatigue would that reduce?

Personally, I think the reason we balk at planning all the meals is that we build dinner menu planning into this herculean effort.

Do we want to do that 2 more times over? No way! But if we simplify not only the two lighter meals, but also the dinner effort, we can have our plan and our peace of mind as well.

Make an easy breakfast plan.

Breakfast hits us out of the blue, first thing in the morning. Rather than rolling out of bed without a clue about what to feed the troops, you need a plan in order to get things moving without feeling out of control.

A solid breakfast starts the day off on the right foot, so planning it is essential.

Make an easy lunch plan.

Lunch, whether you have to pack it or pause the other business of the day to prepare it, it always seems to get in the way. While taking a lunch break is refreshing, taking the time to prepare it is not.

A basic, repeatable lunch at our house is bread, cheese fruit. That might sound like it would get boring, but there are all kinds of variety available to mix and match:

  • bread options: pita, sandwich, French, muffins, scones, rolls
  • cheese options: Mozzarella sticks, cheddar slices, Colby cubes, soft cheese to smear
  • fruit options: pears, apples, grapes, melon

Make an easy dinner plan.

You don’t need to have elaborate dinners every night to have a complete, healthy meal.

Try thinking in threes and keeping easy to prepare vegetables always on hand.

Rather than browse Pinterest or magazines to come up with dinner ideas, keep a list of your family’s go-to meals. Or, use Simplified Dinners, which is your list and guideline already put together.

Jess Knox has been a member of Simply Convivial Continuing Education since 2020

“In case this is helpful to anyone….. this is my current simplified breakfast and lunch rotating menu/schedule/plan:

Breakfast – cereal, scrambled eggs, German pancakes, overnight french toast casserole, overnight baked chocolate chip oatmeal casserole, overnight brunch casserole, yogurt w/ bananas & graham crackers, rice pudding made from left-over cooked rice.

Lunch: Pick from these items; all of which are regularly in ‘stock’ in my pantry & fridge: yogurt, applesauce, granola bars, crackers (ritz, saltine, or graham), cheese chunks, or homemade rolls w/: cheese, lunch meat, butter, jam, tuna, egg salad, or p.b. & honey.

– Jess Knox 💟🏆

This menu plan template will help you streamline your meal planning:

Meal Plan with Family Favorites

Sometimes we just don’t have the brain power or the energy to get dinner on the table creatively.

It’s easy to get carried away with other people’s menu plans, samples, or pre-packaged lists online, but we need to remember that we do not need to get gourmet or exotic with our average family dinner menu plan.

We want to select meals that our family will eat rather than spending time searching out new recipes all the time. Stick to familiar favorites, build up a repertoire, cook the same types of meals regularly.

Cooking familiar food doesn’t have to mean you eat the same thing all the time. You can switch out seasonings, vegetables, meat, or other ingredients to vary the taste of some basic meals that your family enjoys. You can put the same ingredients in a different form to change things up. For example, you can serve chili as a soup with chips, or you can serve chili as a topping for a baked potato dinner.

Repeating basic family favorites can be a lifesaver as we build up our cooking skills. Dinner is not a time to showcase or show off our skill, but to serve our families and foster relationships around the table.

You can make menu planning work for you.

A lot of work goes into meal planning. There’s the planning, the recipe, finding the idea, generating the list, making the grocery, shopping, the prepping, the cooking, the serving. And of course the cleaning up.

It’s no wonder we feel overwhelmed by all the details that go into simply putting meals on the table every day.

Here are some solutions women inside Simply Convivial Continuing Education have shared while working through the Simplified Pantry course this year:

Lindsay, member of Simply Convivial Continuing Education since 2020

“I live in a household of 8 with many different hands in and out of the kitchen. I cook most things from scratch and dinner often gets cooked twice around here. All that being said, the kitchen is basically in constant use by me or someone else. TONS of dishes and items that will fill up the counter in a hurry if it’s neglected.

“I’ve learned if I don’t have a plan every time I waltz into the kitchen I’m in there for double the time and I get less done. So I’ve set up procedure lists so that I know exactly what I should be doing every time I walk into the kitchen. They cap the beginning and end of each meal, Including getting DH out the door for work well fed.

“In my lists I have aspects of meal prep like getting ingredients out, doing daily kitchen chores like feeding my sourdough starter and then clean-up after each meal.

“I’ve broken everything down into 5 minute chunks and I reset the timer every time I move on to the next task. I like to race myself to see how fast I can get things done. This also keeps me from getting distracted and leaving the kitchen every 5 seconds because someone needs something ‘right now’ They wait until the timer goes off.

“I’m also going to try to start doing my dishes in the afternoon instead of at night. My kids often take longer than I’d like to eat lunch and I’m usually barking at them to finish so instead I plan to just rinse my dishes and load them in the dish pan under the sink after dinner to be washed while they finish eating lunch.” 

– Lindsay 💟

I love how Lindsay shared her story of organizing her attitude while managing her time according to real life.

Stefani Mons runs our Convivial Circle chat community and is a wealth of practical wisdom.

“I wanted to share how I handle all the parts and pieces Mystie talks about in the “Recipe Decluttering” module because mine does NOT look like Mystie’s.

For my actual go-to recipes, I use  Google Drive so I can have the recipe with me anywhere, anytime. I have a folder for each of my meal types (chicken thighs in the slow cooker, slow cooker roasts, soups, Asian, and beef stews are my categories, based on cuts of meat I buy). Also, I tried to format them as closely to each other as possible, so I can easily “at a glance” go through the recipe.

For recipes that “look good” I do keep a few Pinterest food boards, but I almost always look at the recipe before just pinning what “looks” good. I regularly prune these recipes as well (but it is hard to pin a ton when we have dietary restrictions and specific health goals). Once I’ve decided to make something, it goes in my “On the Docket” board for easy finding, and if it’s a winner, it goes on to my “Winners” Pinterest board and then into my Google Drive under the appropriate category.

You’d think as an ISTJ, I’d have a snazzy Excel spreadsheet for all my pantry staples, but I don’t. I do use Excel to track those dinner meal plan recipe ingredients (in categories of meat, onion, fresh, frozen, and shelf stable), but that doesn’t track everything I buy, of course. I actually use Google Keep and I have a “Regular Items” list for each of my regular grocery stores (Costco, Aldi, Sprouts, Kroger, Walmart), so I remember the best places to buy what, although sometimes I will purchase other places instead of going to a store for just one or two items. (I just copy the “regular items” list in Keep and it becomes the start of the current week’s list.) I don’t go to every store every week, so the list also helps me think “Well, if I’m already going to X store maybe I should grab A, B, and C while I’m there” instead of waiting and making an extra trip in the future (possibly).

I hope that makes sense and gives you ladies another perspective on how to run recipes and pantry staples so you can figure out what will work best for YOU

– Stefani Mons, Convivial Circle Community Manager

It’s always going to be most effective to try something out and iterate until it works for you than try to make someone else’s system fit your life.

Keep learning about kitchen organization skills:

This menu plan template will help streamline your process.

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2 Comments

  1. Mystie, this is the second time I have read you refer to the grill as something only men do. Here, “grill when dad is home” and before “chat inside with the ladies while the men grill outside.”

    I, too, am a conservative Christian. And I understand that the husband is commanded to be the head of the household. But, there is no logic in assigning a cooking tool to a specific gender. It comes across as narrow-minded when we do this.

    I love to grill! Let me go outside and cook, please!

    Confining the grill to something “men do” is nonsensical and a bit demeaning. What may come across as harsh is sincerely a plea for you to do better representing what it looks like for men to lead their household (and it doesn’t look like them being the only one to grill).

    1. One of my best friends does the grilling at her house. My husband enjoys grilling. I think it’s pretty common for men to do the grilling, but it has nothing to do with being the head of the household. My husband also does the dinner dishes 95% of the time. I don’t know how to grill and don’t care to learn because we have a good division of labor going here – I enjoy the excuse the outsource half of the dinner prep. :)

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