Ideas for Menu Planning

Menu planning is something that comes easily to some, and not so easily to others. I have already told you that I am one of those that struggles with it. I like flexibility and variety, and menu planning seems to go against both of those. I have learned to love it, however, and the weeks that I have a good menu plan in place, things run more smoothly.

My purpose here is not to telly you why it is a good thing. Reasons to menu plan vary from person to person. The budget, no five o’clock panic, and more balanced meals are probably the main reasons to plan.

Three ideas for smooth menu-planning.

1. Have a master list of meals.

This is hands down the most helpful thing for me. I have had a variety of master plans over the years. Usually scribbled down somewhere, which was not entirely helpful as it usually got lost. Most recently I have been trying out Evernote, and it is a nice place to condense all my information including links to recipes. It is also accessible on smart phones, so if I had one it would be convenient. Many of you might find that helpful.

I have recently started sub-diving it between beef meals, chicken meals, meatless meals, soups, etc. This helps me spread things out which is very helpful on the budget!

Menu planning is much easier and quicker when I have a master list to pull from. It keeps me from staring at the blank page with no ideas. What exactly do we eat, anyway? Just slowly start adding to the list as you think of, or make, meals that you know your family loves. Eventually you will have a great list to work from.

2. Use Gmail calendar.

I have a separate gmail calendar set up just for meal planning. I love using gmail calendar because if it is a meal that I know we are going to repeat frequently I can just set it up to repeat itself weekly, or every other week. In the summer, taco salad comes up frequently so I have it set for every other week. It is easy enough to change if for some reason we don’t want to eat it that week. In the winter we have some favorite soups that I have those set to come up on a regular basis. Having a few things already on the calendar means there are fewer nights to plan.

Using gmail I can also pull up my regular calendar to check if anything is going on that might affect the menu plan. It keeps everything streamlined and in one place. If you want a printed version, you can just print off the calendar and put it on your fridge.

3. Allow yourself flexibility.

If you are a person that likes to change things up a bit, this is important. Being too strict with myself was one reason I often fell off the menu-planning bandwagon.

I do put the meals on the calendar on specific days, but I often change those days around. As long as I have the plan, the morning of I decide if I want to eat that or switch it for something else that is on the menu that week.

My goal is to have seven dinners planned, but we rarely eat all of those. With the plan I can make sure I have the right ratio of meat and meatless meals. I often move those around to suit my preferences or mood of the day. Because I have the plan, I know the ingredients are on hand and life is much easier.

Usually we have one night that is a leftover night. If you eat out you can factor that in as well. Having the extra nights factored in gives me room to change things up, while still sticking to the general plan. If I have lasagna on Monday, but I don’t feel like lasagna, I have the ingredients of a couple of other meals ready to go. I might move lasagna to later in the week, or I might just be one step ahead for next weeks menu.

These three things have given a comfortable balance between a plan and flexibility.

Other ideas for meal planning:

Theme Nights: Many people like to have Monday: pasta, Tuesday: Soup, Wednesday: Mexican, etc. This allows you to have a basic framework in place, while still allowing variety for the actual meal.

Month long meal plan: Jessica at Good Cheap Eats is a master of this. I am not quite that ambitious yet. Sigh, maybe someday I’ll be that organized!

Stephanie at Keeper of the Home has some helpful tips. She even has en ebook Plan It, Don’t Panic: A Complete Meal Planning Resource. I have not ready it so I cannot give you an opinion. However, I know Stephanie’s blog and it is always excellent so I am sure the ebook is quite helpful.

Do you menu plan? What are your favorite tips or resources?


  1. Andrea Cavanaugh says:

    I do plan weekly menus. I’m intrigued by a monthly plan, but I just don’t think it’s necessary at this point in our lives and by the time I’ve picked out meals for a week, I’m pretty much done looking at recipes! :-) But I can see how a monthly plan might be helpful some time down the road.

    If I’m doing really well, then I try to see what’s on sale at the store (generally meat, but also other things) and pick it up and then find recipes to match that for the next week (doesn’t always happen, but it’s nice when it does — I feel like I’ve got a head start on the next week). So recently chicken breasts were on sale and as a result I ended up adding Chicken Parmesan and then Chicken Feta Tabbouleh to my menu plans for the next week. In some ways, I think those imposed limits are good — they narrow down my choices for the menu.

    I have created somewhat of a “master list,” though it needs to be updated. It’s just a printed sheet with some favorite meals (because I tend to forget that we enjoyed a particular recipe and then don’t rediscover it for quite a while!). One helpful tool I have used is a notebook with page protectors where I store recipe printouts/copies of family recipes that we like to have regularly. This notebook is my go-to resource for meals I’m comfortable making and know we have enjoyed. I can sometimes overwhelm myself by choosing too many new recipes, so I try to pick more from that notebook and then just supplement with maybe one new recipe for the week (instead of 3-4 new recipes — not a good plan!). :-) I try to keep the notebook simple — just Main Dishes (roughly organized by type), Sides, Desserts, and Other (appetizers, breakfast ideas). And I try to clean it out once in a while so it doesn’t become an overwhelming collection.

    And I also do the category planning — chicken, meatless, soup, salad, pasta, etc. I find that helps a lot. I also really like doing leftovers for dinner at least one night a week.

    I love reading about how people plan their menus — thanks for the topic! :-)

    • Johanna says:

      Great suggestions! I love the notebook idea. Right now, I’m enjoying evernote for that because it allows me to save the link to the recipe and also write notes. However, since I don’t have a reliable computer a binder system like yours would probably be a great idea.

  2. Amanda Erdman says:

    I think we do all the things you suggested here! Including the subdivided meal favorites lists, Evernote and the Calendar. John figured out another way to immediately connect our phones to our computer so that I can make changes to our grocery list from home and he can immediately see those changes on his phone (he works at Target, so often gets groceries on his way home). I’ll ask him how he did it.

    We don’t have designated nights, but we do always try for one Mexican meal a week and one Italian meal, two meals with meats, and all the rest is basically vegetarian. Often we have a breakfast-for-dinner night.

    • Johanna says:

      We do breakfast for dinner, and beans and rice a lot! That is great about the phone being connected to the computer. We don’t have smart phones, but that is the nice thing about gmail and evernote.

  3. Amanda Erdman says:

    One more thing, I do also print out our list and put it on the fridge. It just helps to have a visual reminder there, and then I can make notes on it for next week, or it’s there if say my Mom comes over and needs to know the plan and whatnot. It helped a lot when we had our baby and my mom put together meals for the kids when I was in the hospital.

  4. I get on and off the meal planning wagon. But the majority of the time I’m on. The master list is definitely what has made it easiest for us. Without it, I often wonder what in the world we even eat…mom brain.

    • Johanna says:

      Me too! that is why I have to have a list. Otherwise, I’ll suddenly remember a meal that we love but haven’t eaten in months just because it has slipped my mind.

  5. I have a binder/notebook with recipes and references to recipes in my different cookbooks. It even has a page titled: “Quick and easy meals for when I can’t think.” (I may have been having a bad day when I wrote that :) I am also “on and off the wagon,” but trying to be more on than off. I use a combination of the more tangible binder, and the easily updated phone app (I use “What’s for dinner?”). With the app, I can search several sites for new recipes and save the good ones right there. A surprisingly convenient use for the phone. I can’t quite fathom a month long meal plan– wow :)

    • Johanna says:

      Okay, second person that has mentioned the binder. I think I should try it. I LOVE the “quick and easy” section—definitely need one of those. :) Usually when I can’t think, I fall back on breakfast for dinner. My kids love pancakes, and it’s a pretty easy and cheap dinner for when I don’t have a plan!
      That app sounds awesome!

  6. I do a weekly menu. I would be totally lost without it. I did make a 2-month menu, but put a bunch of new, untried things on it, so it has basically languished. I need to make the master list of what we eat. That would be more helpful. I also have a binder, but it’s just a recipe book of things I have found online. My favorite site is, but I also like Pioneer Woman Cooks (she’s so funny) and Tasty Kitchen.


  1. […] solution? Make a list.┬áIn her post on menu planning, Johanna highlights the importance of having a master list of meals. This is a great way to cut […]

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