Learn How to Menu Plan

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Dear Home Ec 101,

I need to get our food budget under control, and we spend a ton of money eating out. It’s starting to cause fights.

I can’t cook.

I can’t plan, and even if I could, I would just quit.

Can you teach me how to menu plan? Can you teach me to follow a menu plan and stick to it?

I know this would help a lot, I just don’t know where even to start when I’ve screwed it up so many times before.

Hopeless in Hopeswell

Dear Hopeless,

We have all been there. Please don’t be too hard on yourself.

Why did menu planning fail before?

First, you need to figure out why menu planning has failed you in the past. By the way, did you happen to notice that I said that the plan failed you?

Was the plan too sudden of a shift from drive-through windows to four-course dinners?  A couch potato doesn’t turn into a marathon runner overnight. It takes time, effort, and a plan.

Eating at home every night sounds simple, but it’s really a lot of changes in habits and practices. To meet your goal, you’re going to have to break it down into something more manageable.

At my day job, when I am training my colleagues, I often ask them to find out our client’s end goal rather than what they are trying to do in that moment.

If I understand your email correctly, you have two achievable goals:

  1. Stop eating out.
  2. Save money spent on food.

Learning how to menu plan will help you accomplish both goals.

Achievable goals are SMART


So to set your first SMART goal, you could plan to eat at home for at least five nights for each of the next two weeks. Your stretch goal(s) could be to have leftovers on night six and then some kind of treat for night seven.

Do you see how this is specific? Eat five meals at home.

Measurable? Did you eat five meals or not?

Attainable? Yes, as we go over planning your first weekly menu, you are not going to plan crazy complicated meals this week. Simple is the name of the game.

Relevant? Yes

Time-bound? One week.

Learn how to plan your very first weekly menu

The first two weeks of your menu planning endeavor are spent getting used to eating at your table.

Yes, that thing that is buried underneath the bills and overdue library books.

Ready for your first mission? You are going to set yourself up for success. To get started with meal planning, you will:

  • Clear the table
  • Get a piece of paper
  • Get a writing utensil of your choice
  • Sit down for ten minutes.
  • List the days of the week and any activities that may make meal preparation difficult.  

Here is our printable menu planner to make life easier. (It’s one sheet)

What do I mean by activities that make meal preparation difficult? Do you have kids? They make meal preparation difficult by default when they are really little. The more you can involve them, the earlier, the easier things get later, BUT that early step required a herculean effort on my part. (I also don’t think they hand out parenting awards for martyrdom. If you don’t have the patience to deal with a toddler and dinner preparation, hand the toddler a safe activity, yes, even screen time, and do what you need to do with your sanity intact.

Do you have activities that interfere with dinner timing: class, work, meeting friends for a drink, church, etc.? Those things can affect when meals are served and how much time you have time to prepare them.

Plan accordingly.

In our case, our family deals with joint custody based on a rotating shift, most of the kids are home all of the time now, but our difficult nights still vary from week to week. 

Allow one night for leftovers. We call it CORN: Clean Out Refrigerator Night, and one night that is a complete break from cooking. As you gain experience with learning how to plan your menu, the night off could be a meal pulled from the freezer, but for now, a frozen pizza or lasagna, sandwiches, or even bougied up Lunchables, aka charcuterie fits the bill. Even regular Lunchables work and are cheaper per person than the drive-through.

Look at that, meeting both goals. How SMART.

Remember, these first two weeks are about getting used to being in the kitchen and dining room. 

Try not to overthink things like nutrition. Remember that perfect is the enemy of the good, and that food is food.

Of course, if you have allergies or intolerances, you have to keep those in mind, but right now, when you are just learning how to menu plan, you will need to give yourself some grace and not try to be perfect in every way. You aren’t Mary Poppins; you don’t have support staff. You are just learning a new skill. To get into the habit of cooking at home and sticking to a menu plan, you will need to start with the basics and keep the plan as simple as possible at first.

Don’t worry if the nutrition isn’t perfectly balanced. Eat an apple for a snack, if it makes you feel better.

Remember, this is just your first step.

What are some ideas for your first menu plan?

If you can read (and you are right now, so quit playing), you can handle making spaghetti with jarred sauce. 

Not enough? You could bake a couple of frozen chicken patties, sprinkle on some parmesan cheese, and you have a cheater’s chicken Parmesan.

Pre-made salads can be jazzed up with hard-boiled eggs, canned tuna, or grilled chicken and shrimp. 

Ground beef and brown gravy (yes, use a jar or packet if you want) can be served over egg noodles or instant mashed potatoes with corn or green beans. 

Baked potatoes with chili or omelets (or why frustrate yourself, just scramble those bad boys) with fruit.

Grilled cheese with a can of tomato soup.

Are these fancy meals? No, but no one needs fancy to survive.

No, but they are edible and won’t break the bank as you find your kitchen legs.  You only need ten to get you through the first two weeks of your first menu plans. I have faith that you can do this.

List your plan by day, and remember that it is simply a guide to help you avoid the drive-through. If you change your mind and opt to eat something else from the fridge or pantry, that is still a success. Just shuffle your plan accordingly. Nothing has been lost. You did not fail.

Each night before bed, glance at your menu and make sure nothing needs to be done the night before.  There have been many days where I have kicked myself for forgetting to get meat from the freezer or place beans to soak. Sure, the world doesn’t stop, but it’s just one more thing to deal with.

Bonus Tip: If you have any dinner successes, write the name on the front of an index card. On the back, list key ingredients you will probably need from the grocery store and where you put the recipe. Then, punch a hole in the corner of the card and add it to a loose-leaf binder ring (also called a book ring).

Our dinner idea stash

Check out the entire meal planning series:

How to Menu Plan

The Home-Ec 101 Introduction to menu planning

Have a domestic question? Please send it to helpme@home-ec101.com.

PS If you know someone who would find this handy, there is an option to email this post directly to them. Thank you for sharing the love.

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16 thoughts on “Learn How to Menu Plan”

  1. I make the weekly menu on Wednesday. Why Wednesday? Because the grocery ads in my area run from Tuesday to Wednesday. That way if there are good buys I can work them into the menu.

    I also have a column for any holidays, special events and outings that may happen during the week. So if we have a day trip scheduled for one day then I’ll know that I should fire up the slow cooker or make that leftover night.

  2. I used to hate cooking–HATE HATE HATE it.

    I only began to enjoy it recently — believe it or not, it took menu planning to get me to this point.

    In the meantime, honey, I have a hundred different “cheater” meals. Stuff that take few ingredients, few skills, few dollars and a few minutes to throw together.

    NO, they aren’t the healthiest meals in the book, but they are hot, filling and will save you money. Like Heather said, they’ll help to get you to the next step.

    Campbells Soups has some quick recipes on their site. Two of my kids favorites came from the back of soup cans years ago.

    Oh, and Crock pots are lifesavers. These recipes use only 3 ingredients!

    If I can turn into a decent cook, so can you. Good luck!

  3. You have given very sound advice to this reader, Heather. I think the suggestion about “getting used to eating at your own table” is probably a good place to begin. At first, it won’t matter as much what is going on the table….just so the meal is being eaten at home. And not all convenience foods are bad. Bagged salads, (as you said) are a great example. A chef’s salad can come together in no time with a few goodies thrown in. Start slow…give yourself time….prepare for a certain amount of failure. I prefer whole meats, like a chicken or roast beef, as a starting place for many meals. You can live off the leftovers for a good 2-3 days.

    I never mentioned it before, but thanks for your e-mail back at the end of April!! What a nice surprise!

    I really enjoy checking this blog….lots of good ideas. :o)

    many thanks, & good luck to Hopeless in Hopeswell,

  4. I used to be awesome about cooking, but since my daughter was diagnosed with food allergies I’ve lost my interest in meal planning altogether.

    She can’t eat dairy, nuts, most fruit, eggs and she’s -just- outgrown her wheat allergy (that one was hard). So what do I make? When I love veggies, hubby is a carnivore and picky toddler has food allergies! Oh, and we have a new baby.

    Where’s my phone? I’m hungry…

  5. May I add my 2 cents to this awesome advice by Heather – learn to relish raw foods. A whole apple, a handful of cashew and raisins easily tide me over a “need to eat NOW!” phase and give me a chance to fix something in my kitchen instead of driving down that Burger King. there are so many things that can be enjoyed raw or with under a minute of preparation. Chop up a cucumber, peel a banana, microwave a corn-cob, crack open some peanuts, microwave a bowl of sprouts and sprinkle some lemon zest…the possibilities are endless and so is variety.

  6. @Jasi I sent you an email. I completely understand your situation. We only have an intolerance and I’m the carnivore, but I get it. Hang in there.

    @Brenda and everyone else, sound advice, thank you for adding to the post. 🙂

  7. I agree with the raw foods suggestion, many times I reach for the convenient when I’m hungry and I force myself to stop and open the produce drawer instead. A crisp apple with a smear of cheese is much more satisfying, and healthy, than the handful of chips!

  8. Since most of us agree it’s not the cooking we hate, it’s the planning, why do it weekly. I set down with my family and planned out 21 meals that they all like. (Some repeat twice because I have a picky eater-hubby).

    Then I set down in Outlook and I planned out the first week of meals so that they made the best use of our shopping. I created an all day task, for each day and made it that meal. Then I had it repeat every three weeks. I did each of my 21 meals that way. Now all I have to do is when I read my email each morning, is look and see what is on the menu that week. I then lay out the meat to thaw.

    I also got a cheap to do list software off the internet. I made a to do for each meal, making a list of ingredients for that meal. When I go to the store, I check each meal that we are eating for that week and print the to do for that meal. That gives me the grocery list. I then mark off things I still have on hand, and I am off to the store.

    The only problem is you have to follow your plan. And be flexible. Last night we were supposed to have Grilled Chicken Salad. BUt hubby and I haven’t had anytime to ourselves for a while, so we had dinner out, the kids had whatever looked good to them, (pizza).
    If the kids have band practice, then I will move a dinner or two around. Because the meals rotate every three weeks, and they always practice on Tuesdays, our Tuesday meals are easy to fix, don’t require us all to eat together, and can be eaten on the road. (i. e. hotdogs.)
    And like Ivy said, don’t plan 4 course meals. Just because we are planning ahead, doesn’t mean we are different people. Plan meals your family will eat. Don’t have chicken on the plan three nights in a row. While that may be fun the first time, when it repeats three weeks later, your family is going to balk. I promise.
    Our meals are things like pork chops, steak tips, chicken wings, hamburgers, hotdogs, throw in a salad, or a few veggies, and you’ve got a meal that can be fixed in 20 minutes or less, and the planning is done for you.
    If you get sick of a meal, or find you like something else, it’s easy to change the task out and have a new rotation set up in seconds.

  9. Dear Helpless: Get your husband in the kitchen. It’s fun to cook together. Take a cooking class with your guy. Make it a hobby. Look at making dinner as a nice way to chill out after the day. Good conversation, time to communicate, a glass of wine….. Hope he’ll cooperate. I’ll get into a meditative zen state chopping vegetables, setting the table, doing the whole thing. Not so good on the cleaning up, though. Ask the meat department in your favorite supermarket when they mark down their meat. My market cuts the price early in the morning, and late afternoon. If I’m there, sometimes I can score steaks for half price. Careful of the dates, though.

    • The mark down meat idea is one I have been using for the last 20 years. My mother taught me this trick. As soon as I buy the mark down meat, I freeze it and I can serve top dollar meats for half the cost or less weeks and months later. Really helps my food dollar go further in this time of economic decline.

  10. Rapunzel and Learning: Great idea on the raw food.

    I actually took mine out of the crisper (where I had a tendency to forget about it) and stuck “munchies” in a glass bowl on the top shelf. That way it’s in my face every time I open the fridge.

    Actually helped my food budget since things didn’t get forgotten about nearly as often.

  11. I would like to get into menu planning again. We got away from it for a few reasons: 1) Hubby travels alot. 2) Karate and theater practices – so meals I have are “too heavy” or there isn’t enough time to make & eat before it’s time to go. 3) Fussy eaters – I’m talking all three of us here. There are nights, even if I buy something everyone likes, that we (or someone) just doesn’t want that particular thing. HELP!

  12. I’d love to see the advice you sent to the new mom whose toddler has food allergies because I am in the EXACT same boat here!!

    Thanks 🙂

  13. I absolutely have to agree with this, although I currently don’t have a real dining room or table at the moment. In undergraduate, meal planning was a lifesaver for my roommates and I. As a graduate student, I just can’t express how useful and wonderful having a menu for a week is. @Learning the ropes, those are fantastic ideas. Raw foods are absolutely perfect for killing those hunger pains and even for actual meals.

  14. Hello! I recently found your website when looking for neighborhood or community center home economics classes. I recently graduated college and have been living with my parents while I continue to look for work. While being away for school and not being preoccupied with the next assignment or test, I found that I haven’t developed skills like cooking for myself or financing. I want to get a job, pay off my school debt, and get a house of my own, but what will I do if I can’t manage myself? Is what I started to think, so I’m happy I found your website! It’ll be a slow ramp up, but I’ll be following the articles on Cooking, Cleaning, Laundry, Basic home repair, Emergency Preparedness, and Life Skills as provided on the home page! Thank you for making this website 🙂 Cheers!


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