By Victoria Osborn, Contributing Writer
Meal planning… two words that can bring both a sense of dread and relief, depending the way you look at it.
On one hand when you take the time to sit down and think through your meals for the coming week or month, you’re creating a plan of action which will save you time in the long run. BUT the actual process of meal planning can be overwhelming, even laborious, especially when you have a growing family, food allergies or sensitivities, picky or very opinionated eaters, or a limited budget. The list could go on with all of the reasons that make meal planning feel like so much work.
When I married my husband I never really had a season where I had to cook for myself. I went from my mother’s house, where she prepared meals every night, to the college dorm cafeteria, back to my mother’s house after I graduated, to finally moving into my husband’s house after we married.
So to say that I was overwhelmed when it came to meal planning from the beginning would be understatement! I was a fish out of water!
Fast forward to nine years later, I now have a system to make meal planning super easy and, almost, seamless.
I plan around set dinner themes that don’t change. I have a seasonal, two week template in place that helps me take the guesswork out of what to cook allowing me to rotate in tried and true family favorites but also helps me to think a little outside of the box to try new recipes or get creative.
Currently I am using my Fall & Winter dinner themes template but I also have a Spring & Summer template set up too.
Setting Up a Dinner Theme Template for Meal Planning
I prefer to use a two week model that way there is plenty of room to incorporate a variety of themes.
What do I mean by themes? Mainly they are just guidelines that help me to plan.
For example, my current Fall & Winter dinner theme looks like this:
- Sunday – Pizza Night (we love making homemade pizza)
- Monday – Mexican
- Tuesday – Slow Cooker Meal
- Wednesday – Chili or Soup
- Thursday – Fish
- Friday – New Recipe
- Saturday – Family Favorite or Dinner Out
- Sunday – Slow Cooker Meal
- Monday – Chili or Soup
- Tuesday – Italian
- Wednesday – BBQ
- Thursday – Asian
- Friday – Family Favorite
- Saturday – New Recipe or Dinner Out
As you can see, we have a variety of themes so I can plan meals that I know my family will love.
Italian, Mexican and BBQ meals are always sure hits, and I never go a week without using my slow cooker (some weeks I use it more than once). Family favorites are meals that each family member gets to pick. For example this week it’s my husband’s choice so he can request any of his favorite meals. I might choose one week and my kids rotate in too.
I also give myself room to try new recipes… you know all of those many hundreds of recipes I have pinned! Instead of just pinning them and letting them stay hidden in the vaults of Pinterest never to be seen or heard from again, I am conscious to go through there periodically and make myself try them out.
Evaluate Your Family’s Preferences
So how do you set up dinner themes that will work for you?
For the first step is thinking through your family’s preferences and schedule. If Monday nights are busy nights with sports practice or church events, you probably don’t want to plan for a brand new recipe with multiple steps. Those are the nights you want to use your slow cooker!
Or maybe your family absolutely loves a variation of pasta night and wants some sort of Italian dish every week? Sit down with your calendar handy along with a list of your family’s favorite meals and look for any themes.
Set Up Your Own Dinner Theme Template
Once you have a feel for the type of meals your family prefers, create a simple weekly or bi-weekly template that you can refer to as you plan your meals.
As I mentioned above, I have two dinner theme templates that I refer to by seasons, a Fall & Winter themes template where I plan more hearty and comforting foods like casseroles, soups and chili. I also have a separate Spring & Summer themes template where I cook more lighter meals using an abundance of fresh produce.
You can download the blank template below to create your own dinner theme template. Simply fill in the title with the appropriate season or month (many prefer to rotate their dinner themes each month) then write in the weekly themes in the calendar.
There is also room below to fill in your family’s Go-To Dinner Ideas. These are the favorites that you find yourself cooking frequently and can easily fit into your approrpiate themes.
Allow for Flexibility
One of the great things about meal planning is it gives you a plan but there will always be days and weeks where either things don’t go accordingly or unexpected plans shake things up.
Give yourself grace if a change is needed that doesn’t fit into your assigned themes.
For example a few weeks ago was my son’s birthday party on a Friday night. It’s always easy to serve pizza for a quick dinner even though we usually reserve pizza for every other Sunday night. A once in awhile change to your meal planning template isn’t going to throw everything off.
A Complete Meal Planner
Along with my dinner themes I use, I also have a complete meal planner on my site that is free (with an email subscription) that includes monthly and weekly calendars, shopping lists, freezer and pantry inventories, as well as special holiday planning for meals. You can check it out here but do be sure to download the free dinner theme template above for you to start using right now!
Have you used dinner themes to make your meal planning simpler?