Learn how to meal plan for your family with these easy steps you can put into practice today. If you’re a beginner of you’ve struggled with family meal planning in the past, these simple tips and free printable can help!
Meal planning is one of those things that we all agree would make make life easier, but for a lot of us, it just seems too complicated. At least it used to feel that way to me.
Years ago, I would hear my friends talk about meal planning, and how easy it was, and just imagine that it was something for super organized, structured lives. And my life just seemed way too busy for it to ever work.
But when my older kids started school and the sporting events and extra curricular activities started to fill up our days, I really felt the need to plan out my family’s meals, just to keep us from eating frozen pizza a couple times a week!
Over the years I’ve made a lot of attempts to meal plan and come up with a method that is easy and flexible enough to stick to even when you have a really busy schedule.
Have you snagged my free printable house cleaning charts yet?
These tips are meant for anyone who is totally new to meal planning, or has tried to meal plan in the past and just could make it stick. Make sure you read each tip before getting started.
And don’t forget to grab my free meal planning calendar or my entire meal plan e-book!
As someone who never thought they could stick to a meal plan long-term, if I can do this, anyone can!
This post contains affiliate links, which means I make a small commission at no extra cost to you. Get my full disclosure here.
How To meal plan for a family: The benefits
Probably the number one reason most people want to meal plan is to better manage their time. Maybe you have a hard time getting dinner made for your family on time because you don’t actually think about what you’re going to make until 5pm.
Having a meal plan, you know in advance what you’re making for dinner every night each week so you can get meat out to thaw the night before, have all of the ingredients on hand, get started making it earlier in the day…no more scrambling to throw together last minute meals!
Knowing what you’re going to make for dinner all week, can help you stick to your food budget and really be a big money saver for a number of reasons:
- you buy only the ingredients you actually need for the recipes you plan to make
- you can shop in advance without having to make as many trips to the store for items you forgot
- avoid eating out on a whim as often
- you eat less “convenience meals” that cost more than from scratch dinners
a healthier lifestyle
Making a meal plan, it’s easier to eat well since you can choose healthy meals that might require more prep or more fresh ingredients.
It’s easier to avoid premade, processed foods when you’re not crunched for time with last minute dinner plans. And knowing what you plan to make each day, you can have all of the ingredients for from scratch meals ahead of time.
why you might have struggled with meal planning in the past
If you’ve tried meal planning but felt like it was too hard to stick to or complicated to lay out all your meals in advance, you might have experienced some of these common meal planning fails:
Meal planning is really as simple or as complicated as you make it. You could make meals on repeat each week, make casseroles, large dinners that last for several meals…
In the beginning, make sure you aren’t overthinking our meal plan. Keep it basic.
attempting too much
You don’t need to be serving up 4 course meals, especially if you’re in a busy phase of life. Something as simple as jarred spaghetti sauce, noodles and a veggie is just fine.
If you aren’t organized about it, you are most likely going to fail at meal planning. Let’s face it, when you’re raising a family, your memory isn’t what it used to be.
Writing your meal plan down in a clear and detailed way makes all the difference in whether your not you sink or swim. Using a meal planning chart could be exactly what you need!
not being flexible
Meal planning for a family, things are going to come up that throw a wrench in even the most well laid out plans. Being flexible enough to move meals around if needed is essential.
I’ll explain more about how to make a flexible meal plan later on.
not thinking ahead
Meal planning is more than just assigning a meal to each day of the week. You really do need to think about your family’s day to day schedule.
Do your kids play sports? Do you have long doctor’s appointments coming up? Visiting family? PTA meetings? Make sure you plan out easy meals or “leftover days” for days you know it’ll be harder to get a time consuming dinner made.
how to meal plan for a family: step by step
1. Make a list of your family’s favorite recipes
The first step to making a meal plan is to make a master list of all of your family’s favorite meals. Look through your recipes, ask your kids for ideas, think of all the meals you make again and again.
I like to categorize each meal into separate lists by type to make it more simple to incorporate them into my meal plan.
2. decide how often you want to repeat recipes
How often do you want your meal plan to repeat itself? Do you want a whole month of different dinner ideas, or are you ok with repeating dinners every other week?
Maybe your week night meals can repeat more often, and the weekend dinners are more special and unique. It’s totally up to you!
3. Use a calendar to plan out your month of meals
The easiest way to meal plan is to fill in a blank calendar with your dinner plans for the month. Don’t just use the calendar you’re already using to track birthdays and events. That will get to crowded and make your meal plan harder to keep up with.
Fill in each date on the calendar with a dinner idea from the “family favorites list” you made out in step 1.
Remember to reserve at least 1 day a week to eat up leftovers.
4. make out your grocery Shopping list
Next, sit down and go through your meal plan, recipe by recipe and write down every ingredient you need to make every dinner you plan to make in the next week.
That might sound like a lot of work, but most of your recipes will probably call for similar ingredients or pantry staples. So the list will be shorter than you might be imagining.
If you go grocery shopping less often, you’ll need to make sure you’re making an ingredient list for as many meals as you need to make between shopping trips.
5. go grocery shopping for the upcoming week
Add the ingredients list to your regular shopping list and hit up the stores!
Tip: Categorizing your shopping list by item type is a game changer. You’ll save so much time and even money) during shopping trips.
Categorized shopping lists are included in the printable guide to Family Meal Planning Made Easy at the end of this post!
How To meal planning for a family: Tips
1. meal prep
The number 1 tip I have for making family meal planning easier, is to meal prep a little every single day!
Now, meal prep is different from making your daily meals. Meal prepping is to make something extra for another day.
Making freezer meals, a big batch of muffins to freeze, frozen pizza dough, overnight oats for breakfasts throughout the week…
An easy way to make time for meal prep, is to make extra of something you’re already making for dinner that day. Or double your entire dinner to make a freezer meal to pull out on an extra busy night.
An example would be making a triple batch of spaghetti sauce when you’re already making spaghetti for dinner that night so that you can freeze the extra for later.
2. don’t overthink it
Don’t get carried away when you plan out your meals for the week or month. Stick to tried and true recipes you feel comfortable making.
Casseroles and one pot slow cooker dinners totally count! Your family dinners don’t have to be any fancier just because you’re meal planning now.
3. make themed meal nights
One of the ways I finally made my meal plan “stick” was to come up with themed dinners for each day of the week.
Here’s an example of what a themed dinner meal plan looks like:
Sundays: something grilled
Mondays: something with beef in it
Thursdays: something with chicken in it
Saturdays: try some new recipes out!
4. make a pantry staples list
Making a list of pantry staples to keep with your grocery list is really helpful in making sure you always have those commonly used ingredients on hand at all times.
Whenever you’re going shopping, just take the list and check each item to make sure you have plenty of it left in your pantry.
My complete, 10 page meal planning guide comes with a sample pantry staples list, as well as a blank one you can fill out yourself!
5. Take stock of what is in your pantry
When you’re choosing meals to make for the week, take a quick look through your cupboards and fridge to see if there’s anything that needs to be used up or anything that you don’t plan to buy again.
So if I find a packet of say, sloppy joe seasoning, and I don’t plan to ever buy that again. I’ll make sloppy joes one last time to use it up so it’s not just sitting in my cupboards for the rest of my life.
6. make it flexible
Evenings almost never go as planned when you’re raising kids so flexibility is essential when you’re making a meal plan for your family.
Having it in your head that these meals aren’t necessarily set in stone for the day you wrote them down gives you the freedom to make changes in your meal plan if something unforeseen comes up.
7. leftover night
In my family’s meal plan, Wednesdays are leftover nights. This gives me a day off from making dinner, and also keeps the leftovers from building up and building up.
8. involve your family members
When you’re deciding what meals to add to your meal plan, get your whole family involved! Ask the kids what meals they’d like to eat in the coming week. Or even what meals they never want to see on that meal plan, ever again!
If you have older children, let them make dinner some nights! It’s a great way for you to teach them necessary cooking skills and a good opportunity to bond with your teens.
9. use a printable meal planner
And of course, having a printable meal plan calendar is super helpful!
If you like using this free meal planner, check out my 10 page complete meal planner!
10. don’t give up if you don’t stick with it 100%
Nobody sticks to their meal plan 100% of the time. Nobody.
Give yourself grace to stray from the plan sometimes, especially when you’re still getting the hang of meal planning.
The fact that you want to make it work for your family and you’re giving it your best effort, you will see the benefits no matter how strict you are about following your plan!
FAQ about how to meal plan for a family
What is meal planning, and why is it important for a family?
Meal planning is a system of deciding what you will be making for dinner a week to a month in advance.
Meal planning can save money, time and make it easier for your family to eat healthful and nutritious meals.
What are some budget-friendly meal planning tips?
To save money feeding your family, try implementing some of these budget-friendly meal planning ideas:
- buy in bulk
- eat leftovers for dinner once in awhile
- incorporate inexpensive filler ingredients like beans, potatoes and rice
- plan meals that share common ingredients to reduce waste
- plan meals around ingredients that are in season
How can I accommodate different dietary needs within my family?
Plan meals that can easily be customized or adapted for various dietary preferences and restrictions. For example, offer a variety of protein sources or substitute ingredients as needed.
What tools can help with meal planning?
Here are some organizational tools that make meal planning more easy:
Here’s a list of kitchen tools that make meal planning easier:
- instant pot or pressure cooker for quick food prep
- crock pot for meals you can prep early and walk away from until dinner time
- aluminum casserole pans and lids for freezer meals
- freezer safe deli containers for soups and sauces
How do I make sure my meals are balanced and nutritious?
Incorporating more food groups into your meals will make them more balanced and nutritious. Each meal should contain a healthy protein, vegetables and fruits as well as whole grains.
What’s the best way to create a grocery list for meal planning?
Organizing your shopping list by category or food type will help you to be more thorough when you make out the list and save time in the store.
How can I save time with meal prep?
Here are some time saving hacks to make meal planning for your family as easy as possible:
- batch-cook and freeze meals
- use slow cookers or instant pots
- prep ingredients (like chopping vegetables) in advance
- make it a habit to think ahead and food prep in some way every single day
easy family meals to prep ahead:
Looking to try some of my favorite healthy meal ideas for your family meal plan?
- Banana Baked Oatmeal
- Chocolate Overnight Oats
- Pumpkin Baked Oatmeal
- Instant Pot Yogurt
- Apple Pie Baked Oatmeal
Let me know what your favorite meal planning tip is and what you have struggled most with in the past.
And if you enjoy using this simple, free printable, check out my complete 10+ page meal planner!
Pin these steps to try later. Tag @athomeontheprairie on Instagram to share what you’ve made with us!