meal planning ideas

About two years ago, my husband and I had a real argument at least once a week that started with one of these three questions:

  • What do you want for dinner?
  • Did you start dinner?
  • Why don’t we have anything to eat?

At the time we had a 4-year-old and 2-year-old, we both had full time jobs, and we each felt like we were barely keeping our head above water. No one ever felt like making decisions about food, and yet everyone needed something to eat ALL THE TIME.  Snack, breakfast, dinner- every time we turned, around it was time to find someone something to eat.

Before we had kids things were easier, for sure. My husband is happy to eat cereal for dinner every night and I can exist on peanut butter sandwiches and salsa.  And if we wanted “real” food, well, we just went out.

Once we had kids, though, things changed.

  • We had to be “role models” and eat vegetables at dinner.
  • Eating at restaurants with little kids is about as much fun as taking a monkey to the Met.
  • Kids are EXPENSIVE. Daycare for 2 kids cost us more money than our rent!  We simply couldn’t afford to get restaurant food all the time.

When our story begins we had realized that we needed to start cooking and eating “real” meals at home, but all that really meant was that we argued all the time about what to eat and who would cook it.  It wasn’t great.

As you may know, one of the pillars of the Powerful Peony change method is to take small actions as soon, and as often, as possible.  The story that follows is an example of how a series of tiny tests led to a complete reversal of fortunes.

The little experiments that I’m about to describe completely solved our problem. We never argue about meals, we always have the food we need, and we’ve saved a lot of money.

Step 1: Identify the worst corner of your problem

For us, the worst corner of the problem, by far, was dinner.  We were really tired by the end of the day and had no bandwidth left to make decisions. We needed to remove any and all mystery about what we were having and who was making it.

Step 2: Make a simple plan

We decided that on Saturday we would sit down with cook books and make a plan for every night for the upcoming week:

  • What are we having?
  • Who is cooking it?
  • What do we need from the store?

We wrote the dinner plan, assigned a chef, and wrote the cookbook page number into our calendar.

Calendar image
We’ve used this one for years!

This simple solution was REVOLUTIONARY for our family. We stopped arguing about what to have and the chef was mentally prepared to cook dinner.  There were some unexpected benefits, as well- it was decided that whoever wasn’t cooking would play with the kids somewhere that was NOT the kitchen.  This means that the chef gets some peace and quiet and the non-chef gets to engage with the kids. Win-win.

There were some problems, too, don’t get me wrong.  It took us a few weeks to find a way to regularly take out the frozen meat that we would need, and there were a few times where we had to eat something that no one was in the mood for… but overall, this first experiment was a big victory.

Step 3: What else can you solve with the same solution?

The dinner plan was working out so well that we decided to make a similar list for the kids lunches and snacks.  They even got their own little rows on the calendar.

I can’t even properly express how much better my mornings have been since we made this plan! Not only are there no decisions to make (which are no easier at 6am, then 6pm, I can tell you) but pre-grocery shopping planning means that we actually have the fruit cups and pirate’s booty we need!

Step 4: What else sucks about this? Let’s fix it.

By this time, we were feeling pretty boss.  We knew what we were having for lunch and dinner and we generally had what needed on hand. Things were tons better.  But then- one day, this happened:

Me, whining to my husband: “I really don’t want to go to the grocery store. It’s so stressful!”

To my surprise, he whole-heartedly agreed!  “I know! The kids are running all over, we’re constantly going backwards because we forgot something back in produce, and because we’re so distracted we end up with things we don’t need and forget things we do need.”

So, we sat down and made a plan.  He made a grocery store list in excel that was organized in the same order as the layout of our grocery store.  He pre-populated it with items we often buy, and made special entries for things we get at Trader Joes, rather than our usual grocery store.  Then he attached it to the actual meal planning boxes, so we can plan on one page, then cut off the grocery store list* and take it with us.  A brilliant innovation!

*this was a tweak.  We just took the whole thing with us for about 2 weeks… and lost the meal plan every time.  Then we cut it off, and all was well!

A portion of the grocery store planner. Want the whole thing? Click the image.

That list has made the whole grocery shopping endeavor so much less complicated.

  • Because the grocery store list is organized in the same order of the grocery store itself we don’t have to double back.
  • Having a very complete list saves us money because if it’s not on the list we’re not allowed to get it. And the kids know this, so they don’t even ask! In fact, my daughter chastised me the other day “Mommy, that’s not on the LIST!”
  • Because we’ve checked on everything before we leave the house, we don’t end up with 16 apples (because we forgot that we got 8 of them last week and then didn’t eat them) and this keeps us from throwing away science experiment produce that has gone bad.

Want to see the whole planner? Click here.

Step 5: Tiny tweaks

Once you find something that works for you, don’t be afraid to tweak it!  You can add your own prompts anywhere you want to be reminded of your food-related goals, whether nutritional or budgetary. Then try it out- if it doesn’t work, you just put it back to how it was!

Here are some tweaks that we’ve introduced:

  • I was trying to eat more vegetables, so you’ll see a “veggies:” prompt in my lunch box.
  • We’ve been trying so, so hard to save money.  One thing that worked really well was to plan dinners in a particular order. You’ll see on the meal planner some directions in the dinner box that reminds me to start thinking about things we have that are frozen (pasta sauce, chicken broth for noodle soup, etc) and then choose the two cheap dinners– tacos, hot dogs, slow cooker chilli, Make Your Own Pizza (MYOP), etc– and THEN we are allowed to think about more exciting things.
    Saving money by being cheap!

    This has saved us a TON of money, taking our grocery budget down by 20%.

A gift for you: Free Meal Planner!

I share this story in my workshops all the time and people keep asking me for the grocery store planner.  Then, last week, one of my readers asked me if I had any suggestions for meal planning, saying: “My meal planning is a disaster and it’s affecting my morale.” And, obviously, I felt her pain deep in my heart.

So here it is, yours for the taking!

But please, please, take the time to make it your own!  Re-order the grocery list so it matches your own store; add your own commonly bought items (Be honest- if you buy Oreos and Pop Tarts every week, stick them on there! I did!), and add your own prompts to meet your budgetary or nutritional goals. And then, come back and tell me how it went!!

About the author

Dr. Amanda Crowell is a cognitive psychologist and business coach who helps accidental entrepreneurs get more clients and have a bigger impact. Amanda's TEDx talk has received almost a million views and has been featured on TED's Ideas blog and Ted Shorts. Her ideas have also been featured on NPR, Al Jazeera, The Wall Street Journal, Quartz, and Thrive Global.