The Ultimate Guide to Meal Planning (for Families)

How to meal plan and organize a real food shopping list around your meal plan

Meal planning makes a big difference when it comes to sticking to a dietary change. It’s easy to cook a quick convenience food or head to a restaurant when everyone is hungry and nothing is defrosted, but a little planning can prevent this!

If you have kids, you can let them be involved in the planning as well, which will help them get excited about the healthy foods you are cooking and be more willing to try them. Our family uses this program for easy meal planning but you can easily create your owns system using my method below.

The Benefits of Meal Planning

Meal planning is a vital part of eating a healthy diet and there are many benefits of meal planning. Even if you’re a healthy eating veteran, I’d highly encourage you to take half an hour a week to meal plan healthy meals for your family that week.

There are many benefits of meal planning, including:

1. Save Money

There are many times that money has been tight for us and I’ve had to stretch our food budget. One year, my husband lost/had to quit his job a month before the birth of our third child. That birth ended up being an (expensive) emergency c-section to save my life and my son’s life. Our son also had a stay in the NICU, which we found out costs more per day that we’d ever paid for a vacation. Needless to say, money was tight for a while as we worked to find a job and pay off bills. At the same time, I was recovering from surgery and blood loss and eventually, he was eating solid foods but we both needed to focus on really nourishing foods. Even during this time, our family ate a real food diet that we managed to afford by very careful budgeting and meal planning.

2. Eat Real Food

Consuming a nutrient dense real-food diet is vital for so many aspects of health, but it also takes some advance planning. Meal Planning lets you decide before you ever go to the grocery store what healthy meals your family is going to eat during a given week so that you can only purchase healthy foods and know that you will use them. If you’re switching to a healthier diet, meal planning is especially important to help you stick to it while you learn the ropes.

3. Don’t Waste Food

One of my biggest pet peeves is finding a container of food in the back of the fridge and realizing that the contents resemble a science experiment more than they do food. We focus on a healthy real-food lifestyle and part of that is being a good steward of the resources we have. With meal planning, I know how we are going to use all of the food for that week before I even go to the store to buy it. I have a weekly game plan that even takes leftovers in to account so that food is rarely wasted.

4. Less Stress

7 Easy Meal Planning Basic TipsStress is bad. I realized that a major source of stress for me was realizing at 4pm that the kids would be hungry soon and that nothing was planned or defrosted for dinner. Just the general “what am I going to cook tonight” that was always in the back of my mind was taking up mental energy that I needed to use in better ways (like parenting five children). Just as with anything, having a written plan takes the uncertainty and stress out of the situation and I was surprised how much it reduced my stress just to have a plan and know what and when I would be cooking.

See my weekly template below that I use for stress-free meal planning.

5. Save Time

Another great benefit of meal planning is the time it saves. Planning ahead allows me to cook things in bulk and freeze for a future meal or make extra of a protein to use in a quick meal later in the week. In the winter, I cook a lot of slow-cooker meals and pre-make many of these to keep in the freezer so that I can just stick one in the crock-pot and go in the morning on busy days.

6. Add Variety

It may seem that meal planning is rigid and boring, but statistically, families are more likely to eat the same meals over and over if they don’t meal plan. Meal planning allows you to ensure variety and avoid falling in to the trap of eating the same five meals over and over.

How to Meal Plan: 7 Tips for Foolproof Meal Planning

Meal planning isn’t hard once you have a system in place, but there are a few things to keep in mind when starting out that will make the make the process easier for you and your family:

1. Have A Daily Template

Rather than starting from scratch each week, I have a template of the general types of foods I cook each day of the week and the number of times I use each main food. In other words each week I cook:

  • 1-2 stir frys
  • 1 salad
  • 1 slow cooker or soup meal
  • 1 fish/seafood meal
  • 1-2 meals from a different cuisine from around the world
  • 1-2 prepare ahead oven meals

I try to use no meat more than twice so in a given week I might have 2 beef meals, 2 chicken meals, 1 fish meal and 2 pork or egg meals.

2. Focus On Core Recipes

As you find recipes your family enjoys, make them core recipes that get re-used every few weeks. Try to build up about 20 of these and you won’t ever be bored with your meals. Each week, use these core meals for 5 of your dinners and try something new for 2 dinners. If you get really motivated, build these 20 core meals for each season using seasonal produce and rotate with the seasons. This will also save money on produce.

3. Stretch Your Protein

Protein is typically the most expensive part of the meal so if you can use less expensive cuts of meat and stretch them, it might allow you to buy organic and grass-fed rather than conventional meats. This is another reason I love stir frys and casseroles- you can add more veggies and stretch the meat more than if you were just serving baked chicken. The slow cooker is also a great way to make tougher, cheaper cuts of meat more tender.

4. Mix it up with Spices

A basic easy recipe (like Chicken Squash Stir Fry or Pakistani Kima) can taste completely different just by changing the spices. Add some cumin and chili powder and you have a Mexican flavor, or some Curry for an Indian type flavor. Basil, Thyme, Oregano and Garlic give an Italian Flavor while Chinese 5 Spice gives an Asian Flair. I try to buy all my herbs in bulk since it saves money and I can batch cook and create my other DIY remedies that use them.

5. Travel the World In Your Kitchen

One of my dreams is to travel the world and try the different cuisines in each country. Since that isn’t possible right now, I try to create the same experience in my kitchen. With a little research and some healthy adjustments, you can create recipes from around the world. You might be surprised to find that your kids enjoy the flavors of Indian or Thai food or that you have a passion for French flavors.

6. Don’t Be A Short Order Cook

Want to raise a picky eater? Let your child eat whatever he/she wants and cater to his or her food preferences. Want to not raise a picky eater? Expose your children to healthy and diverse foods from a young age and don’t make any specific foods for them. My one year old gladly eats curries, cooked vegetables, liver and avocado because she’s never had crackers, toast, chicken nuggets or juice.

Not only is this more nutritious for kids, but it will really be a benefit to them in the long run. Don’t believe me? Check out the book Deep Nutrition.

We have two rules in our house:

  1. Kids are required to try one bite of everything cooked before they can have more of any one food (I only put one bite on their plate at first)
  2. If they are truly not hungry they are not required to eat BUT then can NOT complain about the food or interrupt the meal with a bad attitude.

Certainly, there are times when my kids are not happy with these rules or the foods they are served, but as with other areas of parenting, sometimes the best option for children is not always the one they enjoy most!

7. Eat Leftovers for Breakfast and Lunch

It can be tough to break the cereal and sandwich mindset but an easy, time-saving way to eat healthy is to make extra of foods and serve them again for breakfast and lunch. Most foods (except soups) can also be added to an omelet for breakfast or put with a salad for lunch. Cold meatza or barbecue actually makes a delicious breakfast or lunch.

Another easy trick is to make salads or store leftovers in mason jars (liquid ingredients at the bottom for salads, then meat/toppings, then lettuce) and store in the fridge. Then, the meal can be re-heated easily or dumped onto a plate to serve.

How to Organize Your Shopping List for Efficiency

I now use an online service and app to meal plan and generate my shopping lists. This lets me grocery shop in much less time and simplifies my week. If you aren’t using a meal planning service (though I’d highly recommend it), you can accomplish the same thing by organizing your shopping list before you get to the store.

For meal planning on my own- I started by creating a rotating list of meal plans that use seasonal produce and corresponding shopping lists that are organized by the part of the store the food is in.

To simplify the process, I write my recipes on 3×5 index cards with the ingredients on the back. For each ingredient, I write the amount needed per person for that single recipe (not total!)

This allows me to easy adjust the recipe up or down if we are having company or if some of the kids won’t be home for a certain meal. In other words, the back of one of my recipe cards might have:

  • 1 chicken breast
  • 1/4 pound broccoli, fresh
  • 1 sweet potato
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 1/2 tsp basil
  • etc

To make the shopping list for the week, I just multiply the per-person number by the number I’m serving for that meal and add to the list.

How to Create Seasonal Meal Plans

Seasonal eating is another simple way to save money and increase the nutrient content of food. Foods contain the highest amount of nutrients when they are in season. Local seasonal vegetables contain more nutrients because they are allowed to grow until ripe and aren’t shipped halfway around the world before we eat them.

Seasonal meal planning is as simple as focusing on cabbage when it is in season and under a dollar a pound or choosing more zucchini and cucumbers in the summer when they are widely available. For easy reference, here are seasonal meal plans by season that you can use.

A sample meal plan for spring

Spring Meal Plan Recipes

Monday: Stuffed Chicken Breast with loaded cauliflower and salad

Tuesday: Tacos served on Romaine Lettuce with salsa or chopped tomatoes, onions (optional) and sour cream, cheese and hot sauce (all optional). – Can also just eat as a big taco salad

Wednesday: Honey Glazed Pork Chops with stir fry veggies (Just add honey to recipe)

Thursday: Butter Roasted Chicken and Vegetables

Friday: Bacon Rolled Salmon Patties with Asparagus and Squash

Saturday: Sausage Stuffed Winter Squash With Salad

Sunday: Leftover Chicken Vegetable Soup (Or other leftovers of choice)

Spring Meal Plan Shopping List

Note: This list and the recipes above are for 2-3 people. If you are a family of 4, 5, or 9, multiply accordingly. For us (family of 5) I double the list below, but it is easier to double than subtract. We also usually try to make enough to have leftovers to throw in omelets for breakfast or eat for lunch.

Meat

  • 1 whole chicken (preferably organic and free range)
  • 2 pounds of ground beef or turkey
  • 2 large pork chops (or more if you want leftovers)
  • 2 large chicken breasts (or more if you want leftovers)
  • 1 pound of salmon, fresh, frozen or canned- make sure wild caught
  • 1-2 lbs sausage of choice (I use chicken apple nitrite free or sun dried tomato)-make sure no added grains or fillers)
  • 2 packages nitrite free bacon
  • 1 small package nitrite free ham

Produce

  • 1 large bag carrots
  • 3 lb bag onions
  • Celery- at least one head
  • Lettuce- enough for lunches and 5 dinners
  • Spinach-enough for lunches and 5 dinners
  • 1 bag of apples
  • 1 head of garlic (optional)
  • 4 medium sweet potatoes
  • 2 or more avocados
  • 1 or more tomatoes
  • 2 or more bell peppers (any color)
  • 2 or more cucumbers
  • a bunch of fresh cilantro (optional)
  • 2 large bunch of asparagus
  • 2 medium size zucchini or yellow squash
  • 1-2 acorn squash
  • Brussels Sprouts (or can get frozen)
  • Package of mushrooms (optional but good)

Frozen

  • 2 lbs frozen cauliflower
  • 2 lbs mixed veggies of choice (make sure no corn or beans!)
  • 1 big bag Brussels Sprouts (or get fresh)

Dairy

  • 1 pound butter (organic is best)-or more
  • Cheese (optional)
  • Sour cream (optional)
  • 3 dozen eggs (not dairy, I know, but in the same area)
  • Parmesan or feta cheese (optional)

Other

  • Snack foods of choice
  • Ingredients for cookies (optional)- Fresh almond butter, cocoa powder, semi sweet chocolate chips, honey, vanilla, etc
  • Olive oil for salad dressings if desired

Snack Options: Nuts of choice, more eggs for deviled eggs, avocado or guacamole (highly recommend), tuna, canned wild caught salmon, almond butter, celery, apples, cream cheese, cucumbers, etc.

Other Notes

All butter in the above recipes can be replaced with coconut oil.

I don’t have specific measurements for most spices because they are better if you adjust to your own taste.

Consider making your own salad dressings– this is a fast and simple way to save money and get good servings of fat.

Summer Meal Plan

Summer Meal Plan

I’m sure summertime conjures up visions of family vacations, beach time, and poolside lounging … not meal planning and grocery shopping. But it’s undeniable that meal planning saves time and money to put toward other things.

Monday: Stuffed Bell Peppers with Guacamole

Tuesday: Simple Chicken and Vegetable Stir Fry

Wednesday: Stuffed Zucchini (a kid favorite!)

Thursday: Slow Cooker Boston Butt BBQ with Cucumber Salad

Friday: Fish Taco Salad

Saturday: Greek Meatballs with Tzatziki Sauce

Sunday: Steak Fajita Salad

I usually make a huge batch of chocolate coconut clusters (with 90% cocoa chocolate) for the kids to have for snacks on the go. We also serve watermelon, fresh fruits, and cut-up veggies and cucumbers with dip or homemade dressings for snacks.

I try to buy ingredients from local sources whenever possible, but when I can’t, I order them from trusted sources like ThriveMy full list of sources is available on this page.

Fall Meal Plan

Simple meal plan for FallI highly recommend creating a meal planning template using meals that your family loves and seasonal produce for each season, but to give you some ideas, here is one of the weeks from my Fall Meal Plan.

I’ve also shared by meal plans for Spring, Summer and Winter if you want to check those out!

Day 1: Mini Meatloaf Cupcakes ( a kid favorite at our house!)

Day 2: Easy Chicken Soup (great recipe anytime anyone is sick too)

Day 3: Simple Beef and Cabbage Stir Fry

Day 4: Pumpkin Chili

Day 5: Parsnip Shrimp Lo-Mein

Day 6: Bacon & Apple Crock Pot Chicken Recipe

Day 7: Sausage and Sweet Potato Hash

Seasonal eating- a winter meal plan

Seasonal eating has a lot of advantages. Produce that is in season is lees expensive and easier to find and it makes meal planning more simple to plan around foods that are readily available.

I make 3-month meal plans for each season so that I can rotate them each quarter and focus on seasonal foods at our farmer’s market and store.

This means that in the summer, we focus more on vegetables like zucchini and summer squash, while winter means more winter squash, sweet potatoes, root vegetables and cabbages.

Winter Meal Plan

Seasonal eating- a winter meal planFor winter, I try to balance foods that I know are easy to find this time of year with foods that I know I will have preserved or stored from the summer excess (like okra).

I also focus more on warm dishes like soups and stews in the winter meal plan, since these recipes are especially appealing in the cold winter months.

One of the weeks in our winter meal plan might look like this:

Monday: Cheesy Chicken and Broccoli Casserole

Tuesday: Cajun Gumbo Jumbalaya

Wednesday: Boeuf Bourguignon (Beef Burgundy) with salad

Thursday: Chinese Chicken and Cabbage Stir Fry

Friday: Homemade Tuna and Apple Salad with Walnuts

Saturday: Skillet Steak with Sweet Potato or Butternut Latkes and Roasted Vegetables of Choice

Sunday: Leftovers or soup made from leftovers

Winter Meal Plan Shopping List

Note: This shopping list is designed for 2-3 people so double or triple accordingly!

Meat:

  • 6-8 Chicken breasts (or more for lunch/leftovers)
  • 1 lb sausage of choice (spicy works well)
  • 1 lb frozen or fresh shrimp (optional)
  • 4 lbs beef (roast, round, steak ,etc.) get what is cheapest, but not ground beef
  • 1 lb skillet or flank steak

Produce:

  • 1 large head of cabbage
  • 3-4 bell peppers, color of choice
  • Small bag of onions
  • Lettuce and spinach (enough for salads and meals all week)
  • Tomatoes (optional)
  • Cucumber (optional)
  • Small package of mushrooms
  • Bag of carrots
  • 2-3 medium sweet potatoes or 1 large butternut squash
  • Bag of apples
  • Other fruits of choice

Frozen:

  • 2 bags frozen broccoli
  • 3 bags frozen cauliflower
  • 1 bag mixed veggies, no corn
  • 1 bag unbreaded okra

Dairy:

  • 1 pound butter (organic is best)-or more
  • 1 lb cheese (optional)
  • 3 dozen eggs (not dairy, I know, but in the same area)
  • Sour cream (optional)
  • Parmesan (optional)

Other:

  • Snack foods of choice
  • 1 can or jar diced tomatoes
  • 1 6 oz can tomato paste
  • Dill weed (optional)
  • Honey or molasses
  • 1 large or 2 small cans tuna
  • Pecans or walnuts (optional)

Want an Easier Way to Meal Plan?

I’ve partnered with Real Plans to make my meal plans easier than ever to use. You can create a custom meal plan for summer or for any season based on your family’s size and preferences. Avoiding certain foods? Real Plans can filter them out in seconds. You can also generate a shopping list based on the meals you choose and check off items on your phone while you shop.

There are well over 2000 recipes to choose from … and all are (of course) kid-tested and family-approved!

Check out Wellness Mama Meals + Real Plans here. I hope it helps you to kick back and enjoy a healthy summer knowing your meal plan is set!

Do you meal plan? What tips do you have that have helped you? Share below!

Meal planning makes a big difference in sticking to a healthy diet. These tips can help you and your family stick to it!

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