Meal Planning Tips for the Non-Chef, Non-Meal Planner

To me, cooking is–meh–just OK. I don’t love it; I don’t hate it. I am certainly no chef, but there are a handful of go-to meals that I enjoy cooking. I am a Type A planner and list-maker, however, so you would think that meal planning would be my jam. And it sort of is, but if you don’t follow through on the cooking end, the planning part becomes useless.

I came to dread the daily, “What should we have for dinner?” call with my husband. “What did you have planned?” “I don’t know. What do you want?” “I don’t care, I just want something.” “Well, give me some ideas.” “It doesn’t matter.” “That doesn’t help.” And so on, and so on. And–annoyingly–the people in my house want to eat something every. single. day.

I have tried meal planning over the years. If I look back, I am usually all gung-ho in January with new recipes, Pinterest boards, big plans, and renewed resolve to make it happen. And then comes February, and it’s all over; we’re winging it again and back to the daily phone calls.

This year has been different, though. When school started back up last fall, I started meal planning again. We were doing online grocery shopping, so it seemed like a good time to get organized. With the exception of December, I have had a pretty solid meal plan for our evening meal each night. (An aside: Do you call it “dinner” or “supper”? We’re in the supper camp…)

On Sundays, I plan the upcoming week’s meals AND place our grocery order for Monday pick-up. That allows me to get specific ingredients, and, perhaps more importantly, makes me actually commit to a plan for that week.

Meal Planning Tips

Here are some of the things that have helped me get back on the meal planning bandwagon and stick with it!

Keep it simple & have a good rotation of easy meals

While I occasionally like to make things that are a bit more elaborate, that is not my norm. I make pretty simple dishes, often with ingredients on hand. Yes, I try a new “fancy” recipe now and then, but for the most part, I do basic dishes like spaghetti, chicken and noodles, pork chops, tacos, chicken breasts, etc.

Don’t be afraid of leftovers

I actually *plan* for leftovers! Like, the word “leftovers” actually goes on my meal plan! I know about how much we eat of the dishes I make, so about once a week I intentionally put leftovers on the menu. Scroll down to see an example of one of my monthly meal calendars. I just use a Microsoft Word calendar template, and it works like a charm!

Cook smart!

If I’m going to put the effort into cooking, I’m going to get the most bang for my buck! When I make a casserole or soup or something else I can easily double (or triple!), I make another pan and stick it in the freezer. (Pro tip: You can get 8×8 or 9×13 foil pans for about 50 cents each at Walmart. Put your freezer half in one of these, move it to a glass baking dish while still frozen to defrost, then bake. That way you don’t have all your nice baking dishes hanging out in the freezer!)

If I’m browning hamburger, I make twice as much and freeze half for an easy head-start on chili, spaghetti, lasagna, tacos, etc. (I always brown it with dried minced onions and garlic which works for any of these things!) I keep track of what I have in the freezer and note on my meal calendar both when I plan to cook double and when I plan to use something from the freezer.

Get family input

This is the real world, so it’s hard to find something everyone in the family will like every day. But do get their input. Maybe each family member gets to choose one meal a week. Maybe there are meals you can modify to make everyone happy (e.g., have both alfredo and red sauce for a pasta night). So you don’t turn yourself into a short-order cook, you can implement an “eat what I cook or fix your own sandwich” type of rule. You know what will work for your family. Just know that it’s going to be easiest if you have buy-in from your family!

Don’t forget the sides

I still get tripped up on this sometimes, but don’t forget to think about side dishes. (And I use that term pretty loosely!) We have a pretty steady rotation of green beans, rice, corn, broccoli with cheese, Rice-a-Roni, canned pineapple, and garlic bread or garlic cheese bread, depending on the main dish. I also have a few go-to fruit or veggie salads I like to make, time permitting. It’s not a bad idea if you have a few stand-by sides on hand so you don’t end up with just a main dish.

Have quick back-ups on hand

Life still happens in our house, and we have last-minute schedule changes or unexpected things that come up. Or I may have been known to *ahem* forget to thaw something from the freezer! So I like to have some quick back-ups on hand. This may be a frozen pizza, grilled ham and cheese sandwiches, or frozen burritos (although those things go on my regular menu rotation, too). Having an Instant Pot has really upped my game in this respect. I can put some frozen chicken breasts, water, and a packet of dry ranch or Italian seasoning in the IP, make a quick batch of rice in the microwave, and heat up some broccoli or green beans. Easy, healthy, and ready quickly!

Be flexible

More than anything (and what this Type A gal struggles with!), you need to be flexible. I mentioned schedule changes and forgetfulness, but other things happen, too. For example, I’ve been short an ingredient when making something (which is why it’s key to get all your ingredients out first!) or we’ve needed to use some produce before it goes bad. Also, I look at our family activity calendar when I’m making meal plans. If my son has an after school appointment or I have an evening meeting, I take that into account when planning that day’s meal.

Overall, being more intentional about meal planning has not only helped us avoid the daily 4:30 call about what to eat, but we’ve saved money both by eating at home and by better using the food we have on hand. Hopefully some of these tips will help you up your meal planning game, too!

What strategies have been useful for you when meal planning?


Sara C
Sara is a NW Iowa native who moved across the state to become a Hawkeye! After her time at the U of I, she left for optometry school and residency before coming home to Iowa to start her “adult” life in Coralville. She was in clinical practice for 5 years before trying her hand at the research side of eye care, working on clinical trials in the pharma/biotech industry. Sara is a wife, mom to a 5-year-old boy, and step-mom to four teenagers! Because her son was born at 25 weeks and had a lengthy NICU stay, Sara is passionate about all things related to prematurity, especially parent support in the NICU. She loves connecting with fellow NICU moms, both online and in person. Sara also enjoys spending time with friends and extended family, reading, scrapbooking, organizing, knitting, travel, keeping up with tech trends, finding new wines to enjoy, honing her photography skills, and serving on the Family Advisory Council for UI Children’s Hospital. She’s a consultant for Jamberry Nails, too, which lets her dabble in her creative side.


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