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Menu planning is a great way to simplify both your grocery shopping and meal preparation. Avoid the 5 o’clock stare down with the pantry by making a list ahead of time of the meals you’ll serve each week. 

However, despite all of the benefits of menu planning, the dirty little secret is that it can be a hard and frustrating process. Brainstorming meal ideas ahead of time isn’t necessarily easier than coming up with them on the fly, especially when you’re first starting out.

With that in mind, here are my top tips for simplifying the menu planning process, and they’re tips you can use whether you use Plan to Eat or not!

1. Keep a list of your family’s favorite meals.

When it comes to creating a weekly menu plan, half the battle is simply coming up with ideas for your menu. Chances are that you make more than five recipes, but when it’s time to sit down and create your plan, how many can you think of off the top of your head?

Save yourself the frustration of trying to come up with ideas for your menu plan by keeping a list of meals that you can choose from each week. I also  like to keep an idea file so that we can try something new along with a few of our favorites.

Admittedly, this is on of my favorite features of Plan to Eat. Not only do I have our favorite meals saved so that I can easily choose from the list, but the recipes are saved as well so that I don’t have to go searching for them when it’s time to prepare the meal.

2. Group meals according to similar ingredients.

Every week at Food for My Family, my good friend Shaina shares her weekly menu plan. One thing I really admire (besides the fact that most of her recipes use more than five ingredients, which tends to be my cut off!), is that she is thoughtful when grouping her ingredients. She says, “We look to use ingredients in different ways throughout the week so
that we’re benefiting from the ability of do-aheads and being able to
buy in bulk.”

By grouping meals that use similar ingredients, you’ll simplify your shopping list, save time preparing your meals and cut your grocery budget.

3. Create weekly or monthly cycles.

Why reinvent the wheel every week? Create weekly menus that work well together and that your family enjoys, and then repeat that menu every few weeks. Once you have 4 to 6 weekly cycles, you won’t have to do much meal planning at all.

This is another aspect of menu planning that Plan to Eat makes so simple. Save your favorite meal plans with the click of a button and then load them again on future dates with another click. You could even get a 4- to 6-week cycle saved and you’d never have to meal plan again because you could simply reload it each month, substitute any new recipes you want to try and then double check your shopping list before heading to the store.

4. Be realistic.

I recently did a podcast with Laura from I’m an Organizing Junkie, and we talked through her experience and tips for meal planning. One trap that I know I fell into when I first started menu planning was that I chose recipes that I thought I should be making rather than being realistic about what was really happening in our home.

At the time, frozen pizzas were a staple for our weekly pizza night, but who wants to write “frozen pizza” on their menu plan? However, it took a few weeks for me to realize that menu planning would never work for us if I wasn’t realistic about the meals I was really going to prepare. Sure, I needed to stretch myself and strive to serve my family healthier meals, but it’s much easier to make small incremental changes than to try to change everything overnight.

Now, my menu plan includes homemade pizza every week, and I try to make small changes to the things we’re eating each time I make a new menu. 

Do you menu plan? How do you simplify the process?

Photo by Jennifer Maiser

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