7 Family Meal Planning Tips for the Best Dinners Ever

What’s for dinner? These three little words have paralyzed me on more than one occasion. But these family meal planning tips will help you streamline the meal process so you have solid strategies to prepare delicious foods everyone will eat.

What Is Meal Planning? 

But the concept of meal planning can mean different things to different people. Some people who are busy during the week will take a few hours over the weekend to do some batch cooking, where they get all their meals planned for the following week. Others will compile a detailed calendar of different meals for the next week or month but won’t necessarily prepare them in advance. 

There’s not really a right or wrong when it comes to meal planning for your family, but even if you do the bare minimum and just stick to a preset meal schedule, you can enjoy some of the many meal planning benefits. 

family meal planning
You can get the whole family involved with meal preparation.

Is Meal Planning Worth It?

Usually, family meal planning can help simplify life and save money, but that might not necessarily be the case. Here are a few questions to ask to see if you might want to rethink your meal planning strategy. And if you answer “no” to all of these questions, keep up the good work!

  1. Does making dinner every night cause unwanted stress to your day? 
  2. Do you frequently buy perishable foods like fresh herbs, fresh fruits, or meats that expire before you can eat them? 
  3. Do you feel like you spend too much time making and cleaning up after meals?
  4. Do you eat the same food for several days in a row because you can’t think of anything else to make? 
  5. Could planning meals be easier for you than it is right now?

If you’ve answered “yes” to most of these, these mealtime tips could be a game-changer for your family. They’ll help you save time, money, and quite possibly, your sanity. Also, if you’re an aspirational grocery buyer like me, who has a plethora of Brussels sprouts and kale that often goes bad before I eat it, meal planning is a fantastic way to reduce food waste and get your whole family to try new foods. Here are some family meal planning tips to get you started on your meal planning journey.

What Do You Need for Family Meal Planning? 

While there are several meal planning styles, there are a few basic steps to get you started. 

1. Start With a Basic List of Your Family’s Favorite Foods.

What do you all like to eat? Which ingredients do you enjoy? Use these ingredients as your building blocks.

2. Take Stock of What You Have.

If you have a well-stocked pantry or freezer full of frozen veggies, you might want to start with those. Be sure to get rid of any items in your pantry or fridge that you’ll never eat. Knowing which pantry item is running low or what other foods you might need for this week’s menu can help you save money and time in the long run. It’s also a great way to ensure you have a good supply of common ingredients you can use for several different meals.

3. Get Input From the Family, and Make Choices Accordingly.

If my son were in charge of dinner every night, we’d probably have chicken tenders every day. This diet wouldn’t go over too well with the whole family, but because I know chicken is his favorite, we’ll incorporate it into our menu each week. Sometimes we’ll eat crispy chicken, other times teriyaki chicken, but this strategy helps keep everybody happy.

family meal planning tips
Family dinners are a great time to connect.

4. Set Your Menu.

Some people like to plan out the week; others prefer taking things a month at a time. Choose your strategy based on what works best for your family.

5. Make a Shopping List.

Compile a grocery list of any items you might need for the next week’s meals. This could go beyond basics like ground beef for burgers or chicken thighs and brown rice for fajita night. Make sure you have all the storage containers to keep track of your food items.

6. Prepare Your Food. 

Some families like to use a batch cooking meal prepping strategy where they’ll get everything ready for the week or month ahead of time. This can require cooking your meats and then freezing them for future use. Others like to have a weekly plan but will make meals the day of. This approach to meal planning could involve making sure the meat you want to cook that night is out of the freezer, so it’s ready to go when you cook. Regardless of your approach, the important thing is that you don’t have to waste mental energy thinking about what to make– the guesswork is already done.

7. Bonus: Organize your pantry.

You don’t have to have an organized pantry for family meal planning, but a well-ordered pantry and refrigerator make it a lot easier to find what you’re looking for at dinner time. You can obviously take care of family meal planning in a chaotic kitchen, but a clean, organized space can help.

how do you organize a pantry?
An organized pantry helps with family meal planning.

Family Meal Planning Tips and Strategies

Planning meals might look different for every family, so don’t feel like you have to copy your sister’s grocery list or steal her batch cooking recipes. These simple tips for family meal planning for beginners will help bring some order into the dinnertime chaos.

1. Simplify Your Options.

Most balanced meals consist of proteins, carbs, fats, and vegetables. So make a list of foods your family generally likes or wants to try, and put them in an appropriate column. Then, choose one food from each column. So you might want to have steak, potatoes with butter, and a salad for a classic Sunday dinner. Or shredded chicken, taco shells,  guacamole, fresh lettuce, and tomatoes for taco night. (You can see our template below to get you started.)

2. Spice Up Your Life.

Once you’ve got the basics, add a little flair with your spices and seasonings. Some items like the taco ingredients lend themselves to Mexican spices. But you could swap out the guacamole and taco shells for feta cheese, pita bread, and Zatar or Mediterranean spices and have a completely different meal. The next night you can serve the guacamole and taco shells with ground beef for another option. 

*Editor’s Note: If you have some picky eaters, you might want to set aside some plain meat or veggies before adding the seasoning.

5. Menu Mix and Match.

If you’re more comfortable sticking with the basics, try out some combinations from this chart. Note: Not all of these flavor combinations will taste good together, but it’s fun to mix things up if your menu ideas start to get a bit stale.

easy meal planning ideas
Enjoy mixing dinner staples for new and interesting meals.

3. Plan Theme Nights.

Planning theme nights can make your dinners more fun. If you’re feeling inspired, go beyond the food and add decorations or plan dinner music based on your theme.

Here are a few of our favorite themed dinner options:

  • Around the World Themes: Italian, French, Chinese, Indian, or Thai. Pick a different country each day and plan your menu around it. 
  • American Themes: Take the same idea and apply it to American cuisine. So you could have shrimp and grits for Louisiana, Hawaiian poke bowls, North Carolina barbecue, Maine lobster rolls, or Chicago deep-dish pizzas. 
  • Seasonal Themes: Celebrate your favorite holidays with favorite seasonal themes all year long.
  • Breakfast for Dinner: This simple idea sometimes feels like a “get out of jail free” card for me. It’s so easy to make, and the kids love it. 

4. Don’t Be Afraid to Adjust Your Meal Planning Schedule.

Especially during these crazy times of inflation, pay attention to what’s on sale at the grocery store the next time you shop for food. If you notice that pork’s on sale, but chicken is especially expensive, you might want to try some pork chops instead of roast chicken this week.

6. Make a Family Meal Planning Template.

Need more meal planning tips for beginners? Here’s a blank slate to help you customize a menu based on your meal planning needs.

family meal planning tips for next meal
Weekly Meal Planner

7. Keep a Backup Dinner Idea for the Nights When You Need It

Most families have 2-3 go-to meals that everyone will eat, and it’s a great idea to have one or two of them as an option when you might not have the energy to try something new.

Meal Planning Ideas for Families: Quick and Easy Dinners

We’ve got lots of easy dinner ideas here, but if even those seem too much to make during crowded times of life, try these dinner ideas.

Family Meal Planning Tips to Ace Your Next Dinner

Family mealtime can be some of the most valuable hours you spend each week, and studies show how family dinners have substantial benefits on children’s mental and physical health. Family meal planning can go a long way toward reducing mealtime stress and setting everybody up for success. While you have to prep ahead, it can save you time and money in the long run. But even more importantly, family meal planning can be an excellent way to foster family connections.

What are your best meal family meal planning tips? Let us know on social #getfamilyapp!

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