Why I Can’t Quit Meal Planning

I hate grocery shopping and preparing meals isn't my favorite. What makes it all more bearable? Meal Planning! Click through to see all the systems I have tried and what's working for me now!

For those of you that have been around here for a while (and especially since the “very beginning,”) you likely know that I am somewhat of a meal planning junkie. In fact, one of my very first posts to ever go viral was my Magnetic Menu Board; and despite very little work on my part, it is still one of my most popular and shared posts almost 6 years later! While I still love and believe in that monthly meal-planning system, somewhere along the way it stopped working for me. I’m a pretty big believer in adjusting our organization methods to meet our needs (or else we won’t stick to them!), so I simplified our system about 2 years ago and have pretty much stuck to it ever since. Fast forward to this year and, for some reason, I have been in a meal planning, shopping and prepping rut! Planning out our family meals, and even more so, shopping for them, has become one of my least favorite (and most procrastinated!) home responsibilities. Since that’s usually a big ol’ red flag that I need to change something, I set about to re-vamp our system yet again. Today, I thought I’d chat a bit about all the various things I’ve tried over the last year to get our meal planning system back on track and share why, despite all my failed attempts, I still can’t quit meal planning (even if I really want to!)!

The Magnetic Menu Board System

I hate grocery shopping and preparing meals isn't my favorite. What makes it all more bearable? Meal Planning! Click through to see all the systems I have tried and what's working for me now!

As I mentioned above, my first attempt to reign in our meal planning was a project I called the Magnetic Menu Board. Henry was a brand new baby, and I was not enjoying my weekly meal planning sessions at all, so I decided to adopt a one-month-at-a-time system. At the start of each month, I sat down for a few hours and hashed out all of our outside-the-home meal commitments, new recipes I wanted to try, and other events, and then filled in the rest of the calendar with a well-balanced variety of meals and sides. The monthly planning session did require quite a bit of time, but I really liked that I only had to sit down and plan once a month. And while I continued to shop for perishable items weekly, having the entire month planned out allowed me to take advantage of sales and bulk offers on certain shelf/freezer-safe items. I actually stuck to this monthly system for several years. There were certainly times that I moved meals around or strayed from the calendar entirely. But overall, the single month system worked really well…until Greg left on deployment…and then the whole system seemed too much for a single person.

Planning from a Recipe Log

When the monthly menu board became too much, I wanted an easier version of the same system. Besides planning out one month at a time, the other “trademark” of the above system was how I organized my recipes: by protein source. For some reason, this method of organizing and dispersing recipes across a week made the most sense to me (so much that I haven’t changed this particular part of my meal planning ever since!) I find these 6 categories are enough to keep things separate, distinct, and organized, but aren’t too many to keep track of or understand.

I hate grocery shopping and preparing meals isn't my favorite. What makes it all more bearable? Meal Planning! Click through to see all the systems I have tried and what's working for me now!

Instead of relying on my magnets, I transferred all my recipes to a log sheet...still organized into these 6 groups…

I hate grocery shopping and preparing meals isn't my favorite. What makes it all more bearable? Meal Planning! Click through to see all the systems I have tried and what's working for me now!

I then used my Recipe Log to plan out my meals weekly in my planner…

I hate grocery shopping and preparing meals isn't my favorite. What makes it all more bearable? Meal Planning! Click through to see all the systems I have tried and what's working for me now!

When Greg came back from deployment, I stuck to this weekly planning from my Recipe Log but displayed meals on a dry-erase board in the kitchen so he could see too.

I hate grocery shopping and preparing meals isn't my favorite. What makes it all more bearable? Meal Planning! Click through to see all the systems I have tried and what's working for me now!

I found the weekly meal plan was quicker and easier to manage (meaning I was more willing to actually do it) compared to the monthly version. However, planning one week at at time didn’t quite guarantee a strong recipe rotation, use of freezer stock, or bulk shopping the way the monthly system did. Still…it got the job done for about another 2ish years.

No System!

Then this past Spring, my willingness to meal plan came to a screeching halt. Not only was I “over” planning out our weekly meals (and shopping for them), but I was really, really tired of our usual recipes. I decided to halt all my planning and try the “just wing it” system. I eased off on following recipes (which were feeling really burdensome to pull together) and instead stuck to more of a protein + side + salad combination. Surprisingly (or perhaps, not surprisingly), this approach proved even harder and more frustrating for me. Without a list of recipes (or at the very least, loosely planned out meals), my shopping list became difficult to fill out. This caused me to spend more time and money at the grocery store just filling my cart with things I “might” use or need. More over, without a plan, pulling together evening meals became an even bigger chore. I would stand looking at the pantry and fridge and become increasingly frustrated that I couldn’t make basic meals because I was missing one thing or another. What I thought would liberate me from my meal planning boredom and frustration actually led to an even greater disdain for the entire task.

I hate grocery shopping and preparing meals isn't my favorite. What makes it all more bearable? Meal Planning! Click through to see all the systems I have tried and what's working for me now!

Meal Planning with Relish!

When we moved into our house here in California, I knew I needed to get our meal planning back on track. The “no system” I was using before, during and right after our move was increasingly making me frustrated and caused me to dread grocery shopping and meal time even more. For some reason, my previous systems felt too cumbersome to return to so I began the hunt for a fresh approach. This research lead me to the digital meal planning service: Relish! This very reasonably priced service did everything I didn’t want to do: pour through/select recipes and generate a grocery list…and I was more than ready to give something new a try!

I hate grocery shopping and preparing meals isn't my favorite. What makes it all more bearable? Meal Planning! Click through to see all the systems I have tried and what's working for me now!

Once logged on, all I had to do was drag-and-drop the meals that appealed to me into The Weekly Menu and set the serving size. I loved that it showed me which meals were crockpot-,  freezer-, and kid-friendly and that I also had the ability to browse their full recipe library (rather than being restricted to certain meals for the week). Each meal also came with a pre-designated side dish, but it was super easy to go in and change out anything that didn’t appeal to us!

Relish Online Meal Planning Program

But my absolute favorite part? Once your meal plan was done, it automatically generated a printable grocery shopping list pre-populated with all of the items needed for that week’s recipes (in the correct quantities!).

I hate grocery shopping and preparing meals isn't my favorite. What makes it all more bearable? Meal Planning! Click through to see all the systems I have tried and what's working for me now!

In just a few minutes, I was able to pick all of our recipes for the week, and print out a grocery list as well as all the corresponding recipes. Not only did this cut my meal preparation time down dramatically, but it also was super efficient when it came time to prepare the meals. The recipes, when printed, included both the main dish and all the corresponding sides on a single sheet of paper. Each night, I just had to grab the next sheet and get to work.

I hate grocery shopping and preparing meals isn't my favorite. What makes it all more bearable? Meal Planning! Click through to see all the systems I have tried and what's working for me now!

I honestly thought I had found my ultimate meal planning solution. I loved Relish’s online platform; the pre-populated grocery lists were pretty much the best thing ever; and the meals were super tasty and easy to make. It took away so much of the effort and brainpower behind meal planning and prep and really got me out of my meal planning funk. Unfortunately, it only took a few weeks for me to grow tired of this system as well. Why? Well, for one, I found that I was buying lots of random ingredients to make very specific recipes. This left me with higher-than-usual grocery bills and lots of leftover ingredients. Second, I again grew weary of making a recipe every single night and didn’t enjoy feeling like a “slave” to the system. Third, I was having a hard time working in my “usual” recipes, pantry staples, and family favorites on both the meal plan and the grocery list. I don’t like to duplicate my my efforts or use two systems to accomplish the same task, and it was taking me a lot of time and effort to adapt/merge the online system with my family-specific needs. Finally, as nice as it was to have a pre-populated grocery list, it didn’t match up with how I shop our store(s) and organize my own lists. I was constantly missing items as I was shopping because the list wasn’t organized the same way, making my trips longer and more tedious.

What I’m Doing Now

After my experience with Relish!, I was feeling a bit defeated. I was so hopeful I had found a perfect system (so much that I was planning a whole post to tell you all about it!), and was frustrated when it turned out to be too cumbersome for my needs. I waffled around a bit more with not planning at all, planning a month at a time, and even thought about digging my dry-erase board back out of the garage. While I brainstormed and worked through my options, I decided to print out a bunch of  my Weekly Planners and Grocery Lists as a “for now” solution. About 2 months later, I’m still using my printable worksheets and am LOVING the simplicity of it all.

I hate grocery shopping and preparing meals isn't my favorite. What makes it all more bearable? Meal Planning! Click through to see all the systems I have tried and what's working for me now!

I printed out a bunch of both my the weekly planner and grocery lists printables and have them clipped to the side of the fridge. I sit down every Monday morning with one of each and plan out that week’s activity and meals on the same sheet and then fill out our grocery list to match. I’ve eased off on forcing a consistent spread of protein sources and recipes and instead try to pick recipes that are easy to make, satisfying to the whole family, and work with our schedule (crockpot versus freezer versus fresh). It’s quick, it’s easy, it’s no fuss. And what’s most important: I’m sticking to it!

I hate grocery shopping and preparing meals isn't my favorite. What makes it all more bearable? Meal Planning! Click through to see all the systems I have tried and what's working for me now!

So you might be thinking to yourself, “Gosh Megan, if you’ve struggled so much, maybe meal planning isn’t your thing!” But it is. If there’s anything I’ve learned about myself in the last few year of my meal planning is that I need it. If I don’t use some sort of meal plan, grocery shopping and meal preparations becomes infinitely harder; our grocery bills go up; we constantly face an empty pantry and refrigerator; and we eat out more often. I don’t LOVE meal planning, but I’ve learned that, for our family at least, it’s a necessary evil!

While my simple two-page printable system (shown above) is working pretty well, my experiences with all of these different meal planning systems have taught me a lot about what works and doesn’t work when it comes to meal planning. As such, I have identified a variety of new systems that will truly make meal planning a more efficient (and maybe even pleasant!) experience. I’ve been spending a lot of time over the last few months brainstorming and creating a whole series of printables to take the hassle out of meal planning, grocery shopping and meal preparation! I am so excited about what I’m putting together and think you guys will love it too. I’m not quite ready to spill all the beans just yet, but here is a sneak peek!

I hate grocery shopping and preparing meals isn't my favorite. What makes it all more bearable? Meal Planning! Click through to see all the systems I have tried and what's working for me now!

These printables and SOOO much more will be ready in the New Year. To make sure you stay up to date on what and when everything is available (and to get more sneak peeks and freebies!), make sure you are subscribed to my mailing list. If you aren’t already, you can sign up below:

I’ve learned a lot over the years, but I’d love to hear from you! Is there anything specific you need from a meal planning system?  What do you currently use? What kind of system works best for you? What is something you really need from a meal planning system that you can’t find elsewhere? You guys always have the best ideas, so be sure to share in the comments!

This week is Thanksgiving in the United States (so Happy Thanksgiving to all my American readers!), but I will be back here on Thursday nonetheless with the post that was supposed to hit last week (when I took a very much needed break!). I’ll see you then!

Megan Signature

I did not receive compensation for this blog post; however Relish! did provide three free months of their meal planning service for me to try. Please remember that I only work with brands and products I fully support and that make sense for my home, my family, and this blog. All opinions are 100% my own!

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16 Responses to Why I Can’t Quit Meal Planning

  1. Megan- I recently designed a shopping list with a column next to the ingredients/items to buy for a corresponding recipe #. The recipe is listed and numbered in another table at the bottom of the page. I was always listing recipe ingredients but when I got to the store I forgot which recipe the ingredient was for. This way I have a reference.

    • I love that suggestion, Chris! Thank you so much! I am in the process of designing a variety of printable grocery lists, and a few of them include the recipes for the week right on the sheet! Great minds think alike 😉

      Have a great day!
      Megan

    • Hey Ali!

      Oh gosh – I wish I could be of more help. Henry is pretty picky too. I have mostly gotten out of the habit of making him his own dinner, but full-on recipes are still a bit much for him. I usually have to parse out a lot of the ingredients for him before I assemble everything. For example, if I am making a stir-fry with sauce, I’ll pull out the grilled chicken/beef and rice once they are all cooked and put it on his plate separate before I add the rest of the veggies and sauce for my husband and I. He’s always loved tacos and fajitas and gobbles those up without issue. We’ve finally gotten him to eat Spaghetti and MB, which is a new victory! More often than not, he gets the protein from whatever we’re having (steak, hamburger, grilled chicken, etc) and then will have bread, rice or noodles on the side (usually whatever we’re having too just not all combined).

      Hope that helps and if you have any picky eater suggestions, I’m all ears too!
      Megan

  2. Hi Megan;
    Sorry it’s been so long, but I’ve been following every post, just not having enough time to comment!. One issue I don’t see mentioned here too much is shopping sales. Prices are very expensive here, and while I don’t have time to follow all of the stores and ads, I do definitely watch one stores Friday $5 specials, and try to incorporate them. They frequently put the deli ham on special (reg price is 10.99/lb), and I will ask for some very thick slices, then cut/chop into sizes I can use for other recipes, such as a ham, potato and cheese casserole, or ham omelet when having “breakfast for dinner”, or for adding to soup. It’s also given me a chance to try some new items I wouldn’t pay full price for, such as individually frozen cod fillets (jury’s still out on that one). An interesting bonus with this store is that they will write rain checks for these specials, and then I can purchase the item at my convenience within the next three months.

    Keep up the wonderful work – it’s great to see your family back in one of my old stomping grounds. Hope you get over to Coronado, the Hotel Del always looks beautiful for Christmas. Aloha!

    • Hi Tenney!

      I’m always happy to hear from you! Admittedly, I am not the best sale/coupon shopper. I tend to stick to my list and my set shopping day and get whatever I need at the time. But you raise a really great idea – focusing in on specific sales/days. Couponing and sale shopping overwhelms me a bit, but that is something I could see myself incorporating!

      Hope you have a great Thanksgiving!
      Megan

  3. I have noticed when I meal plan my week goes so much better. I use your weekly planner printable. My favorite is the little spots you have on the bottom so I can plan out what I’m making. I have gotten in the habit of keeping each week so I know what I planned last week, and what not to plan. I’m thinking for next year I’ll print out a bunch of those and make me a little planner. I so appreciate you taking time to put the printables together. I love the weekly planner one!

    • Hey Kristie!

      I actually remembered you saying that you kept that weekly printable in your purse – I think that’s what prompted me to print a bunch out to use, lol! I am so glad to hear you still like them and are using them! I love knowing I’ve helped others out with my posts!

      Hope you have a great Thanksgiving!
      Megan

  4. With many PCS moves over the last 15 years, my biggest frustration was adjusting to a new commissary layout and making my weekly grocery list so I wasn’t back-tracking trying to find everything. Now, before we move, I look up the commissary layout/map and print it out and make up a grocery list template based on the aisles. For the first few trips, I print the template on one side and the commissary map on the other to help me navigate a quick (and painless) shopping trip. I also love that the commissary maps also have an alphabetical version of common items. Finally, after realizing all commissaries are not the same, I make a list of hard-to-find items and where to find them at area grocery stores. I also try to make notes on the recipe where to find the ingredient so I can better plan my weekly shopping trip(s) – and also decide if it’s worth the effort to make an extra trip for one ingredient.
    My other big game-changer in recipe planning is making notes on my recipes. Instead of using cookbooks, I used a binder system like you – but, my recipes were becoming overwhelming in number. So, I started writing notes on each recipe after I made them – “super easy weeknight meal,” “really great for a cold night,” “love the kick of spice – easy to adjust” – and, most importantly, tossed the not-so-successful ones. It’s really helpful planning instead of relying on a small photo or ingredient list for inspiration.
    Finally, I keep my old weekly planners in the binder for a quick fix – when I don’t have time or feel like sitting down to plan, I pick one that sounds yummy and use it. I have a collection starting in 2009, so I have a lot to pick from from each week. I also add notes on the planners – “$100 grocery bill,” “great for summer/seasonal produce,” etc.

    • Oh my gosh, JK!

      You have SOOO many awesome tips in here that I would have never thought of! Making a map of your new commissary is brilliant. I can’t tell you how exasperated I get shopping the commissary for at least the first 6 months of a new duty station, lol!

      The other thing I’m loving and will totally be doing from now on is keeping the previous meal plans in my binder! So when I don’t feel like putting in all the effort, grabbing a previous meal plan will help accomplish the task without all the extra work!

      Thanks for sharing all these great ideas!
      Megan

  5. Meal planning a necessary evil for me too! Lately I’ve been pretty lazy about it and just spend 10 minutes writing down dinners on the calendar before I write my weekly grocery list. Cooking is my absolute least favorite chore, so having some plan helps me actually get it done instead of spending a fortune on take-out.

    • Hey Megan! Sounds like we are on the exact same page on this one, lol 😉

      I’ve gotten super lazy too but it’s making meal time worse. I’m trying to get better about staying on top of it so our family doesn’t get behind. Someone mentioned the idea of holding on to previous menu plans and using them on weeks you don’t have time/energy to plan – I thought that was such a brilliant idea! Might have to give that a try!

      Hope you have a great Thanksgiving!
      Megan

  6. I’m not a fan of cooking so I do a simple menu plan.
    I do a 2 week menu, then repeat it. Then start over the next month. I do a lot of double cooking during the first 2 wks, which allows me to be lazier the other 2. I’ll make 2 quiche and freeze one. I’ll fry double theground beef and season half with taco spice, then freeze some.

    It works great for us but your mileage may vary!

    • Hey Debby!

      Thanks for chiming in! I think it’s all about finding a system that works and makes meal time more manageable, don’t you think??? A two-week rotation is such a great idea! I also try to double up things that freeze well so we can have them again later in the month. I need to be better about incorporating at least one of those kinds of a meal each week so the freezer actually gets stocked up 😉

      Hope you have a great Thanksgiving!
      Megan

  7. I used to meal plan once a month, too. It really doesn’t take all that much more effort that planning by the week. I, too, organize my recipes by protien sources…and I’ve been growing our vegetarian collection in the past couple of years as meat is getting quite expensive, though I do my best to buy it only when it is on sale.

    I have been using one sheet for both my recipes (at the top) and my grocery list (at the bottom, broken into categories like: frozen, staples, produce, bread/bakery, meat, dairy, household, other. It is very helpful when I’m shopping. The only downside is that when I send my husband to do the grocery shopping, he forgets to give me the sheet back! I do it on the computer, though, so it is easy to run off another one.

    I am in the midst of trying to incorporate batch cooking into our routine. I’ve tried various methods, so far, this week I think I’ll just make double some of the recipes ( maybe 3?) and call it a day. I do need some way of keeping track of these meals in the freezer, though.

  8. Alana, there’s an app called Cloud-Freezer. It allows you to categorise items into groups such as ‘fridge’, ‘freezer’ and ‘pantry’ I think, then put quantity, size, use by date etc. to them as well. I downloaded it a few months ago and I think it’s a pretty good idea, but needs some time (which I haven’t found yet) to list everything you’ve got at home. Hope that helps. XX

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