(Relatively) Low Effort Meal Planning

Since my photography business is on hold for...awhile, I decided I'm going to offer up a series of blog posts on how I'm managing everyday life and its current challenges. First up: meal planning.

Don't run away! I swear I'll make this as low effort and painless as possible. I started meal planning over ten years ago, as a way to both avoid the store and reduce the number of fights conversations my husband and I were having about "what should we have for dinner tonight?" I am not someone who designs a menu around what's on sale or incorporating ingredients into multiple nights.

My goal with meal planning: get (mostly) everyone (mostly) fed.

Meal planning isn't for everyone, and I understand that. Even *I* don't like it when I'm in the process of doing it. But I am thankful for it on Wednesday at 4:30 pm when I realize I've given no thought to what dinner might be. The purpose of this post isn't to get everyone on board with meal planning forever, but rather to get through social distancing and working/schooling from home with maybe a tiny bit less stress.

General Method for Meal Planning

You aren't required to assign meals to certain days. A few of the items I make either require prep ahead of time (pizza), or getting meat out of the freezer, so I like to have the days somewhat nailed down. But if putting a meal with a day is just too much, start with a list of 5-6 meals per week that you can pull out as needed.

Look at the week ahead. Do you have any evening or commitments? If so, mark down that you're busy.

Start with those days. Are there really easy meals that most of your family enjoys? Ours tend to be tacos, spaghetti, breakfast for dinner. Start with only the main course.

What other recipes have you or your family felt like lately? Start adding those in. Swedish meatballs, chicken pot pie, and grilled steak are on constant rotation in our house.

If you can't come up with ideas, start going through categories of food: pasta dishes, rice dishes, pizza, grilled items, salad, vegetarian, etc.

Add in Leftover and Take Out nights. Unless you're someone who eats leftovers for lunch, the amount of leftovers in your fridge is going to increase at a very rapid rate. Towards the end of the week, add in a night to work through the leftovers. If your kids aren't fans of the leftovers, it can be a grilled cheese or PB&J night for them.

If you feel comfortable/can afford to eat out, think about adding in a curbside/delivery/take out order. You could also think about subscribing to a meal delivery service for a couple nights a week.

If you still have days left to fill in, you can either go back to the basics or try something new! If I'm feeling like I *want* to cook (which isn't very often right now), this is when I'll flip through my cookbooks/go through Pinterest to find a main or side dish I've been wanting to try.

If you want to make your list more efficient, think about the ingredients that go into each item. Is there a vegetable heavy night? If so, you may want to move that closer to grocery day. Steak and potatoes? You can leave that for 6-7 days out. Is there a meal that requires a lot of prep? Maybe save that one for the weekend.

Finish by adding in sides. I keep it simple here, unless there's a side I really want to try. For example, my side dish might just say "vegetable" - I can make that decision at the store. Same goes for meat, especially if I planning on grilling. Rather than come up with a specific cut, I put an item on my list that says "grill meat" and I can find something that's in-stock or on sale.

Start your grocery list! Congrats! You made it through the worst part of meal planning - the 15-30 minutes needed to make the list of meals.

Tips for Meal Planning

Now is not the time to win awards. I've seen this posted about everything, from personal growth to schooling at home. The same goes for meal planning. Even if you're making pasta three nights a week, the goal right now is to stay sane and get everyone fed, not win awards for the diversity of your meals. Throw in some extra comfort meals!

Have a standard schedule. Completely over it? Make every Tuesday Taco Night. Every Friday is Pizza Night. Every Wednesday is Pasta Night.

If planning for kids, think about how to deconstruct meals. I make meals that my husband and I want to eat. If I know the kids won't like it due to spice level, "squishiness", or whatever other odd rule is in place that day, I try to have a deconstructed version of the meal ready to go. For example, on stir fry night, I will give them plates of raw veg and plain rice, along with the cooked protein from the stir fry. But make sure to adhere to the rule above! If all else fails, they'll be happy with a PB&J.

You may need to make a second trip for fruit and vegetables. Try and stock up on all the non-perishables and dairy for the week in your first trip, but know that it may be easier to do a second, quick grocery run for fruits and vegetables later in the week. It's really hard for my family to keep enough fruit on hand without it going bad after 4-5 days. I did purchase a couple Rubbermaid FreshWorks containers for lettuce and berries, and have found that they give us an extra 2-3 days on berries, and an extra week on lettuce.

Think about subscribing to meal delivery services. This falls under the category of personal comfort level as far as getting fresh food delivered to your home. We don't currently subscribe to any services, mostly to save money, but they can be a lifesaver for families struggling to work from home while doing childcare. I've heard really good information coming out of Hello Fresh, and they would be first on our list of places to try.

Swap as needed. It was a long, crappy, emotional day? Maybe move take out night to tonight, and try a homecooked meal when you have more energy.


These are some of my favorite sources for meals.

Smitten Kitchen. Smitten Kitchen is where I found our One True Pizza Dough and the World's Easiest Pasta Sauce.

Mel's Kitchen Cafe. The Swedish Meatballs are on weekly rotation here, and the Best Recipe Archives are always a hit. She has a ton of InstaPot and slow cooker recipes too.

Cook's Illustrated and America's Test Kitchen. While I don't subscribe to the website, I've gotten an incredible amount of use out of their cookbooks and magazines. Pro tip: find the cookbook you want on Amazon, but look for the used version. The kids version of the ATK website is currently free!!

I'm not affiliated with any of the businesses or sites linked in this post. I genuinely enjoy their content!

Hopefully this was helpful! If you have any questions, feel free to use the comment section or drop me a message through my contact page. I'm not sure what else I'll be including in this series, but I do know that it feels good to be putting practical information out in the world.

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