3 Truly Simple Strategies

“What’s for dinner?” That little question can throw the evening into a tailspin. It’s almost as bad as the infamous “Are we there yet?” Or maybe you’re thinking, “It’s worse!”

The surest way to a smoother, less expensive, healthier dinner time is a meal plan. Maybe you’ve tried it before, but it didn’t stick? Or you’ve wanted to, but it seems to take too much time or thought?

Today, you’re not going to get pre-done meal plans of brand-new recipes or any complicated steps. Instead, you’ll get simple strategies anyone can use to start meal planning.

  1. Begin with what you already make.

    Sit down for a few minutes and write out a list of your family’s favorite meals. Jot down every meal you’ve made in the last month. What if you end up with only a few meals? That’s okay. You still have a starting point!

    Now make a meal plan based on your list. Some moms like to do a week at a time, some two weeks, and some a month (impressive!). Have your family chip in and pick a favorite meal for each week’s plan.

    Here’s an example weekday main-course menu using this strategy:

    • Chili
    • Taco salad
    • Spaghetti with meat sauce
    • Baked chicken chimichangas
    • Honey teriyaki chicken with rice

    Once you have your meal list (free printable above), make a list of ingredients next to each meal to simplify writing your grocery list.

    This method gives you assurance that your family will like the meals you plan! That means less throwing out food and more time to find new recipes you know are winners.

  2. Use themes.

    Cookbooks, blogs, and Pinterest overflow with delicious-looking recipes. Where do you begin? Keep it simple. Choose themes for every day, then fit your meals each week to your themes.

    Have Marinara Monday, Taco Tuesday, Soup & Sandwich Wednesday, Casserole Thursday, Fish Friday, Pizza Saturday, and Crock Pot Sunday. One day could be food from the grill, another could be breakfast foods, salads, wraps, BBQ—you name it!

    Here’s an example weekday main-course menu using this strategy:

    • Baked ziti
    • Chicken tacos
    • Grilled cheese sandwiches with tomato soup
    • Broccoli, chicken, and rice casserole
    • Panko-breaded baked tilapia

    For a different spin, you could try themed proteins.

    Have seafood Monday, chicken Tuesday, beans Wednesday, turkey Thursday, and pork Friday. Of course you don’t have to do a different protein each day of the week. If you want to make a double batch of chicken Tuesday for Wednesday’s meal, go for it! Doing themed proteins ensures variety, but we all know there are countless ways to make chicken. ;)

    Here’s an example weekday main-course menu using this strategy:

    • Shrimp alfredo
    • Grilled chicken and vegetables
    • Black bean, salsa, and cheese quesadillas
    • Turkey burgers
    • BBQ pork baked potatoes

    Once you have your themes set, you have one fewer decision to make each week (and that’s always a good thing).

  3. Work backwards from the sales pages.

    You might be thinking “I already buy what’s on sale!” Go one step further by being intentional about what you buy, and you’ll have this one down.

    Besides being really easy, what’s another great thing about this strategy? You can combine it with any of the other meal-planning strategies.

    If boneless skinless chicken breasts are BOGO, you know this is a good week for grilled chicken and baked chicken chimichangas. If you’re not sure yet what to do for Marinara Monday, seeing that meatballs are on sale could give you the idea for spaghetti and meatballs and/or meatball subs. The opportunities here are pretty much endless, so have fun with it!

5 Pro Tips

  1. Consider adding prep for the next day to your plan. For example, on Monday, “Put chicken for tomorrow in the fridge to thaw.”

  2. Don’t try more than one or two new meals a week.

  3. Put recipes in the easiest order for you.

    • Plan the simplest meals for your busiest days.
    • Choose recipes that share ingredients.
    • Plan to use your most perishable food at the beginning of the week.
  4. If you cook extra to freeze, put it on your plan for the upcoming week or month so you don’t forget about it. (Grab the free What’s in the Freezer? printable above!)

  5. Always have a backup meal (or three). To be extra safe, you could have one backup slow cooker recipe, one backup freezer meal, and one from-the-cupboard backup meal. For some ideas, take a look at the 7 easy recipes below.

7 Easy Recipes

Spaghetti with Meat Sauce
  • Servings: 6

  • Ingredients:

    • 1 pound ground beef
    • 1 large onion, chopped
    • 2 garlic cloves, minced
    • 1 (8-ounce) can tomato sauce
    • 1 (6-ounce) can tomato paste
    • 3 cups tomato juice
    • 1 cup water
    • 1 teaspoon salt
    • 1 teaspoon sugar
    • 2 to 3 teaspoons chili powder
    • 1 teaspoon dried oregano
    • Dash of pepper
    • Dash of red pepper flakes, optional
    • 1 (7-ounce) package spaghetti, uncooked
  • Directions:

    • Cook first 3 ingredients in a Dutch oven, stirring until beef crumbles and is no longer pink; drain well. Return beef mixture to pan. Stir in tomato sauce and next 8 ingredients; bring to a boil. Cover, reduce heat, and simmer, stirring often, 30 minutes. Add pasta; cover and simmer, stirring often, 20 minutes or until pasta is tender. Serve with cheese, and garnish, if desired.

  • Serve with garlic bread. Makes 6 servings.

  • BONUS: Spaghetti is great to have for lunch the next day!

Taco Soup
  • Servings: 4–6

  • Ingredients:

    • 2 cans chili starter beans
    • 2 cans water
    • 1 can Rotel
    • 1 package taco seasoning
    • 1 package ranch dressing mix
    • 2 cans mexicorn
    • 1 pound ground beef
    • 1 (15-ounce) can tomato sauce
  • Directions:

    • In a skillet, cook ground beef until done; drain. Place cooked beef in a medium-large pot and mix all ingredients together. Cook until heated through and add your favorite toppings.

Slow Cooker Red Beans and Rice
  • Servings: 6

  • Ingredients:

    • 1-pound package of red kidney beans
    • 1 green bell pepper
    • 1 medium onion
    • 6 celery ribs
    • 1 teaspoon salt
    • ¼ teaspoon cayenne pepper
    • ¼ teaspoon thyme
    • 2 tablespoons Cajun seasoning
    • 4 garlic cloves
    • 8 cups water
    • 1 pound Conecuh sausage
    • 3 cups cooked rice
  • Directions:

    • Add kidney beans to slow cooker. Chop your onion, bell pepper, celery, and garlic into small cubes and add to slow cooker with beans. Chop your Conecuh sausage into bite- sized pieces and add to slow cooker. Pour 8 cups of water to the slow cooker, and add salt, pepper, thyme, cayenne pepper, Cajun seasoning, and black pepper. Stir all of the contents until everything is mixed well. Cook on high for 8 hours. In the last 30 minutes of your food preparation, cook 3 cups of rice in boiling water. Season with salt.

  • Prepare spinach salad for a healthy side.

Loaded Chicken Alfredo Gnocchi Bake
  • Servings: 6–8 • Cook time: 22 mins.

  • Ingredients:

    • 3 cups gnocchi (17.6-ounce package)
    • 2 cups of frozen broccoli
    • 2 cups cubed cooked chicken
    • ½ cup crumbled cooked bacon
    • 1—15oz jar alfredo sauce
    • 1 ½ cups shredded mozzarella cheese
  • Directions:

    • Cook the gnocchi according to the package directions. Cook frozen broccoli according to the package directions. Drain. Stir together gnocchi, broccoli, chicken, bacon, and alfredo sauce. Spoon into a casserole dish.

    • Top with mozzarella cheese. Bake at 400 degrees for 20–22 minutes. Turn over to broil for 2–3 minutes or until the cheese starts to brown. Make sure you keep an eye on it because it will brown quickly.

  • Serve with broccoli as a side.

Philly Cheesesteak Stuffed Peppers
  • Servings: 4–6

  • Ingredients:

    • 8 ounces thinly sliced roast beef (packaged deli meat will work)
    • 8 slices provolone cheese
    • 2 large green bell peppers
    • 1 medium onion
    • 1 (6-ounce) package baby bella mushrooms
    • 2 tablespoons butter
    • 2 tablespoons olive oil
    • 1 tablespoon garlic, minced
  • Directions:

    • Slice peppers in half lengthwise; remove ribs and seeds. Slice onions and mushrooms. Sauté over medium heat with butter, olive oil, minced garlic, and a little salt and pepper. Sauté until onions and mushroom are caramelized, about 25–30 minutes. Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Slice roast beef into thin strips and add to the onion/mushroom mixture. Allow to cook 5–10 minutes. Line the inside of each pepper with a slice of provolone cheese.

    • Fill each pepper with meat mixture until they are nearly overflowing. Top each pepper with another slice of provolone cheese. Bake for 15–20 minutes until the cheese on top is golden brown.

  • Serve with a salad or veggies.

Slow Cooker Honey Sesame Chicken
  • Servings: 6–8

  • Ingredients:

    • 2 ½ lb. boneless, skinless chicken breasts or thighs
    • salt and pepper
    • 1 cup honey
    • ½ cup soy sauce
    • 4 tablespoons diced onion
    • 4 tablespoons ketchup
    • 2 tablespoon canola oil
    • 2 cloves garlic, minced
    • ½ teaspoon red pepper flakes (optional)
    • 4 teaspoons cornstarch dissolved in 6 tablespoons water
    • Sesame seeds
  • Directions:

    • Spray slow cooker with cooking spray. Season both sides of chicken lightly with salt and pepper, and place in the bottom of slow cooker. In a small bowl, add honey, soy sauce, onion, ketchup, oil, garlic, and pepper flakes and stir until well combined. Pour over chicken. Cook on low for 3–4 hours, or just until chicken is cooked through. Remove chicken from slow cooker, leave sauce. Dissolve 4 teaspoons of cornstarch in 6 tablespoons of water and pour into slow cooker. Stir to combine with sauce. Replace lid and cook sauce on high for ten more minutes or until slightly thickened. Cut chicken into bite-sized pieces, then return to slow cooker and toss with sauce before serving. Sprinkle with sesame seeds and serve over rice or noodles.

Easy White Chicken Chili
  • Servings: 4–6

  • Ingredients:

    • 1 (16-ounce) jar of salsa
    • 4 cans White Northern beans, mostly drained
    • 1 (8-ounce) block pepper jack cheese, shredded (or 2 cups shredded)
    • 2 cooked chicken breasts (or white meat from rotisserie chicken) shredded or diced
    • Optional: Cumin, coriander, and cilantro to taste
  • Directions:

    • Combine salsa, beans, shredded cheese, and pre-cooked chicken in a medium pan and heat through. If desired, top with sour cream, cheese, fresh cilantro, and crushed tortilla chips.