Simplify Meal Planning: An easy way to meal plan on auto-pilot

Simplify Meal Planning - an easy way to meal plan on auto-pilot

The thing about simplifying and creating a simpler life is it isn’t always simple. It seems strange to say, but in order to simplify your life in the long term, it often requires some planning, forethought and intention in the short term. A perfect example of this is with meal planning. Having a meal plan in place makes life so much simpler and more efficient. However, it does require some planning ahead of time in order to be effective and make your life easier.

Simplify Meal Planning - an easy way to meal plan on auto-pilot
Photo by Lauren Lester on Unsplash

Why Meal Plan?

Having a meal plan in place goes a long way to make our lives simpler and run more smoothly. Without a plan for what we are going to eat in place, I often buy groceries we don’t use, resulting in wasted food. Or don’t have the ingredients I need on hand.

Not having a meal plan leads to frustration because I don’t know what to cook, and many times the meals I come up with at the last minute aren’t great! More often than not, the weeks I don’t have a meal plan in place, we eat out more than our health and budget would like!

Meal planning isn’t something I enjoy. In fact, the part of cooking I dislike the most is deciding what to make in the first place. Trying to think of a variety of balanced and healthy meals everyone in my family of picky eaters will actually eat feels tedious and frustrating. But knowing a solid meal plan will save time, money and stress throughout the week, I know the importance of doing it.

My Previous Meal Planning System (spoiler: it wasn’t working!)

I usually get groceries on Saturday or Sunday. Before I go, I sit down and plan what we will eat for the week. We usually eat the same few things for breakfasts most days, so that doesn’t require much planning. And I have a loose rotation of lunches for the week which works well for us right now. But deciding what to make for supper is always a struggle for me.

In the past, my meal planning consisted of trying to come up with different meals each week so we weren’t eating the same things too often. And trying to think of things everyone in our family would actually eat. It felt like a chore and I was frustrated with the process.

No Need to Reinvent the Wheel

I was using a small menu planning notebook to plan our meals in. One day I realized, instead of making a new meal plan each week, I could just refer to a page from a few weeks ago and copy it. This way I wasn’t repeating the same meals week after week, but I also didn’t need to come up with a completely new meal plan each week.

6-Week Master Meal Plan

Once I started referring to previous weeks to make the current week’s meal plan, I realized I could take it a step further and make a 6-week meal plan filled with our favourite recipes and simply repeat it.

I didn’t worry about it getting too repetitive because each meal would only be repeated once every 6 weeks. It became my master menu plan and took the effort and frustration out of meal planning.

Flexibility is Key

Of course, I still stay flexible with my meal plan. If we have something come up like an activity, company coming, a new recipe I want to try, etc. I can easily change and adapt the menu plan for that week. But overall, it makes life considerably simpler. Without putting any time or effort in each week, I know I have a meal plan in place that is balanced and ready to use.

I don’t necessarily make the meals in the order I have listed on my master meal plan. Instead, I use those 7 meal ideas during the week in an order that works for what’s going on during that week. Sometimes I follow the order and it works. Other times I adjust it to fit our schedule that week. But the great thing is I know I always have pre-made, complete meal plan to default to without having to come up with ideas. It’s there to fall back on each week and can be adjusted and customized to suit the week.

Simplifying Meal Planning - an easy way to meal plan on auto-pilot
Photo by Yoori Koo on Unsplash

How to Create a 6-Week Master Meal Plan

1. Gather Your Favourite Main Dishes

To create our 6-week master meal plan, I wrote down 38 of our favourite main dishes. There was no order or planning done at this point. I simply listed whatever came to mind until I got to 38 dishes. Because I want my plan to be realistic for our lives, I included 4 spots for take-out food. I know we won’t cook at home every single night, despite our best intentions. Including spots for eating out, works for our family, so that’s what I did.

Get Input From Your Family

If the idea of coming up with 6 weeks worth of meals seems intimidating, don’t stress. Start by making a list of your family’s favourite meals off the top of your head. You’d be surprised how many things you can come up with.

Involve your family and ask them for their input and favourite meals. If someone in your family doesn’t like someone else’s choice, the great thing with a 6-week rotation is that you won’t eat it too often anyway. Also, even if you repeat a favourite meal twice within your 6-week meal plan, you still won’t be eating the same thing too often.

Incorporate Family Routines

It’s great to incorporate any family traditions or routines you have. For example, we have a pancake movie night on Friday nights usually once or twice a month. The kids love it, and it’s a quick and easy supper, which is great at the end of the week.

Keep it Simple

Our family eats fairly basic and simple foods. It works for our lives and our preferences. It doesn’t need to be fancy or complicated. Chicken nuggets from a box are absolutely in my 6-week meal plan. Because let’s be honest, chicken nuggets from a box are as good as it gets some days!

Think about what your family actually likes to eat and work with that. Be realistic about what you like to cook and eat, and incorporate those meals. Don’t over complicate your meal plan.

2. Arrange the Main Dishes in a 6-Week Calendar

Once I had 38 main dishes listed, I wrote one meal in each day of a 6-week calendar. I quickly made a 6-week calendar in Excel to use, but you could also use any blank calendar template or page. It doesn’t have to be fancy, you just need space to write 6 weeks worth of weekly meal plans.

Arranging the meals in the 6-week calendar took a little more planning. Try to have a variety of meals each week in terms of prep and cooking time required. For example, I made sure I had at least two quick and easy meals per week and no more than two more labour intensive meals per week. The remaining meals each week required an average amount of work. Think about your regular weekly schedule and plan around it.

Simplify Meal Planning - an easy way to meal plan on auto-pilot
My 6-week master meal plan

As I said above, I don’t necessarily make the meals in the order on my master meal plan. However, for simplicity sake, I did try to arrange them in a way that would work most weeks if I follow it exactly as is. For example, I know my daughter has a weekly activity Tuesday nights, so I put a quick meal on Tuesday. And by Friday, I’m often tired and sick of cooking, so that’s another good night for an easy meal or pancake movie night.

3. Add Side Dishes & Vegetables

After arranging and filling in all the main dishes on my 6-week meal plan, I went back and added vegetables and side dishes for each day. We repeat the same veggies and side dishes more frequently because that works for us. Adding veggies and side dishes week by week into my master meal plan allows me to make sure they are balanced and have some variety throughout the week.

Make a list of your favourite side dishes and vegetables to refer to

It was helpful to make a list of our favourite side dishes and vegetables before I filled in the 6-week master meal plan. I listed out all the side dishes and vegetables my family likes to eat on a piece of paper at random. Then I used this list to fill in my 6-week master meal plan, making sure there were variety and balance in the side dishes and vegetables. However, as I said, I repeat the same side dishes and vegetables multiple times within the 6-weeks.

Simplify Meal Planning - an easy way to meal plan on auto-pilot
Photo by Julien Pianetti on Unsplash

How to Use Your 6-Week Master Meal Plan

To use the 6-week master meal plan, I start on week 1. I have a small magnetic whiteboard meal planner that hangs on the fridge. I write the week number at the top (so I don’t forget which week I’m on!), then write the meals from my 6-week master meal plan for that week on to my whiteboard in an order that works for our week.

The menu board makes it easy to see what I have planned and reminds me if I have to do any prep, like put something in the slow cooker or take meat out of the freezer. When I fill in my whiteboard, I also make my grocery list based on what ingredients I’ll need and what we have on hand.

Simplify Meal Planning - an easy way to meal plan on auto-pilot
The weekly menu board I keep on our fridge.

I tweak my 6-week master meal plan slightly based on the seasons. I add more BBQ and hot weather meals like salads in the summer. Then include more hearty, cold weather food during the winter. I end up with two 6-week master meal plans, one for warm weather and another for cold weather.

Simplify Your Life With a Meal Plan

Having a long-term meal plan in place that I can repeat has been fantastic. It takes the frustration out of meal planning and lets me meal plan basically on auto-pilot. It’s not fancy or complicated, which is what makes it work so well for our family. Knowing our supper plans without having to spend time or energy deciding what to make, making sure I have groceries, etc. makes life so much simpler. It saves us time and money, all while taking the stress out of our evenings.

Do you meal plan? What have you found works or doesn’t work for you and your family? Let me know in the comments below!

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  1. This is a really great tip! I have been so off of my meal planning game lately. I need to do something like this to take one thing off the weekly to-do list.

    1. I’m glad you found it helpful Mary Leigh! I always dreaded meal planning, but the weeks I didn’t have a meal plan were always so much more chaotic and disorganized. But it always felt like just one more chore on my weekly to-do list too. Making my 6-week meal plan has made meal planning so much easier. I hardly have to think about it anymore, but know we will always have a meal plan that works for our family to fall back on. Thanks for reading and I hope it will help you get your back on your meal planning game 🙂

  2. Great idea! I always have the best intentions when I meal plan and grocery shop, but tend to choose recipes that are too complicated or time consuming. I forever seem to forget that sometimes simple meals are just as enjoyed as more complicated ones. I’m going to keep this in mind this week! ?

    1. Yes, I know what you mean. I used to plan more elaborate meals (by my standards!), then when it came time to make it, I either didn’t have enough time or just didn’t have the energy to make it! When I made my 6-week meal plan, I really tried to include only “normal” meals that wouldn’t be too complicated or time consuming. Our meal plan probably looks boring to some people, but it’s realistic for our lives, so that’s what’s important! I’m glad you found the post helpful 🙂

    1. Thanks Michele, I’m glad you like it! I agree, meal planning doesn’t have to be complicated or a lot of work, and can save so much time in the long run. And help make sure you are eating a healthy and balanced diet. Thanks for reading 🙂

  3. I do meal plan. But mine isn’t as effective as yours. We make 2 big meals a week for dinner. My husband cooks Sunday, and I cook Wednesday. I do recycle a lot of recipes. Thanks for your well-organized meal plan suggestions.

  4. This is a great idea! I was on the hamster wheel of weekly meal planning for a while too and I felt like I just couldn’t get organized and was making way too many grocery trips for things I forgot I needed. I started planning the entire month ahead back in April and it has been a game changer! I have been thinking about writing a post about how much it’s helped me streamline things! This seems like the “varsity” version of that lol – maybe I’ll get up to 6 weeks at a time someday! 🙂

    1. Good for you Traci, sounds like you are doing great! It’s amazing what a difference long term meal planning can make! Thanks for reading and sharing your system. When you write your post send me the link, I’d love to check it out!

  5. I have such a similar system to this, and not to be dramatic, but I feel like it has changed my life! My husband and I did the Whole30 recently and I had to meal plan weekly, and I was reminded of all the benefits of a system like this. 🙂

    We’ve been doing it for about a year and a half, and I feel like it cuts my monthly meal planning time from about 2 hours to just 20-30 minutes to “shop my pantry” with my grocery list and run through our “staple” items. Plus, it is a LOT more flexible than it seems!

    I just wrote a post & guide about this, too, and I love reading your perspective & experience with this! Having a set for warmer weather and for colder weather is such a great idea. Thank you for sharing.

    1. Thanks Brennan, I’m glad to hear you enjoyed the post. It’s not dramatic at all, it really is life changing! It’s funny how making a few small, simple changes can have such a hugely positive impact on your life. I completely agree, this meal planning system saves so much time and effort. I’m going to check out your post too, I love hearing how other people meal plan too! Thanks for reading 🙂

  6. OMG I love it. I am so tired of thinking about what to make every day and I have some picky eaters here myself… I will try this. Thank you so much for sharing:-)

    1. You’re so welcome Susi! I’m glad you found this post helpful! I agree with you completely – deciding what to cook every day is so frustrating! I hope this helps you simplify and streamline your meal planning. Thanks for reading 🙂

  7. This is really great! While I do meal plan, I like the 6 week idea and some of the things you’ve built into it. I’ll sit down with this for my next meal planning session. Thanks!

  8. Oh my gosh, this is great! I do meal planning but always throw away the plan when the week is over. How stupid can you be, right? I’m going to implement this today. Thanks for sharing, Melissa

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