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How to Plan a Weekly Menu in Less Than 10 Minutes

Is menu planning something you dread? It doesn't have to be with these easy tips to help you plan a menu in just 10 minutes!

Guest post from Sarah of Early Bird Mom

For a while, I had been planning out all our meals a week at a time: breakfast, lunch, dinner and snacks. It didn’t take a lot of time and it was nice to take a glance at my menu and know what to cook.

But over the past few months, this practice had fallen by the wayside and my family was getting tired of the same couple of stand-bys for dinner.

So even though I didn’t want to, I reluctantly wrote “Menu Plan” on my to-do list the other day.

Why do I dread menu planning?

The menu planning itself isn’t that difficult. The problem, I think for me, is that making a menu reminds me of all that cooking! Somehow I think if I don’t make a menu, the cooking will take care of itself; of course nothing could be further from the truth!

If you also dread menu planning, here are two quick tips to help you plan your menu in 10 minutes or less! 

1. Start with a previous menu plan.

I pulled up an old menu plan on my computer to refresh my memory. I like saving old menus on my computer – they are a great source of inspiration.

I deleted a couple meals from the menu that didn’t interest me this week. Then I filled in the breakfast column. Breakfast around here is usually oatmeal, eggs, smoothies or brown rice with brown sugar and milk. By this time, I’m halfway done! I’m gaining momentum!

Then I checked my calendar to see if there are days when we need a crockpot dinner or when we might have extra time for baking. A couple more entries go on the menu.

Note from Crystal: If you don’t have any old menus to look at for inspiration, you can check out my weekly menu plans.

2. Take note of foods you already have in the house.

I quickly looked downstairs in our second fridge and realized there was a lot of cauliflower that needed to be eaten – this will work for Tuesday’s side dish. I decided to thaw some chicken for Wednesday. Tonight will be Tilapia since we have lots in the freezer.

I filled in the remaining blank spots with a couple more of our favorite recipes.

That’s it! I’m finished.

All in all, this took less than 10 minutes of my time — and I feel a lot better about the cooking for the week.

The cooking still has to be done whether or not I plan ahead, but it sure is nice to know ahead of time what I am going to make for dinner.

What are your tips to quickly plan a weekly menu?

Sarah is happy to have a loving husband and 4 of the most rambunctious boys you’ll ever meet. She blogs at Early Bird Mom all about helping moms get more done at home and in home business.

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38 Comments

  • Katie says:

    Right now, I’m only planning dinners. It takes me a good 30 minutes because I do the shopping list at the same time and I base the menu on the weekly grocery sales. What really slows me down is that I haven’t got a good quick reference for “menu stand-bys.” I finally sorted my mess of a recipe box into files based on type of recipe (e.g. chicken entree, veg/pasta entree, breads, sides, etc), but I really need to separate a dozen or two simple standby recipes for filling in where meat specials don’t cover the plan.

    • Ali says:

      What helps me is actually using Pinterest as a resource. When I see a recipe that interests me I save it on a “to try” board. If my family enjoys the recipe, I save it to my “keepers” board. Each week I try to pick one or two new recipes, and then go with old favorites for the rest.

    • KatieK says:

      This is exactly me, Katie, being a newlywed! I love to cook but I just don’t know what to make when I look at the weekly ads. Your idea of pulling out stand-bys sounds perfect!

  • Mrs. 1500 says:

    We have talked and talked about meal planning as a way to reduce our grocery spending and a way to make something for dinner that the kids would eat. After a particularly frustrating meal I thought the kids would eat, and didn’t, I finally sat them all down and said ok, tell me what you like. We filled an entire desk calendar page (5 weeks total) of meals they will eat.

    Now I can go to that list, compare with what is on sale and what I have in the pantry, and make dinner with confidence every night.

  • Amy says:

    One of the best things I did for my meal planning was take all of my recipes and categorize them on one sheet of paper. I have a category for: Chicken, Beef, Pork, Meatless, and Sides. Separately, I have Lunch Ideas and Snack Ideas. This way, I can glance at my paper and choose a meal from each category. I also made a note of slow cooker recipes so that those were easily identifiable as well. It took a while to look through all of my recipes, but it was worth the effort!

  • Menu Planning is saving us so much right now. We’ve only been in 1 restaurant this last month! That is amazing for us! So much healthier too!

    I posted about my Menu Planning Control Center at my blog. It is helping me so much!
    ~Linda
    http://www.lindalmartin.com

  • Elizabeth says:

    I used to do a weekly plan and I’d take stock of what was in the cabinet and I’d sit down with the grocery ad and use that for inspiration though my family falls into eating pretty much the same food constantly (the bane of a VERY picky husband). I’d look at previous weeks menus too but I put my menu plan on Cozi so if anyone in the family is near a PC they can see what’s going on (also nice to have an electronic list because while I’m sitting here @ work if something pops into my head I can put it into the list). Right now I’ve stopped my weekly menu and have gone to a monthly so I can experiment with cost savings. I still use the same basic technics and though much of our current menu looks repeative it actually is less so than it used to be. I also always suggest one quick meal be it something you make and froze or a box meal (I’m very fond of cooking out of a box lol). And having it set to the side so that if unforseen things come up (meetings, illness, etc), you have a back up because what will kill a budget fast is the ‘well I’ll just pick something up on the way home’ scenario

  • cheri says:

    Best think I ever did for menu planning was to make a list of all the main dishes we usually make…under categories of Beef, Chicken, Pork, Other…this took about half an hour of initial time (while waiting at the dentist) and then I left it sitting on the counter for a week so I could add more things as they popped into my head…I inteded on then typing it up and making it pretty, but two years later it is still the same handwritten original that works fine…I then make copies and hand it to my husband to circle what he would like to eat this week (my least favorite part of menu planning was deciding on the meals!)…occasionally I will be in the mood for something or the kids will have requested something or I have meat in the fridge that needs used for a meal that I will circle before handing him the list…sometimes one of his picks get vetoed because we don’t have the meat in the freezer and it is not on sale that week…then I build the menu from there…this has worked great for us, because I don’t have to think and it makes my husband feel valued/special/respected (all the things a husband likes to be!) because I’m fixing what he wants most nights 🙂

    • Jessie says:

      That is such a great idea! It’s so simple. I can’t believe I haven’t thought of it. I love getting my husband’s input, but he has a hard time coming up with the ideas on his own. Thanks for the suggestion!

    • I just commented that I did the same thing, master list to check off from. 🙂 Glad to hear it’s worked for years for you. Hope mind sticks that long too. 🙂

    • Aubrey says:

      This is almost exactly what I’ve done for the past couple of years. I wrote down all of the main dishes that I typically make (I only do it with main dishes since I tend to cook a lot of Asian food, which already has meat/veggies/rice, add a salad and dinner’s done!) , hand it to my husband usually at lunch on Sunday and ask what he’d like for dinners that week. If I try something new that my husband likes, he’ll say “that needs to go on the list!”
      I really don’t mind doing the cooking, I just hate having to decide what to cook every night!

  • Erin says:

    I menu plan for only dinners. I personalized the template linked below with our family favorites. I created 12 tabs one for each month. To eat seasonlly, I look at the same month of the previous year. Each year, it gets easier.
    http://www.vertex42.com/ExcelTemplates/meal-planner.html

  • Alexa says:

    Menu planning is something that I have been struggling with. I think it would be great to have it all planned out ahead of time. Unfortunately even when I do try to plan I am tired by the time I get home from work so I fix whatever is the easiest!

    A little bit more planning and preparing and I could probably get this down.

    • Marisa says:

      I have really enjoyed using Plan To Eat. It allows you to enter all of your favorite recipes, share recipes with other Plan To Eat subscribers and save weekly menus for future reference (and much more). I can plan a weeks worth of menus to less than two minutes by simply choosing a menu I’ve created from past weeks and it compiles my shopping list for me at the same time.

      • Suzanne says:

        How much $/month is Plan to Eat

        • Marisa says:

          Hi Suzanne, Plan to Eat is 30 day free trial, then $4.95/ mo or $39 for a year. When I subscribed I was able to use a 30% off coupon so it was a great deal considering how much time it saves me once I loaded all of my recipes (which you can also add recipes directly from blogs and recipe sites as well). I love to cook and try new recipes so this is perfect for me, but if your family enjoys a few meals in continual rotation you may not love it as much as I do. Hope that helps!

    • Sarah says:

      Alexa, you might try working at this backwards for awhile. Just make a database of the meals you actually eat, a diary of sorts. From this, after several weeks, you can do the next steps involved in menu planning: using sales flyers and the “What do I have on hand?” principle.

      This database thing can be so easy using Google Calendar. Every morning I check my Google Calendar anyway, so I created a calendar just for recording meals. I bring up the calendar, record what the main dish was from the night before and save it. That’s it.

      Knowing what you actually eat and how often you default to certain meals could be enough of a motivator to do a weekly plan ahead of time. I felt like I was at least doing something toward the goal of menu planning and in time, I used the database to start planning ahead instead of just looking behind.

    • Koree says:

      Agreed! I usually just eat a salad or a pb & j…..luckily no one is complaining since it’s just me!!

  • MamaBear says:

    I put meal planning on my chore list so I am sure to get everything ready for the day I shop. I grocery shop while my daughter at dance class and that 45 minutes is best used to shop. It keeps me on track that way.

    The other thing i do is to make each day of the week a certain type of dish:
    Monday: pasta
    Tuesday: Mexican
    Wednesday: Pizza
    Thursday: Chicken
    Friday: Brinner (breakfast for dinner)
    Saturday: Popcorn
    Sunday: Crockpot

    I find it is not so overwhelming this way.

    • Looks great! Popcorn for dinner works for me! 🙂

    • Emily says:

      I use this method too, and find it SO much easier having a starting point. Ours looks like this:

      Mon, Tues, Thur- meat with potatoes, pasta, or rice (roast, casserole, stirfry, etc.)
      Wed- leftovers
      Fri- something “fun” (pizza, Mexican or hotdogs/hamb)
      Sat- soup (make a big pot to have some leftovers for lunches)
      Sun- leftover soup or something easy (burritos, grilled cheese etc)

    • LaDonna says:

      I do something similar:
      Monday: beef
      Tuesday: chicken
      Wednesday: cook breakfast, supper is leftovers/pickup
      Thursday: quickie (my longest day in the office. I keep a list of quickies to reference).
      Friday: pork
      Saturday: meatless
      Sunday: cook breakfast, lunch out after church with family, supper is fend for yourself.

      This greatly simplifies menu planning for me.

  • Great tips. I agree that pulling out old plans helps new plans go more quickly! I recently did the same thing.

    I have tried a few different systems and have failed at them all for long-term.

    So I recently made a master list of my dinner ideas and put it on the wall. I am not worrying about breakfast, lunch, and snacks just yet…baby steps. If using a master list for dinner works, then I will do it with another meal and so on.

    Here is the link to how I did the master list. I find it much easier to just check 7 things off and to have it in plain site. A page for each week, in a binder, doesn’t work for me. 🙁

    http://milkallergymom.blogspot.com/2013/02/simple-dairy-free-dinner-planning.html

  • Krista says:

    I only plan dinners, and I use the category method. So Sunday is fish, Monday is a “pre-made meal” (one that I make on Sunday). Tuesdays are crockpot nights. Wednesdays are something quick/easy like sandwiches. Thursdays are always leftovers or fend for yourself. Fridays alternate between grilling out and something I cook. Saturdays alternate between eating out and something I cook.

    It makes it easier to look at a small group of my recipes for each day instead of all of them!

  • Katie says:

    I use google calendar for menu planning. I can access it from my phone and I share my calendar with my husband so he always knows what to expect. Plus I can go back through the months and see what we have eaten recently or what I haven’t made in a long time for extra inspiration.

    While I’m doing the menu I keep the grocery ads (I always use the online versions) pulled up in separate tabs and then use Evernote to make my grocery list. I toggle between everything and usually spend a few minutes each day working on it as the week goes by so by the time our shopping day arrives I am fully prepared.

  • Angela says:

    I plan 2 weeks at a time, though I started with only a week at a time, and only really plan dinners… we just have leftovers for lunch most days, and I make sure there’s things like yogurt, eggs, and cereal around for breakfasts.

    I keep a spreadsheet list of all our favorite meals in my Google Drive, which is attached to my meal plan sheet and grocery list and is shared with my fiance, so he can take a look and veto any meals he doesn’t want to cook or let me know if I’m missing a grocery list item.

    I always schedule one leftover day, one eating-out day, one chicken day, one beef OR fish day, one pork day, one crockpot day, and the remaining day is for a new recipe. This makes it easier for me, because I can look at my plan and say “okay, we need a chicken day” and I just go to the “Chicken” section of my meals list and pick one, keeping in mind ingredients we have already in the house.

    I think keeping “theme” days (like I do, or a “meatless monday, taco tuesday” sort of thing) is really helpful when meal planning quickly. We did Meatless Monday for a little while and it was really easy for me, because I’d just go to the Vegetarian section of my meals list and pick one. Because of our typical schedule, Wednesdays are always crockpot meals, so I always know that when making my plan.

    For budgeting purposes, I also keep the weekly ad for my preferred grocer on hand while I’m planning. I use it mostly for sides, using whatever produce is on sale, but I also use it for dinner planning as well (if chili is on sale… we’re having chili dogs).

  • Elisha D says:

    Great advice, Sarah!

  • This *may* be my inner-OCD/nerd coming out, but I’m sure some of you can relate 🙂

    I have an excel spreadsheet that I use to plan my menus.
    In it, I have compiled each meal, a rating (1* to 5*) and any applicable notes on how to make the recipe better, if one of the kids didn’t like it, etc, from each meal I’ve made in the last 7 years or so. Once a week, I add each meal I made for that week with the date and add the rating. When I’m at a loss for a meal, I go back through and look for ideas. I have years of meal ideas, notes to improve the recipe, and even links to the recipe.

    Just being organized has definitely sped up my meal planning, though it takes a few minutes a week to keep it up 🙂

    • Crystal says:

      Your comment cracked me up… my mom keeps notes like this on recipes she makes. It’s very interesting to read back on!

    • Wendy says:

      I’ll freely admit here on this site (and not to some of my friends!:)) that I keep binders of recipes in sheet protectors. I have them divided into categories, and right now I’m busting out of 4 binders and plan to make more and categorize better this summer (I’m a teacher, so time is short right now!) For easy menu planning, I plan 2 weeks at a time, usually early on a Saturday morning after my coffee, and I have my binders, any weekly ads I want to look at, and my work/family planner at hand so I can see which days for the next 2 weeks we need a crockpot or no cook meal. I plan breakfasts and dinners, and snacks if we are hosting a group of kids for an activity. I ask my boys what they’d like to round out their lunches for school (they usually take leftovers plus fruit and maybe a treat or other snack.) I don’t use any box mixes of any kind, and I buy flour, sugar, dairy, cheese, eggs, chicken and pasta in bulk at Costco and buy meat from my local butcher. Produce I usually buy at Costco too. I try to bake every weekend and freeze for the following week (I try to do homemade treats, not store bought.) I love doing this for my family, and it’s worth it!

  • Thank you for this tip, I have been doing weekly planning for a few months, not actually to save money although that happened as well, but to help myself and my daughter slim down. I don’t have any saved on the computer (I will from this week though) but I kept the old menu plans so I will definitely pull them out!

  • Julie says:

    I’m like Marisa and absolutely LOVE plan to eat. Took a while to put all my recipes in but then you just “drag” what you what to make over onto the calendar.

    You can tag your recipes by categories so it’s easy to choose a variety quickly. It is SO user friendly. Recipes from web can automatically be imported into your recipes too. You can print out your calendar. Then it makes your shopping list!

    When you input a recipe in you can also add “prep notes”. For instance, when I input my recipes that use cooked chicken I put a prep note for 24 hours ahead to cook chicken. Now when I put that on my menu I get a note the night before to cook my chicken.

    I think my favorite part is if I decide not to cook on a particular day for whatever reason, I can just drag that item to the next open day not yet planned for!

    30 day trial with no credit card required. Only email. And even after you cancel you can still download your recipes to an excel file.

    Check it out! plantoeat.com

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