What’s for dinner? Isn’t that almost the dreaded question and the last question you want to answer after a long day of work? You’re already drained, you’ve already made a million decisions throughout the day and, let’s be honest, you might even already be on the edge of or in full hangry mode! Don’t worry, we’ve all been there before so you can raise your hand high on that one. The point is that after a jam packed day you absolutely need a good meal but sometimes it’s the last thing that you want to decide on or maybe even do.

That’s why Jor and I wanted to share our meal planning system with you. It’s been working like a champ for us for 9 years and counting and even worked for us when we lived in our sorority/fraternity houses and had to cram all our food into mini fridges! True story! My organizational skills were put to the ultimate test, trying to squeeze all our food into this compact space but we made it work and someway, somehow our current fridge that is about 10 times larger is just as full as that mini one. Even more surprising…by Saturday, grocery shopping day, that fridge that is 10 times larger is also nearing empty and it’s just the two of us. Clearly, we can eat!

I can actually remember when Jor and I started trying different approaches to ensuring we had a home cooked dinner on the table every night. I grew up with it thanks to a super Mom and while it wasn’t a staple in Jor’s house, it was something that he wanted to make a staple in ours. We both have a love for cooking, we both have a love for a fresh meal at the end of a long day, but, at the time, we were also both tired of feeling like we were just throwing a meal together last minute. The amount of time we were wasting mulling over what to cook, staring inside the fridge and then the amount of food we were wasting led us to needing a system. A system that would not only save us time and money but a system that would allow us to actually enjoy cooking again and then enjoy the meal together. That’s the real point of it all, right? To create a meal that brings your favorites together after a long day. 

So here’s the secret sauce behind our meal prep/cooking system: We alternate weeks of cooking. For literally 9 years now, we have alternated weeks of cooking dinner and it has been the only thing that has totally and completely stuck for us from the very first week. That’s not to say that when someone is down for the count with a cold or a mountain of work (I’ve been guilty of this more times than I care to admit!), doesn’t step in to help out on their “off” week. But, I can’t tell you how great this system has worked for us. It adds variety to our weekly meals and the day you start to drag your feet into the kitchen is usually the day that you only have one (maybe two) more meals to cook. It’s been a game changer for us!

Maybe you don’t have someone to tag team in the kitchen…or maybe you don’t want to tag team the other person into the kitchen because you’d be scared of what was on the menu and your plate each night! No worries, we’ve got some more tricks that help us stay inspired and organized with our weekly meals!

  • Plan a Weekly Menu: This might seem like an obvious first step but it’s the most important step. Pick a day that you devote to deciding on your meals for the upcoming week and sit down with your Grocery List Notepad and actually write the meals out. I like to write all the meals out and then go back and label what day of the week they’ll make an appearance. This allows me to organize meals so that we don’t eat chicken three days in a row and so I can plan a dinner with leftovers the night before a day when we need a good lunch. Bonus: from this list you have an automatic grocery list! Write down the ingredients you need but don’t have for each recipe on your notepad and your list making will serve double duty.
  • Categorize Weeknight Dinners: This is a great idea, especially if you have kiddos to feed and you need an easy rotation of go to meals. For each day of the week, decide on a category that helps you narrow in on a particular dish but still allows you some flexibility so you don’t feel like you’re eating the same thing on repeat. Here’s an example:
    • Monday: Vegetarian Night
    • Tuesday: Taco/Quesadilla Tuesday (of course!)
    • Wednesday: “Pasta/Rice” Casserole Night (I eat mostly Paleo so my pasta or rice is always an alternative option.)
    • Thursday: Soup + Salad Night
    • Friday: Fish Night (Another excuse to have Tacos…fish tacos, anyone?)
    • Saturday: Homemade Pizza Night
    • Sunday: Baked Chicken and Veggies
  • Cookbook of the Week: When it’s my week to cook, I am notorious for being surrounded by cookbooks and three hours later I come out from under the pile with a solid dinner line up. Some weeks I actually have time for this and and others I do not. On the weeks where I don’t have time to leisurely peruse cookbooks, I employ the Cookbook of the Week rule. One cookbook for one week of dinners.  If you use food blogs for inspiration, stick to one food blogger for the week. Not only does it help speed up the dinner idea process, it also eliminates the problem of forgetting where you saw a meal when you use 7 different sources for inspiration.
  • Write Down Meals When You See/Read Them: When you’re scrolling Instagram or Pinterest and you see a dish that makes you say “I HAVE to make that” don’t just double tap the image or pin it to your board. Go directly to your notepad and write the meal down. Save yourself the searching and thinking time later when it’s time to meal prep and give yourself the head start. I finish my meal list on Friday nights because we grocery shop on Saturdays and there are times that I go to finish my list and it’s already half way complete with ideas I saw throughout the week. PS: This is the perfect example of putting that 2 minute rule we talked about on Monday into action!  
  • Save Your Weekly Meal Lists: Instead of throwing out last week’s meal list, save it in a designated spot and start a backlog of go to meals. On the weeks that you are just not feeling inspired or you simply do not have the time to flip through cookbooks or scroll your favorite food blogs, go back to your own lists. Star the meals that you enjoyed and were a hit and just create a weekly menu of past favorites. Maybe you go back two months and just completely repeat a week of meals. Not only do you have the weekly menu instantly planned, you also have a giant jumpstart on your grocery list and you just need to check the fridge and pantry for ingredients you don’t need and/or the random items you need for that particular week.

We like to meal plan for the organization part of it, of course. But why do we really care to systemize this in the first place? Because we want to have more time for the people and things that matter most. We want to spend less time staring in the fridge, going back and forth about what to make and we want to spend more time sitting at the table together engaged in meaningful conversation about our days. We want to cut out chaos where we can so that we can replace that wasted time with intentional connection with someone we care about. Try a few of these tricks and hopefully they help you replace the nightly question of “What’s for dinner?” with “How was your day?”.

Have additional meal planning tips? We’d love to hear them…Share below!