Here's what I used to do....skip this paragraph and the next now if you don't care. You shouldn't care. I used to dinner plan by the month. Hated it. I mean it was useful when the kids were tiny and I would rather chew broken glass than take them to the grocery store. But there wasn't much flexibility.
So I switched to dinner planning every 10-12 days, kind of a stepped-down version of monthly. I made 5-7 dinner plans that I could rotate around bi-weekly. Initially this took days to do--to write down everything I knew how to cook or could cook from cookbooks. In this case I tried to have some easy prep meals with more complicated weekend meals on each Menu. The only problem is, I eventually wanted to try more and more new recipes so I trashed this method too.
Here's what I don't do:
1. I do not scan Pinterest for recipes. They never work. Ok 90% of the time. Unless you know the bloggers recipes always work, do not be lulled in by Pinterest recipes! Pinterest and blogs have their place in meal planning, but not in 15-minute meal planning.
2. I do not rip recipe pages out of magazines anymore. I just lose them.
3. I do not go to the store without a dinner list. I used to go to Costco, spend $150 on groceries and then still have nothing to actually make for dinner.
4. I do not read recipe books while dinner planning. More on that below.
5. I do not plan lots of side dishes. More on that below.
Here's what I definitely do:
1. Plan 4-5 meals for the week.
2. I make sure at least 2-3 are fast meals, under 30 minutes total. (On the weekends I allow myself the treat of planning more elaborate meals and I make special trips to the store for those kinda meals.)
3. The others 2-3 recipes can not exceed 1 hour total unless it's a slow cooker meal or unless it can be prepped earlier in the day. Afternoons are insane when you have teenagers.
4. Make sure the meals have a variety--some meat, some vegetarian, some pasta. Would I prefer pasta every night? Yes, but my thighs would not.
5. Have a written list. Duh.
My current method is what I call the Quick and Dirty and here's how it works:
On Monday morning during breakfast I pick a cookbook I already love, or two cookbooks, no more, and turn to the pages I previously had marked with flags. (I read cookbooks like novels with Post-it flags while I watch TV at night.)
Do not just thumb through books! That's a time killer! You have to have things marked already in books, or maybe keep a running list of things you actually know how to make without written recipes, etc. (For me that would be tacos, spaghetti, etc) I really believe this is the bottleneck in the whole process of meal planning. Do not skim through books! You'll spend 1-2 hours skimming, get frustrated, quit, and eat quesadillas all week.
I also keep a running list in the front cover of many of my go-to cookbooks. These are recipes I have already tried that were a success and I would definitely want to make again. Scanning these lists makes the process even faster.
I also try to just think of yummy things I really wanna try and go to America's Test Kitchen websites and search out that recipe and hope they have it. No one paid me to say this--I spend $70 bucks a year to subscribe to their websites and it's the best money ever spent. My tummy is so much happier. Plus if I do ignore all my rules and go to the store without a list I can quickly open the the Cooks Illustrated app and search out my favorites.
This was last week's menu. In the upper right hand corner of the page you can see where I wrote down four meals I want to make. (I never plan more than 4-5 dinners for a week because sometimes there is not time at all to cook, sometimes we go out to eat on the weekend, or sometimes I hate my family and I say "Screw you have cereal".
On the left I write out the ingredients I need to shop for to cook that particular meal. I keep each meal separate because sometimes I can not find a particular ingredient, or one of the ingredients is too expensive, so at the grocery store I'll make the executive decision to trash that meal and therefore nix buying anymore ingredients in that section.
The asterisks are ideas for side dishes, depending on time, they may not happen. I keep lots of vegetables in the fridge so I rarely write down my sides. Remember this is Quick and Dirty Meal Planning, don't get bogged down in the details. If you have your main dishes planned the sides take care of themselves as time permits--bagged salad, sliced fruit, frozen peas.
Don't make the rookie mistake of thinking every meal has to have every dish planned out. Martha does not live in my house or yours.
However, I am flexible (see the screw you comment above) so if I see whole chickens are on sale, and I swear they never go on sale, I must roast chicken that week. I simply must. So butterflied roasted chicken became our 5th meal last week.
For all other non-dinner groceries I need I keep a running list on the "Paperless" app on my iPhone. U update it throughout the week as we run out of staples.
If it's a good week I grocery shop at two stores--usually at the local grocery store and Costco. Otherwise, I hit the regular grocery store if there's a time crunch. Or if I just don't have it in me to go to two stores. Remember Quick and Dirty--you should be able to shop at just one store.
Then my list gets folded up and stuck to the refrigerator for the week for reference.
I mark the page for each recipe so I can easily find that recipe again. For this particular week all my recipes came from one book The Make-Ahead Cook and America's Test kitchen websites.
And that my friends is how this busy mom plans a week of home cooked meals in 20 minutes a week. We do not eat out. We do not order pizza. We don't have any good options for pizza delivery in Provo Utah anyway. They all bite. For those lazy days we eat quesadillas, or pancakes and once-in-a-while leftovers. My family won't eat leftovers anyway. It makes me angry.
Please keep in mind I have been cooking dinner for 21 years. If you are just starting out at menu planning, try as hard as you can to think of what will work for you. Maybe cooking just 2 dinners a week is all you can take at first. That's ok!
Eating at home is always healthier, cheaper, and I believe yummier. You can do it!
In case you are curious, here's what we ate last week:
Black Beans Chili with Corn Muffins
Sesame Noodles made with leftover roasted chicken and Asian Slaw (just a bag of cole slaw and Asian salad dressing):
Chicken in Foil with Potatoes and Carrots
And Slow-cooker Beef and Barley Soup. I forgot to take a picture of that one!