6 Meal Planning Methods + Free Printables

Before I start this post I do have a confession to make, I'm going through a fourth round of pregnancy nausea so I haven't been meal planning. All I've been able to eat regularly is Ramen noodles, graham crackers, and those little Dole diced pear cups. So I haven't been able to meal plan, but I do miss it.

In the past, I have tried many different types of meal planning methods before finding what works best for our family. It takes some trial and error but no matter which method you end up using, it will save you time, money, and some sanity. I've nailed down six of the popular and most effective meal planning methods and I've included either digital or printable downloads for just about all of the methods to help you get started.

If you have never tried seriously meal planning before, I recommend starting with a weekly method that doesn't sound daunting to you. If you've tried weekly planning before and you're not a big fan, go ahead and try the monthly options. If you want to, try each of the methods over like two months until you find the one that works best for you and your family. I personally only plan dinners (well, I jot down breakfast ideas too) and then we have leftovers for lunch.

6 Meal planning methods

1. Weekly Planning

Weekly planning means to plan your family's meals each day for a week. Later, we'll talk about Loose Weekly Planning where you just list out menu options and eat them on any day but Weekly Planning is when you plan your meals for particular days. Weekly planning is nice for those with very busy schedules because you can prep your meals ahead of time since you'll know exactly when you'll be enjoying them. This type of planning doesn't work for me mostly because I get random cravings and change my mind about what I feel like cooking. Grab your weekly meal planning printable below.

2. Monthly Planning

I know a couple of "real life" friends who plan their meal plans by the month. I have a free monthly meal planning printable below for you and when you fill it out, you'll want to sit out your family's calendar for the month. Jot down any holiday meals or birthday meals or days you know that you'll be eating out. Then look at your schedule and plan easy meals for busy nights, like when the kiddos have baseball or soccer practice or plan to eat out on those nights. With this type of meal plan you'll be able budget for the entire month and as you're out running errands, you can grab ingredients that are on sale way before you need them.

3. Thematic Planning

Thematic planning is a little bit more "old-fashioned," it's where you have meal themes for each day of the week. I remember my grandma telling me how she grew up eating fish on certain days and tuna casserole on others. Some theme ideas for you include:

  • Breakfast for Dinner

  • Chicken

  • Meatless

  • Seafood

  • Leftovers

  • Pizza Night (take-out or homemade)

  • Mexican

  • Asian

  • Italian/Pasta Night

You can use the free printables for either the monthly or weekly planning to plan your theme meals. This type of planning is convenient if you have a very busy schedule as this plan doesn't take much time to complete. The downside is it gets pretty repetitive. But if you aren't big into cooking or don't mind eating similar foods each week, this plan would work well for you!

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4. Once-a-Month Cooking

Wait, what? Yes, once-a-month cooking. This is basically when you take a full day and make crockpot freezer meals. There are pins all over Pinterest to guide you through a day of prepping crockpot freezer meals and many of them have plans for doing them on the super cheap. I found a few crockpot freezer meal plans for you: 40 Meals in 4 Hours, 7 Meals in 1 Hour, How to Make 1 Month of Slow Cooker Dinners in 1 Day, and Freezer Meals. You can also check out my Pinterest board of crockpot recipes. This type of planning is typically pretty affordable since you can buy things in bulk. This is great for people with a Costco membership (ha) and great for working mamas since you can throw the meal in the crockpot before work and it'll be ready when you get home!

5. Loose Weekly Planning

This is the type of planning that I do for my family. As I said earlier, I like to give into my many food cravings and I like to get creative and change my mind about what to cook for dinner. And my husband has a habit of forgetting to tell me when we have plans until the day before so it's good to be flexible. Similar to traditional weekly planning in that you are planning for a week at a time, but different because you aren't planning them for specific days. You can check out the printable I have for you for more details but basically all you're doing is planning a menu for the week that you can make on whatever day you choose. This is nice if you're like me and indecisive or if you're a spontaneous planner (which is not me but is totally my husband). If I had an unlimited budget I probably wouldn't meal plan, I'd just buy whatever I feel like cooking, but since I can't do that this is the next best thing.

6. Pantry Meals

This is the best option if you A) hate planning, B) have a fairly open schedule, or C) you like to get creative in the kitchen. This option includes almost zero planning. For realz. All you need to do is keep a stocked pantry and then you can create all of the meals you can think of with those ingredients. And the list is almost endless as to what you can create if your pantry is continually stocked. Each week you just go over your pantry stocking list (yep, I've got you covered with a printable!) and add whatever you're out of or running low on, to your grocery list. If you enjoy cooking and baking and like to create your own recipes and dishes, this is a great option for you. The downside to this method is that it is not necessarily budget friendly. But it can be if you buy things in bulk. I used this method for awhile and it does work well but since we have a generous but strict grocery budget, I needed a method that was a bit more budget friendly.