This article is by staff writer Lisa Aberle.

Few questions are as unwelcome or unanswerable (at least in my house) as “What’s for dinner?” Every few months, I make futile attempts to meal plan or grocery shop smarter. I spread out cookbooks, I write down recipes, I make shopping lists, and then everything disappears (it seems) and I am back to my usual chaotic “It’s 4:45 and what are we going to eat again?!”

In these moments, I am much more likely to order pizza or stop by for a supermarket rotisserie chicken. Not only are these choices probably not as healthy as what we could make at home, but they are also more expensive. And at the moment, we need to cut our eating out/convenience food spending as much as possible.

I am no domestic diva, as you have already discovered. But there are plenty of people of who are. And some of them don’t even require googling. Take my mother-in-law, for example. She raised eight children on a tight budget, and I think she came up with a genius idea. Listen to this: She served the same seven meals every week. For instance, Monday was always spaghetti night, Tuesday was always chicken potpie, and so on. It meant her shopping list was the same every single week. Of course, it also means that my husband was burned out on repetition, so we definitely can’t adopt the same policy in our house. But I do think it’s a great idea.

Meal planning options

1. Emergency meals. This is the only kind of meal planning I have done successfully. And it’s not really meal planning at all, but more of a quick, one-time fix to prevent ordering pizza. Basically, post 5-10 meals inside a cupboard door that can be prepared in 30 minutes or less (I say 30 minutes because that’s how long a round trip to pick up prepared food would take in my neck of the woods). These meals should be simple and be composed of items that are shelf-stable or produce that lasts longer like carrots, onions, or frozen vegetables. In addition, always make sure you have that certain list of shelf-stable items present in your pantry. When you feel rushed or overwhelmed, check out the list.

Since we buy half a beef at a time, we always have plenty of ground beef in our freezer. I can quickly thaw ground beef, so it can be part of several of our staple meals. My kids actually prefer casseroles, one-dish skillets, and soups to slabs of meat (which is what my farmer husband prefers), so those meals make up most of our emergency meals. Never underestimate what you can create with a can of beans, diced tomatoes, pasta, or spaghetti sauce.

One of my favorite emergency meals relies on the same basic ingredients. However, by switching up the spices, cheese, and bean type, you can make the meal Mexican- or Italian-style. It’s different enough that it satisfies my husband’s need for variety.

Other emergency meal examples include spaghetti or other types of pasta, soups, and breakfast foods like eggs, pancakes, waffles, and baked oatmeal.

2. Independent menu planning. This is where I fail every time I try, but other people do this with success and claim it has revolutionized their life and their food budget.

Some people use Google calendar for this, others use spreadsheets (find a free template at the bottom of this Unclutterer post), and some people just create a paper grid and fill in the meals. However you do it, highlight the winning recipes and get rid of the duds so you don’t repeat the meals no one likes.

What I’ve heard is that most of us repeat the same 21 meals most of the time. Picking out your standard meals, maybe supplemented with one or two new recipes a month, sounds really easy. Creating a systematic way of doing this is where I fail. But here are some tips to help you:

  • Always menu plan at the same time every week (if planning weekly).
  • Create a generic shopping list with items that you get every time you shop (milk, bananas, etc.) and fill in the rest of the shopping list based on your meal plan.
  • If it works for you, create a basic framework of meals. For instance, Meatless Mondays, Chicken Tuesdays, Pasta Wednesdays, Slow Cooker Thursdays, and Clean-Out-The-Fridge-Fridays. Then it narrows down which type of meal you need to cook.
  • On busy nights, plan for quick meals.
  • Cook once, eat twice. For instance, plan for Roasted chicken on Tuesday and then chop the leftover chicken up and give it new life in Chicken Fettucine on Wednesday.
  • Maybe you want to meal plan based on the food you need to use up. If so, I use www.allrecipes.com because I can put in an ingredient I want to use up (like cilantro) and find recipes that include that ingredient.
  • Mark off the days that you won’t be home. This is a no-brainer, but I think this is one of my main problems: We don’t need all the meals I plan. One solution is to only plan for 4 to 5 dinners a week to allow for other plans that may pop up unexpectedly or lots of food leftovers.

3. Paid subscription services. Google “menu planning” and you will find paid subscription services that vary in their scope (although it seems like the pricing is fairly similar between the different companies).

Emeals is one example. You can pick from many types of meal plans (paleo, slow cooker, clean eating, etc.) and they will give you recipes, meal plans and shopping lists for at least $5 per month. Plan to eat is another one. In this case, you put in your own recipes (or use other members’ recipes). By dragging and dropping the specific recipes you want, your menu plan and shopping list are then created. It is normally $4.95/month, but they will run a Black Friday sale for 50% off a yearly subscription, starting November 28.

Do you have any meal planning tips to share?