How I Menu Plan

Though we still have tweaks we could make, I feel like for the first time in years (maybe for the first time ever as adults with kids?) we’ve finally settled on a cooking and eating routine that works for us.

I use those words — cooking and eating routine — purposely, because it’s not really a “plan.” It’s not a system, a formula, or a foundation. It’s simply our way of gathering around the table that feels right to our family’s modus operandi and current stage of life.

This could change down the road, of course, but here’s what’s working for us, in case there’s something you can glean and try out in your own life.

(Oh, and if it helps, here’s our situation: our kids are ages 14, 11, and almost 9, and both Kyle and I work from home. Take all this into consideration.)

Planning, Cooking, & Eating

Either Sunday late afternoon (preferred) or Monday morning, Kyle and I will sit down together, laptops and dry erase markers in hand, and plan what’s on the menu for the week. He’s involved because while I’m mostly the planner, he’s mostly the cook.

We decide using our computers (more on that below), but we dictate it onto simple paper in a clear sleeve, hanging on the fridge. This is what we reference all week.

The only set days on our calendars are Mondays, Thursdays, and Sundays. On Mondays, we eat yumm bowls — the name taken from an Oregon restaurant that creates bowls with layers of simple ingredients (plus their signature sauce); this is about as basic as it gets, and we all love it. 

yumm bowl

We make a plethora of ingredients, then everyone assembles their own bowls: lettuce or spinach, rice (or cauliflower rice), beans, meat of some sort, cheese, olives, peppers and onions, tomatoes, sautéed veggies of whatever’s in the kitchen, pico de gallo, guacamole, sour cream, sriracha, Frank’s hot sauce, whatever — it’s an assortment of things we almost always have on hand.

Everyone eats it, including our picky eaters, because everyone’s making it however they want. I don’t stress things; if a kid wants just rice, beans, and cheese, that’s fine. I’ve found it’s good to zoom out when it comes to nutrition, thinking of what they eat over the span of a week (or even more, sometimes) instead of sweating the details about every single meal.

On Thursdays, we eat soup made in our instant pot; it’s a rotation of different recipes, some regular favorites and some new. We do this because Thursdays is our crazy-making day — every kid has an extracurricular activity, which we’ve intentionally scheduled all on the same day. It feels better to us to have one nuts day, where we’re all coming and going, rather than three half-annoying evenings where someone’s always gone. 

About an hour before the first kid heads out, we toss ingredients in the instant pot and set it to “soup,” set out bowls and spoons, and everyone helps themselves when they want. By the time all taxis have pulled back in the driveway and kids are back from their things, people have been fed and all is well.

Sunday evenings are “scrounge nights,” and they’re my favorite. It’s exactly what it sounds like: everyone makes their own dinner. You can scrounge the fridge and heat up leftovers, you can make a meal out of finger foods, you can make yourself a four-course meal over the stove, if the mood strikes. The only common thread is: you’re making it yourself.

Now, we eat together, often during an early-evening family movie night. Someone might have a bowl of popcorn and a smoothie for their dinner; someone else might have leftover enchiladas. But I admit, it’s lovely to embrace a stage where all three kids are finally old enough to wield a paring knife or turn on the stove without fear of the house burning down.

With these three dinners already planned, we then plug in four other meals to the menu plan. But here’s what’s key for us: when we’re deciding what’s on tap at the start of the week, we don’t force these four meals into specific days. We simply write them down on our checklist, then reference the list all week.

For a visual, here’s our menu plan from this past week:

The yumm bowls are on Monday, the soup is on Thursday, and the rest are whenever we feel like having them — we decide the morning of. Having four meals to choose from prevents decision fatigue (because we’re not selecting from every recipe on the planet), and it dictates our grocery list, because we’ve already gotten what’s needed from the store. But this is loose enough to let us decide what we want to eat that day.

We’ll ask the kids when we plan if they have any requests for the week, but otherwise, anything is fair game. It’s often easiest to rotate tried-and-true favorites, because after all, even if we eat the same meals every other week, that’s only twice a month. Most of us are creatures of habit.

That “MYOP” you see? That’s Make Your Own Pizza, and we usually do those on Friday or Saturday, pairing it with either a game or movie night. We set out rounds of dough on individual pans, bowls of toppings, and preheat the oven. Everyone comes to the island to make their own pizza, then into the oven they go. 

This non-system really works for us, because it’s just enough a mix of variety, routine, and ease, and it teaches the kids autonomy and resilience. They’ve been with us in the kitchen enough over the years to know their way around (age-appropriately, of course), so I’d say we’re on track for one of our parenting goals: everyone leaves the house knowing how to make ten simple meals from scratch.

We also eat almost exclusively around the table, together. The science is there as to why this is so important, but we also love it. It’s our way of connecting, and as the kids get older and have their own days separate from us, that becomes more essential. Music playing, no phones.

A Few Other Things

On school nights, everyone makes their own lunches the night before, then pops their bag into the fridge. They’ve done this long enough to know what they’ll want most of the time, so it works (no one no longer tries a lunch of 18 cheese sticks and a cookie, in other words).

Breakfast is whatever, man. I’d love to come up with a better routine for this, admittedly, but right now, it’s basically granola and yogurt on school days, sometimes eaten in the car on the way. 

We’ve used Plan to Eat for years to create our weekly menus, and I love it. It’s super easy to import recipes from the internet, then drag and drop onto a calendar (which you can import to Google calendars with a little hack). It generates a grocery list from your plan, and you can have it auto-create lists for different stores. 

Despite this, we actually use AnyList for our shared grocery lists, simply because we like the interface, and because we have other shared lists there besides groceries. We’ll add stuff to our main grocery list, and the next time one of us is at the store, we’ll pull up the app and see what’s needed.

All this being said — I’ve come to wholeheartedly embrace online grocery shopping and scheduled curbside pickup at our neighborhood store (which is a few dollars cheaper than delivery). For a few extra dollars, I’ll happily avoid crowds and shopping mayhem. No shame in that game.

So, this is what works for us right now. It’s a nice blend of planning and go-with-the-flow, embracing our stage of life and parenting goals. After years of trying a rigid system, I’ve learned to embrace this freestyle system, and it fits our family well.

This week on the podcast, I’ll share more about my own personal food habits right now. Similar to my current exercise routine, it all begins with mindset — and it’s been a game-changer for me. I’m eager for you to listen.

What works for you in the menu planning department? 

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18 Comments

  1. Catzter

    Thank you thank you!! We’ve been suffering from decision fatigue in ALL areas of life lately, especially with meal prep. We do weekly planning meetings and big cooking sessions on the weekends, but we always pressure ourselves to try 3 new recipes per week. I think we need to dial it back to staples that are effortless for us to to prepare, and I love the idea of having a weekly rotation (soup on thursdays, etc.)

    • Tsh Oxenreider

      Whew… 3 new recipes a week would wipe us out! I’m definitely a fan of hitting the easy button during seasons of busyness and/or decision fatigue. 🙂

  2. Alyssa

    Great post! Can you share your pizza dough recipe? Do you have a recipe for the sauce you use on your yumm bowls? Thanks!!

    • Tsh Oxenreider

      We’ve actually never tried to make yumm sauce because Kyle’s parents bring us bottles of it from Oregon when they come to visit — but, I’ve had this pinned for when it’s needed (no idea if it’s good).

      As for pizza dough… When life is nuts, we buy pre-made pizza dough balls from our local grocery store, and they’re really good! But when we’re up for making homemade, this is our go-to recipe. AND I tend to eat Keto (I’ll get into this in Friday’s podcast), so I make myself an individual pizza with the fathead dough recipe. It’s really good.

      • Alyssa

        Thank you, Tsh!

  3. Karen

    We have a very similar approach to meal-planning only we call our scrounge nights yo yo night (you’re on your own). Thanks for the ideas. Sure appreciate you!

    • Tsh Oxenreider

      I like that, Karen!

      • Maurie Roselaine

        Thanks for sharing! I am still trying to find a meal planning groove for our family of five (although our kids are much younger at 4, 2, and baby). I am going to try the three themed nights idea though! I’ve never liked theme nights because they seem to restrictive, but I think it would be great just a few days of the week; I don’t know why I never thought of that!

  4. Jennifer

    Tsh, these words come at just the right time for me! I have been saying out loud lately: “Didn’t I earn a college degree?! How can I not get this meal planning thing together?”
    I can definitely see these tips working for our family of 4. With the kids turning 9 and 13 in the next few weeks, it’s time to introduce a few more MYO items. Thanks a million!

    • Tsh Oxenreider

      Ha! I get this, Jennifer — we can accidentally make this so complicated. 🙂 And yes to your kiddos MTO (their) more! 🙌

  5. Anna

    We do something very similar. I plan a few things for certain days, and the rest can be flexible.

  6. Guest

    For those who, like us, love Tex Mex (and I guess kind of similar to the Yumm bowl but a little more specific on ingredients…) I like to make taco meat, beans, cheese and then have rice, tortillas, and chips as options. You’ve got nachos, burrito bowl, or taco. And if they want to pull out the panini press, the kids can even make a quesadilla. 😉

    One other idea….we love curries. I was super intimidated for years until I found an easy recipe and realized…this isn’t hard at all. I keep cans of coconut milk on hand and a few of the key spices and have made all sorts of curries – veggie, non-veggie and you can mix it up.

  7. Stephanie

    LOVE this, especially the yumm bowls! We have done something similar and it pleases everyone’s tastes – put only what you like in your bowl and leave the rest! It’s fun to see what everyone else comes up with, too, with a bit of a mish-mosh of choices. I’m going to implement the dry-erase or chalkboard method of writing out a plan of what to eat on each day of the week – and I’m not sure why I haven’t done this before, given that we have two teens and a 9-year-old so all of them are able to read ;), help and prepare their own plates. So much better than winging it after getting home from work, activities, etc.

  8. JJ

    Great framework! Would you please share a few of your favorite Instant Pot soups? I’m a new IPer and would appreciate some of your recommendations.

  9. Sommer

    Love all this! Similar to our weekly plan, but this still helps me refine or have a few tweaks to try.
    We call our scrounge night “must go”…as in, everything must go!

  10. Pauline

    I tend to have a list of weekly must-haves (1 egg dish, 1 fish, 1 pasta, 1 all-veggie, 1 beef dish…) and move them around depending of family appts or activities. It helps with decision fatigue to have a few rules of the game!

  11. Dee

    This is eerily similar to the way we/I plan meals. (I say we/I because in theory we do it, in practice I do it). Even down to using Plan to Eat. I am pretty sure I heard about it on this blog. It took me a couple of years to try it, but once I did I was sold. It’s probably the best recommendation I ever got from a blog!

  12. Rachel Nordgren

    This is super similar to how my husband and I meal plan! We do the planning and grocery list making on Saturday or Sunday early afternoon, and then go grocery shopping on Sunday afternoon. We always do tacos on Tuesday and just designated Sunday nights as “charcuterie, wine, and a BBC drama” nights, partially inspired by your conversation with Christine on the podcast! It gives us a good excuse to find a fun cheese or nice prosciutto when we’re out grocery shopping earlier in the day, too.

    We use a shared note in the native iPhone Notes app, and we keep the meal plan for the week listed in a table at the top of the note and then have sections for each place we shop below that. The idea of the “yumm bowls” is something I want to try now, too!

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