in which I pretend to know stuff about meal planning and dinner ideas

I am not one to ever write a how-to post unless it's how to embarrass yourself in public, because that's the only skill I am truly well-versed in. However, I had a really good conversation with a friend recently about meal-planning, and I've seen several people ask for tips online. I figured I would share my minuscule amount of knowledge in case it helps someone out. It's been a huge area of growth for me since quitting my job and tightening up our budget. Also, what works for one family won't necessarily work for another. I know people who shop every two weeks, and I could never make that work like they do. So consider that your disclaimer and whatnot.

First things first, the most important thing is to pick a budget that works and stick to it no matter what. We'll shift things around and up the budget when we're hosting people, or there's a holiday or something like that, but other than that, we stick with it and I'm very proud of us for how well we've done with that. We pretty much never eat out in a restaurant these days because it's just not super affordable in our current phase of life, and we'd rather spend that money on other things. We do order the occasional pizza or pick up Chipotle for ourselves when Gracie is in bed, but all of that comes out of a separate budget. I walk through the store with the calculator open on my phone so there are no surprises when I check out; I know exactly what everything is going to cost. I also go the same day every week. Correction, I try to. That has completely gone out the window since I got pregnant, and I'm just now getting back in the swing of meal planning and shopping in a regular routine, and honestly I'm going to have to start doing Clicklist again soon because pushing a full cart while this pregnant is getting harder by the week.

I do 99% of my shopping at Kroger. I know grocery stores are regional, so that's going to be different for everyone. I also know a lot of people who shop at Walmart. I've done that in the past, but I tend to avoid Walmart as much as possible, especially the one we live near. Because yikes. I know a lot of people swear by Aldi, but it has failed to impress me every single time. I don't know if it's just the one near us or what, but I never find the amazing deals other people do, nor do I find all the fun snacks and such. I can get most everything at Kroger for just about the same price. Every now and then I'll also go to Trader Joe's just to stock up on fun stuff and frozen things for days I don't want to cook. I used to visit multiple stores a week, but that's no longer convenient for us/I don't have the time or energy for it either. But you can do what you want! I also use the coupons on the Kroger app and scope out the sales while meal planning, both which save us a handful of cash every week.

So! Every week on the same day (lately this has been Saturday afternoon), I sit down with a piece of paper. I look at what's on sale, what we have in the pantry (not much because we don't have one....just a random kitchen cabinet), and I ask James and Gracie what sounds good to them. Lately my hormones tell me what I'm eating, which makes things a little easier in a sense, but a lot harder on the days everything is gross. We don't have any food allergies, but I live with picky eaters. We all hate anything from a pig except bacon. Gracie is just picky in general, but she's also required to eat what we eat for dinner. James won't eat much chicken because he's weird. Of course I could eat chicken every day. Balancing their appetites with what I want is often a challenge, but we make it work.

I assign a meal for every day of the week, though I often change what days we eat what depending on time and moods and all those important things. Then I list all the ingredients I need, and I organize my grocery list by area of the store (produce, meat, center aisles, frozen, etc) to make sure nothing gets lost in the shuffle. Then I add in breakfast foods. James will often eat cereal, Gracie likes oatmeal, and right now I'm hooked on yogurt, granola, and fruit. I'll add lunch in too. Gracie usually eats tuna, turkey, mac n cheese, quesadillas, fish sticks, or something like that with fruit and sometimes nuts or something. James packs his lunch for work, and it's usually something quick and easy. I STRUGGLE with lunches. Sometimes I eat leftovers from the previous dinners. I just went through a two week phase of egg and veggie sandwiches. Often I'll make a big pot of soup or something and eat it through the week. Then I think about what snacks sound good to Gracie and to me. I always have lots of fruit and nuts on hand, and sometimes popcorn and rice cakes and Lara Bars. And there's always the staples: milk, bread, eggs, cheese, chocolate, you know.

As I said previously, I walk through the store with my calculator to make sure I stay on budget. If I find myself under budget, I'll grab an extra snack or a treat or something like that. I usually have a few things on my list with a star by them, and those are what I grab if I have the extra money. This week, that was donuts. Because that is the only thing I want to eat right now. Moving on.

I have a pretty good amount of meals I rotate through depending on what tastes good and how much cooking time I anticipate having that week. If you're a foodie, look away. I have a kid to feed and the last thing I want to do with my limited energy is spend hours in the kitchen. I make big batches of soup and taco meat and things like that so we always have leftovers for a few nights. I try to keep our meals healthy, but sometimes we just want comfort food and that's ok too.

Here are some dinners we eat frequently, in case you need some ideas too. And please give me your ideas, because I'm always looking for new meal ideas.

This stromboli recipe is a recent favorite. It is not healthy, but it is GOOOOOD and took 5 minutes to whip together. I leave out the salami because I'm not a salami person. I served it with a salad. Maybe it came from a bag, don't judge.

Cheese enchiladas (I make my own enchilada sauce--there are a million recipes online) with this corn tomato avocado salad.

Sheet pan nachos. I often leave the meat out to save money, and it's still amazing and filling.

Quiche. Of all kinds. There are recipes for every quiche you can imagine. Sometimes I make broccoli cheese, but when I'm feeling gluttonous, this sausage ranch one is ridic. James & Gracie both beg for it.

If you want a twist on tacos, this mexican rice skillet is amazing and we always have a lot of leftovers.

These pineapple black bean tostadas are so good in the summer.

I love white chicken chili.  I make it in the crock pot and stir in sour cream in the end and top with monterey jack and avocado.

White bean parmesan soup. When I make soups like this, I usually make a loaf of homemade bread to go with it.

This is my favorite chili recipe. It's basic yet amazing. I usually add in corn. Sometimes we eat it with cornbread, and sometimes we mix in sour cream, cheese, and fritos. I've been craving it this winter.

This creamy tortellini soup is amazing when it's cold outside.

This rosemary garlic beef stew is amazing as well.

I love this crockpot lentil soup, too. It makes A LOT, so we'll eat it for dinner a night or two, and then I'll eat it for lunches. Also---please don't actually cut up a whole butternut squash. Buy a bag of frozen squash cubes. It's so much easier. Convenience is key.

Some other easy dinners I don't have recipes for:

BLTs. Self-explanatory. I hope.

Get a bag of frozen meatballs and jar of your favorite marinara. Throw in the crockpot on high for a few hours. Throw them in a bun and top with cheese. Meatball subs! Really good with salad and/or sweet potato fries.

Buy some chicken sausage links, like Aidells or the ones at Trader Joe's. Whatever flavor you want. Buy some veggies. I usually go with a sweet potato and red bell pepper. I love brussels sprouts, but G will literally hurl if a molecule of one gets in her mouth. Drizzle with a smidge of olive oil, salt, and pepper, and roast in the oven at 400 for however long your oven takes. 25-40 minutes probably. I like to buy Aidell's teryaki chicken meatballs and drizzle everything with a little soy sauce and sesame oil.

Get some fresh fish at the seafood counter. At Kroger, they'll season it however you want and throw it in an oven bag, so all you need to do is pop it in the oven at home. I usually get 2 tilapia filets (plenty for three of us) and have them season with garlic, lemon, and butter. We use the fish to make fish tacos or I'll make a salad with spinach, berries, corn, pistachios, feta, and balsamic vinegar.

Chicken tacos! You can throw chicken in the crockpot with a jar of salsa and taco seasoning. Or you can do what I did last night and use a bottle of thai sauce (I used a sweet chili peanut sauce). Throw in tortillas with shredded carrots, avocado, and drizzle with lime juice. Amazing.

Tortilla soup. I've kind of made my own recipe up over the years. Broth, frozen peppers, corn, black beans, zucchini, and carrots. Season it however you want: I use chili powder, garlic, cumin, coriander, and salt and pepper. I top with lime juice, cheddar cheese, avocado, and tortilla chips.

Tacos with ground beef. We make a lot of meat and make tacos, burritos, and sometimes throw all the meat and taco fixings on top of tater tots. I know, Ina Garten will be calling me for gourmet meal inspiration any day now.

Sometimes we just eat pancakes and bacon or something. Sometimes we eat grilled cheese and tomato soup. Sometimes it's a frozen pizza, sometimes it's Taco Bell. Do what you gotta do.

I've probably not contributed any new knowledge to the world, but hopefully this gives someone a helpful idea or two, and PLEASE share yours!


  1. There's so many great ideas here!

    We used to shop at Kroger a lot in Alaska because it had the best variety and the best prices for the variety. It was called Fred Meyer's.
    Here, it's Walmart because I don't want to go to Aldi, SuperTarget doesn't have everything I need, TJs is too crowded and also doesn't have everything, and the local chain grocery store (Giant Eagle) is hella expensive.
    I do make a monthly trip to Costco for coffee, fish, and some frozen goods that I rely on at least once a week (won-tons, potstickers).

    I admit to doing a sheet pan dinner and some sort of shredded taco chicken each once a week. Sometimes I make mac/cheese/broccoli for me and Wells and add in a piece of salmon on the side for Scott. Nachos are OFTEN. It's almost embarrassing. And I make diced, roasted potatoes with shredded parm in the oven a lot too. A meal for me or a side with leftovers.
    We don't do a lot of beef for health reasons and Wells doesn't seem to like it anyway.

  2. I am the WORSTTTT at dinner / meal planning. My life is so much in the air - I just went to the grocery, planned all sorts of dinners for the week & then ended up sitting in the hospital most nights or running & taking care of things so most of my salads & greens rotted & I didnt make one dinner. That's how it works for me. :(

  3. We do a lot of meatloaf, spaghetti, sheet pan chicken and roasted veggies, pancakes/waffles, pot roast, shredded meat sandwiches (pork or chicken with bbq sauce), and "man-pleasing chicken" which is chicken thighs baked in a Dijon/maple syrup/rosemary sauce...amazingly everyone will eat it and love it (hubs, 3yo, 1yo).

  4. Okay, so last night I spent 1 1/2 hours trying to figure out good meals to make when I'm unmotivated and pregnant and wound up throwing a mini-meltdown when my husband got home from his class because I was so frustrated at all the "You need to eat organic/Non-GMO/Grassfed EVERYTHING when you're pregnant" pregnancy meal plan articles. Clearly, I should have just checked your blog! I so appreciate these ideas, and I think I'll be using some of them :) Thankfully, in my frustration, I was able to come up with a basic Pregnancy Meal Plan for me, so if you're interested:
    Sundays-eggs and bacon or sausage; 4-6 lbs. of slow cooker chicken breasts (eat with BBQ sauce and salad, bread, veggies)
    Monday-deconstructed chicken enchilada casserole (using chicken from Sunday); sesame soba noodle salad (I have quite a passionate love for soba noodles-they are high protein, easy, delicious and taste great out of the fridge!)
    Tuesday-leftovers from Monday
    Wednesday-egg salad sandwiches and veggies; cheese quesadillas, beans and rice
    Thursday-the final bit of leftover chicken (with hummus, veggies, etc.); slow cooker chili
    Friday-egg salad sandwiches; tomato soup with grilled cheese (or another meatless soup)
    Saturday-leftovers or something fun like taco salad or pizza or whatever. If I've totally lost track of groceries and stuff (I usually hit Winco twice a week to get my produce fresh, but sometimes that doesn't happen), we also just eat a lot of rice & beans with salsa.
    For snacks, we've been eating loads of popcorn popped in coconut oil, crackers w/cheese or hummus, and pears or apples. Everyone in our house but me does cereal for breakfast, so I usually have yogurt with granola or a quinoa breakfast bowl (I'll make a big batch of quinoa and a pan of breakfast sausage and cheese and eat that for a couple days in a row). I'm planning to also start regularly making quiche to have on hand for quick and easy breakfasts too.

    Maybe it's boring, but I've decided that we're pretty much going to stick with this type of plan for the foreseeable future, since it's easy and I'm just not inventive right now! We all love fish, but for some reason I haven't made fish in FOREVER (we used to make tilapia with a creamy dill sauce quite often, I recommend it). Maybe when I get motivated again we'll bring back the fish?

  5. I also avoid walamrt. my husband doesn't understand because he loves it......its always crowded and gross. I love Krogers. I wish you had said what your budget for food is. we spend about 600-800 a month and that is extreme but we are weirdos with raw milk


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