A Simple Way to Plan a Menu (and Free Downloadable Fall Menu Planners!)

I know menu planning isn’t for everyone. I also know that many people go about menu planning in different ways. If you’d like a little more insight as to how and why I plan my menus the way I do each week, I’d encourage you to read this post. I also encourage you to check out Plan to Eat as a great source to help you with planning meals for your family.

What I want to share with you today, however, is a very simple method I use as I go about planning the meals our family will eat. When planning our meals in this simple manner, I find that I can really keep our costs low, even while eating a diet of real, whole foods.

Really, planning a meal that is inexpensive, well rounded, nutritious, and delicious isn’t as difficult as it sounds. If this is an area you struggle, how about following these simple steps?

A Simple Way to Plan a Meal:

1. Pick a main dish.
2. Choose one or two side dishes that will compliment the main dish.
3. That’s it. There is no number three.

See? I told you it was simple. :)

I used to go all out for meals, making sure we had bread and dessert all planned out along with a main course and a couple of sides. And sure, for special occasions or when we have company, I typically plan a little extra. But for our day-to-day meal plans? I stick with what is simple.  I figure out what our main dish will be. I think about what vegetables and other side dishes will round out the meal. And that’s it.

Here is an example:

Monday, I decided to make Grilled Barbecue Chicken.  (Pick a main dish…check)  Tossed salad and green beans go great with bbq chicken. (Choose one or two side dishes that will compliment the main dish…check)  I was also hungry for sweet corn, had some in the freezer, and decided to make that too. (Flying by the seat of my pants and going with what sounded good at the moment…check)

Now, a few tips as you follow this simple meal planning method:

Tip #1:  Try to always choose at least one green veggie to go with your main dish.

Tip #2:  Fruit is always a great addition to a meal and a perfect way to add nutrients, especially if your family is picky about veggies.

Tip #3:  Avoid serving too many starchy foods with one meal. As in, you probably shouldn’t plan corn, potatoes, noodles, and bread all in one meal. It’s a bit of a carb overload and not nearly healthy as a meal that has green veggies. That is, unless you enjoy experiencing a sugar crash about thirty minutes after you eat. In that case, go for it.

Tip #4:  And speaking of bread, you really don’t need bread at every meal. Unless you’re my dad. And then it is a must, because how else are you supposed to sop up the gravy?

Free Menu Planners for Fall!

And with that, I wanted to remind you that we offer several free downloadable menu planners that are perfect for this fall! And, they come with free coordinating downloadable grocery lists.  They are fun.  They are free. Print them, put them on your fridge, and use them to your heart’s content. Some have even laminated them so that they can use them over and over!

Download your free fall menu planners and grocery lists here.

What is the easiest way you’ve found to plan meals? Or do you fly by the seat of your pants?  :)


  1. Lana says

    I use one of the freebie wall calendars that show up in the mail every year. I typically plan 2-4 weeks at a time because weekly meal planning just does not happen for me. Any meal that we end up not using I circle and that meal moves forward when I meal plan next time. We are empty nesters so often a main dish will do 2 meals even if I thought I was only cooking for one meal. I like using the calendar because it helps me to think about what is going on on the particular days that I am planning for and as the year goes on I have a great reference to look back and find meals that I want to use again. I plan the main dish, a veggie and always something raw such as a salad or as simple as sliced cucumbers and tomatoes. Without a menu I just do not cook. As long as it is all written down and I have a game plan I do very well. I also like the fact that I am able to look a few days ahead and know what I will need to have out of the freezer and into the fridge to thaw.


    Terra Reply:

    That is a really good idea Lana! I have 3 free calendars already for the rest of this year and next year. I think I’m going to use this idea!


  2. Rebekah says

    This is exactly how I plan my meals. 1 meat or main dish and 2 sides, usually veggies. We try not to eat bread at supper time. It makes it simple for me and also we eat up any leftovers for lunch the next day so that we don’t waist anything.


  3. KimH says

    For the most part, I too plan as you do, but when the garden is going full force & the CSA boxes are overflowing, sometimes I have to plan meals around whatever produce is at hand.. so sometimes its a little backwards… I have______ CSA veggies so that goes great with _______. Either way, it works out better than just waiting until its time to cook to figure out something to eat.. ugh. ;)


  4. Kristin says

    When summer produce is at it’s peak, I find it best to plan main dishes around produce. This summer we ate a ton of main dish salads, veggie paninis, veggie bakes, veggie scrambles, etc. that didn’t require an ounce of meat. Not only was it tasty, it was also super healthy, and saved money.


    ann Reply:

    I would love to know some of your recipes for the veggie main dishes :)


    Rebecca Reply:

    The best place I find for interesting veggie main dishes are on vegan websites. Not only are they not stuffed full of cheese or eggs, but often have more beans in them, as well as other interesting whole grains. I like VEGWEB the best.


    Kristin Reply:

    Here are some of our favorite meatless summer recipes:
    Greek salads (romaine, tomatoes, cucumbers, red onion, garbanzo beans, feta cheese, and red wine vinaigrette (made with Penzy’s italian dressing base).
    Salad Nicoise http://www.marthastewart.com/318648/salmon-nicoise-salad (I use the traditional canned Tuna instead of salmon)
    Tabouleh (mine contains scallions, tomatoes, fresh parsley, celery and cucumbers)
    Salad Caprese: roma tomatoes, fresh basil, fresh mozzarella (sprinkled with sea salt) topped with olive oil and balsamic vinegar

    Caprese panini: roma tomatoes, fresh basil, fresh mozzarella, brush top of bread with olive oil before toasting in panini press
    Greek nachos: homeade whole wheat pita chips topped with tzatziki, chopped tomatoes, red onion, garbanzo beans and feta cheese (we actually topped our with some ground lamb and oinion cooked with penzy’s greek seasoning)
    http://wegottaeat.com/janice.cook/recipes/penzeys-easy-cheesy-zucchini-bake (I do it in layers, of zucchini, tomato, zucchini, topping each layer with minced fresh garlic, torn fresh basil and shredded cheddar(might need more). Topping whole thing with parmesan and fresh breadcrumbs (1-2 pieces of whole wheat bread pulsed in a food processor is sufficient). I omit the mozzarella.
    Whole wheat Angel hair with pesto (homemade pesto using homegrown basil) can add sauteed vegetables if you choose.

    Florentine scrambled eggs: eggs with chopped tomatoes (de-seed if using large tomatoes, i.e. not grape), spinach (fresh torn or defrosted and squeezed) and feta cheese
    Veggie scramble: eggs with Muenster or Monterrey jack cheese, tomato, spinach sautéed zucchini and onion.
    Eggs served with breakfast potatoes and onions cooked in olive oil penzy’s greek seasoning and fresh fruit or smoothies
    Note: greek salad and nachos call for olives which I chose to omit


  5. Jenn S. says

    I try to plan a weekly menu for all of our family’s meals, but sometimes I switch them around and do what is convenient at the time! I don’t have it down to a science just yet, but I figure I’m only 25 and have many years to perfect my menu planning skills. :)


  6. T.R. says

    I’m going to try this. I’ve been so stumped on how to meal plan. The other stump is that I’m cooking for one. :O)


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