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Today’s post is a guest post from my awesome nutrition coaching client Brynna. In our time working together, Brynna has created a healthy, enjoyable, and moderation focused relationship with food (and gone from a size 12 to a size 2 in the process). She also has 5 children, a busy husband, and a full life. Check out how she plans a variety of delicious meals for her family each week:

Meal planning. It’s like guaranteed writers’ block. What to eat, what to eat? Well, I have come up with a solution! And it’s a customizable, plug-and-go formula that will work for just about any situation.

I have 5 children who I try to feed on a daily basis. I usually do meet this goal!  Some days there is time to cook a nice meal; some days there isn’t time to cook at all. So I decided to start factoring that reality into my meal planning. It’s part of life, so it’s part of the plan!

I plan and shop for our meals for 2 weeks at a time. I get all the major ingredients I need for every meal in two big shopping trips, one to WinCo and the other to Costco. Then I run back to the store once or twice during those 2 weeks when I need to replenish fresh produce, milk, and eggs. Quick trips. Now this may seem like a lot for some of you, but never fear. As I said, this plan is totally customizable, so read on!

Step 1: Categorize meals based on level of difficulty to cook

So, I am planning for 14 days of food and meals at once. That’s 14 dinners. What I have done is to rate all dinners on a scale of 1-4, depending on the difficulty of preparation involved.


Recipe level 1 = easy to throw together quickly.

  • 1 on this scale is a no-prep meal: frozen pizza or taquitos, chicken and pasta kits, heat and serve Asian food, rotisserie chickens, basically all the stuff in the freezer section of the grocery store. Or eating out!
Meal plan level 2 = no recipe needed.

Recipe level 2 = no recipe needed, but still requires cooking. 

  • 2 on this scale is a simple-prep meal that (for me) doesn’t require looking at a recipe: spaghetti and meat sauce, scrambled eggs, tacos, grilled cheese sandwiches, baked meat or fish and roasted veggies are some examples here. A lot of the Ten Things I Always Buy at Costco are used to make level 2 meals!
Recipe level 3 = requires a recipe, but still not too complicated.

Recipe level 3 = requires a recipe, but still not too complicated.

  • 3 on this scale is a meal that requires me to look at and follow a recipe, but isn’t super hard to make: most soups and stews, tacos, crockpot meals, more elaborate meat and poultry dishes like my Traditional Chicken Dumplings fall into this category.
Recipe level 4 = requires a recipe and full time and attention.

Recipe level 4 = requires a recipe and full time and attention.

  • 4 on this scale is a meal that requires a recipe and my full time and attention to make: homemade Indian food, my husband’s favorite George’s at the Cove Soup, a new recipe I want to try, holiday/company meals, or anything with lots of chopping and prep involved!

Step 2: plan a 2 week’s menu based on these categories: 

  • 2 slots for leftovers (Yahoo! Only 12 meals to go and I haven’t even had to think yet!)
  • 4 slots for level 1 meals. Yes, four. Two per week. Usually a babysitter makes at least one of them for the kids while we have a date night. But I seriously do plan for days when I will not get around to cooking (or just won’t want to!) I have accepted this and just made it part of the routine. Giving myself permission to not have it all together every day is really liberating! Plus, these meals are cheaper than grabbing fast food for everyone in that “Oh, crap, I don’t have anything planned for dinner” moment. Because I planned for that moment, and so there’s already something in the freezer ready to heat and eat. And if I serve raw fruits and vegetables or a bagged salad along side the frozen cuisine, it’s actually a fairly balanced dinner!
  • 3 slots for level 2 meals. These meals are easy, tasty, and again, fairly balanced by having a quick salad or canned or steamed veggies on the side.
Um.. yum!

Um.. yum!

  • 3 slots for level 3 meals. I really do enjoy cooking (despite what it might sound like up to this point!) and I have some favorite go-to recipes that fall in this category.
  • 2 slots for level 4 meals. I love to try new recipes. I love home-cooked food that tastes really good. I love my homemade bread.I am all about investing time and energy into awesome dinners when I can. Sundays are a great day for level 4 meals. And once in a while, during the week, if I’m feeling really adventurous! But I know that I can’t give that level of commitment to meal prep on a daily basis. So I don’t plan a whole week of recipes I’ve never made before, or things that take 45 minutes of effort. I don’t do that to myself, because I know I’ll crash and burn and we’ll eat Little Caesar’s instead! But I can sprinkle a few of these meals in, and then I truly enjoy the process of preparing them and eating them, instead of being stressed the whole time!

So, obviously I’ve broken this formula down for my 14-day stretch. But you can break it down for yourself to fit the way you grocery shop for your family. If you meal plan and shop for a week at a time, try having a leftovers night, a level 4 night, and one or two each of the level 1-3 meals, depending on how much you enjoy cooking and how busy your week is. Or plan for 5 days at a time and have a night of each: level 1, level 2, level 3, level 4 and leftovers. Take this formula and find a balance that works for you! Get a good repertoire of level 2 and level 3 meals going, and let them carry you through most of the time.

Step 3: add in breakfast and lunch options to the menu plan

My kids like variety, but they also leave for school by 7:45 am, so I have a simple rotation of easy breakfasts. They don’t eat the same thing every day, and I don’t lose my mind! It’s a win-win. You can see the breakfast list in the bottom corner of my meal plan pages.

For breakfast each week we will eat:

  • cold cereal 2 times
  • hot cereal one time
  • eggs one time (sometimes with bacon, sometimes wrapped in tortillas with salsa)
  • toast or bagels and fruit with yogurt one time
  • boxed muffins or frozen cinnamon rolls one time
  • a nice breakfast, like pancakes or waffles one time (weekends!)

I buy enough food to go through this rotation twice, since I only shop every 2 weeks.

My kids eat school lunch half the time and home lunch half the time. I usually eat leftover dinner, my “Soup for Lunch!” soup, or a nice sandwich with fruit and veggies for lunch, so I always buy enough of this stuff to last 2 weeks:

  • fruit snacks
  • granola bars
  • string cheese
  • individual apple sauce cups and plastic spoons
  • individual chips or crackers
  • cookies
  • baby carrots and snap peas
  • apples and oranges
  • bread
  • good lunch meat (love Costco’s deli meat!)
  • peanut butter and jam

Step 4: Grocery shopping

Now that I know a lot of the meals we like to eat, which store I will buy the ingredients at, and where those items are located in the stores, I can make a 14-day plan in 20-30 minutes. Then I spend about an hour at Costco and an hour at WinCo, purchasing everything. Routine has made this process faster, plus it eliminates a lot of impulse purchases, partly because I’m not in a store as often!

Here are my last two 2-week meal planning sheets and shopping lists.

You can see it’s just 14 slots down the side, then the shopping list. And it’s clearly been in and out of my purse eighty jillion times! I wish I could say I have some cute, Pinterest-worthy printable, but obviously I don’t. However, blank paper gets the job done. Which means you can get the job done without the frills, too. I am all about embracing real life!

Meal-planning-idea-7 Meal-planning-idea-6The bottom line is that you know your family, your schedule, your budget, your tastes better than anyone else does. Adjust the formula so it’s comfortable for your life!

This formula has created a beautiful balance between simplicity and deliciousness in our family’s daily dinners. It has helped me feel sane and calm about food, knowing there’s always a meal on-hand, no matter the day’s circumstances. And it can work for your family, too!

Follow Brynna’s blog (and check out her inspiring weight loss story) at shortandsweetonline.com.


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Ashley Palmer
Ashley is a Registered Nurse with a Master’s Degree in Human Nutrition. Ashley loves her son, her husband, and lifting heavy things then putting them back down repeatedly. She is a nutrition, fitness and weight loss coach and blogs at www.youtrition.net.


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