Meal Planning: the Master List

Meal Planning is a life saver.

As a busy single mom of many, meal planning takes the guesswork out of my day. The four-o’clock-crazies aren’t as panic-inducing, because I always have a plan in place. It also means I can delegate meal preparation to my older children, while I’m finishing up tasks.

This month, I’m going to go step-by-step through my meal planning process. I’ve set it up so that meal planning isn’t a huge painful process but a quick-and-easy system that takes minutes every week.

Introducing Step 1: the Master List

The first, and longest part of my meal planning system, is the Master List. This will require the most thought and creativity, which is why it can take the longest.

The Master List is the key to the whole system. It’s essential to the success of my meal planning. And there are so many reasons why I love having a master list!

Why a master list?

Having a master list reduces all the decision-making later.  There’s no need to rack your brain on what’s for dinner this week. There’s no last-minute run to the grocery store. You have your choices at your fingertips with your master list.

Having a master list provides a resource for any last-minute changes. Your ability to offer hospitality to unexpected guests will increase exponentially! Because of your master list, you’ll be able to provide meals you can be proud of, even when your mother-in-law shows up last minute.

Having a master list streamlines the whole process of meal planning. Because of the master list, the rest of the process of meal planning takes minutes instead of hours a week.

Having a master list allows you to stay on top of your budget better. With a master list, you can manage your freezer and pantry. And you can shop in bulk and shop sales that much easier. All of which will save you money!

So what exactly is the master list? 

It’s what it sounds like: a master list of meal options that you know and like.  Actually, it will be 3-4 master lists, depending on how organized you want to be, and how many meals and snack times you want to plan for.  You’ll create a master list of meal choices for each time of day, and then one or two more for snacks and treats.

On each list, you’ll want a minimum of 31 choices. You may want more, depending on how much variety you want, but don’t overwhelm yourself with choices either. 31-60 different options will give you up to 2 months worth of meals, without repetition.

In your choices, make sure you include all your family’s favorites. Whether that’s your killer spaghetti-and-meatballs, or the melty-cheese-chicken casserole, you’ll want the basis of your list to be your favorite go-to recipes.  Most of us have 7-10 different meal options that we can make at the drop of a hat. This is the foundation of your master list.

You’ll want to have a variety of different choices on your master list. Include different prep times (30 min or less, slow-cooker or crockpot, etc) and different kinds of preparation (one-pot meals, casseroles, mains-and-sides). Don’t forget a few options you’re comfortable serving guests.

Coming up with the rest of your options may be a bit trickier. Start by creating some categories or themes for meal options, and then filling in the shorter lists. Once you get started, you may find it easier than you thought.

Theme suggestions for the master list.

Theme ideas for dinner could be: ethnic ideas (Mexican, Italian, Chinese, etc), put-it-together options (sandwiches, pizzas, party platters, etc), comfort food (roast beef, grilled chicken, etc), and soups or stews (chili, chicken noodle soup, etc).

For lunches, try these theme ideas: sandwich options (ham & cheese, egg salad, etc), “snack lunch” (cold cuts, veggies, boiled eggs, etc), or soups.

On your master list, breakfast may not need 31 options. I usually have a list of about 15 options. Cereal, oatmeal, eggs, toast — you can come up with 10-15 standards, and then vary the toppings or types. For example, have eggs as a breakfast option, but you can choose to scramble, fry, boil or poach them, for 4 different breakfast ideas.

Storing and updating the master list:

Your master meal list should be stored somewhere with easy access, as you will need to look at it frequently. If you use a home management binder, this would go at the front of your meal planning section, or at the front of your monthly planning sections.

Every 3-6 months you will want to update your Master List to reflect life and seasonal changes. Maybe you’ll add in more salad options in the spring and summer, to take advantage of the greater variety of fresh produce. You may want more time-saving or quick meals on your list in the winter, when it seems life always gets busier. The kids get older, the routines get adjusted and your meal planning needs to adapt with it. Plus, this seasonal refresh is a great time to add in new recipes and foods.

Added bonuses to the master list:

Having a master list also will make it easier for you to make diet changes. If you’re feeling the need to add in healthier options — or need to make changes for food allergy reasons — a master list will help you stay on top of that. When you know you have a go-to list, there’s no excuse to “cheat” on your diet! And when you’ve tailored your master list to meet the needs of your family, everyone can get on board with your healthy eating plans.

Meal planning is so useful!

Meal planning is one of the best ways to manage a busy home. Whether you have one child or many children, or none at all, meal planning can be a time- and money-saving strategy for anyone. No matter how you do it, meal planning can help make your life better.

Click here for part 2: the Calendar and the Meal Plan.

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