I love meal planning for a lot of reasons. The first and foremost being that once the planning is done my life is so much easier. I don't have to spend hours agonizing over what I need to make for dinner that night. I avoid getting myself into food ruts where I have Italian food 4 nights in a row. Also, it saves me money. When I grocery shop with an exact list of what I need I don't buy things that I don't need, and so my grocery bill goes down. I also save money because we rarely ever say "I didn't have time to get to dinner so we need to eat out."
My meal plan that I just finished will cover our family for the first half of the month, with a small trip for fresh fruit and veggies part way through the month. That is also an excellent thing since I tend to shop with children in tow. The less trips to the store the better. Starting to meal plan can be frustrating and confusing so I thought I would offer a few hints and tips that have helped me a lot.
1) Start a Meal Bank - a place where you keep your families favorite meals all in a list. Also a place where you keep a list of meals that you want to try. If you keep everything in one place it will be easier when you sit down to plan. You can organize this bank however makes the most sense to you, my personal choice is to organize them by who in the family likes them. So I have family favorites, DH's favorites, the girls favorites, and my favorites. That way I can make sure that in the course of a week we all get at least one meal that is something we love. You could also order them by the time it takes to prepare, the main protein (chicken, fish, beef), or by when you last served it.
2) Set Time Aside - Make sure that you have a dedicated time to plan your meals set aside. If weekly works better for you set that time aside once a week, if you like monthly plans then by all means do that, but make sure that you give yourself a block of time.
3) Be Prepared - Before you start planning your meals make sure that you take inventory of your pantry, fridge and freezer to see what you have and what you need to use. If you use coupons also get all of those together and ready. Ask your family for any special requests. Is your spouse craving Mexican food, do your kids want more chicken. Look at your calender, what is your schedule looking like, you don't want to plan a bunch of new or difficult recipes if you have a week where you don't have time to make them.
4) Don't Forget the Sides - A meal is more than a main dish, don't forget to add the vegetables and starches that you want to serve with your main dish. Make sure that when you keep meals in your meal bank you also list appropriate and or favorite sides with the meal.
5) More than Dinner - Don't forget to plan options for breakfast, lunch, and snacks. They don't have to be as complete as your dinner plans, in fact you can just list sandwiches, leftovers, mac and cheese, cereal, bagels, etc. and go from there. This way you won't forget anything when you transfer it to your grocery list.
Here is an example of my meal plans for April 1-15, 2011.
Sour Cream Enchiladas
Chili Lime Meatballs
Pork Chops, Grilled
Baked Sweet Potato Coins
Broccoli and Cauliflower with Bread Crumbs
I hope that this has helped give you some ideas and direction for how to plan meals for your family. Sometime later I will talk about how to take those meal plans and translate them into a great grocery list.