Flexible Menu Planning for the Free-Spirited

menu planning for the rest of us!

I hate menu planning.

But homemade, nutrient-dense meals are not just going to show up on the dinner table all by themselves. Especially during this busy season.

Actually, I should say I used to hate menu planning. I was hating it because I was making this detailed plan that, invariably, I’d deviate from, and despite dinner being served on time, I’d still feel like a failure.

I was believing the lie that the more detailed a plan I made, the more chance I had for success. But success is more often found in simple systems that are easy to put on repeat.

What I needed was a flexible plan that took minutes to make and worked no matter what the week threw at me.

menu planning for the rest of us!

That’s when I developed the:

Flexible Menu System

This system takes less than 10 minutes once a week and gives me peace of mind and space to think about other things than food (glory!). It’s just 3 1/2 steps and will surprise you with how painless it is.

1. Jot down at least three dinners that sound appetizing in the next week.

I do this on a scrap of envelope or cardboard if I can’t find a notebook. If this feels like menu planning, trick yourself and call it a Wish List. I try to choose meals that are appropriate to the season, but sometimes I just don’t feel like it. So there.

Get meal ideas from:

  • recipes you’ve pinned on Pinterest
  • a magazine
  • a new cookbook
  • your favorite eCookbook
  • call a friend and hijack her menu plan (I’ve totally done this)
  • Poll facebook (always eye-opening!)

2. Add a few more family favorites to your Wish List.

You know, those meals you find yourself making every week because no one complains about seeing them again and again? (Ours weekly favorites are homemade pizza, anything wrapped in a tortilla, and anything grilled).

3. Jot down 3 breakfast ideas.

That’s all you’ll need because you’re gonna eat each of them twice, and the 7th day? We’re gonna be spontaneous (Yehaw!!!)

3 1/2. (Optionally) If your lunches need to be packable, jot down 3 lunch ideas.

But if you usually eat lunch at home–you get to skip this step! Lunches will be leftovers, mkay?

OK, that’s it. You just made a week’s meal plan. In less than 10 minutes. And you still have brains cells left. You gotta love it.

What’s that? That doesn’t look like much of a plan? Ahh, you see it’s enough–the rest is in the execution…

How to Execute your Flexible Menu System

Once a Week:

  • Think through each meal and jot down the ingredients you need to buy in order to create that meal. If you have a robust pantry and freezer, you may only need an item or two to complete each meal. If you haven’t shopped in a while, well then, it’s a good thing you’re making this list, right?
  • Go shopping and buy the stuff you need for the meals you’re in the mood for. Add or replace items in your cart if you see a good sale. The key is to be let your list guide but not bind you!
  • Bring Food Home. (Elementary, I know.) If you bought fresh meat, check the expiration date and toss it in the freezer if you don’t think you’ll be in the mood for it before the expiration date.


OK, now comes the most important part of being a free-spirited meal planner: for just 6 minutes each day, you will have to think ahead. Just 6 min. and then we can go back to being spontaneous as larks, OK? And this 6 min. is divided in two parts, so I know we can do it.

  • First 3 Minutes: As you’re making breakfast each morning, look at your day and make an educated guess how much time you’ll have to prep dinner, and what meal from your Wish List fits the day’s mood and meal requirements. Once you’ve decided, do one small thing to help prepare for that meal, like pulling meat out of the fridge, making salad dressing, or starting some dough to soak or rise. I’ve found that if I think about dinner just a little bit in advance and do just a teensy bit of advance preparation, the task of getting it on the table is much more natural and less stressful. It sometimes even feels fun. You’ve been warned. 
  • Second 3 minutes: As you’re cleaning up dinner, decide what you feel like for breakfast the next morning. Again, do one small thing to facilitate that meal before you leave the kitchen–setting pantry ingredients out, soaking grains, or even just setting the table. When you wake the next morning the hardest part of breakfast (trying to decide what to make while you’re still asleep) will be past you. It’s a feeling nearly as good as that first sip of coffee (or so I imagine, as  non-coffee drinker).

If you’ll take 10 min. a week to quickly brainstorm a few meal ideas, shop with a list, and incorporate just 6 minutes of forethought into each day, you will be setting yourself up for success in feeding your family well, and nobody got carpal tunnel from endless list making. Glory.

Do you think this flexible plan would work for you? Give it a try by listing 3 dinner ideas real fast in the comments. You’ll inspire my next menu planning session (thanks!), and maybe find something to add to your Wish List this week!

This post is an excerpt from my book Your Real Food Journey. If you like this simple system for streamlining your kitchen, you’ll love the rest of the book! Grab yours on Kindle or in full color paperback (qualifies for Amazon Prime free shipping!). Makes great Christmas gifts, too. 😉 

37 responses to “Flexible Menu Planning for the Free-Spirited”

  1. Tammy Avatar

    Trina! This is absolutely great advice and how I meal plan over and over again. Good job mama!

  2. Stephanie Hatfield Avatar
    Stephanie Hatfield

    Just the thought of Meal Planning is enough to put me cozy back under covers in fear of actually having to do it; like, seriously, these people eat three times plus three snacks EVERY SINGLR DAY. Oy, just the thought!

    So, I took your advice my friend, and as I have found so often, YOU ARE RIGHT. Things are some better, but I am definitely a work in progress. I love your cookbooks! Along with trying your recipes, I’ve found my go-to are HO-BO dinners, speghetti, white chicken chili & hummus veggie pizza.

    Love the sisterhood of your blog!!

    1. Trina Avatar

      This is why we need a plan, Stephanie! otherwise we have to think about cooking all the time! I want to think about other things than food! 😉

  3. Natalie Avatar

    Go-to meals: Grilled Cheese (usually with fresh veggies added) and Tomato Soup (home canned…sooooo good!), Tacos, Pasta with meat sauce, baked if I have time.
    My approach is very similar to this! Our weeks are so unpredictable, I gave up trying to pinpoint specific meals for specific days. I like to write a list of possible meals for the week, plan out the first few days, then reevaluate a few days later based on how many leftovers we have or other variables that have come up (mood, meals out, etc.). It’s pretty easy with just two of us right now, but I’m glad to see this system will work even as our family grows 🙂

    1. Trina Avatar

      Sounds like you are laying a great foundation of systems for your kitchen, Natalie!

  4. Christa sterken Avatar

    This is my kind of meal planning! We’ll be down from 4 to 2 people in a few weeks. I’ll need to learn a whole new way of cooking for our “family”, so this seems really doable for anyone!

  5. Ashley Avatar

    I have a very similar system, minus the 3 minutes each day (which is a great idea and I’ll try it out!). I wanted to share one hack that makes things even more simple for me. I keep a running list of meals on my phone. It lives as a “note” on my iphone and I write the meals I plan to make at the top of the list. That way (1) I don’t have to keep track of a piece of paper to remember what I’m making during the week, and (2) I can scroll back through previous weeks when I am stuck. My go-tos in my vegetarian household are butternut squash ravioli, tofu fried rice, homemade pesto pizza, and black bean tacos.

    1. Trina Avatar

      Ashley, that is a great tip! I’m gonna start doing that! And butternut ravioli? I’m comin’ over! lol

  6. Jennifer Avatar

    Breakfast is my nemesis, kids don’t like breakfast food :/ I will try your suggestion planning at night. Dinners: Chicken noodle soup (blend the cooked onions/carrots into the broth then add back picked chicken and noodles to boiling broth, all time family favorite). Mexican cornbread, Chicken Fettuccini Alfredo.

    1. Trina Avatar

      Jennifer: you have just solved a huge problem for me! I love soup, but my kids don’t like all the things floating in it. I’m going to try your blending trick asap! Thanks for sharing!

      1. Kelly Avatar

        That’s an awesome idea I’ll have to do that not only for my kids but for my husband too. Lol thank you.

        1. Trina Avatar

          You are so welcome, Kelly!

  7. Alisa Avatar

    Thank you!
    I’ve done a bfast menu on fridge for a year now, fairly successfully. As a FT 9-530 working mom… Harder to navigate dinner when you get home at 530pm and put kid to bed at 730.
    3 fav meals: meatballs and pasta, lentil soup, miso salmon & Swiss chard.

  8. […] Flexible Menu Planning for the Free-Spirited @ trinaholden.com […]

  9. Sarah F Avatar

    I just found this blog and I have to say I love you already. (And I probably sound like a creepy Internet stalker. I’m not. Promise.)

    So I have actually be doing this (minus the 6 minutes a day thing sometimes) because hey-O actual “meal planning” just took too much time/though so I made this little hybrid.

    And I have to say it works amazingly well. I’ve got some tweaking, but I love it. SO thanks for validating my free-spiritedness (and giving me some tips for improvement).

    1. Trina Avatar

      Hooray for free-spirits being validated! A friend’s blog post did that for me just last month regarding my style of freezer cooking (which is not Once a Month, but rather, “when I can hack it” yet it works for me!)

      Excited to have you hear, Sarah!

  10. Melanie Avatar

    I never thought of myself as free-spirited, but this is so how I plan! Enjoyed the post! Our go-tos: enchiladas, spaghetti, sloppy Joe’s.

    1. Trina Avatar

      See? I knew this was a great idea–I’ve gotten my menu plans for the week from this convo! I’m making enchiladas tomorrow! Thanks, Melanie! 😉

  11. Catherijn Avatar

    I should probably give this a try – everything works so much better when I plan things! We swing between no planning at all and a full-on plan (only one meal a day, though – lunch is easy, except when Ze Husband is at home and needs feeding too…). We’re currently on week 3 of a three-week plan which has been working pretty well, mostly because we don’t feel obliged to stick to it and we shift things from day to day as needed.

  12. Katie@SimpleFoody Avatar

    What a great post! I loved it and maybe I can put some of these things into practice.

    1. Trina Avatar

      Katie, I do hope it helps! I’ve enjoyed hated menu planning less since allowing myself this freer approach.

  13. beth@redandhoney Avatar

    Best menu-planning post EVER. Loved this with a passion. 🙂 🙂 🙂

    1. Trina Avatar

      Thanks, Beth! Lovely to have you stop by. 😉

  14. Stephie N Avatar
    Stephie N

    We decide in the morning what we want for the day, and bam we eat what’s in the house, I don’t pull my hair out and all is well, the only problem is days like today when I started the brand for dinner last night, threw then in the cockpit in the am and then. . . Ended up rating dinner at my parents house across town because of crazy silly circumstances beyond out control. . . But my family’s favorites are pizza chili Greek food lasagna and my prego self likes nothing acidic mostly bland non heartburn causing food. . That I can’t seem to get. . . Lol

    1. Stephie N Avatar
      Stephie N

      Beans* gotta love predictive text on the phone!

    2. Trina Avatar

      Stephie, I’d love to hear more about what greek dishes your family enjoys?

      1. Stephie N Avatar
        Stephie N

        we really love gyros and chicken shwarma and Mediterranean rice with pickled beets and Greek salad lately I’ve been experimenting with making sourdough naan, I’ve yet to perfect a recipe, but it’s turned out to be good flop bread anyways!

  15. Stephie N Avatar
    Stephie N

    This is what I’ve come to doing as well! I have never been good at rigid meal planning. When the day comes to make a mask I’m never in the mood for that meal, etc. midst of the time I’ve always felt like I wasted a whole lot of food and time! Now I have three lists on the fridge, breakfasts, lunches, dinners

  16. Florence Avatar

    I’ve just recently been working at meal plans more consistently…but I don’t always stick to them!! So I like your way of doing it… A LOT!!! 😉 And I also like your 6 minutes & 10 minutes of forethought…that would be very helpful too! Thanks. A few of our ‘staple’ meals have been spaghetti & salad; chicken, rice & broccoli; and sweet & sour meatballs with rice & veggies!!

    1. Trina Avatar

      Oh, yum–we just had sweet and sour meatballs the other night. I hadn’t made them in a while, and realized I need to put them in the rotation more often. 😉 Thanks for your meal ideas, Florence!

  17. Stephanie Kay Avatar

    I’ve tried all manner of menu plans. Right now I plan for the month but shop for the week. Knowing that Friday is pizza night, Saturday is chocolate chip pancake night (thanks to hubby!), and Sunday is Your pick night, only leaves me with 4 meals a week to plan. My kids love the routine of Friday-Sunday meals and I love that the meals take little effort on my part. 🙂

    1. Trina Avatar

      sounds like you have a great plan going on, Stephanie!

  18. Lisa Avatar

    It’s funny – I’m a planner and obsessive list maker. Yet I still find meal planning much more of a “burden than blessing.” I dread it! But if I don’t have a plan then I worry during the day about what I’ll make. I like baking. But cooking dinner – I just find that overwhelming for some reason.

  19. Stacie Avatar

    You know, we never had a chance to discuss this, but we are just 2 peas in a pod in several ways. This is exactly the kind of meal plan that I enjoy. I have printed out sheets of 7 day plans for Breakfast, Lunch, and Supper and filled out 1 or 2 days……but I never could stick with it! And I would use the exact word….Free Spirited….to describe so many of my habits. It is hard to be free spirited and still remember to plan things with details. And I think you summed it up exactly! Your comments are exactly the goals I keep in mind. The goal is find the happy medium that works for you! LOL

    1. Trina Avatar

      Stacie, such a treat to have you visit me here on the blog! I look forward to more opportunities to find out what else we have in common. 😉

  20. Beth @ Turn2theSimple Avatar

    Love this! I do something between this and a rigid menu plan… my family really likes the same favorites…so those get made a lot… chicken with rice and gravy, meat loaf, chicken wild rice soup, scrambled eggs, anything with a tortilla to wrap.

  21. Elizabeth @ DogFurandDandelions Avatar

    I’ve been doing something similar for a while now, and love how much it helps – without making me feel “fenced in” to certain meals on certain days. I thrive on spontaneity in the kitchen, but picking out a few meals for the week, rather than plunking them on specific days, helps save time and money. I can plan around whatever excess we have in the pantry, and then match coupons up for those meal ideas. It also reminds me to ask hubby for any requests he has, and run new recipe ideas by him (since he’s kind of a picky eater).

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *