3 Steps to Conquering the “What’s for dinner?” Blues

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It’s one of the most dreaded questions at our house and it used to happen every night. You’ve probably dreaded it, too…What’s for dinner? I’ve found an easy way to always have an answer. It’s the 3 step “What’s for Dinner?” Solution.  This little process saves me money, time, wasted produce and bad fast food decisions that kill my healthy eating goals and my budget.  

What’s the solution? Ya gotta have a plan. Spending a little time up front to plan will pay off big time in the long run.

This isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution. I mean, come on, every family has different schedules, different food needs (allergies, gluten-free, dieting, low carb, paleo, meat, no meat). But this plan will work for you because it works with you to cover all that good stuff that pertains to your own lovely, lovin’ family.  

BONUS help! There’s a link to a free of Meal Planning Printable Bundle, with weekly and monthly planning layouts and more, at the end of this post! In a hurry? You can grab it here.

Consider my husband’s experience with family meals.

(He’s quite a bit older than me so this dates back a ways. 😉

His mom had a meal for each day of the week.  Sunday night was sour kraut with spare ribs. Monday was spaghetti. Tuesday was pork chops, mashed potatoes and a canned veggie. Wednesday was mac  & cheese with ham and peas. Thursday was meatloaf with mashed potatoes and a canned veggie. Friday was Mrs. Paul’s fish sticks with tartar sauce and french fries. Saturday was soup and sandwiches. There were variations on holidays, but otherwise, that was pretty much it.  My husband jokes that you could tell what day of the week it was by what was on the table.

Now if you don’t mind a little monotony this plan could work for you. Imagine how easy grocery shopping would be. You’d always have the same list! Ouida (my mother-in-law) might have had something there. 🙂 

Even if you love to cook, who wants to do it after a hard day at work, then picking up the kids from sports practice, or running to a dentist appointment and all that other stuff we try to fit in on our way home from work.  

So if you are crunched for time, eating fast food more nights than you’d like, wasting money on produce that ends up spoiling before you can get to it, this plan is for you. The “What’s for dinner?”  meal planning takes a little upfront time. But once you get the bones of it down it will only take a few minutes a week to plan your meals and create your grocery list. Having a plan or a routine for recurring events in your life will often make things a whole lot easier and that’s important when you’re trying to simplify your life. 

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Live Like a Queen on your 9-5 Pay! Book cover and description.

So let’s get to the 3 easy steps of meal planning. 

 Pre-plan your dinner ideas

Step 1 – Pre-planning:

This is the big one and will take the most time. Do this on a Saturday, or whatever day you can carve out an hour or so.  

Here’s what you do. Figure out how many days a week you generally need to make dinner. This will depend on several things like how your family is with leftovers, if you have standing plans each week that means you aren’t home for dinner on a certain night, etc. Each week can be different I know, so you’ll have to do a general guess. If you want you can just plan for 5 weeknights or you can be like Ouida, and plan out all 7.

Consider what nights of the week tend to be the most difficult to get dinner on the table. Monday’s at work are always jam-packed for me and so I don’t usually end up in the kitchen until 6:30 or so. That may not seem late to some, but I get pretty cranky when I’m hungry and since I start getting hungry at 5:00 it’s not a pretty sight.

Mondays I need something that takes almost no effort. We do O.K. with leftovers, so I try to cook enough food with my Sunday meal so that Monday night is a heat it again and eat it again kinda night.

Caveat: My grown step-son will not eat leftovers. Even if it is half of a steak left over from a good restaurant, he’ll leave it there and not take it home in a doggie bag. I always love my leftover restaurant food. It’s like getting another great meal for free! Yaaayyy! But if your family won’t eat leftovers, and Monday’s a big work day for you, too, then consider making it “crock pot Mondays.”   

Here, let me give you an example of what plan works with our schedule.  

Monday  – Leftovers.

The extra I make on Sunday comes in really handy here. I add some bagged salad if we need more veggies.  

Tuesday – Crock Pot Meal 

I love the throw it in and cook it on low all day ease of the crockpot. Yes, there are those crock pot meals where you have to brown stuff first on the stove, etc. But I try to avoid those.

Crock pots aren’t just for meat dishes either. If you’re vegetarian or trying to do “meatless Mondays” the crock pot will work great.  I love the cookbook Vegan Slow Cooking for Two or Just for You. Granted if there are more than two of you-you’ll need to double the recipe and use the big crockpot, but it’s a great cookbook with lots of good recipes.  This post has 5 Super Simple Vegetarian Crockpot recipes that meat eaters will also love. 

Wednesday – It’s a Wrap!

Wednesdays tend to be a pretty busy day as well and tend to be more “dinners on the go” when we aren’t all eating at the same time. With It’s a Wrap Wednesdays, anything that goes in a wrap will work. It can be leftovers from crock pot Tuesday. It can be tuna salad and lettuce, it can be egg salad, whatever is fast and easy. Having that pre-washed bagged lettuce on hand is great here as well. You can make the wraps yourself if you have younger family members who may need help or do the “every man for himself” that we love to do. The food is there, wrap it when you want it!  

Thursday  – Frozen Skillet Thursday

Take a package of frozen veggies, add a protein (frozen) and add a sauce. If you are not worried about carbs you can throw the whole thing over pasta or rice. Having 3 or 4 different skillet meals that you all enjoy for this is really handy.  Also, if you can find a good frozen packaged dinner (and they are coming up with some pretty interesting ones) that fits your budget and your eating goals, then that would work, too.   I usually like to keep it simple, as far as not having a lot of extra preservatives and other junk. So if I have my frozen protein and frozen veggies and carefully chosen sauce, I usually prefer that. Check out 4 Easy One-Pot Dinners to Try this Month with ideas for easy skillet recipes for each Thursday of the month. 

Friday – Italian restaurant Friday

Who needs to spend money going out when you can make a great pizza or pasta dinner at home. It’s Friday! Celebrate and make it special without having to leave the house. Boil your pasta, heat up your frozen meatballs (or non-meat balls) and sauce and toss a bagged salad with some Italian dressing. Light some candles, dim the lights a little bit and play some great Italian music (ask Alexa to play Dean Martin songs for this) to set the scene, then relax and enjoy. You made it through the week!  

Prefer Mexican? Able to cook good Chinese? You pick. I like Italian because we love pizza or spaghetti on Friday night and it’s fun to put on the red and white checked table cloth,  light the candle in the Chianti bottle and relax with some music and wine.   Don’t forget to add the “atmosphere.” That’s what helps make it special.

Saturday  – Soup and salad

I love the smell of soup simmering on the stove all day when I’m at home and since Wisconsin has a lot of cold weather, soup usually works out well most times of the year. In summer I switch it up to cold soups sometimes or just make a “main entree” type of salad.  

Sunday – Sheet Pan Suppers

I’ve really been enjoying sheet pan suppers and when you plan them right you get enough ingredients to feed your family again for Leftover Monday! Check out these ideas for 4 easy and customizable sheet pan meals.

Those are examples of our days of the week meals and are just meant to start you thinking. Get a little creative and write out your own.  

Got them written down? O.K., good now browse through your favorite recipes to find ones that fit each day’s category.  If you can find 3 or 4 for each you’ll have variety and keep boredom at bay.  I try to keep the recipes fairly simple with relatively few ingredients.  That works best for me, less time to make, fewer things to buy on the grocery list. But you know your own stamina and energy for cooking after a long day at work.  



We’re almost done with the big prep.

One more step and you’ll be ready to choose your menu for this week.  

Get these recipes in a format so that you can have them handy. I have a couple dozen cookbooks (most of which I enjoy looking through more than I actually cook out of) so it can be hard to remember what recipe is where.

I like keeping my go-to recipes on recipe cards so that I can pull out the ones I need and easily build my grocery list each week. You could also take a picture of the recipe with your phone and then print it out so that it’s on a single sheet and easy to file under, Monday, Tuesday, or whatever night it fits into your customized plan.  

And presto! – You’re done with the pre-planning. That was the hardest part. 

 Dinner menu

Step 2  – Make your menu!

Now the fun part. Here’s what you do once each week. Pick a day to do your big grocery shopping. Just before your grocery shopping day pick a Monday recipe, a Tuesday recipe, etc. for the whole upcoming week, and then check your cupboards and pantry and write down ingredients you know you need. Be sure to include amounts because if you need onions for 3 recipes this week, putting down “onion,” may not leave you with enough for all 3 recipes. And having to run to the store for one thing at the last minute is NOT something I enjoy.  

Prepping dinner ahead of time


Step 3 – Prepping Ahead

Look at your recipes for the week and see if there is anything you can chop or grate or slice or prep ahead of time. I usually do this on a Sunday while I’m making my “sheet pan supper” and it works really well. Hey, my cutting board is out already and I’ve got the knife in my hand I might as well chop up a few extra things. I know for darn sure that I won’t feel like it Tuesday night!

If you want to go crazy, you can keep the onions you need for the “It’s a wrap Wednesday” separate from the ones you need for the homemade pizza on “Italian restaurant Friday”  and cluster a given meal’s prepped ingredients all together either in a ziplock bag or in little plastic dishes bundled together with a big rubber band.

It’s important your carefully measured and prepped food doesn’t get eaten by scavenging teenagers or husbands making their own lunch. And yep I label it with what night it’s for, so I know I’ve got what I need and am using the right amounts for a given dish.

And that’s it. When Thursday night rolls around and you’re getting the question, “What’s for dinner?” You’ll have the answer along with everything you need to whip it up and get it on the table in double quick time. Aren’t you glad you spent that time up front to plan? I’m pretty sure your budget and your healthy eating goals are! 

BONUS! Don’t forget to grab your free Meal Planning Printables Bundle here.

If your recipes are feeling a little stale and you’d like to try something new, check out 7 Quick & Easy Weeknight Dinners!

For 7 delicious and easy 3 ingredient dessert recipes check out 7 Ridiculously Simple 3 Ingredient Desserts BONUS – They’re vegan-friendly!

Have someone who needs to eat gluten-free? Check out 7 Awesome 3 Ingredient Gluten-Free Desserts!

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Looking for ways to simplify, chill and enjoy life more? Check out The Seven Days of Simplicity Action Plan. It’s helped so many people get started doing just that!


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