How I Meal Plan for our Family of Five (Day in the Life Series)

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Today we are talking about all things meal-planning, shopping, feeding hungry teenagers, and meal-prepping for our very busy family!

I kind of skipped over what we eat and meal planning in my Day in the Life post two weeks ago because I knew I’d be following up with a longer post about it this week. Each month Christy and I have chosen a topic to write about along the lines of the Day in the Life series and this month we are talking about how we meal plan. She’ll be back in a week or so with her post on how it works in her family.

While every family is different, we definitely cover run the gamut of tastes, diets, life situations right now in our house.

Here is the rundown:

My husband–a healthy eater, eats mostly protein and fruit/veg.

Me–gluten-free, sugar-free (except for chocolate!), I eat organic, nothing processed and only natural meats.

Son #1– Teenage boy, he loves meat, eating out and has very little time right now now to cook for himself as a high school senior.

Son #2–Teenage boy, he’s heavily involved in high school athletics, eats pretty much anything I give him (but doesn’t want to make it for himself!) and seriously needs to gain weight. He forgets to eat (how is that possible?), he loves pasta.

Daughter–eats very little, snacks here and there and pretty much could care less about food.

OK–all that being said– I learned a long time ago that I absolutely have to meal plan. Otherwise, dinner is from a drive-thru or chicken nuggets which gets expensive and old quickly. We still do some of that, of course, but for the most part I try to start each week with a plan. One of the major reasons I force myself to make a plan is that I get really sick of going to the grocery store! Having a plan of what we are going to eat, making a list and shopping from it drastically cuts down on the trips that I have to make to keep five people fed each and every day.



My system is always evolving, but I have a few tools that really help me manage dinner each night. Let’s be honest, even if you like to cook coming up with a crowd-pleasing, healthy, easy dinner every single darn night gets old really fast.

About a year ago I created a meal binder and it has been so helpful. Meal planning is so much easier when I don’t have to come up with the ideas for what we are going to eat, so I started a list on a piece of notebook paper of everyday meal/dinner ideas then added to it as they came to me over the course of a few months. These are our family’s go-to recipes, things almost everyone likes that are simple to make. So now to meal plan, I grab a piece of paper, review the list of ideas I created, and then I decide on a week’s worth of meals. I keep the recipes in the binder behind the list so I can then flip to them while I make up a grocery list.


{This Chicken Salad recipe is available HERE}

I admit this took a little upfront work but it’s been so worth it. I know where I can find every recipe, and when I need a dinner idea I just open the notebook. I used this durable notebook (with pretty gold hardware!) since I wanted to keep it for years to come. I own this inexpensive laminator, so I ran the list of meals through it along with the recipes I make most often. I printed most of those off the internet (a few family ones I had to retype but that didn’t take long) and I used a 3- hole punch then inserted them in the binder. It is so handy, I keep it right on the counter in our kitchen and refer to it all the time. I should mention the only things in the binder are really our tried and true recipes, not things I hope to try ‘someday’.



In the back of the binder I also keep my monthly meal lists. This is the way I used to meal plan, and this way also worked really well. I use dividers to create sections in the notebook (dinners, salads, side dishes, entertaining, meal lists) and in one section I have lists going back 5+ years of what I’d planned each month. To do this I took a piece of paper, made a list of numbers 1 through 31 (or however many days the month had) and noted anything special on the dates when it might impact dinner such as having guests or a holiday. Then I listed out dinner ideas, I rarely did the whole month in one sitting, usually, I worked in about 10-day increments.  Now I can look back at the recap of what we’d eaten and they give me inspiration for summery type meals in the summer, etc.



I also have a small section in this binder for parties and entertaining, when I make a menu for a holiday like Thanksgiving I keep in there to make it easier to look back. This way I can copy the parts of it I want to use from year to year.



I am going to list some of our family favorite dinner ideas in a minute but a few more thoughts on where I get ideas of what to make. I keep a Pinterest Board entitled “Dinner Ideas” so if I see a good recipe I just pin it there, when I feel like trying something new that is my go-to for ideas. I also follow a few food blogs and have every single cookbook the Pioneer Woman and Ina Garten have written (and Ree Drummond has a new cookbook coming out in October yay!).



I grocery shop primarily at BJs (which is like Costco) and stop in Harris Teeter to fill in the gaps. Feeding teenage boys is no joke, so I have to be smart about keeping food in the house in addition to making meals that work around their schedules. It is hard for us to sit down together most nights right now, unfortunately, but we try to make it a priority on the weekends.  I keep a running grocery list on a clipboard in my kitchen, or I use a cute notepad if I have one on hand. If I am making a large trip, I take the time to rewrite my list in the way I learned from Ina Garten. I separate the list into categories based on the way the grocery store is set up. That way I don’t have to walk from one end to the other just because I forgot to grab a lemon. I know this seems like an extra step but if it saves one trip across the store it’s worth it! I also try to always take a picture of the list because odds are I’ll forget it when I go shopping anyway.


So, here are some of our very favorite, easy, kid-friendly dinner recipes.

#1 Hash Brown Beef & Cheese Casserole. My kids request this, random high school boys have been known to polish this off if they find leftovers when they visit! It’s high in calories but is a great comfort food and it reheats beautifully. Making this tonight!

#2 Spaghetti with Parmesan Meatballs. I make a large batch of these ahead and freeze them, then I drop them in sauce with pasta and shredded parmesan for pasta or sandwiches.

#3 Chicken/Bacon/Ranch. No recipe needed for this one but my kids seriously love this. We grill chicken breasts and top them with chopped bacon, bottled ranch dressing and a sprinkle of cheddar cheese. So easy, I serve shredded hash browns on the side with a vegetable.

#4 Crock Pot Chili. My friend Kara’s recipe, I love this healthy chili because it is so versatile. You can eat it like chili, thin it with broth for a soup or we spoon it over chips and top with cheese for yummy nachos.

Crock Pot Mexican Chicken Chili

An easy, healthy mexican style chili perfect for fall or with nachos, can even be a soup base

Course dinner
Cuisine American
Keyword chili


  • 1 onion chopped (optional)
  • 1 16 oz can black beans
  • 1 16 oz can tomato sauce
  • 10 oz frozen corn
  • 2 14 oz cans tomatoes & green chilis
  • 1 packet taco seasoning
  • 1 T cumin
  • 1 T chili powder
  • 3 to 4 boneless chicken breasts chopped


  1. cook chicken in pan or place in heated crockpot (on high), add ingredients and stir. Cook 1 hour on stove, or in crockpot then turn heat to low.

    Can add chicken broth to create more of a soup


#5 Red & White Tortellini

My friend Cindy made this when I had a baby and it’s become by go-to dish when I bring a meal to friends with children. It’s literally the easiest thing to make as there is no pre-cooking required. You could add to this with spinach or meat too.

Easy Tortellini and Cheese Casserole

The fastest recipe ever, great for kids! Simple to make and just 5 ingredients. Great to make ahead, freeze and bring to someone who is in need of a meal.

Course dinner
Prep Time 5 minutes
Cook Time 1 hour


  • 2 10 oz packages of cheese tortellini
  • 28 oz of favorite spaghetti sauce
  • 1 cup water
  • 12 oz jar of alfredo sauce
  • 2 cups shredded mozzerella cheese


  1. Preheat oven to 350

  2. In glass baking dish, mix tortellini, spaghetti sauce and water. Make sure all pasta is coated well with sauce.

  3. Drop cheese sauce in spoonfuls over casserole

  4. Cover with mozzerella cheese

  5. Cover tightly with foil and bake for 350 degrees for 1 hour.

  6. Uncover and bake for 10 minutes until tender and cooked.

  7. can be frozen and cooked later

#6 Mexican/taco chicken. This is one of the easiest ways to always have something ready to eat for dinner. I drop 3-4 large chicken breasts into the slow cooker on high with a jar of tomatoes (either mexican flavor or regular) and cover with chicken broth. Then you add a packet of taco seasoning and let it cook, after an hour turn it down to low and continue to let cook until it pulls apart easily. Once it is done, let it cool a bit and then shred with two forks, use immediately or keep to serve in tacos, enchiladas, soups or quesadillas.



#7 Easy Mac and Cheese–I often serve this with ham or meatloaf and this week I am going to try to mix it with ground beef per my son’s request, it sounds like it will be good to me.



I also try to keep the menu on the wall chalkboard on the kitchen it saves me from a ton of “what’s for dinner” questions and braces them ahead of time if I have something planned that they may not be a fan of.


So that is my process, I try to sit down and do this at some point on Sunday afternoons (you can read my Sunday Routine post below). What dinner ideas and systems should I know about? I’d love to hear!

For more Day in the Life read these posts below.

Creating A Sunday Routine

Day in the Life -Christy (School Day)

Day in the Life-Amy  (School Day)

Day in the Life-Christy (Summer Day)


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  1. Amy, I would seriously pay money to have a copy of your binder! The lists, I mean. Have you ever thought about scanning in the list of main dishes and a few months’ worth of your calendar of meals? You really could sell them, I think. . . Bless you for taking the time to describe your process!

    • Thank you, that might be worth giving consideration. I wish I’d saved them all when I typed them up 🙂 Sadly when I went to find them to link them they were gone. It is a great idea and you are sweet to share it, I hope you are doing well! XO, Amy

  2. robin L cobb says


    • Yes–great question. I don’t have to be pure about my gluten intake, I just do better without it but yes, I substitute gluten-free pasta for me or sometimes something like “zoodles” (zucchini noodles). As you can see from our family’s preferences I do wind up making meals with options for everyone, like my husband will skip the pasta altogether and eat the meatballs with sauce. I am grateful there are so many more GF options these days, you definitely have to be very careful with celiac (I am so sorry) we have family members who battle that so I know it’s a struggle. I do have to skip some of these, like sadly the tortellini is a no-go for me but my kids love it! XO, Amy

  3. Wow! You are so organized my head was spinning reading all this but what a time saver!!. I wish I’d known all this when my kids were home. I did do a simple menu each week, because I, too, got tired of the “what’s for dinner” question. I posted it on the refrigerator and if they didn’t feel like spaghetti tonight but some other dish, we swapped it around. I’m going to use some of your recipes for my picky DIL and two of her kids! lol actually all your recipes sounded good though and I will be trying them.

  4. This was such a great post! One that I can relate to and challenges me….I am *so* bad about making dinner for my crew b/c I sincerely could take it or leave it. It’s the “coming up with the ideas” that is so hard 😉
    Great tips….I know it’s better for us all when I cook and we eat together (unfortunately only one other kid – out of four- ever makes any effort to cook for the family). So…thank you for the inspiration!!!

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