There are three main methods of meal planning. The methods can apply to the main meal, or to all meals including snacks. The best plan takes into account your schedule, storage space, and cooking style, and is flexible enough to accommodate the unexpected.
1. Daily Plan. This does not mean that you decide what to cook for dinner at 5PM, although you have a few ideas on hand for that possibility. For this plan you need a careful shopping list and a well-stocked pantry and freezer. Usually you decide the night before what you will cook based on the time available, leftovers or other items that need to be used up. You can take what you need out of the freezer to defrost in the refrigerator. It involves creativity, but it is the most flexible, allows for the freshest food, and is probably the most frugal. If you have elements of meals already prepared, you can make fresh daily meals in little time.
2. Weekly or bi-weekly plan. In this plan the shopping lists and recipes are spelled out in advance. There are websites who will send you suggestions, or you can make up your own. This can be good for people who are new to menu planning. However, you may be left with ingredients you can’t use (the remainder of that bottle of sauce that no one likes) or too many leftovers. It also doesn’t take into account shopping bargains. Generally, meals are all cooked fresh from scratch, so it can be time-consuming.
3. Once-a-month cooking. This works for people who are very busy on a daily basis, but can devote one or two days a month to cooking all of their meals. The meals need to freeze well. An additional freezer may not be necessary, but you will need plenty of room in the one you have. It involves careful planning and shopping. Keep in mind that you won’t want to refreeze leftovers once you have defrosted the meals. This method can be flexible, because if you find you have cooked too much you can leave the meals in the freezer for another time. Unexpected company might be a challenge, but you can always take out two meals if you have them or cook up something extra.
Other less common plans include cooking a large quantity of something and eating the same meals for a few days in a row, or limiting your menu to five or six different main dishes and always keeping those ingredients on hand.