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The Six-Meal Shuffle: Extremely Simplified Meal Planning

by Meagan Francis on November 2, 2010

six meal shuffle The key to sane menu planning: make it as brainless as possible.

Yesterday I announced that November’s topic here at The Happiest Mom is food. As I looked at the comments that followed the post, I realized that four factors go into mastering the art of feeding a family well, and they are:

  • Planning
  • Preparation
  • Know-How
  • Time

We all have different strengths (and weaknesses.) Some of us are great planners but can never seem to find time to execute said plans. Others know how to cook but constantly find themselves missing some crucial ingredient or other. So this month we’re going to talk about all four factors, one at a time.

Today’s post is going to be specially geared toward those who need help with planning, though I think even those people with a plan can always benefit from taking a closer look at it.

If you’re overwhelmed by all the choices, spices, recipes, and suggested meal plans you see on TV, in magazines and on the Internet from day to day, I want you to first embrace this idea: there’s nothing wrong with repetition. Yes, variety can be a great thing. I love cookbooks and cooking shows. But when you’re already struggling to make a meal plan and stock your fridge and pantry with enough basics to keep your fingers off the pizza-delivery speed dial button, choices aren’t always your friend. And if your cooking skills are shaky, too many recipes–equalling too much to learn–can be overwhelming. Look at it this way: Even if you make the exact same meals over and over, it’s a lot better than resorting to fast food or over-salted, preservative-laden boxed and frozen meals.

After all, it’s well and good to dream of whipping up imaginative, creative menus each week, but it’s only too easy to give up and turn to the ubiquitous blue box when life with kids gets in the way of you living up to your culinary fantasy.As with anything else, in meal planning it’s only too easy to let the perfect be the enemy of the good-enough.

This is the idea behind the Six-Meal Shuffle. Six basic meal categories, with a day off for leftovers, take-out or those busy “everybody fend for yourself” nights. The beauty is that you can adapt it to match your family’s lifestyle and your own skills, preferences and confidence levels. Insecure cooks or those who need to keep things really simple can literally make the same six meals over and over. Those who want a bit more variety can create broader categories and then experiment within those categories. The structure is actually freeing, because you can say to yourself, “Okay, Tuesday is pasta night. I’m sick of spaghetti. What can I do that’s more exciting?”

If you’re coming from no-cooking-whatsoever land, you might say “My kids love canned chicken-noodle soup. Wednesday is soup night. Maybe I’ll plan to make my own.”

There’s nothing that revolutionary about the idea of planning your week’s meals ahead of time. But I’m asking you to put a lot of thought into how you map out your Shuffle so that it makes everything easier down the road–and so you’ll actually stick to it. If you make a plan that really takes your family’s schedule and preferences into account you’ll find after a while that everything becomes simpler. You can get in and out of the grocery store in a half hour because you know exactly what you need. Your pantry becomes neater because you always know exactly how much of each item you’ll need to have on hand. (By the way, if you’re starting this project with a disaster area of a pantry or cupboards, it may help to tackle that issue first. Read my Pantry Makeover post if you want inspiration.)

For example, my Six-Meal Shuffle looks like this:

  • Monday: Traditional meat-starch-veg meal–chicken, rice, and broccoli, for example, or salmon, green beans and quinoa. Knowing this meal is on my list, I can make a quick decision on shopping day based on sales at the meat counter and which produce is in season.
  • Tuesday: Ethnic food (on a rushed day, this could be as simple as black-bean tacos. When I’ve got more time, I might try an Indian recipe or something more adventurous. But I’ll always have black beans and tortillas on hand, just in case!)
  • Wednesday: Soup night. Wednesdays are busy because two of our boys go to a church youth group for most of the evening; soup can easily be slurped down before they go or re-heated and served when they get home. Or both.
  • Thursday: Pasta Night. By Thursday, I’m feeling week-weary. Pasta is easy, familiar, comfortable, and adaptable to my mood and energy levels.
  • Friday: Homemade pizza. Dad makes this in our house, usually with the boys’ help. Sometimes it’s plain ol’ cheese and pepperoni; other times we get more adventurous–especially if we’re having company over.
  • Saturday: Free Day. We tend to do a lot of housework and/or running around in the early part of Saturday, then spend the rest of the day lying around like sloths. A perfect day for Jimmy John’s, takeout, frozen nuggets & fries, or that old standby, breakfast-for-dinner.
  • Sunday: Slow meals. Sunday is our most laid-back day so it fits naturally here. It took me a long time to learn it’s not always feasible to start a pot roast at 3 PM on a Tuesday!

The great thing about the Shuffle is that on those weeks when I’m tired, overwhelmed and cranky, I can do a no-brainer recipe on every single one of these. I can also adapt the meals quickly to suit the kid and adult preferences in the house–for example, on Mondays, I might make plain chicken legs for the kids but a special sauce for Jon and I. Knowing in advance how the week is going to go makes it so much simpler to make decisions on the fly.

And while a food schedule seems a little rigid and potentially boring on the surface, it actually forces me to break out of a rut and cook those things I would otherwise always mean to, but rarely get around to. For example, I love preparing soup, I love eating soup…but I have to remind myself to actually make soup. It doesn’t require skill or complicated equipment, but it does require preparation (getting the ingredients) and time. My Six-Meal Shuffle will also vary depending on the season. For example, we do a lot of grilling during the summer. Pot roasts, not so much.

Your Shuffle might look quite different than mine. Maybe you’ll have a salad night in there. An egg-based dish night. Or more meat or rice and beans. Every meal doesn’t have to be perfectly balanced–think of your diet as something you balance over the course of a whole day or even a week, not from hour to hour. Again, don’t overlook good enough on a quest for perfection! The goal is to avoid last-minute drive-thru runs and dinner-time stress, not to blow anyone away with a perfect menu.

Even if you already meal plan, I’d love you to spend some time thinking about your typical week and where certain types of meals might fit best. Have you been trying to fit a square meal into a round hole on occasion? Is there a way to simplify your planning in order to streamline your life?

The Six-Meal Shuffle is only one piece of the pie when it comes to getting your act together in the kitchen: the planning portion. You still need preparation, know-how, and time. But one thing at a time!

I’ll be back tomorrow with a recipe for delicious and in-season squash soup. In the meantime, I want to know–what meals or categories would go in your Six-Meal Shuffle?

{ 30 comments… read them below or add one }

AnnaE November 2, 2010 at 8:15 am

I love it! I already do a meal plan for the week so we don’t spend too much on the weekly shop, but I often find myself sitting there struggling to make a list of meals and wasting time asking my husband ‘What might you like to eat this week?’- he can never think of food until he’s actually hungry! So the idea of categories for each day is great. I’d definitely also have the pasta and pizza nights, both based on the tinned tomato based sauce I make large batches of and use for everything. When we’re feeling rich, our Sunday slow meal of choice is roast chicken, with all the leftovers used up in lunches through the week. We’d probably also have a sausage night (veggie ones for me) , either with mash or in a casserole and a fish and potatoes night- our current favourite is an idea from a TV show on in the UK, where you make chunky chips of potatoes, parboil them, then roast them in the oven, adding fish to the roasting pan for the last fifteen minutes or so.

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MamaShift November 2, 2010 at 8:30 am

Chicken Stock Night (that night would be for eating the breast meat somehow)
Chicken Noodle Soup Night (my oldest adores my chicken soup and said she would want it shipped to her in a care box when she leaves home!)
Pasta Night Fersure
Some Kind of Roast Night would be a good thing for me to add, like on Sundays
Veggie Soup Night

I’d love a pizza night but never have seemed to fit that in. Also, I just thought of another of my greatest challenges as a cook: creating full meals. I do a lot of good things like soups, risottos, pasta dishes, etc. But I rarely serve a full meal, ie. side dish, bread rolls (or something similar), salad, etc.

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cagey November 2, 2010 at 9:19 am

Interesting! I always see it as a 9 meal shuffle – weekday dinners, but then we have lunch and dinner on the weekends, too. I try to keep our eating out or pizza night to not more than 2 nights a week, so that helps. I have found that if I don’t plan Saturday and Sunday as well, then we find ourselves eating an over-priced, fattening restaurant meal.

This is a great article for someone to read and contemplate what sort of schedule works best in their own life. For example, I love the idea of “themes”! In our kitchen, every night is ethnic night, so your theme night could easily be tweaked to fit that. For example, I could have themes for type of ethnic (i.e. Indian vs Thai)

Again, I am really excited about this month’s theme!

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Meagan Francis November 2, 2010 at 3:04 pm

Cagey–spoken like a true foodie :) Our lunches are usually made on the fly, not planned at all–but maybe I’ll add that into the mix at some point!

Everyone, it’s so cool to see all these different shuffle categories! Fun to see the different ways we all eat (and the overlap, too.)

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Maman A Droit November 2, 2010 at 11:41 am

I like it. Maybe I’ll try this:

Monday: crock-pot roast (beef or pork-whatever kind’s on sale)
Tuesday: BBQ sandwich w/ shredded leftover roast meat
Wednesday & Thursday: spaghetti & salad
Friday: Tacos (w/ leftover onion, peppers, & lettuce from spaghetti nights)
Saturday: chicken-baked breasts or nuggets
Sunday: fun night-waffles, omelettes, pizza, eat-out

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Callie November 2, 2010 at 12:13 pm

Thank you so much for this post!! I’ve been working on getting a plan in place for our menus and this has given me a lot of good ideas!

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Kristen @ Motherese November 2, 2010 at 12:46 pm

Oh, how this post warms the cockles of my Type-A planning heart! I always plan out our week’s meals the night before I head to the grocery store, but I tend to overload us with pasta dishes. (We’re vegetarians and it’s my easiest quick fix.) Thanks for giving us such delicious food for thought!

Now…to tackle that pantry…

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Kiki November 2, 2010 at 1:09 pm

Was it Ernest Hemingway who said the first blank page of a novel was like staring down a white bull? That’s how I feel when I sit down to plan a week’s worth of dinners. So I’ve started an excel list of every meal I know how to make AND that has gotten positive reviews from my family. And I mean every meal; side dishes, main dishes, Hamburger Helper, nuked frozen vegetables, plain baked chicken, nothing is too humble for this list. It has helped to draw from a database of trusty meals rather than the ether, but it hasn’t quite clicked yet. The Shuffle may be the missing link! I think I’ll assign the meals on the list to different categories and then assign those categories to different days. Should be fun!

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Denise November 2, 2010 at 1:17 pm

Meagan, the longer I know you, and the more of your stuff I read, the more I think you are the recreation of my mother. Well, except my mom wasn’t a writer, and “only” had three kids.

We ate more or less the same things all the time, with variations. Saturday nights, we usually had steak, baked potatoes, and spinach (or another leafy veg like swiss chard or escarole). Fridays was fish — flounder, or linguine with clam sauce. Sundays was pasta, meat sauce, maybe also roast chicken if people were coming over. The rest of the week was a rotation of things like chicken, rice, a vegetable. Or spare ribs, potato, a vegetable. You get the idea. Always a salad, and always fruit after dinner. I do more or less similar things. Of the topics you plan to cover in this food-themed month, it’s TIME I most need to pay attention to!
Tonight’s dinner: breaded chix cutlets, baked potatoes, salad, probably peas.

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Leah November 2, 2010 at 1:27 pm

This is so cool – I basically do this, but seeing it written out like this makes it seem so… organized! Maybe I’ll post a variation of this on the fridge to keep everyone on the same page – my husband is always asking what’s for dinner at like 10am when I usually don’t really know until 4.

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Olivia November 2, 2010 at 1:36 pm

Kiki, we keep a list with all the favorite meals my husband and I make. When we find ourselves feeling tired of the same old, same old, it comes in handy. We probably have 6 or more basic meals in shuffle every week. There’s beans every Friday, then a soup/stew, pasta, pork chops or steak, turkey w/sweet potatos, veg omlette and fries or plantain, and then one night with an infrequently prepared meal or a new recipe. But they aren’t assigned a specific day, so I think incorporating this idea might make the early morning “What do we want to defrost for tonight?” question a little easier.

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Olivia November 2, 2010 at 3:53 pm

Hi there Meagan! I’m probably your most random reader- an 18-year-old girl from Australia- but I just had to tell you I love LOVE your blog and you have so many fabulous ideas from which EVERYONE can learn, not just mothers! I love how you are always striving to be better and do more, it’s so inspiring. So anyway, this is our family’s weekly plan:

Monday: protein and heaps of veggies
Tuesday: pasta and salad
Wednesday: crustless vegetable quiche and veggies/salad
Thursday: stir-fry (with variations including type of meat used and rice/noodles/cous cous as base)
Friday: slack night- no-one is home, so usually scrambled eggs on toast or left-over quiche from Wednesday
Saturday: again, our family is older so everyone is usually out, so Mum often has soup and tasty crusty bread for us to fill up before going out.
Sunday: the best for last!! Homemade pizza cooked on pizza stones with toppings like roasted pumpkin, feta cheese, chicken, advocado, etc, etc.

So there is it! My Mum does the lion’s share and Dad does plenty too, but now us kids are older (ranging from 14 to 18), we also step up when we are home (pizza night is my speciality!). Thanks again for the awesome blog!

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Krystal November 2, 2010 at 8:23 pm

We are members of a CSA which pushes me to plan meals so we don’t do take out often. Mondays=casserole (ex. stuff a sugar pumpkin with ground turkey, onions, celery, tomatoes, and spices then bake and scoop), Tuesdays=tacos, Wednesday=soup, bread, and cheese, Thursdays=pasta with a salad or sauteed veggies, Fridays=homemade pizza (like you) or snacks (veggies, crackers, hummus, fruit) while we play a game, Saturdays and Sundays are our slow=cooker days so I can put the meal in and not worry too much about it (maximizing relaxation with the family). Thanks for a fun blog topic.

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ecoMILF November 3, 2010 at 3:23 am

Some really great and workable advise. I tend to plan meals seasonally. In the spring/summer I plan a lot of salads and cold pastas and fall/winter I do heavier meals like casseroles, pastas and soups. Thanks for the advice. xo m.

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cagey November 3, 2010 at 6:24 am

Oops. I would like to rephrase my statement because it sounded snooty. I LOVE over-priced, fattening restaurant food. Adore it! And I enjoy trying new restaurants with new foods that I can’t or don’t make at home. As such, I like to make those outside meals COUNT. I have found, if it is a planned trip, we make better choices. For example, I planned on taking my kids to a BBQ place yesterday. After all, I can’t smoke a turkey or do the coleslaw and fries like Oklahoma Joe’s does it (YUM) Conversely, if I don’t plan on eating out, invariably I end up doing the easy thing, like McDonald’s.

Ironically, we did eat Subway on Friday, but it was planned because I really, really wanted a Spicy Italian sub, something I would never, ever make at home. So that meal was actually a treat for us and I did not feel guilty eating it. :-)

I am big believer in planning on a few meals being eaten out (if that is your thing – the eating out, that is). Impulse eating is much like impulse purchasing, right?

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TheKitchenWitch November 3, 2010 at 7:03 am

I guess I have a Shuffle but I didn’t really know it! I definitely plan out meals before I shop for the week, but nights when my husband is on call are devoted to panini, pizza and omelets. Those nights are nice because I don’t have to think about it, you know?

I agree–planning is key.

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Meagan Francis November 3, 2010 at 9:03 am

Cagey, I didn’t think you sounded like a snob at all! I call most meals out with the family “The $100 disappointment” (that’s about what it costs to take all our kids to a mid-priced chain restaurant, and it’s rarely, rarely, RARELY worth it.)

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Kristen November 3, 2010 at 9:10 am

Thanks for this, Meagan – so easy – definitely going to try!

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Vera @ Lady and the Blog November 3, 2010 at 10:32 am

You are amazing!!! I love this idea and I REALLY want to start doing this more. We usually end up ordering in more than I would want to because I work too late.

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Dee November 3, 2010 at 12:34 pm

Love this! We have a meal plan that’s kinda cutesy, but the kids love it. Especially since a few days a week they can basically make their own dinners which is fantastic. I plan/shop two weeks at a time and fill in as needed (milk, fresh fruit and veg, bread).

Meatball Monday – Usually pasta.
Taco Tuesday – We use rice, beans, chicken, beef, turkey or any combination of these with hard tacos, tortillas, etc.
Wacky Wednesday – Leftovers or make your own meal.
Thirsty Thursday – Soup which can be anything from chili to grilled cheese and tomato soup.
Focaccia Friday – OK, this was a real name stretch. It’s basically pizza night. The kiddos love making french bread pizzas.
Sub Saturday – Sub sandwiches, also DIY.
Supper Sunday – This is our big fancy meal. I usually let DH choose what we should have.

The best part is that now, I never have to run around at dinnertime trying to decide what to make. It helps make our evenings run a lot more smoothly.

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Jennifer November 3, 2010 at 1:53 pm

I have a binder full of recipes organized around our dinner themes. I have a tab for each section: breakfast for dinner, beef or chicken, asian, mexican, pasta, and soup (for winter) or salad (for summer). I can try new recipes and if our family likes it, I add it to the binder. I make notes on the recipes so that if someone in our family loves the meal, I remember who it was have it again more often. Believe it or not, the favorite tab is breakfast for dinner since we are often too busy to have a big breakfast. This system has worked really well for us and we love it. We eat gluten free and on a budget, so eating out happens rarely.

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Jilly November 3, 2010 at 3:26 pm

Thank you. The above is very helpful. What about lunches? do you do cold lunches? Leftovers?

Take care.

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kate November 3, 2010 at 4:18 pm

Meagan, this is wonderful. I’ve been trying to write out a menu every week, but I like the idea of categories rather than exact meals, so that I can then plug in my menu rather than starting from nothing every week.

Our meals are probably 65% of the meat, 2 veg and starch variety, but we do throw in the sushi/burritos/curry nights and the occasional pasta.

Hmmm, I’m off to think this out on paper!

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Jenni November 3, 2010 at 4:23 pm

I’m very dedicated to meal planning. Ours usually looks like: soup night, vegetarian night, pasta night, homemade pizza night, new recipe night, slow-cooker night, leftover night. I love your shuffle!

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Amy @ Frugal Mama November 3, 2010 at 6:11 pm

Interesting: I never thought of meal planning using categories. It’s much more open than using specific dishes in the plan. I like it.

I usually alternate meat or fish with a vegetarian night, and I usually make pasta or risotto or polenta on the vegetarian night since hubbie is Italian. :-)

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Amber November 3, 2010 at 10:23 pm

I think I have an informal 6-meal-shuffle. It’s not laid out as well as yours, but it amounts to much the same thing. I like it. I could eat the same meal over and over again, so I’ll choose predictability over variety any day.

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Christine November 4, 2010 at 5:44 pm

I am a meal planner, sometimes it feels like the one thing in my week that I actually have control of. It doesn’t mean I always stick to it, but I try. Sometimes my mood changes things up! But I like this six theme concept and I think it might help make the planning easier. So thanks for the tip! I’m going to try it out. I’ve actually started a series on simplifying my life, and you’ve inspired me. I think this issue might be a future post!

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Elle @ Elle The Heiress January 5, 2012 at 10:14 am

I love this post, and I just want to say thank you for writing it. I am a terrible cook, so much so that I HATE cooking & being in my kitchen at all. I want to like it, and I want to be able to cook nice homemade meals for my family, but I end up failing everytime that I try. Part of the reason that I always fail is because I think that dinners I make need to be magazine-worthy. It makes me feel so much better to know that it is ok to make simple meals, and that I can stop relying on boxed or frozen meals for my family. Thank you for helping take the pressure off.

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countrymom November 14, 2012 at 11:46 am

Ditto what Elle said! I too HATE cooking – maybe it’s because I never feel prepared and get completely overwhelmed every other time I’ve tried meal planning. It can be discouraging to make a meal the kids won’t eat – frozen pizza seems much easier! But this inspires me to try again – because now I see it can be simple and won’t take up tons of energy! Thank you!

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Jamie July 25, 2013 at 10:43 pm

Y’all I am a Dave Ramsey girl, and we have been eating black bean burgers ($.15 a serving) for lunch and red beans and rice ($.20 a serving) for the last three weeks solid and it is the best thing ever. I thought I was making a huge sacrifice for the debt snowball and we’d all hate it, but we are healthier and happier and I’ve starting making headway on some other projects because I don’t have to run around trying to remember a gazillion ingredients all week long. Both of those things are slow cooker-ed from dried beans and mixed up on Sunday and I don’t cook lunch or dinner again until the weekend. I serve a different side with the beans and a different topping on the burger and voila! easy, healthy, CHEAP. We all feel better, too! I’m telling you, this is the jackpot of simplicity right here. :D

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