There are so many different ways to meal plan. There is the Once a Month cooking method, where you cook an entire month's meals in the course of a day, or a few days. There is the method of rolling foods, where you bake something like a chicken one night, and then make chicken tacos, the next night, chicken noodle soup the next night, etc. And then, there is meal planning mostly separate meals, but planning in advance so that you know what you will be making that night AT LEAST in the morning and know that you already bought the ingredients on your weekly grocery trip (right? No more running to the store every day for missing items!) You, your husband, and your children will all be thrilled with the predictability of your planning, and you will enjoy the blessings of a new routine that will encourage harmony in the family and peace in the home.
First, you want to determine if there are any known foods that you need to refrain from bringing into the home (food allergies, sensitivities, etc.). Make sure to plan your meals to avoid these items, making substitutions where necessary. Second, you need to choose which type of meal planning you wish to follow and then make your plan according to that style. I like to do a combination of the three, making larger quantities of some things, knowing I will use the leftovers in the next day's meals (for instance, if I am making Black Bean soup one night, I will make extra black beans for tacos or black bean burgers another night, that way I only have to cook the black beans one time...yes, we use dried, not canned beans, since they are MUCH cheaper!) Third, get familiar with the recipes you already have on hand and categorize them (there is again a variety of ways to do this, but I grouped mine into something like stews/soups, lasagnas/pastas, pizza, burgers, one-pot meals/casserole, chili, etc. since I found I had a lot of recipes in these categories, but you could also do something like bean meals, meat meals, chicken meals, etc.)
Once you have your recipes organized into some grouping, begin taking out or noting the ones you know are tried and true for your family. Start with these. If our family just loves pasta, see what other kinds of variations you can come up with: different sauces, add some different vegetables, mix in some squash or beans, etc. If your family enjoys meat, grain, and veggies all separated out, determine a rotation for different meats/grains/veggies to keep things new. Try to keep your weekly night's meals fairly similar, such as Monday is Soup Night, Tuesday is Lasagna Night, Wednesday is Casserole Night, Thursday is Meatloaf Night, Friday is Pizza Night, Saturday is Burger Night, and Sunday is Musko Night (everything MUST GO!...i.e., Leftover night, but it sounds better as Musko, doesn't it?) There are so many variations to all of these groupings that any style of eating can fit within it (even vegan!) I recommend including inexpensive food options in your meal plans to help stretch your budget. The BEST items for this are legumes! Lentils and beans are super cheap and help to stretch a meal. They are nutritionally dense, so having these as the heart of the meal a few nights a week will absolutely reduce your spending. Always make sure to have a vegetable of some kind in your meal, whether in the dish itself, or as a side. These can be fresh, frozen or canned (in water, no or low sodium). If you are not the biggest veggie fan, now is the time to train your palate to appreciate these super healthy and good for you foods! They do NOT have to taste like dog food...at all!
With this plan in hand, sit and figure out what ingredients you have in the house, and what you will need to buy. The more week's you plan for in advance, the cheaper your groceries will be in total. You will pay less for a larger amount than you will by buying smaller amounts more frequently. The only items that will not work great for this is your perishables, so you will want to plan for weekly purchase for some of these to keep them fresh (to help with ensuring great produce usage, keep your meals rotating with produce spoilage in mind...see my post on this topic here). Of course, if you grow some of your produce, you will definitely have fresh and cheap produce on hand as needed, too =0) Now, armed with a grocery list, head to your local store and buy the ingredients you will need for your planned meals. You no longer will be making decisions about ingredients on the fly, which will ultimately lead to lowered spending for foods.
Once you have a week's plan figured out, you could take the initiative and plan out a rotation of foods for the entire month, or for two weeks, or just stick with one week at a time (this is a great way to start). As you become more and more familiar with and accustomed to planning your meals, you can expand your plan as desired. At this point, I have slowly progressed to a four week rotation with each night of the week containing a meal from a focused grouping of foods. Ours goes: Sunday night is Pizza or Pasta Night, Monday night is Soup or Stew Night, Tuesday night is Lasagna Night, Wednesday night is Burger Night, Thursday night is Chili Night, Friday night is One-Pot/Casserole Night, and Saturday night is leftovers. I have also planned a rotation for breakfasts and lunches. In this season with everything being a bit off with Zach, though, this plan is not really followed, but it is an anchor to which I can return when needing a meal idea in a pinch. I hope this gives you some guidance and ideas to get you started in your meal planning journey!
I am sorry this is sooooo blurry, but my computer which contains the file is broken right now, so the best I could do was to snap a picture. I will update it when I can with a clearer picture, if not the original file! I still hope it helps =0)