How To: Customized Menu Planner

Meal planning can be one of the biggest challenges for a busy family – especially in situations like ours where the length of our day varies wildly depending on weather conditions (my husband has a primarily outdoor job) and traffic (we both have very long commutes). I have found that using our freezers and planning ahead for nights where no one wants to cook are a big factor in whether or not we can successfully plan to eat at home. And although I tried meal planning apps, calendars, lists, you name it, I never quite found one that fit all of our needs until I bit the bullet and made my own customized menu planner.
My problem with most of the meal planning tools I tried was that they were set up for “make this on Monday, make this on Tuesday, etc” and that never worked for us. I would look at what I was supposed to make that day, think “Well that ain’t gonna happen,” and then have no idea what else I could make and we’d end up going out. Do that a few times a week and you’ve got a fridge full of stuff going bad, and a guilt complex Marie Barrone would be proud of. Lists were a little better, but rewriting our favorites over and over was a pain. And then I got a little Pinspiration (of course) when I saw a photo frame meal planner.

Here is my supply list for the one that I made:

  • 1 photo frame with 8 sections (I found one for $10 at Walmart)
  • 1 set of dry-erase markers
  • A photo editor – the examples in the finished product photo were done on an iPad app called Coolibah, and the updated versions available for download at the end of this article were done in Canva. Both are free to get started, with in-app purchases for some of the design elements.
  • You could also use scrapbook paper and stickers if you were feeling crafty to make your backgrounds!

I have two sets of backgrounds that I use in my planner – a traditional set with the days of the week, and a set that is categorized instead of calendarized. I switch them out depending on our needs at the time. In the traditional set, my customization is a place to write down what I am putting in and out of the freezer, and what I need to prep for a future meal. The categorized versions are better for freezer management, because I can write down what I have in inventory at any given time. Here are some examples of the backgrounds I’ve made:

Breakfast & Drinksimage imageI also made separate categories to keep track of my frozen meals, 30 minute or less recipes, and casseroles that I could double and freeze for later.

Once the backgrounds are inserted into the frame, I have a reusable meal planner – just write directly on the glass and wipe off when something is used up! I like to use different colored markers to indicate what I have in the freezer, what I’m making with fresh ingredients, and what can be made entirely from pantry staples.


This is one of my favorite survival strategies – I can see at a glance what we have handy to make, get rid of used up or never-got-around-to-it recipes with a swipe of a paper towel, and plan ahead for a single week or a full month depending on what we need most at the time.

What is your go to method for planning meals? Do you batch them into categories, or follow a set schedule? Leave a comment, or join the discussion over on Facebook!


*Note: An older version of this post, written by the same author, originally appeared on Adventures in Neverland, the sister site to the Healthy Family Project.

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