I'm going to lay out the basic more simplified (aka less crazy way), and my more in depth...super Type A....borderline insane way ;)
Basic Meal Planning MethodStep 1: Decide on seven dinners, three or four different lunch options (more if you don't like leftovers or repeats), and several snack options for the week (or however many meals you need between grocery store strips.
Step 2: Make a grocery list based on the dinner recipes, lunches and snacks. Make sure that you check the fridge and pantry to see what you already have on hand.
Step 3: Head to the store and get your groceries!
My Meal Planning MethodStep 1: Check the calendar to see what we have going on in the week ahead. This helps me make sure that I have some super simple/quick dinners planned for any days that are going to be hectic.
Step 2: Check the weather...see...I told you I was a little crazy ;) I swear there is a good reason for this! We live in Northern California, and the weather varies a lot from day to day. It could rain one day and be hot the next day. I wouldn't want to plan to use the grill if it's going to rain! I'd rather have soup or chili...or something that doesn't involve cooking outside ;) It only takes a minute to check it, and I'm always sorry when I skip this step.
Step 3: Check the fridge, pantry and freezer to see what we have on hand already that could be used for meals in the upcoming week. I hate to waste food, so I try to check and see if there is anything that needs to be used soon. We also buy a lot of non-perishables in bulk, and I try to incorporate those pantry staples into each meal (which helps up to spend less). If we are running low on any of our regular pantry staples those will be added to the list.
Step 4: Decide on seven dinners, three or four lunch options (for myself, my husband and my kiddos), and several snack options for the week. Some of the lunch options might be leftovers (depending on the dinners for the week).
Step 5: Make two grocery lists based on the dinner recipes, lunches and snacks for the week. One for the first half of the week and non-perishables, and one for the second half of the week. I make my shopping list on my computer. I have a word document that I update each week, and it has different categories based on where things are found in the store. That way we don't waste time going back and forth across the store (or down aisle where there isn't anything that we need).
Step 6: Make two shopping trips. We do two shopping trips each week (my hubby does one on the weekend and I do one mid-week) so that we can always have fresh produce, fish, etc. (we used to do one trip, but found too much was going bad before we could use it).
Now...I should add that our menu is pretty flexible. I choose seven dinners for the week, but I don't really care what day we have them on. If something on our weekly menu takes a lot of prep time I will try to make that for a weekend dinner (so that my huby is home to help with the kiddos). Most nights I just make whatever we're in the mood for. Every once and a while I'll be in the mood for something that I didn't plan for. When that happens I try to use what we have on hand to make something that will satisfy my craving.