To someone who has never meal planned before this can seem like an overwhelming task and something that you don't think that you can accomplish. That being said once you start doing this weekly it will become second nature.
There are three steps in implementing an effective system of meal planning (at least to me): selecting your recipes, planning the week, and grocery shopping. If you are prepping your meals beforehand and just having them be reheated meals then a fourth step is added and that is prepping your meals.
First, What is Meal Planning?
Meal planning is asking the what’s for dinner question once a week, instead of every night, and then shopping for and prepping the ingredients before cooking. The simplest way to approach meal planning is with 3 steps. (sometimes 4 if you are prepping meals beforehand)
Select your dinners and their recipes, if needed.
Plan the week.
Shop for ingredients.
Prepare those ingredients.
Start on a Friday: Kicking off the planning on Friday, shopping on Saturday morning (or night — fewer people in the stores), and then using an hour or so on Sunday for meal prep. This will only work if you do your grocery shopping on a Saturday. For me (due to me not being able to drive currently) I go grocery shopping on Thursdays; so because of that I figure out my meals on Tuesday or Wednesday and that way I am ready for Thursday. When I can drive I prefer to grocery shop on Saturday mornings so once I am able to my meal-planning week will look different. I do not prep in advance as I would rather cook every night. (if that makes sense)
My Meal Planning week looks like this;
Tuesday; find recipes
Wednesday; plan the week
Thursday; grocery shopping
What it isn’t: The holy grail! There’s so much fanfare about how meal planning can change you’re life that it’s easy to blow its effects out of proportion. And while it does solve so many problems, you’ve got to tailor it to fit your needs (which means you’ve got to be clear on what those are) and give yourself lots of leeways to experiment and find a system that works for you. You’ve also got to make room for takeout - don't limit yourself.
Other Things Meal Planning Is Not
A big tabbed binder with a full month of meals: Write it in your planner, on a paper you stick to the front of the fridge, in a Google doc, or on a whiteboard you hang in the kitchen. Just put it somewhere you’re going to see it. I use a printout that I created for myself, you can easily use whatever works for you.
Entirely home cooked: Always plan for takeout, pizza night, and leftovers. Use what you have in your fridge/freezer.
Just for families of four: Meal planning is for everyone. But there are different strategies to employ depending on the number of people you’re planning for. I meal plan for myself and just make stuff for 2 people and freeze whatever is leftover and have it the next week. I cook for my parents 3 days a week as well so I make enough for 4 or more to have leftovers.
Expensive: When done well, this practice will save you money. Promise! I have already noticed that I am spending less at the grocery store every week because I am planning what I'm going to have and not just eating whatever.
A lot of work: Not true. You do some concentrated work up front, but it’s smooth sailing once you begin to work on your plan. I find a bunch of recipes and simply keep a stack of ones I would like to try and I have them available when I am planning my week and figuring out my grocery list.
Inflexible: There’s so much room for experimentation, quick revisions, and customization in meal planning. It’s not set in stone.
What Do You Need?
Do a bit of self-assessment. The easiest way to answer the what do you need question is to consider why you’re interested in meal planning at all. From there you will be able to hone in on how to achieve your goal. So for your consideration, here are a few prompts.
Are you looking for variety?
To save money?
Prevent food waste?
Preserve your sanity?
Or to have a ready answer to the daily question from your partner or kids of what’s for dinner?
Meal planning is one of those situations where you can indeed have it all, but let’s do this slowly. Burnout is real, so if you’re a beginner, pick just two or three of the things that matter most and keep them in consideration when you move on to the next step of picking the recipes — my favorite part!
Choose Your Recipes Carefully
Choosing your recipes puts the philosophy of meal planning and the reasons why you’re doing it into action. It’s the most critical step since it sets this whole process in motion. But you shouldn’t just choose a bunch of recipes and hope for the best. Start thinking about your meal plan at least three days before you want to give it ago so you have a few days to go through the full process of making a shopping list, shopping, and then prepping. Here’s how we recommend you pick your recipes.
Decide how many meals to plan for and what they need to do.
Have a look at your calendar for the coming week and decide the number of nights you want to make dinner at home. Five nights is most common but for others three nights works better. (For me I plan for seven days and have two of them be leftover days or takeout days.) Then you’ve got to hone in even further. On the nights that you’re cooking, what do those meals need to do? For example, on the nights that your kid has an extracurricular; a 10-hour slow cooker recipe is a good idea. If it’s just you and your partner and they are working late, you might need something that you can also bring as tomorrow’s lunch.
Where to Get Those Recipes
A Google search
4 Rules for Picking the Right Recipe
Choose meals that bless you with leftovers: These are good for lunches the next day as well as throwing in the freezer for another day.
Cook recipes you know + one new recipe: This is a pro move! Assemble that master list of recipes you know by heart — the ones you make week after week and know your family loves. Then add one or two new recipes each week, but only if you want. I prefer trying new recipes every week and throwing in a recipe I know every so often.
Pick recipes based on common ingredients: This is another pro move and it starts with looking at what you already have in your fridge, freezer, and pantry. Shopping your home kitchen can help you decide on recipes and avoid wasted food. This is the money-saving aspect of meal planning in full effect. Use what you have at home first before going out and buying more ingredients.
Cook things you really want to eat: You might have to spend some extra time uncovering recipes that are right for you, but it’s worth it if you still can’t wait to eat them. So, we’re saying the obvious on this one: Only cook things you want to eat!
Plan Your Week
After getting your recipes, now you can sit down and figure out your week. Carefully pick which recipes you want for each day, or rather what you are making each day if its stuff you already know how to make or it leftovers. Having it written down makes the next step way easier.
Use a 2-Step Process for a Smarter Grocery List
Okay, you’ve got your recipes and planned your week. Now, what do you need to make them? Try this two-step process of making an ingredient list and then a grocery list. Don’t get overwhelmed! This isn’t as tedious or time-sensitive as it sounds. In fact, go through the process once and you can pretty much consider yourself an expert. If you make your final grocery list this way, you won’t ever buy another bag of shredded cheese when you already have some in the fridge!
Make a master ingredient list: This is not your grocery list, but it’s what leads to a really good one while also helping you take inventory of what’s in your kitchen. Start by going through each recipe’s ingredient list to make up the master list of things you’ll need for the week. Then, with keen eyes, go through your kitchen and cross off anything you already have. Now you’ve got a very accurate list you can turn into a grocery list.
Make the grocery list: Now, of course, you could take your pared-down ingredient list to the grocery store and pick up everything you need without much hassle, but there’s still a better way! For one, writing over the recipe is a nice double-check on ingredients, but, beyond that, rewriting it lets you organize it for easier shopping. For this I made my own printable grocery list separated by section; like produce, meats, frozen, dry goods, etc. Begin by grouping ingredients together by departments in the grocery store. Don’t forget those reusable bags before you head to the store!
Spend an Hour on Sunday Prepping
*This section is optional*
You picked your recipe, you made a grocery list, you shopped for the meals, and now you’ve come to the point where the plan truly becomes dinner. But there’s one more step — and this one will help you beat cooking fatigue during the week. You’ve got to do some prep! Depending on if you want to or not; you can set aside an hour on Sunday for batch cooking and chopping. What you should do depends on the recipes for the week, or if you want to prep early, but dicing up garlic, chopping veggies, washing lettuce and herbs, and even cooking up some chicken ahead of time is always a massive help.
You Did It! Now Do It Again!
Meal planning is not difficult, but it’s not a walk in the park either — especially when you’re new to it. So if you showed up here seeking to make your life in the kitchen a bit calmer because of it, you’re already well on your way. Every time you go through the process of meal planning you learn what not to do, the places where to improve on next week, what you can skip, and how to customize the entire practice to fit your needs. Continuing to do it only makes you better.
My Meal Planning Philosophy
As I have said throughout this post my philosophy with meal planning is to make it your own; make it work for you. Not all of these specific tips will work for you but they have either worked for me in the past or I have been using them now. For example with the planning day before groceries, when I was working and able to go grocery shopping on Saturdays; Fridays were my planning days and I would have my recipes figured out and get my grocery list ready. Now with me not working and going grocery shopping on Thursdays, I spread out my planning days as well; Tuesdays to figure out recipes and then make sure on Wednesday I get my grocery list done and ready. I have recently started using the two-step system with my grocery list and I find that it is super helpful in making sure that you are using everything in your fridge/freezer/pantry before going and buying more ingredients. I only ever meal plan dinner as I usually just have a smoothie or yogurt in the morning and then lunch is a whatever I want kind of meal because sometimes I am just not hungry for lunch.
The main reason that I meal plan especially now is that I have cut out a lot of processed foods, scaled back on portions, and am eating way healthier. I have started a journey for my health and meal planning has helped me with that. I created 2 printables for myself because of this.