How to Meal Plan in 5 Simple Steps
NEW! Slow Cooker Freezer Meal Plan now available!
Do you want to meal plan but don’t know where to start? Or maybe you already plan your meals but want to do it more efficiently? I’ll teach you how to meal plan in 5 simple steps!
I’ve been meal planning for years. For more than ten years, actually. Even before we had kids, I’d plan what Brad and I would eat for dinner each night. Since having children, this process has become even more crucial to making our weeks run smoothly.
Meal planning isn’t something that you start and then have figured out right away. It’s a process of figuring out what works for you, your family, and your schedule. Over the past 10+ years I’ve made more than 500 weekly meal plans, and I’ve learned quite a few things along the way.
First, why meal plan?
You’ll eat healthier.
Without a plan, it’s far too easy to rely on takeout or processed convenience foods when dinner time comes and you’re hungry. When you plan your weekly menu, you can make sure ahead of time that your meals are balanced and include plenty of fruits, vegetables, lean proteins and whole grains.
You’ll save money.
Before I started consistently meal planning, I’d often head into the kitchen around 5:00 and try to figure out what to eat for dinner. This led to extra trips to the grocery store and too many dinners out.
A smart meal planning system allows you to use up what you already have in your pantry and make ingredients do double duty (by using them in multiple meals and making good use of leftovers).
You’ll save time.
Batching tasks, so that you do them once a week instead of once a day, for instance, is an efficient strategy when it comes to meal planning, cooking, and much more. Think about it. Do you spend more time in your inbox when you check your email every hour, or when you check it once a day and respond immediately? The same holds true for your work in the kitchen.
You’ll save time by sitting down once a week to make a thoughtful meal plan, rather than figuring out what to cook each day. Grocery shopping once a week is more efficient (and budget friendly!) than shopping every day or two.
A weekly meal plan also allows you to cook smarter by doing some of the prep work ahead of time. You can chop vegetables once for the week or spend a few minutes in the morning to start dinner in the slow cooker, for example. Evenings are crazy, busy times when you have kids. Anything you can do to simplify dinner prep is like a gift you give to yourself.
You’ll waste less food.
After you’ve created your menu for the week, you’ll use it to make a grocery list. Planning efficiently means you only buy what you need.
A smart meal plan takes into account what you already have in your kitchen. Put that celery that’s on its last legs into a vegetable soup. Use the other half of that carton of buttermilk that’s hanging out in your refrigerator by making waffles for dinner.
You’ll stress less!
I can’t tell you how much better I feel going into a new week knowing our meals are planned out. I’ll teach you how to take your unique schedule into account to make a meal plan that works for you. The last thing you need to be doing when you have hungry, whiny kids is searching your pantry for something, anything, to feed them. With a plan in place (and maybe even some food prep done ahead of time) you’ll feel like a super mom! 😉
How to meal plan in 5 simple steps:
- Schedule a consistent time for weekly meal planning
- Look at your schedule
- Inventory your kitchen
- Choose your meals
- Keep side dishes simple
Before we go into these steps in more detail, let’s take a quick minute to think about the organizational systems that will make your meal planning sessions easy and enjoyable. You’ll need to keep track of:
- Your meal plan itself.
- New recipes that you want to try someday.
For both of these, you can use paper or go digital. I prefer paper for #1 and digital for #2. Do what works for you!
#1- I keep a paper planner and write our dinner plan for each day on the daily calendar. I also make a note if there’s anything I need to do earlier in the day, such as starting the slow cooker or marinating chicken. A digital calendar (such as Google Calendar) also works well. For years I kept a notebook just for meal planning, writing each week’s menu on a new page.
#2- Pinterest is my favorite way to save recipe inspiration for my meal plans. You can even find most magazine recipes online and save them to your Pinterest boards. Before Pinterest, I’d save paper copies of recipes I wanted to try in a binder. These days, I want as little paper clutter in my house as possible!
If you don’t have a Pinterest account, it’s easy to start one and begin saving your favorite recipes. You can follow me and see what recipes I’m saving, too!
And now, the 5 simple steps to creating a meal plan in more detail:
1. Schedule a consistent time for weekly meal planning:
I can’t tell you how many times Saturday morning has come and I need to get to the grocery store, but haven’t yet sat down to meal plan. Meal planning right before you shop might work for you, but for me Saturday mornings are busy enough without the added stress of trying to figure out a week’s worth of meals while the kids want my attention.
Choose a day of the week when you’ll do your meal planning and make it a part of your routine.
Make it enjoyable. Yes, once you get into your groove, meal planning is fun! Friday night after the kids are in bed, pour yourself a glass of wine and sit down to plan. Or, Saturday morning before the kids wake up, grab a cup of coffee and plan out your week.
The important thing is to choose a time when your kids don’t need your attention and make it part of your routine so you’ll remember to do it.
2. Look at your schedule:
Some nights during the week are likely to be busier than others. Maybe Tuesday and Thursday nights are your kids’ soccer nights. Maybe you have a late work meeting on Wednesday. Plan quick, simple dinners for those nights. Breakfast for dinner, quesadillas, slow cooker meals, and leftovers are some of our favorites.
It’s ok to plan for takeout, too. If you know you’ll be exhausted by Friday night, pencil in takeout pizza or dinner out. There’s nothing wrong with eating out, as long as you do it intentionally and not too often (for both your budget and your health).
If your weeks have a predictable routine to them, you can create a themed meal plan outline. I teach the second half of the week so I always plan easier dinners for Wednesday, Thursday and Friday.
I’ll often cook something on Sundays that we can then eat again as leftovers on Mondays. (Casseroles, pasta dishes, grilled chicken, and pork tenderloin all make great leftovers.) Tuesdays I’ll make a slow cooker meal that we can then eat again on Wednesday. Thursdays we have breakfast for dinner and Fridays we either do pizza takeout or defrost something from the freezer.
3. Inventory your kitchen:
Check your refrigerator and freezer for foods that you need to use up before they spoil. Try to make use of the ingredients that you already have in your kitchen when you choose recipes for the week. You’ll spend less at the grocery store and waste less food.
4. Choose your meals:
If you remember only one thing from this step, let it be this: Don’t be overly ambitious!
You do not want to cook an elaborate meal every night. If you do, you’ll give up on your plan before the week is over, for sure. Choose no more than one or two new recipes to try each week. I recommend sticking to only one new recipe a week when you’re just getting started. It’s also fine to only cook old favorites.
What are your family’s favorite easy dinners? I’ve listed my family’s favorite easy kid-approved dinner recipes here, and I refer to this list often when I plan our meals.
If you’re up for trying a new recipe, check your Pinterest boards (or wherever you’ve saved your “want to try” recipes) for inspiration.
Plan for leftovers! They’re a great way to maximize your cooking time and avoid wasting food. We have at least one, sometimes two, leftovers nights each week. Many dishes freeze well so that you can have a night off from cooking later on. Check out my Freezer Friendly category for ideas.
Finally, look at your prior weekly meal plans for ideas. Flip back through your calendar or notebook and make the recipes that your family enjoyed again!
5. Keep side dishes simple:
During the week, avoid side dishes that have their own recipe. The exception is if you’ve made the recipe so many times that you practically know it by heart. (My sweet honey cornbread is one such recipe for me.)
My goal is to serve a vegetable with every meal. Experiment with different preparations and varieties of vegetables. Carrots, for example, taste different when raw, steamed, or roasted. If you struggle with getting your family to enjoy vegetables, trying different cooking methods can help.
Simple green salads, raw cut vegetables and fruits, unsweetened applesauce and whole grain breads are easy sides that don’t take much time to prepare.
I love one pot meals because many times they contain a protein, carbohydrate and veggie so you don’t need a separate side dish.
I’ll be sharing more posts related to meal planning, food prep and encouraging kids to eat healthy in the coming weeks. Let me know in the comments or through email if you have a specific challenge, question or topic you’d like me to cover.
I’ve created a 4-week family meal plan that’s full of easy, nutritious recipes to get you started with cooking healthy meals for your family. You can learn more about my plan (it even includes organized grocery lists!) HERE.
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