How to Meal Plan in 5 Simple Steps
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. Read, How to Eat Healthier with More Vegetables and Fruit.
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.
Planning efficiently means you only buy what you need. After you’ve created your menu for the week, you’ll use it to make a grocery list. How to make an organized grocery list.
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, or dad! 😉
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) or online note-taking app (such as Evernote) also work 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!
How to make a meal plan
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, instant pot recipes 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 favorite easy family-friendly dinner ideas, 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 Recipes 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 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.
Thanks Kristine!!! This is so helpful.
I’m glad, Karrie! I also have more posts planned related to meal planning and kitchen organization. They’ll be coming! 😉
Just wondering where you got your planner to write your meal planning in! I’ve been on the hunt for one for a while and just haven’t found the right one. Yours looks perfect!
I love the one I have! You can only order them a couple of times a year. It’s the Simplified Planner by Emily Ley.
What can you plan for a single senior. Meal planning is very hard. Lots of food goes to the freezer, and lots to the landfill. Variety is difficult.
Hi Betty, That is a challenge! I would recommend scaling down recipes, halving them when possible. Leftovers are nice, but I understand not wanting to eat the same thing for days. Do you have neighbors that you can share or swap meals with? Then food won’t go to waste and you would get more variety. I would recommend planning about 3 meals per week, and trying to use the leftovers in different ways so you’re not eating the same thing again and again. For example, if you bake some chicken you can have baked chicken and veggies one day, a chicken salad the next, and chicken sandwiches also. I hope that helps a little! Take care. 🙂
I’m a single senior, and the best thing I bought was a separate freezer. I always cook in larger batches and freeze in portions. I sometimes spend a whole weekend cooking, but then I have at least a month’s worth of food that’s ready to heat – with many choices. Side dishes are easy – grains, potatoes, veggies, salads – so the frozen stuff is usually just entrees. Some of my friends freeze individual meals, three items per meal, like the old frozen dinners, but I like having more choices of fresh side dishes.
PS: If you go with a separate freezer, get an upright one. Even though they are less efficient, I found the chest freezers too hard on my back.
That is a great tip, Janet. Thank you for sharing! I completely agree with you that putting in a little more work up front is well worth it in the end. 🙂
Do you have any tips and guidelines on meal prepping? Thanks.
I need to work on a basic how to meal prep post! For now, these two posts might help: how to meal prep fruits and veggies and weekly snack prep.
I would start small, and choose one meal (breakfast, lunch or dinner) to prep for. Pick the meal that is the biggest challenge for you during the week. Then prep just a few components that you can use for that meal. Maybe steel cut oatmeal and freezer smoothie packs for breakfast. Or some jar salads for lunch. Or a protein (this baked chicken is a favorite), veggies and a grain that you can mix and match for dinners. It’s best to start simple so you won’t get overwhelmed and will stick with it! 🙂
How do I save a menu in Pinterest?
I usually save individual recipes that I want to try to Pinterest. Then you can combine the recipes into a meal plan in different ways.
Do you keep an inventory of frozen food? If so how?
Currently I only inventory the meat that we have in our freezer, as I don’t freeze very many meals. I keep it simple and list what we have on a piece of paper with the date, then cross things off as we use them. 🙂
Hi Kristine, the links to your 3 and 4 week meal plans are broken. Do you happen to have them elsewhere? Thanks for all you do, I love your site and recipes. ?
The 3 and 4 week plans are not available anymore because they need to be updated. I do however create a meal plan each week for my email list which you can receive each Friday if you signup for my list here.