Learning how to meal plan can feel overwhelming, but it doesn’t have to be. At the most basic level, meal planning is about looking at the week ahead, figuring out how much time you will have to cook each day, and making a plan to help make your week run a little smoother.
Step one – plan the week
The very first thing I do when meal planning is print out my weekly planner, open my calendar on my phone, and add all those key details. For me, this means writing when I drive carpool, what afternoon/evening activities are happening, and if there are any special days (birthdays, anniversaries, school events) that aren’t part of our usual week, or need extra planning.
Once you have a general idea of what’s going on that week, start thinking about what days are going to be busier than others and plan leftovers or super easy meals for those nights. Yes, you can start by just planning dinners. You can choose to plan every meal, but if you are just getting started with meal planning, just planning dinners is a great way to get in the habit.
Step two – plan the meals
This is the fun part! You can ask for suggestions from your family, or keep a list of your favorite meals to make it even easier. What I find most helpful is to start from the busiest day of the week, and plan the rest of the week to make that night as easy as possible.
Let’s take a look at Valentine’s week for a real-life example. That week I had a late meeting Wednesday night and an early meeting Thursday morning, so Wednesday’s dinner needed to be easy and I couldn’t prep anything that night for later in the week.
So I started meal planning there – with the busiest days right smack dab in the week. I made Thursday a leftover buffet night and then proceeded to front-load the week with meals that I knew would produce leftovers. I knew I needed something that was easy to throw together and the family loved for Wednesday night, so an old favorite, garlic cheddar chicken, became the main (made with chicken tenders because I had them on hand), and good old Kraft mac and cheese and frozen peas were the sides. Since I can’t eat gluten, I made myself a side of gluten free pasta.
Tuesday was Valentine’s Day, and our family tradition is to have lasagna and salad. I use my Mother in Law’s recipe and prep it the night before. Even though Tuesday was a busy day, planning a make-ahead meal made that night easy. I knew I would need something different for me, so I planned fajitas with rice and salad on Monday night so I could make myself a fajita salad for Valentine’s Day.
Those three meals early in the week, garlic cheddar chicken, lasagna, and fajitas, would give me ample leftovers for our busy Thursday. By starting with our busiest days and planning the rest of the week to make those days easier, meal planning was much easier.
Once I’ve planned our meals for the week, I like to fill out our What’s for Dinner printable and post it in the kitchen so everyone knows what’s going on. I’ve laminated a copy and keep it clipped to our magnetic chalkboard in our eating area so it’s easy to change each week.
Step Three – grocery shopping
Once you have a meal plan, it’s time to grocery shop. I use the meal & grocery planner (from our Ultimate Meal Planning and Kitchen Inventory Bundle), write down our dinners for the week, and check the pantry, fridge, and freezer to see what is needed.
Starting your grocery list by shopping what you already have in your kitchen and building from your meal plan keeps your grocery spending under control. When building my grocery list, I also account for our usual breakfast and school lunch needs. Everyone will have a different list of “grocery basics” to keep on hand, but for us that includes fruit, lunch meat, eggs, gluten free bagels and tortillas, to name a few. Taking a minute to look at what you need for your pantry basics helps you make sure you don’t run out of your basics.
For the actual grocery shopping, I absolutely love Kroger pick up for my main grocery shop of the week. I find that it helps me stick to my list, shop sales, clip coupons, and the returns process is super easy when needed. If you prefer to shop in person, you now have a great list to take with you and help you get in and out of the store easily.
Step Four – making those meals
Start with the Magic Question – what can I do now to make later easier? This magic question is from Kendra Adachi at the Lazy Genius Collective and it makes a world of difference. All that planning and prep we’ve done to this point answered that magic question, but you aren’t done asking it yet.
If we go back to that Valentine’s week example, you can see that on Monday evening I wrote – prep lasagna. Since I’m already in the kitchen cooking fajitas, I might as well prep the lasagna for the next night since I know it will be busy. You also can see on Wednesday and Friday I gave myself dinner tasks to do at noon. I’ll be in the kitchen making lunch at that time and it makes sense to go ahead and mix up the chicken breading and pull out frozen items to defrost while I’m there. Those little things help set you up for success when it’s time to actually cook.
Bonus Points – extras and cheats to make it even easier
Now if you want bonus tips and tricks in this meal planning basics primer, here are two things to make it even easier.
When you are planning your meals for the week, put all your recipes for the week in one place. You can print them out (I use the plannig sheets in the meal planning bundle) or save them online, but having them all together will make your life a little bit easier. I love Plan to Eat for keeping track of recipes – this referral link gives your 20% off your first annual subscription. You can meal plan with Plan to Eat, but I just use it to keep track of all my favorite online recipes in one place.
My second tip is to plan your meals for the week, including nights out and leftovers, but don’t assign things to a certain day. We have blank meal planning pages in the Ultimate Meal Planning and Kitchen Inventory Bundle for exactly this reason. Some weeks are just wild and you know what you want to make, but don’t want to attach meals to specific days. Keeping your week fluid and flexible may work best for you. If meal planning sounds overwhelming, this may be a great place to start.
My final tip is this – keep it simple. Meal planning is a tool to help you, not stress you out. Planning meals may be as simple as planning sandwich nights and soup out of a can. It’s just putting something down so you don’t have to hit the drive-through every night. And heck – drive-through nights make regular appearances on our meal plans!
Need some inspiration? Check out these two recent meal planning posts for easy weeknight meal plans.