In this post: Meal planning is a great way to save money on groceries, reduce food waste, eat healthier, and save time in the kitchen. This step-by-step guide will walk you through how to meal plan.
Meal planning is an essential part of not losing your sanity – when you’re cooking for a family especially. And whether you’re trying to save money or avoid food waste, it all comes back to meal planning. However, dreaming of yummy meals and following through with a meal plan are two different stories. Here’s how to meal plan so that you stick with it!
What Is Meal Planning?
Meal planning is simply deciding what’s for dinner (and breakfast and lunch) once a week, instead of every single day.
“Meal planning is asking the what’s for dinner question once for the whole week, instead of every night, and then shopping for and prepping the ingredients before cooking.” [source]
Things Meal Planning Is Not
Meal planning is not the be all end all solution to all your problems. Will it make a huge difference in your kitchen and in your life? Yes. But you still need to tailor it to your specific needs.
Meal planning is also NOT:
- Entirely home-cooked. You can plan for pizza night, or dinners out.
- Just for families of four. You can absolutely customize your meal plan to more or fewer people.
- Expensive. When you do it well, you can save money.
- More work. It may seem daunting to sit down and plan all those meals at once. But this actually simplifies your life and makes less work later in the week.
- Inflexible. You can plan all you like, but you can also be flexible and make swaps the day of as needed or desired.
Meal Planning Benefits
As a busy mom, you have a narrow window to work with when it comes to dinner time.
As you dig through the stack of papers on your counter to find the number for Domino’s, you think to yourself this has to stop!
You know you need a better system, you need a meal plan.
But meal planning just feels so painful!
If this sounds like your day-to-day life, I want to share with you…
Why I Love Meal Planning
We have three kids. I run a business from home, Dean works in the city. We homeschool. Everyone has different likes and dislikes when it comes to mealtimes. We even have a few food allergies and intolerance issues.
When I fly by the seat of my pants and don’t plan out our family’s meals, we tend to eat out, which isn’t good for us.
And we spend more on groceries because we pop into the store just to pick up a cooked chicken, a frozen (dairy-free, gluten-free, expensive) pizza, or some other quick no-prep extra something. Which always leads to just one more thing in the cart. The next thing we know we’re way over budget for the week.
Also, Dean and I tend to gain weight when I don’t meal plan. Bummer.
So for us, meal planning is a must because it:
- Saves us time and money
- Gives us more control over the food we eat
- Ensures that I don’t plan a meal that needs to cook for hours on a day when we only have a little time to cook
- Keeps me from losing my ever-loving mind when someone asks “what’s for dinner?” because I can just point to the meal plan
- Saves me from forgetting to take something out to thaw (most of the time)
- Frees up brain space all week long because I’ve made a plan that just needs to be followed
12 Meal Planning Tips That Will Make Your Life Easier
When I sit down to plan my meals, I’m eager to go through my recipe binder and flip through cookbooks to find fun new recipes.
But when it comes time to cook, I’m always searching through my list of meals to find the easiest thing to make instead. If this sounds like you too, I’m going to show you how you can be a better meal planner.
1. Give Yourself Time to Plan Each Week
In order for meal planning to work, you need to plan a time each week to create a new meal plan (or double-check and revise an old one).
Personally, I do our budgets, banking, and meal planning on Friday mornings. Since I condense my work week into the other four days of the week, these Friday planning sessions have become something I look forward to because I know they will help me to keep the house running smoothly the rest of the week ahead.
If you can’t dedicate time to meal planning at the same time every single week, make sure you schedule your meal planning time each week – and keep that appointment with yourself!
2. Brainstorm, Brainstorm, Brainstorm
In my opinion, the more recipe ideas you have to choose from when meal planning, the better. Keep these ideas in mind as you brainstorm your master list of meals.
One of the biggest mistakes a newbie meal planner will make is going crazy with their recipes. If you don’t get up early every day, trying to plan a long-involved breakfast will be a nightmare. If you only have a short lunch break, planning to make Italian Wedding Soup from scratch is just not going to work.
Instead of planning meals that require a lot of prep for every part of the day, focus solely on planning familiar dinners at first. Use dishes that you know you and your family love. And make your lunches and breakfasts something easy you can rotate, grab and not have to think about.
By easing yourself into meal planning you are more likely to stick with your meal plan, and stay on track.
Or go even more simple
If you aren’t sure you can stick with a whole meal plan, try to just plan dinners for a week or two and then add in other meals once you’ve got some consistency under your belt.
Keep a list of your family’s favorite meals
Stick with what you know your family loves. New recipes are exciting, but if you’re struggling to get dinner on the table, now is not the time to change things up!
I keep a list of all the meals my family loves and asks for often. When I’m not sure what to plan, I start with this list.
Be realistic and work around your schedule
Evaluate your time and commitments before putting together your meal plan to make sure you’re not overextending yourself.
- If you need to be at the school at 5 pm then dance at 6:30, you probably don’t have a lot of time to get dinner on the table.
- If you are at home all day with a big open schedule, then sure, you have more time to work with.
While a particular grocery item may be on sale or versatile, it won’t do you any good if you don’t have time to make it.
Find recipes that utilize a Crock-Pot or Instant Pot
This will save you much time each week. Coordinate slow cooker recipes with nights that your schedule is busier.
Harness the power of freezer meals and batch cooking
If you can batch cook and just pull freezer meals out to reheat, then you’re totally winning at the meal planning game. Chilis, soups, casseroles, and stews make great batch cooking and freezer meals.
Write it down
Don’t rely on your brain to remember all the meals and recipes you’ve got. Write down your ideas. As I mentioned, I’ve got a master list of breakfasts, lunches, and dinners that my family likes. I keep it taped inside the cupboard that holds our cookbooks for easy reference.
Find a cute printable, or just a piece of paper, and write it down!
Meal planning will do you no good if you don’t remember what you planned!
3. Think Seasonally
You’ll be able to save money on groceries if you shop for the foods that are in season.
You don’t have to get too deep in the weeds here if you’re feeling overwhelmed. But think of salads in the summer and soups in the winter at least and that should help save some money – and satisfy your hunger too!
4. Give Each Night a Theme
Theme nights help make meal planning so much easier!
Designate one category of food for each night of the week.
This will help keep your choices to a minimum and make it easy to plan ahead. Here are a few ideas to get you started:
- Meatless Monday
- Taco Tuesday
- Casserole Wednesday
- Italian Thursday
- Pizza Friday
Establishing theme nights will help make your meal planning simple and easy, and you can rotate them each week if you wish.
5. Mix and Match Ingredients
Using the same ingredients in multiple recipes can save you time and money. For example, buy plenty of broccoli and use it in stir fry, as a side to pasta and pureed in soup.
6. Reuse Good Meals
Don’t be afraid to put meals you and your family loves on repeat. Love spaghetti and meatballs? Why not have it twice in one week! Are veggie wraps a favorite? Make them more than once!
There’s nothing that says you have to plan unique meals twenty-one times a week!
7. Reuse Meal Plans
Don’t try to reinvent the wheel each week!
Every time you make a meal plan, save it for a later date.
When you’re in a pinch and can’t think of what to make, grab one of these meals plans and reuse it! It’s so simple and will save you so much time.
8. Keep It Simple
I know I mentioned this already, but it bears repeating.
When planning your meals, look for recipes that don’t require much effort or time to make. This will help ensure that you follow through with your meal plan, without making it too difficult.
I look for meals that can be prepared in less than 30 minutes. There are hundreds of great recipes out there, so get creative!
9. Plan to Use Leftovers
It doesn’t matter how carefully you measure out your portions; there always seem to be leftovers.
Well until your kids are teenagers, then not so much.
But if you have leftovers, use those to your advantage!
- Leftover nights will give you a night off from cooking, and preparing dinner will be so easy. Plan at least one leftover night a week to make sure you’re using up your leftovers.
- Or use the leftovers for a simple lunch, which is most often how we use up our leftovers here.
10. Have a Backup Plan
Things happen. Even the best-laid plans get mucked up. Someone gets sick, or you might forget to thaw the meat.
For this reason, I plan to have a frozen pizza or two in the freezer at all times. You could also have a backup casserole or something stored away for those days where the planned meals just don’t happen.
11. Organize Your Pantry
One of the best things I ever did for my pantry was to organize it and create a Capsule Kitchen.
A Capsule Kitchen is – a limited number of mix-and-match kitchen essentials and food staples that can be combined in a number of different ways to create breakfast, lunch, and dinner each day.
Stocking my kitchen and meal planning this way saves me loads of time and money!
12. Meal Prep for the Week
Another way to stick to a meal plan is to meal prep for the week as well. This is different from freezer cooking because the goal is not to stock the freezer but to make sure my meals and snacks for the week are ready to eat or be cooked.
Meal Planning For Beginners in 4 Steps
01| Choose your meals and recipes
Collect recipes that you know you and your family love, plus a few new ones to try out. I like to keep a master list of favorites for easy reference. Then look at your calendar. Figure out how many meals you need to make at home, how many will be eaten out or picked up, and how much time you have to cook for each meal.
02| Plug recipes/meals into your planner or scheduling app
Plan your dinners first, add lunches and breakfasts, then add snacks. Try to strike a balance of fun and healthy foods as well as fast meals and longer sit-down meals (Sunday Supper for example).
03| Check your pantry/freezer
Now that you know what you want to cook, look through what you already have! You may be shocked to find everything you need to put together a meal right now, in your own home. If you don’t, maybe you have pieces of a meal. For example, if you have ground beef and green peppers, you can quickly put together stuffed peppers! Be creative, and look for new ways to use what’s in your home.
04| Make a grocery list and go shopping
Organize your list by the aisles at the store you’ll shop at. Or create separate lists for separate stores if that helps you. Then go to the grocery store, list in hand, and go grocery shopping. Or use a pickup or delivery service like Instacart.
After you’ve shopped and have a plan, be sure to post the meal plan on the fridge so everyone can see it. I love this because I can point the kiddos to it when they ask “what’s for dinner?”…for the millionth time!
Sample Meal Plan -A Week’s Worth of Meals with Gluten-Free, Dairy-Free Options
This meal plan is a fun one because it uses a bunch of recipes from Home Made Lovely! Hopefully, it will inspire you to create a creative menu plan of your own.
- Sunday: Chocolate Protein Pancakes
- Monday: 3 Ingredient Banana Berry Smoothie
- Tuesday: Blueberry Granola Overnight Oatmeal
- Wednesday: Grain-Free English Muffin Breakfast Sandwiches
- Thursday: Pumpkin Spice Smoothie
- Friday: Basic Egg Muffins
- Saturday: Gluten-Free Slow Cooker French Toast
- On Saturdays and Sundays, we have breakfast together, so the protein pancakes make a great family breakfast.
- Smoothies are great for busy days, and pumpkin spice is great any time of year.
- The slow cooker French Toast gives the teenagers the chance to sleep a little late on Saturdays. Everyone can help themselves when they get up.
- Sunday: Sweet Potato Nachos
- Monday: Grilled Chicken Margherita Flatbread Pizza
- Tuesday: Vegan Vegetable Fried Rice
- Wednesday: Savory Wieners and Beans
- Thursday: Loaded Potato Slices
- Friday: Asian Inspired Chili Garlic Noodles
- Saturday; Leftovers/Raid the Refrigerator Day
- After a big breakfast, sweet potato nachos are a perfect mid-afternoon snacky lunch; not too heavy, but enough to hold us over until dinner.
- For weekday lunches, I plan meals that are quick and easy and often use vegetarian or vegan protein sources for variety and cost savings.
- Saturday is a great day to use up the leftovers and give the cook a break!
- Sunday: Beer Can Chicken in the Smoker, Loaded Potatoes Au Gratin, Salad
- Monday: Honey Garlic Chicken Stir Fry with Broccoli and Carrots
- Tuesday: Butternut Squash Mac and Cheese
- Wednesday: Slow cooker Roast Beef Dinner
- Thursday: Slow Cooker Cabbage Casserole
- Friday: Lasagna Roll-Ups, (or our Gluten-Free, Dairy-Free Lasaga) and Salad
- Saturday: Swedish Chef Meatballs, Fries
- I love simple recipes. Even a big dinner like chicken, veggies, and potatoes can be easy to prepare. For us, family time is the priority, and these recipes make it work!
Of course, there are many other options. But this should give you a bit of a feel for a meal plan for a family for a week. 🙂
Meal Planning Products You’ll Love!
Here are a few suggestions for meal planning products that can help to save your sanity.
1. Meal Prep Containers
This is a must to have. Not only are they great to store food for later use, but you can pack up lunches for your crew for the entire week and have them prepared and ready to go. Talk about meal-prep made easy!
2. Paleo Meal Planning on a Budget
Sometimes, meal planning has to take into consideration certain dietary needs as well. This book will help provide over 30 different recipes to help prep your month with Paleo-friendly options.
3. Magnetic Weekly Meal Planner and Grocery List
Why spend all that time planning for meals without letting anyone know what’s for dinner? With this magnetic weekly meal plan, you can write out the meals for the week so all in the family are in the know of what yummy food will be ready and waiting for them during meal times.
4. Meal Planning Bundle for The Happy Planner
With this bundle, you can track your meal ideas, your meal plans, the number of times you ended up eating out in a week, and your grocery list. If you like organization, this planner may be a great fit for you.
5. Glass Meal Prep 2 Compartment Containers
Not only do these have two compartments for that separation of food, but they are also dishwasher safe, microwave friendly, and also freezer approved!
6. Complete 30 Days Meal Plan
If you are looking to meal plan to help lose weight or lead a healthier lifestyle, this planner deserves a look. It includes some recipes and healthy snack options to consider as well.
7. Busy Moms Guide to Home-Cooked Meals
If you are a busy mom, this was made for you. Full of simple recipes and an easy-to-follow format.
8. Meal Prep: The Essential Meal Prep Cookbook
Looking for those meal prep hacks? This is a must-read for you!
9. How to Meal Plan: A Step by Step Guide for Busy Moms
Maybe the hard part of meal planning is that we just don’t know how to do it effectively. With this book as a guide, we may be on our way!
10. Guide for Balanced Meal Planning and Suggested Menus
A super simple guide to show how often we should be eating certain foods daily and offers a few suggestions as well for dinner ideas throughout the week. Great to hang on your fridge as a reference point.
11. 3 Pack Magnetic Weekly Planner
Sometimes, we just need to write out the meal plan, then tear off that week and throw it away. The great thing about this 3 pack is that it is designed to last you for many years!
12. The Healthy Make-Ahead Cookbook
There is no denying the love of being able to make ahead meals for the week to eat later, or even freeze. This cookbook includes great recipes to be able to do that. Plus, it dives into the realm of having a freezer party as well!
13. Grocery List Planning Pad
Save some time with this printed grocery list, already completed with common household food needs for time-saving purposes.
14. The Keto Meal Prep Planner
Stay on track with this Keto-friendly meal prep planner. Clear instructions and simple recipes.
15. Dry Erase Monthly Magnetic Calendar
With large daily squares to write in, it’s never been easier to plan out your meals!
How do I meal plan for weight loss?
Simply plug the foods you want to eat into your meal plan. Want to eat more salads and fewer carbs? Plan to include those. Just follow the same steps outlined above using the foods you wish to include.
How do I meal plan on a budget?
To meal plan on a budget, choose meals that are budget-friendly. Things like rice and beans, veggie-filled casseroles, and chilis tend to be more budget-friendly than meals that focus on meats.
How do I meal plan for a family?
Follow the steps above!
How do I meal plan for one person?
You can either cut recipes in half and/or make fewer recipes and plan to have leftovers.
How do I stick to a meal plan?
Choose foods you love! And keep it simple. Don’t overwhelm yourself with complicated dishes that will take more time.
Other Meal Planning Tips
- Try a meal delivery service. When you’re learning how to meal plan, you don’t have to do it all yourself. Of course, it’s best to prep and cook the majority of your meals at home. But you could also try out a service that does the prep for you.
- Give yourself a free meal. If you know you’re having dinner with a friend or a catered lunch at work, put those in your meal plan as a “free” meal.
- Buy things in bulk. After you’ve meal planned for a bit, you will likely find you keep coming back to the same ingredients multiple times a week. Things like brown rice, quinoa, or pasta. Since you use those often and they’re non-perishable, stock up and buy them in bulk to save yourself time and money.
More Meal Planning Ideas
Money-Saving Meal Planning
- 10 Family and Budget-Friendly Weekday Meals You’ll Love!
- How to Stock Your Pantry – The Emergency Fund You Can Eat
Stocking the Pantry & Freezer
- How to Stock Your Pantry – The Emergency Fund You Can Eat
- Stocking the Freezer
- Cooking with Canned Foods
- How to Freeze Fruits and Vegetables
- 25+ Essential Kitchen Tools
- How to Convert Slow Cooker Recipes to Instant Pot Recipes
- 10 Clever Slow Cooker Hacks You Probably Don’t Know
Meal Planning for Parties & Get-Togethers
Do you meal plan for your family? How does your process go?
It’s making me giggle that you have cheese (Mac + “cheese”) in quotations. ?
Lol. Well the kids don’t eat dairy at all and I really shouldn’t. So it’s not really cheese.
I use e-meals clean eating menu planning service. It has saved me so much time and effort!
Interesting. Never heard of it. I’ll have to have a look!
I am an organisational freak and when I moved from my parent’s and after that subsequently with my husband, I absolutely wanted to bring everything under a meal planning banner.
I loved the idea of two people knowing exactly what they wanted and hence no waste or anything of the sort. However, after doing it for a month or two, we let go of the process. Namely for two reasons:
1. We frequent the farmer’s market. Given that 70 to 80% of our meals were vegetable based and cooked from scratch, we are always at the farmer’s market to check out what’s in season and looks good.
2. Similarly for fish, we go to the mongers to see what’s the good catch.
3. Since most of the time we were cooking things from scratch our pantry/ inventory needs were just grains, dairy, oil and spices; which always came cheaper online.
So very reluctantly my husband and I, gave up on our obsession to plan every meal. However, what we did retain was a relaxed system of marking down meals that we were planning with the produce we had at hand. It’s working backwards I know but it works for us.
Whoops! That was a long comment. I just wanted to share. I love the idea of the kitchen binder so much though 🙂
thank you for sharing these shannon, it must have been a lot of work for you – they’re lovely!
I just found your blog!! And you create beauty & inspiration my friend! Then I read this post because I need some help in this area…? and find out you homeschool as well!! Which makes me love your blog all the more! Thanks for sharing your life & gifts. ??
Welcome to the blog, Amanda! Hope you find good stuff that you find useful!
I wish you happy new year! Thank you for the meal planer I hope to make a start! kisses!
You are welcome, Maria. Happy New Year!
Hi, I just ran across your printables because of a post I was writing on pantry/meal organizing = peace of mind! Yours are awesome. I want to use yours myself, but I also want to link to yours in my post series. Is this okay?
I’m glad you like them! You are welcome to link to the blog posts. Just not to the PDFs.