Meal planning… ugh!!! If you have the same reaction to meal planning that I have, I understand. Every day is challenging enough without adding in more unattainable goals. If that is your impression of meal planning, let’s re-evaluate.
Meal planning is possible and dare I say (gasp!) even enjoyable! Get your meal-planning game on with the smart beginner tips below!
What does meal planning mean?
Meal planning means choosing future meals and then placing them into a schedule (weekly/monthly) based on personal food preferences, dietary needs and/or lifestyle. Meal planning ranges from one day of meals, or expands to weekly, or even monthly plans.
Meal planning includes strategy. A smart meal planner considers quick meals that work in well with personal schedules and activities. Some people create meals based on weekly grocery store buys. Experienced meal planners take into account the additional time needed to prepare meals. For example, meals made from scratch take extra time, thawing meat out should be planned ahead, and long cooking times all play a part in meal planning decisions.
Why meal plan?
I’ve mentioned often on Everything Pantry that meal planning is not my favorite thing to do. Yet, I find myself having to meal plan, because certain goals are not being met in my house. The benefits of meal planning are abundant.
Meal planning is important because:
- it helps people stay on track and commit to special diets
- it helps people stay committed to a grocery budget
- it takes into account meal prep time that affects the overall schedule
- it helps with food rotation and using up food before it expires
- it can make it easier for other family members to step in and help
What is the greatest struggle for meal planning?
Meal plans often fall on the shoulders of one person. This is usually moms trying to raise a family on a tight budget. If I could count all the times I’ve heard “Mom – what’s for supper tonight?” I’d be a millionaire. Actually, reducing the number of times we all hear that should be one of the main incentives to meal plan.
Keeping the system up can be challenging. Illness, unexpected guests, changing schedules, and holidays can disrupt everyone’s rhythm. Having a flimsy plan, catering to perfectionism, and being overly complicated can take the whole game down.
Good for you for taking the steps to meal plan – just be ready to adjust. Let’s get you set up for success!
Meal planning is especially helpful to families with busy schedules.
How to create meal plans
I want you to be a meal planner winner. The bare bones of meal planning means taking a calendar out and planning. Get a little experience by first attempting a 3-day or 5-day meal plan. Leave the weekends open to freestyle until you get the hang of it. Meal planning for a whole week and every single meal isn’t necessary, don’t forget that there are leftovers that need to be eaten!
A good tip for beginner meal planners is to only plan the most important meal of the day, or the meal the whole family is at. It’s easy to get overly-detailed and lose your momentum. Many meal planners say that adding additional meals will come naturally.
Tips for beginner meal planners
- browse through grocery store fliers for weekly sales
- on the weekend, sit down and write out a meal plan for the following week, and check that you have the ingredients and plan a shopping trip
- plan on making double or triple batches of favorite meals that can be frozen for the next month, or used as leftovers
- don’t forget fresh, canned, or frozen vegetables at every meal
- incorporate 5-ingredient or less meals
- buy meal kits where you just add meat or vegetables
- challenge yourself to make at least one crockpot/slow cooker or instant pot meal, skillet, or sheet pan recipe.
- it’s OK to add a frozen pizza or other convenience food into the mix
- when eating out, eat half and take the other portion home for lunch the next day
- try a new recipe a couple of times a month to expand your meal plan, that’s how favorites are found!
Step-by-step meal planning
If you’re looking for the basic steps of meal planning, here it is:
- decide on a meal and what that meal will include (main course and sides)
- decide where on the calendar and which meal time slot the meal will be served
- check that you have the recipe (if you need a recipe) and make sure you have the food on hand to make it
- schedule a grocery shopping trip if necessary
Planning sessions are vital to meal planning success. Some people like to plan a week’s worth of meals every Sunday night that would be served the following week, since it might involve a grocery shopping trip. It’s common for people new to meal planning to quickly advance to bi-weekly or monthly food plans, since it’s more efficient to sit down once a month rather than multiple times.
Experienced meal planners do this
- cook large quantities of meat that can be divided up and used across multiple recipes
- when grocery shopping, buy 1 or 2 extra cans to stock the pantry
- stock up on base food “fillers” – rice, potatoes, pasta, beans in all forms
- buy basic pantry foods that are used across a variety of recipes: canned tomatoes, tomato paste, cream soups for casseroles, chicken broth
- include vegetables in your pantry inventory – canned, frozen, or fresh
- always have bread variety in the freezer, not just plain old sliced bread
- be prepared to adjust the meal plan when good buys come up, or a gardening friend shares their abundance
- meal prep by pre-cooking meat, bagging up ingredients in recipe portions, freeze or store to be assembled later
- buy pre-cut or pre-cooked food to get dinner on the table faster
- start a binder with recipes that are separated by sections: breakfast, salads, sides and vegetables, main courses
- reduce grocery shopping trips by stocking a pantry once a month or longer
- don’t be shy – always ask for recipes from family and friends after you’ve tasted their winning dish!
Food prepping and equipment
Preparing recipes from scratch takes time. Chopping fresh veggies or dicing meats for salads also takes time. As mentioned, there are shortcuts such as buying pre-cut food. I’m all for that, especially when entertaining guests and there are a lot of moving parts to getting an impressive meal on the table.
Keep your sanity and free-time in check. Some people really find it relaxing to chop vegetables, and it makes great family or couple time. Don’t dismiss the value of teachable moments for kids to learn all aspects of cooking.
If the recipe calls for a sauce, it could be made up the night before and placed in the fridge along with prepping vegetables or meat for the next evening’s meal.
There are always ways to make the food prepping process more pleasant, with food processors and other equipment. Part of meal planning could be buying stackable storage containers that will nicely store your meals in the fridge for the week.
If extra accessories are part of your success plan, than go for it!
Preparing food in advance and freezer meals are great time savers.
Freezer meals make planning easier
Some people really get into freezer cooking where yourself or a group of family and friends gets together and cook recipes in bulk, divide the bounty, and take them home and pop them in their own freezer. Everyone gets a nice variety.
My family never liked frozen meals, it wasn’t hard for them to identify that it had been in the freezer. It’s different with “component” cooking. I might brown and season some hamburger, pre-measuring the right amount for a recipe and even dropping it in the freezer for future recipes.
I’ve found assembling and then baking (even if parts have been in the freezer) guarantees the freshest-tasting meal that fools the family every time.
Different type of meal planning
Don’t get stuck thinking that meal planning is you sitting at the kitchen table, getting hand cramps scribbling out master meal plans. There is more than one way to go about this.
Use other people’s meal plans
There are plenty of people on the Internet and cookbook authors who provide ready-made meal plans. You can find 1-day, 3-day, and 5-day meal plans or more. These are especially popular to jumpstart diets, to get people over the “hesitation hump.” One popular site for super-cheap meal plans is Etsy.com.
Common search terms are “clean eating” “easy prep” “30 day” “one month low carb” “diabetes or diabetic meal plan” “1500 calorie meal plan” “gluten-free meal plan” and “keto meal plan.” I think you get the picture. It’s a little overwhelming but fun at the same time. It’s also a way to mix up your meal plans and get new ideas to try.
Use a dietitian’s meal plan
A friend of mine recently had heart surgery, which meant an aggressive dietary change. His wife, being the thorough person she was, visited a dietician to come up with a meal plan for a month for him. This gave her the peace of mind and confidence that her husband was being taken care of. She, of course, had to go out and buy the ingredients and make the meals, but the visit with the dietitian empowered her.
Meal plan ideas from the grocery store
It’s not by mistake that grocery stores have ready-in-minutes meals. Convenience is the name of the game, but with a higher price tag. There is no harm in strolling through the freezer aisle to get inspiration for meals you can put together at home.
Meal planning on autopilot
Back in an earlier version of Everything Pantry, I came up with this super simple meal planning system:
- Purchase 12 folders and label for each month
- Photocopy the recipes used in each month and place in the folder as you used them
- Include a photocopy of a calendar format for that month, with notes on what you actually ate that day/evening
Viola! Meal planning done – it will be there when you need it next year at the same time. You can look back at those favorite summer meals, or the comfort meals of winter and not have to think so hard. The really easy part is just write the meals down the day you eat them. You don’t realize it, but it is meal planning that falls into place for future use.
FYI, don’t forget folders for holiday meals, it’s always a walk down memory lane to see the foods used in past celebrations!
I am dedicated to the holiday meals folder idea. Did I keep up with the rest of the monthly system? Not so much, but anyone who knows me, knows that I am very resistant to routines. The system I was most successful to keep up with was labeling folders based on meat type: beef roast, hamburger, pork roast, pork burger, chicken, etc.
Since we process our own meat, there was a ready protein abundance waiting for me in our freezers. Coming up with novel ideas for each cut of meat was the challenging part. Food security is good, but extra food stocks means making sure you eat your way through it. Meat folders are especially helpful when there are meat buys in the grocery store.
I’ve gotten to the point that I can whip out a meal or recall the best recipe for any situation due to experience. My kids are still trying to figure out how I do it. My husband and I had a milestone wedding anniversary during Covid-19, and all those years of feeding the family on a daily basis paid off.
Who ever imagined that in the middle of the week, we were surrounded by our kids for this important day (those kids should have been off to college, but of course it was Covid). We had the best celebration ever. It was a memorable food event – we raided the freezer and pantry and created a fun smorgasbord of “samples.”
Meal planning means flexibility
Meal planning doesn’t have to be rigid. There is always the question “What’s a good idea for dinner tonight?” The schedule may not match up with the cravings. Meal plans should always adapt to changing situations.
For example, soup is great on cold days, but maybe there is a happily sun-shiny day and it doesn’t feel like soup anymore. Or maybe you received a last minute dinner invite or realized there is a fundraiser and you really love brats!
Sometimes there are unforeseen circumstances where the car breaks down, or work takes longer than expected, and dinner is just not going to be ready on time. Having an arsenal of food ready in minutes is a godsend.
Last minute meal options:
- order out/delivery
- fast food
- pick up from a convenience store
- ready-made frozen food already in the freezer
- canned soup, stew
- canned meat, pasta/bean/rice, sauce or cream soup
- breakfast for dinner (eggs)
- cold cereal or cooked oatmeal
There are some real meal planning pros out there, and my hat is off to them. As awesome as these experts are, don’t let their impressive Pinterest pictures intimidate you! One step at a time and you can become a meal planner. too! Remember, it takes experience, and you can’t get that unless you start making some recipes, so get going!