Do you find yourself opening the fridge at 5 pm with no plan for dinner, so you order takeout instead? Do you make multiple trips to the grocery store for forgotten items? Or do you wish you didn’t run out of things during the week, such as spices and condiments? Let me share the top 5 secrets of meal planning and walk you through ten easy steps so you can take charge of your kitchen (and wallet), stick to your healthy diet, and be prepared for hungry kids or visitors. Let’s go.
Benefits of Meal Planning
Before we get into the nitty gritty, let’s look at some of the benefits of meal planning.
Meal planning can be overwhelming at first, but once you give it a try you will quickly get the hang of it. The benefits of meal planning include:
- Saving money through less food waste, less eating out, and less trips to the grocery store.
- Eating healthier through avoiding takeout foods. (Tip: you need to actually plan healthy meals in order to eat healthier, since there is still plenty of junk at the grocery store).
- Potentially supporting your local farmers farmers markets.
- Peace of mind through knowing that there is a plan and you have the power to follow it.
So without further ado, let’s jump into the top five secrets of meal planning.
You don’t have to be a super organized person to create a successful meal plan.
Now, I myself like to think I’m organized. My clothes are put away, the counter is clean, and my wallet is orderly. But you know what? My basement is a mess. There are kids toys that have been begging to be thrown out or donated. And does everyone have a junk drawer, or is it just us?
My point is that we all have varying levels of organizational abilities. If we didn’t, we’d really be struggling to get through life.
Now is the time to let meal planning take up some more brain space in your organizational capacities. Don’t ignore this important skill and think that everything will turn out just fine. It won’t. You will cave in to buying donuts instead of having packed a sensible snack, or company will come unexpectedly and you’ll have nothing to feed them, or your kids will be whining for dinner thirty minutes after it was supposed to have been served.
Pick a shopping day, figure out when it works to prep meals, and take 15-20 minutes a week to create a meal plan. Keep reading to find out how.
You don’t have to pick fancy pants recipes to create a successful meal plan.
Really, you don’t. While it is fun to leaf through a foodie magazine to get some inspiration or break out your cook book collection, you are totally allowed to stick to what you know how to make. (And if you don’t know how to make very much, just browse my blog a little more).
Think about what you like to eat. Eggs in the morning? Make sure to buy enough for yourself and anyone else who eats them. Sandwiches for lunch? Literally count out how many pieces of bread are in the bag (or determine how many slices you get if you bake your own) and how many mouths need to be fed that week. Meat and potatoes for dinner? Again, do the math. How many pounds of meat per person per meal? How many potatoes does everyone eat?
Plan what you like to eat, especially the recipes that you know how to make and are quick, and it will get eaten.
You can and should use ingredients from farmer’s markets, local farms, raw milk pick up sites and more.
It’s ok to make a loose meal plan. For example, you may fill in Saturday’s meal slot with “chicken and rice” because you know you will find in season vegetables at the farmer’s market that morning. Then the next couple of days’ worth of lunches could be salads that use the ingredients you found at the market.
Or, perhaps you signed up for a sustainable meat delivery once a month, as I did. Sometimes I plan my meals from the point I receive the meat so I know what I’m working with. Other times I just put “meat and potatoes” on my plan, knowing that some sort of meat will arrive and the vegetable will come from my garden or the farmer’s market.
The point is that a meal plan can allow for fluid ingredients and does not have to force you to look for crisp apples in July or tomatoes in December.
You can fit multiple diets into the same meal plan.
I’m always going through various elimination diets to figure out how to improve my gut health or how to improve my psoriasis, and I generally eat low-carb. As such, there are often things that are off the table for me. But that doesn’t mean the rest of my family needs to eat that way too.
Many things can be served on the side, such as soaked rice, sourdough bread or potatoes. Other times it might be a stew or beans that everyone can top as they like. I may choose green onions, raw cheddar and avocado while my husband uses the works, including conventional sour cream and rice.
Or it maybe it’s pizza night. I might be in a low-carb, gluten-avoiding phase, so instead of missing out entirely on pizza, I put my toppings on some riced cauliflower and bake it so that I can get all the flavor without the offending ingredient.
You can plan weekly, biweekly, monthly, or even seasonal meal plans.
I go through phases when I plan monthly or weekly. It depends on how busy I am and how often I feel like shopping. For a few months I was planning and shopping monthly. I would get all the non-perishables and anything that could be frozen. I received a monthly meat delivery, a weekly produce delivery and I picked up raw dairy every other week. It worked well. But after a few months, I started feeling a little stressed about creating a perfectly complete grocery list and not leaving anything off.
Eventually I continued to make a monthly plan that took into account any visitors or any times we would be traveling, but I switched to shopping once a week for that plan. It took the pressure off and helped me to make any adjustments as needed, especially if we needed to eat up leftovers before shopping again or allow for new plans of eating out or inviting others in.
Some people set up a rotating seasonal plan that they pull out when the seasons change. I am always tinkering with new recipes and don’t much want to get locked into anything, so instead of planning seasonally I instead try to notice which ingredients are in season that I can add to my cooking.
Meal Planning 101: How to Actually Do It
While there are various online meal planning programs out there, my preferred method is the tried-and-true pencil and paper.
For the plan, it may be a good idea to use a notebook. This way you can look back over your previous meal plans and make notes about which recipes everyone enjoyed, which ones you’d rather not make again, and which ones were fast and easy. You can also get inspiration from your past plans or even just recycle them to use anew.
Here’s my step by step plan for how to do it.
- Take stock of your pantry, freezer and refrigerator. Write down anything you are out of that you normally use. Write down any ingredients that need to be used in the coming week.
- Gather any cookbooks or printed recipes you are considering, as well as your computer or phone to search your favorite food blogs (vote for me!).
- Get a notebook or at least some paper and a pencil.
- Write out your days: week, month, whatever you’re planning. Write in when you have company, when you have plans to eat out, or when you are traveling.
- Plan one dinner, taking into consideration the ingredients you already have. Write the title of the meal, the page number or site you got it from, and whether or not you plan to double it (I write D for double and later in my plan I write L if it’s leftover).
- Before moving on to the next dinner, write down any ingredients you don’t currently have onto your grocery list. Remember to double the ingredients if you plan to double the recipe.
- Continue to plan your dinners in this way for the rest of the weekly or monthly plan.
- For lunches, you can either count on eating dinner leftovers or you can plan separate meals that are easy to put together. We often do a combination of dinner leftovers or easy salads with canned fish and hard boiled eggs. For breakfasts, take stock of what you are low on. My husband and I typically eat eggs or smoothies (or I just have Meal Replacement Coffee), and my kids rotate through homemade sourdough, soaked pancakes, soaked oats and yogurt. As such, I would add all those things that I need to my grocery list: smoothie ingredients, eggs, coffee, oats, flour, etc.
- Pick a day to grocery shop, ideally not the same day as you meal prep. It’s a huge chore to shop, put things away, and try to cook all in the same day. Best to plan for leftovers on grocery days, or at least something that comes together quickly.
- Look at your schedule and figure out what works for you to meal prep. Is it one Saturday morning? Is it 30 minutes every morning and 30 minutes before dinner? Play around with different strategies until you find a good rhythm. For me, it often looks like soaking beans and rice in the morning, marinating meat, or boiling potatoes while I’m getting out the lunch ingredients. Then at 5 pm I cook the beans or rice, or roast the meat, or pan fry the potatoes. Since I don’t have a large chunk of time to meal prep, I break it up into smaller segments.
Sample Meal Plan Ideas
Now that you have the basics for how to plan your meals, here are some examples of what works well for breakfasts, lunches, dinners and snacks that you can customize to suit your needs.
- Leftovers from dinner
- Seasonal Salads: Winter, Spring, Summer, Fall
- Batch Cooked Salmon Patties
- Sheet Pan Chicken, Chickpeas & Carrots
- Pan-Fried Salmon Fillets
- Garlicky Kale with Pan-Fried Liver
- Easy Cheesy Baked Beans
- Any of the salads listed under lunch
- Sweet Potato Medallions
- Ten Minute Savoy Cabbage
- Homemade Sourdough Bread
Snacks & Treats
- Raw cheese, nuts, fruit
- Chocolate Peanut Butter Keto Fudge
- Sunflower Seed Snack Crackers, Four Ways
- Low Carb Chocolate Paleo Pudding
- Low Carb Coconut Vanilla Custard
Now It’s Your Turn
I hope you found this helpful and informative. Now I would love for you to grab your recipes or use some of those that I listed, get your paper and pencil, and get started. A meal plan for you is just around the corner.