What exactly is meal planning? Simply put, it is planning all of yours or your family’s meals for the week. Some simple planning ahead can make life a little easier and healthier, and we are all about that (1, 2)! If you have never attempted meal planning and the idea sounds overwhelming, don’t stress! This article is focused on meal planning for beginners. We’ll first discuss the benefits, and then we will dive into the steps.
Meal Planning Benefits
- Saves money: When you meal plan for the week, your grocery trips will become more focused, and your cart will be filled with foods that you planned to buy instead of foods that you picked up on impulse. Meal planning will also help reduce the number of times that you get food delivered or dine out; cooking is usually a less expensive option (3).
- Saves time: At first, meal planning might feel more time-consuming, but we promise that once you get in the habit, it will become much faster and easier. Planning your meals ahead of time will also help reduce the time you spend thinking about and coming up with meals during the week. Plus, this will help cut back on your grocery store trips – a huge timesaver too!
- Provides more variety: When you sit down and think about what you want to purchase or cook in advance, this will help you vary the cuisine, flavors, and recipes.
- Creates less stress: Wouldn’t it be great to not worry about what you’re going to make for breakfast, lunch, and dinner every day? Meal planning takes away the guesswork and gives you a plan for what to cook for the week.
- Ensures healthier eating: When you plan your meals, you are in better control of the ingredients you put in your body. Although you don’t have to cook every meal to be healthy, meal planning does provide great motivation to get back to the kitchen. At To Taste, we believe cooking is one of the best ways to take control of your health!
- Prevents food waste: Meal planning promotes mindful grocery shopping and helps you pay better attention to a food’s shelf life. When you plan ahead and stick to a list, you are less likely to buy extra foods that may go bad.
10 Steps for Meal Planning Success
Now that you know the benefits, let’s review the points to consider when meal planning. Follow these 10 steps to make meal planning a snap!
1. Decide your meal planning style.
Meal planning looks different for different people. Some people plan the meals they are going to cook and eat for the week and use that to make a grocery list. Other people cook and portion out all of their meals for the week using meal prep containers, so that limited cooking, if any, is done throughout the week. And for others, it is a combination of the two.
Choose the meal planning style that works best for you! Remember that the whole idea is to plan your meals for the week; you can prep or not prep as much as you want in advance.
2. Stock up on pantry and fridge staples.
Keeping your pantry and fridge stocked with basic ingredients helps make meal planning easier and less intimidating. As described in our Healthy Pantry Staples and Fridge Essentials article, this guarantees healthy eating and cooking at home. If you are starting off with limited ingredients, the initial investment might seem large. However, once you have these basic ingredients, recipe selection and grocery list development will be much easier!
3. Equip your kitchen.
Set yourself up for success! It is hard to cook and store meals if you don’t have the necessary equipment. Proper kitchen equipment includes everything from knives and pans to storage bags and storage containers.
4. Schedule a planning and shopping day.
I usually do my planning and shopping on Sunday due to time constraints, but I definitely find it easier to plan on Saturday and shop on Sunday. Figure out whichever day works best for you! Try to keep these days consistent, as this will determine the days and meals that you plan. Of course, there will be times that you will need to shop or plan on a different day, but staying consistent helps make meal planning a part of your routine.
5. Evaluate your week, then plan meals accordingly.
Once you have the basic tools, staple ingredients, and a scheduled planning/shopping day, it’s time to actually start meal planning! Think about the week ahead – early meetings that require grab-and-go breakfasts, a Friday lunch out with co-workers, evening soccer practice with your kids, etc. Any event or situation that will alter your time or ability to cook should be noted. A late evening out might indicate a need for a crockpot or no-cook meal.
6. Decide which meals you want to cook.
Remember, meal planning looks different for different people. Decide how many meals you want to cook per week, how many meals you will eat out, and which meals you will rely on convenience foods. This will all be dependent on your schedule and lifestyle; you do not have to cook every meal!
A lot of people choose to focus their energy on dinner. Dinner leftovers also make great lunches.
You might have to prepare several lunches depending on your household. Do you pack your kid’s lunch? Do you take lunch to work? Sandwiches, salads, and grain bowls packed with fresh fruit and veggies are easy lunch options.
Breakfasts and snacks can also be simple. Whole grain toast with peanut butter and fresh fruit requires little planning and is a nutritious start to your morning. If you want to make your own breakfast items, consider making them in bulk and freezing. Whole grain muffins, pancakes, and energy bites can all be frozen and defrosted overnight.
Snacks don’t usually require much preparation; consider fresh fruit, nuts, yogurt, cheese, vegetables, and hummus. If you want to prepare your own snacks, trail mix and granola are easy recipes that last for weeks.
7. Select your recipes.
It’s always a good idea to take note of any refrigerated or frozen ingredients that you have on hand before looking at recipes, especially if they have a limited shelf life. Once you have an idea of what ingredients you want to include in your meal plan, then start looking for recipes. And don’t forget about side dishes! Roasted vegetables and salads are some of our favorite quick and easy sides.
Select recipes that you can cook in the time you have available. These can be traditional recipes that you follow or your own ideas based on your ability to cook without a recipe. Rely on household favorites that you already cook frequently, then consider adding a new recipe or new variation once or twice a week. Vary flavors, cuisine types, and proteins. Check out our base recipes for ideas on how to take one recipe and vary it in unlimited ways.
Multi-functional recipes can help make meal planning simpler. For example, a black bean corn salad can be used in a quesadilla one day, tossed with greens the next, and then served as a burrito bowl with whole grains and veggies like our roasted spiced cauliflower.
Try to think in advance for future meals. Pizza on Monday? Make extra marinara sauce and freeze it in portions. Taco Tuesday? Make extra beans and freeze. Making extra food can be helpful for a future dinner or lunch. Speaking of Pizza Monday and Taco Tuesday, some people find it easier to follow theme days like these – one less thing to think about!
Finally, remember that there is no rule that says you can’t eat the same meal multiple times in one week!
8. Make your grocery list and shop.
List all of the ingredients you will need to prepare the meals you planned for the week. Then, order them to match the layout of the store. This might sound crazy, but we promise that it saves time!
Decide what ingredients and recipes you want to spend your time on. Do you want to cut a whole head of cauliflower, or do florets sound more appealing? Do you want to cook a whole chicken, or would buying a rotisserie chicken free up your time to cook something else?
Although you already took an inventory of the ingredients you have on hand, it’s not a bad idea to return to the pantry or fridge to double check that you didn’t list something you already have before heading to the store. Once at the grocery store, stick to the list, but remain flexible. Take advantage of sales and specials that can help lower your grocery bill.
9. Prep on Sunday (or whatever day you choose).
This step is definitely optional, but we are guessing that most of you lead pretty busy lives since you are reading an article on meal planning, and could benefit from some advance prep. You can decide how much time you want to commit based on what makes sense for you and/or your family. Meal prep Sunday can be as basic as chopping vegetables, measuring spices, or washing and portioning fruits for packed lunches.
I like to use Sundays to prepare breakfast foods, snacks, sauces, and large batches of beans. As mentioned before, some people like to fully prepare their meals for the week, and that’s great! Just be sure to consider shelf life. Not all foods can maintain their quality for a week.
10. Follow your plan, but remain flexible.
Obviously you want to stick to your plan after all of that hard work, but there are going to be days when unpredictable events arise or you don’t have the energy to make what you originally planned. That’s okay; just have a back up plan! Master some go-to pantry staple recipes and learn basic culinary techniques so you can whip up a meal quickly without a recipe if needed.
Follow these 10 steps, and you will be well on your way to meal planning success! Let us know in the comment section below if you have any other tips or if we left off other factors to consider when meal planning!
To YOUR Taste!