How to Start Meal Planning

I want to preface this post by saying that there isn’t one right way to do meal planning. Everyone does what works best for them, and there’s usually quite a bit of trial and error involved in figuring out what that is! I know that I always appreciate seeing the various ways people do things when I’m trying to learn something new, so I thought I’d do a quick video and tutorial to show you how I do it. I hope it will give you some ideas to start meal planning!

By the way, if you need more help with this, check out my FREE Guide, which includes the printable meal planner pages you see in this post: 5 Strategies to Make Healthy Meals Easier Than Take-Out

Step 1: Plan 4-7 days at a time

I used to only ever plan for a full week at a time, but recently I’ve started playing around with doing two smaller planning and shopping sessions per week, one on Monday, and one on Thursday or Friday to get set for the weekend. I’m liking it so far, even though it means I actually spend a little bit more time overall on planning and shopping (driving to the store twice and what not).

What I like about the shorter 4-day planning stints though is that it allows me to more easily adapt to changes that come up during the week. It also means that my produce is usually fresher, since it’s not a full 7 days before one of the things gets used (in which case you obviously risk certain things going bad before you can use them).

If you only have time to get to the store once, plan for the full week. If you’re able to be a bit more flexible and go twice, I do find I tend to like it better when I’m able to do it.

In the video, I planned five meals. This means that on Thursday or Friday I’ll make another plan for the weekend, taking into account whatever we have going on. 

Step 2: Choose meals and create shopping list

I usually take stock of what I have in the cabinets and refrigerator so I can use them up, and then I round it out with ideas from my cookbooks, my Clipix and Pinterest boards, and the folder of random printed recipes I have in my kitchen.

For my family, our breakfasts tend to stay the same each day (eggs, toast, and greek yogurt parfaits in case you’re interested), so I just buy the staples I need for that meal and don’t do any other planning.

For lunches, my husband and I tend to have leftovers from the previous night’s dinner, and kiddo usually takes some kind of sandwich to daycare with fruit and veg on the side. You can check out my post 50+ Lunchbox Ideas for Toddlers to get more of an idea on the things I try to send with him.

Dinners are where my main planning comes in. As a general template (see How to Eat Healthy Without Dieting), I make sure each meal has a protein, plenty of veggies, and some type of starchy side, plus a bit of fat thrown in the mix. I also make sure that the recipes make enough so we have leftovers for lunches.

(Psst, if you need some ideas, check out my RECIPES page!)

I try to keep a variety of protein sources in the week’s meals, so we’ll have a chicken dish, a seafood dish or two, and then usually either turkey, pork, or beef. I’ll be honest, we’re not tofu fans over here. Beans make an appearance, but they tend to be an accompaniment, not the main protein source.

In the video example, there’s a seafood dish, two chicken dishes, a beef dish (the bolognese sauce), and a pork dish. Pretty well varied, I’d say!

As I decide on a recipe, I add the ingredients I need to the shopping list (or sometimes I do this after step 3 below).

Step 3: Assign meals to specific days

Once I know what meals I’m making, I think about what my plans are for the various days and assign the meals to specific days. This helps me anticipate any planning that needs to be done.

For example, I have an aerials class on Wednesdays, and I only get home right at dinnertime. This means I have to either have dinner ready before I leave, or the crockpot has to be set up to be done when I get home. So I always put slow-cooker meals or ones that reheat well in the Wednesday slot.

My husband’s work schedule is different throughout the week too, and on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Fridays, he’s home early (around 5pm). But on Mondays and Wednesdays he doesn’t get home until after 7pm, so it’s just me and kiddo up until his bedtime. I put meals that are quicker and easier to make on Mondays for this reason. Meals that take a little longer can go on Tuesdays or Thursdays when my husband is around to play with the little one while I cook.

Kiddo does love to help me in the kitchen, which I think is SO awesome! His helping doesn’t really actually help things go quicker though, it actually takes longer. So again, simple is best on Mondays when he wants to be helping me.

After making the video I actually changed things around a bit and decided to do the bolognese on Monday. It’s a really quick dish, and the salmon wouldn’t have given us leftovers (seafood doesn’t reheat well). So the salmon went later in the week, since the pork dish in the crockpot makes a lot and we can use that for lunch the day after the salmon. This rearranging is why I typically do my meal plans in pencil!

Bonus Step 4: Prep, cook, eat!

Once you know what meals you’ll eat on which days, you’ll have an idea of the prep-work needed for each day and how it can fit in around everything else you need to do. Then it’s just a matter of taking the time to do the prep work each day.

If you’re anything like me, and you tend to pick pretty easy meals (and rely on leftovers a lot), the actual prep work on any given day isn’t all that much.. I’d guess I spend about 30 minutes each day making dinner, and that includes cooking time for most things.

If you have more time on the weekends and a lot less time on the weekdays, you can always do some batch prep-work. After you get the groceries home, wash and cut some of the produce so it’ll be ready to go when you need it during the week.

You can also cook some veggies and proteins ahead of time and just reheat them as leftovers. This doesn’t work well for things like seafood, but I do it all the time for chicken and meals that use ground meat (like burgers and meat sauces).

In the example from the video, I will most likely batch-cook the chicken and then use the pre-cooked chicken in both the burrito bowls and the chicken, pasta, veggie dish. I could also pre-cook the broccoli, green beans, and sweet potatoes if I had the time.

Wrapping up:

This is how I’ve settled into meal planning over the years. It has certainly evolved and changed over time, and it will likely change again in the future too. But I wanted to give you an example of how I do it in case you’re looking for a bit of help.

Leave a comment below and let me know how YOU do your meal planning, or if you think this way might help you start if you're not doing it already. I love to hear from you all!

And don’t forget, you can grab my FREE guide on Making Healthy Meals EASIER Than Take-Out using the form below!

Happy cooking!

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