Meal Planning 101 | Everything You Need to Know to Create a Habit that Sticks
If you’ve been coming around here for any length of time, you likely know that one topic I am pretty passionate about is meal planning! Over the years, I’ve created a variety of systems and written a bunch of posts on meal planning, with the hopes that I can inspire and teach you all how to do it too. Why? Because more than any other organization system or routine I’ve implemented in our home, meal planning is honestly one of my most tried-and-true mechanisms for saving time, stress and money; and it seriously just helps our household run much more smoothly. With the New Year here and many of us (and I’m including myself in that “us”!) trying to eat better and reduce our household stress, I thought it was the perfect time to gather all my meal planning tips, tricks, ideas, and resources into one easy-to-access post. So go ahead and settle on in my friend, because I’m sharing everything I know and have learned about meal planning so that you can either start or refresh your meal planning habit too!
Why I Meal Plan
Tell me if this sounds remotely familiar:
It’s 5:00. You’re tired, and the kids are hungry. There is still homework to be done, laundry to be put away, and basketball practice to shuttle someone to. With no pre-determined dinner plan, nothing is thawed, you’re out of several ingredients for your usual last-minute meals, and you don’t have an ounce of creativity in you to pull together something remotely tasty using what’s sitting on your refrigerator shelf. And so you reach for something from the freezer, call Uber eats, or snag food while out shuttling kids around. You and your family are fed…but you end the day feeling unsatisfied, scattered, and maybe even stressed. And you know it doesn’t have to be this way.
Why do I meal plan every single week of every single month all year long? To avoid that stress. To prevent that end-of-day chaos. And most importantly…to ensure my family gets whole, clean, balanced meals most days of the week. By taking just an hour every Sunday to look at our family calendar, plan out our weekly meals, and then shop for the corresponding groceries to make those meals, I eliminate the stress surrounding meal time so that I can more easily deal with complicated math homework, a sports practice that runs long, or the baby who doesn’t want to go to bed.
Simply put: meal planning takes one stressful thing off my plate every night so I have the energy and brain power to deal with everything else our busy life throws my way!
Meal planning looks and feels different to each one of us. Like the planner we use or how we organize items around our homes, meal planning is individual and should meet the unique demands of our specific lifestyle. Yet although each one of us has different requirements of a meal planning routine, I believe there are four main steps to getting into a good meal planning habit and sticking to it. I’m going to break down each step in detail before sharing a bunch of resources to help you get started with and/or keep at this essential household task!
Step 1: Collect & Organize Your Recipes
Find Recipes You’ll Actually Make. The very first step is to collect recipes…a lot of them. And I don’t necessarily mean by scouring Pinterest or your favorite cookbooks for everything and anything that looks good (although that’s a great place to start if you literally have no “go to” recipes yet.) Rather, I mean you need to find and keep recipes you will actually be excited (or at the very least be willing) to make at the end of a long day. As in, the recipes should be ones you like, include ingredients you keep on hand or shop for often, meet your family’s dietary preferences and needs, and fit within your lifestyle (e.g., one pot meals, crockpot meals, 5 ingredients or less meals, etc). Your goal is to have a collection of about 100 go-to recipes, as it is from this “recipe bank” that you will primarily populate your meal plan week after week. You meal planning sessions will go smoother and you will feel more successful when you know each and every recipe will (most likely) be a good one!
Recipes organized in my All-In-One Recipe Binder
Organize Your Recipes. I know I’ve shared countless ways to organize your recipes over the years, but that’s because this step really can’t be overlooked. It’s one thing to have a bunch of recipes you know your family will love. It’s an entirely different thing to be able to access those recipes quickly and easily each night. If you have to dig out a special cookbook, scroll through all your pins on your “Recipe to Try” Pin board, or sort through a stack of papers to find the recipe you just printed out a week ago, your entire dinner process will take longer and feel more laborious than necessary. As you collect those tried-and-true recipes your family loves, organize them so you can quickly find and use what you’re looking for. Whether it’s an All-In-One Recipe Binder like mine or an app on your phone, find a recipe organization solution that works for your brain and your home and you can stick to for the long haul.
TIP! I honestly can’t recommend the concept of a “recipe binder” enough. Not only does it provide an easy way to organize your recipes utilizing any categorization that makes sense for you, but adding to it once you find a “keeper” recipe couldn’t be easier. When I find a recipe I want to try, whether it’s online or in a cookbook, I print it out/copy it (I almost always adjust the sizing so it all fits on a single page). I then keep the recipe tucked to the inside of my binder with a binder clip until we try it. Once we make it and if we like it, it gets filed into its own page protector and added to the recipe inventory so it can be easily found and made again. If we didn’t like it, I just toss the paper out and move on!
Step 2: Identify a Meal Planning System
Unfortunately, finding and organizing your recipes is just one aspect of creating a solid meal planning routine (although it may feel like the biggest and most overwhelming step). The second step is figuring out how you are going to create your meal plan…as in, what exactly are you going to use to organize your schedule, meals, groceries and more.
Once cursory search on Pinterest will yield thousands of meal planning “systems,” and finding the right one not only requires some trial-and-error but also some introspection. Are you the type of person who needs a big board with everything mapped out? Or do you prefer to jot meals into your planner? Are you willing to pay for an online plan that organizes everything for you? Do you like to plan daily, weekly, monthly or even beyond that? Are you an app kind of person or do you rather pencil and paper? As you consider the various qualities about yourself, look for a system that matches your needs.
TIP! I’ll be the first to admit that on several occasions over the years, I’ll proclaim that I found “my ultimate meal planning system” only to abandon it a few weeks later because something just wasn’t working for me. But instead of quitting all together, I kept at it until I found something that did work. We all plan differently, we all run our households differently, and we all have different requirements for the meals we put on the table each night. If you’ve tried meal planning in the past but couldn’t make it stick, maybe it was the system and not you! Just because your favorite blogger or best friend raves about a certain method doesn’t mean it’s the right system for you. Since there are SO many “tried and true” approaches to meal planning out there, keep trying different methods until you find the one that works!
TIP! One glance at all the meal planning systems I’ve created and used over the years will prove that even if you find the right meal planning solution “for now” doesn’t mean it will be the right system “for later.” As a blogger, it can be really hard to reveal to you all that the meal planning system I raved about and was fully committed to for so long suddenly wasn’t working. But that exact realization and course adjustment is required for anything organization-related and especially meal planning. The truth is our lives, families, habits, and needs evolve on a daily basis. And what may have worked great for a really long time CAN and likely WILL stop working suddenly. If you’ve fallen out of the meal planning habit, don’t force yourself to cling to a particular system that is no longer working and instead look for a new approach that will meet your current needs.
Step 3: Create Your Own Meal Planning “Workflow”
“Workflow” is a fancy way of saying “method,” so this next step is all about figuring out how exactly to create your meal plan once you have your recipes collected/organized and a system picked out. Although I have relied on various systems over the years, my actual process of creating our weekly meal plan has remained the same for a good long time. It’s become so routine and methodical that I don’t even give the entire process a second thought. If you’ve never actually sat down to create a weekly meal plan (or desperately need to get back into the habit), may I suggest you try this:
Examine Your Weekly Calendar. One of the main goals of meal planning is to come up with a dinner plan that works with your schedule. As such, start with your personal/family calendar. Whether it’s on a dry-erase board, in your planner, in an app, or on a dedicated worksheet (which is what I use), notate and consider your various plans and commitments for the week ahead.
(I start every meal planning session translating our digital family calendar to a weekly worksheet that eventually gets taped up on the refrigerator for all to see.)
Identify Meals for Each Night. Keeping all of your plans for each day in the forefront of your mind, use your “recipe bank” to identify a meal for each night. Make sure the meal you pick works with your schedule. As in, don’t plan a roast that has to cook for an hour on the night you have a late meeting. And be sure you pick a crowd favorite for the night you have guests coming over. By having all your recipes organized in a single place, populating your meal plan should be a snap!
(With our weekly calendar filled out, I open up the recipe index in the front of my recipe binder. It’s from here that I can see all of our recipes at-a-glance and populate our meal list for the week. I try to select a recipe from each column in order to vary our protein sources from day-to-day. Once fully filled out, this weekly worksheet gets taped to the front our refrigerator so the entire family is on the same page, and I can easily see what needs to be pulled out/prepped ahead each morning.)
Populate Your Grocery List. With your meal plan fully hashed out, translate the required ingredients for the meals you selected to your weekly grocery list. Again, having all your recipes gathered, organized and sorted will make this step seamless!
(I transfer the titles of our meals from the weekly planning sheet to my grocery list. I then locate the recipe within my recipe binder and add all the ingredients to my list. From start-to-finish, I can do our entire meal plan without leaving my chair!)
Add Other Necessary Items to Your List. Although all the ingredients for your meals are now accounted for on your list, your final task is to fill your grocery list with other pantry, refrigerator, freezer and household items you may need. Assess each area of your kitchen, adding items when needed and crossing off recipe ingredients you already have on hand.
TIP! When I am adding recipe ingredients to our shopping list, I add them ALL. Yep, ALL of them. Then as I make my rounds through the kitchen, I cross off items I already have. This ensures I don’t assume I have something on hand when it’s actually run out or gone bad.
(My final step is to log onto the computer and place our grocery order. You can read all about why and how I do our grocery shopping online here!).
Step 4: Make It a Habit
The final step is to make your meal planning a habit. This last part is certainly easier said than done; but if you commit to the process, I promise it will stick and it will be worth it. My best tip is to schedule meal planning into your weekly plan, just like you would the gym or a meeting. Find a time where it comfortably fits, you have the energy to do it, and it won’t get pushed off your plate. Set the timer on your phone or create an appointment reminder if necessary.
(I do our meal planning every Sunday when we get home from church. I fill out the weekly schedule, pick our meals, populate our list and submit our order to Walmart all while my husband is making Sunday brunch. It’s the perfect way to fill that idle hour and ensures it gets done each week without fail.)
Tips & Hacks
As much as I swear by meal planning (and I really, really, really do!), I realize it can be a chore that isn’t always fun. There are certainly weeks when I just feel like “winging it,” but the amount of meal-time stress that follows always makes me regret it. To make meal planning a little easier, try some of these tips and hacks I rely on regularly:
- Refresh your recipes. A few months ago, I was struggling with getting myself to make dinner. It’s not that I didn’t create my usual meal plan and shop for the corresponding groceries. Rather, I just couldn’t bring myself to make the things I had planned. I suddenly realized that I was bored with my current recipe “staples,” and as soon as I infused about 5-10 brand-new recipes into our rotation, my attitude and willingness to make dinner completely shifted! If you’re in a good meal planning habit but find yourself reluctant and bored, you are likely due for a recipe refresh too!
- Commit some basic recipes to heart. Pulling out a cookbook or your favorite recipe app night in and night out can start to feel really tedious. To keep fatigue at bay, try to commit some of your family’s favorites to heart. Just the idea of not having to page through your recipe book and follow detailed instructions a few nights a week may be enough to motivate you to stick to your plan!
- Identify some “non-recipe” meals. While following recipes can certainly up the chances of your meal tasting good, lengthly ingredient lists, tedious measuring, and complicated steps can be enough to overwhelm you and cause you to quit all together. Not every meal has to be made from a recipe, so try to brainstorm a handful of things you can make that don’t require mixing and measuring at all. Some of my favorites “non-recipes” are:
- Tacos with all the fixings
- Meat (chicken breasts, steak or pork chops) + bagged salad + freezer rolls
- Easy Spaghetti & Meatballs: pasta shape of choice + jarred sauce + freezer meatballs
- “Panera At Home” – “Fancy” grilled cheese sandwiches (with tomatoes, basil, and red onions) + ready-made soup + bagged salad
- Meal planning “lite” – During busier seasons of life, I get overwhelmed with the idea of making dinner each and every night. Which is why I (quite often, actually) embrace a meal planning “lite” approach. As in, I plan to make only 3 meals for the week (doubled), and we rely on leftovers for the remaining days. When I use this method, I save time by shopping for a smaller variety of ingredients and preparing fewer meals. This time savings alone is usually enough to keep me on bored with cooking during busy weeks. If you’re curious, our “lite” week typically looks like this:
- Monday – Meal 1 (Doubled)
- Tuesday – Meal 1 Leftovers
- Wednesday – Meal 2 (Doubled)
- Thursday – Meal 2 Leftovers
- Friday – Pizza
- Saturday – Meal 3 (Doubled)
- Sunday – Meal 3 Leftovers
- Rely on pre-made meal plans. If you’re just getting started or find yourself in a meal planning rut, consider using some pre-made meal plans. These plans are usually assembled by bloggers or companies and feature a rotation of recipes accompanied by prep notes and a shopping list. If you don’t want to sit and go through recipes each week, this can be a great way to still have a plan in place!
- Keep your previous meal plans and matching grocery lists. If you come up with a week’s worth of great meals and a corresponding grocery list, keep it! Just like using the pre-made meal plans I mentioned above, you can always pull out this ready-to-go plan on weeks when you just don’t have the time or energy to plan from scratch.
- Take a break. If you’ve been meal planning but have been reeeaaally struggling to keep at it, I suggest you take a break. Seriously! Whenever I am burnt out and just don’t want to meal plan anymore, I will stop all my planning and just “wing in” for a little while. It usually doesn’t take long for me to realize the chaos and frustration the whole family feels to get me back into my meal planning routine with renewed dedication!
Wowza! I know that was a lot! But like I said, I really wanted to get everything I’ve learned and tried with meal planning into one easy-to-reference post…I so hope you find it helpful! Be sure to pin/bookmark this post so you can find it if/when you need it…and if you have some great meal planning advice, I’d love for you to share it in the comments! You all always have great suggestions that often help me and fellow readers, so don’t hesitate to chime in with your own experiences and wisdom!
Have a great weekend my friends, and see you next week!