Meal Planning 101 | How 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 written a bunch of posts on how to meal plan, all with the hope of inspiring you to do it too. Why? Because more than any other routine I’ve implemented in our home, meal planning is the one that saves us serious time, stress, and money on a regular basis. Quite frankly, it’s the one habit that makes our entire household go around. So whether you need to start eating better or are simply hoping to reduce your household chaos, I just know this compilation of my best tips, tricks, ideas, and resources will help you start, refresh, or refine your own meal planning practices!
Why Meal Plan?
Does This Sound 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 get someone to. With no 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 in your fridge. And so you reach for a freezer meal, order takeout, or snag food while shuttling kids around. You and your family are fed…but you end the day feeling unsatisfied, scattered, and maybe even a bit stressed.
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. To save money and time. And most importantly…to ensure my family gets whole, clean, balanced meals most days of the week.
By taking just an hour every Saturday to look at our family calendar, plan out our weekly meals, and then shop for the corresponding groceries, 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 toddler 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 space to deal with everything else our busy life throws my way!
No One-Size-Fits-All Approach
Meal planning looks and feels different to every person/household. Like the planner we choose or how often we do laundry, meal planning is individual and should meet the unique demands of your specific lifestyle.
Yet although each one of us has different requirements from a meal planning routine, I believe there are four main steps to getting into a good meal planning habit that actually sticks:
- Collect & Organize Your Recipes
- Pick a Meal Planning “System”
- Create a Meal Planning “Workflow”
- Make It a Habit
I’m going to break down each step in detail below, and then share a bunch of easy tricks to help you get started and/or keep at this valuable household habit!
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. These recipes should be ones:
- You like
- Include ingredients you keep on hand or shop for often
- Meet your family’s dietary preferences and needs
- Fit within your lifestyle (e.g., one pot meals, crockpot meals, 5 ingredients or less meals, etc).
Your goal is to (eventually) have a collection of about 100 go-to meals (or ones you really want to try). It is from this “recipe bank” that you will primarily populate your meal plan week after week. This step might feel daunting (especially if you’re just starting out), but your meal planning sessions will go smoother and you will feel more successful overall when your meals are ones you actually like.
Recipes organized by category in my DIY Recipe Binder.
Organize Your Recipes
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 as you’re both planning and preparing your weekly meals. If you have to dig out a specific 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 your go-to recipes, organize them so you can quickly find and use what you’re looking for. I personally love and highly recommend using a binder system with recipes in page protectors sorted by category, but you can also use whatever app, software, or system that works for your brain and your lifestyle.
Step 2: Pick 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 exact calendar, board, worksheet, planner, or app you are going to use to synchronize your schedule, meal plan, groceries, and meal prep.
As you look around the world wide web, you’ll find thousands of meal planning “systems.” Finding the right one sometimes requires trial-and-error and a good bit of introspection. If you don’t yet have a meal planning process that works for you (or the one you have isn’t working), consider these questions:
- Do you need a big board with everything in big letters for the whole family to see? Or do you prefer to quickly jot meals into your personal planner?
- Do you need an online plan that organizes everything for you so you don’t have to think about it at all? Or do you want to build your own weekly plan with your own favorite recipes?
- Do you like to plan daily, weekly, monthly, or even beyond that?
- Are you an app kind of person or do you rather pencil/paper or dry erase?
- Do you need a structured plan or a general one?
- Do you need to just plan dinners, or do you want to plan out all meals and snacks?
As you consider the various qualities about yourself, look for a system that matches your needs. Here are some ideas:
- A dry-erase calendar or board that hangs in your kitchen or family command center
- A dedicated block in your daily/weekly planner
- A reusable page in your household management binder
- A worksheet taped up to your refrigerator or family command center
- The calendar app on your phone
- A Notes app or specialty meal planning app
If At First You Don’t Succeed…
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, there’s a good chance 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. There are SO many “tried and true” approaches to meal planning out there, so keep trying different methods (or tweaking the one that’s almost perfect) until you find one that actually sticks!
Change with the Times
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 guys 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, including meal planning.
The truth is our lives, families, habits, and needs evolve on a regular basis. And what may have worked great for a really long time CAN and likely WILL stop working…sometimes quite 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 a Meal Planning “Workflow”
“Workflow” is a fancy way of saying “method,” so this next step is all about figuring out how exactly to create a meal plan once you have your recipes organized and a system picked out. Although I have used on various systems, my actual process of creating our weekly meal plan has remained the same for over 10 years. It’s become so routine that I don’t even give it a second thought. If you’ve never actually sat down to create a weekly meal plan (or desperately want to get back into the habit), give this process a try:
Examine Your Calendar
One of the main goals of meal planning is to come up with a dinner plan that works with your schedule. As such, it’s very important that you 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), get eyes on all your various plans and commitments for the week ahead and then think through how they can/will affect dinnertime.
(I personally 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
With your schedule and plans 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. Having all your recipes organized in a single place will allow you to quickly and easily populate your meal plan with just the right meal for each night.
(With our weekly schedule filled out on a piece of paper, I open up the recipe inventory in the front of my Recipe Binder. It’s from here that I can see all our recipes at-a-glance and populate our meals for the week. I try to select a recipe from each category 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.)
All worksheets from The Ultimate Kitchen Printable Pack
Populate Your Grocery List
With your meal plan now 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 will allow you to add ingredients to your list without much extra work.
(Once our weekly menu is hashed out, I then locate each recipe within my Recipe Binder and add all the ingredients to my shopping list. I like to print my Weekly Planner and Grocery List back-to-back so everything is on a single sheet.)
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 staples and refrigerator/freezer 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 use my written grocery list to place a pickup order from the grocery store. You can read all about why and how I do our grocery shopping online here!)
Step 4: Make Meal Planning a Habit
The final step is to make your meal planning process a habit. This last part is certainly easier said than done; but if you commit to the process of finding the right system for your lifestyle, 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 Saturday morning. I fill out the weekly schedule, pick our meals, populate our list, and submit our online order so that everything is picked up by Sunday afternoon, stocked, and ready for the week ahead.)
Meal Planning 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. I was still creating my usual meal plan and shopping for the corresponding groceries…but I just couldn’t bring myself to make the things I planned.
I realized I was bored with my current recipe “staples.” 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 routine but find yourself reluctant and bored, you are likely due for a recipe refresh too!
Commit Some Recipes to Heart
Pulling out a Recipe Binder or your favorite recipe app night in and night out can feel really tedious over time. To keep fatigue at bay, 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 might be enough to motivate you to stick to your plan!
Identify Some “Non-Recipe” Meals
While following recipes can certainly up the likelihood of your meal tasting good, lengthly ingredient lists, tedious measuring, and complicated steps can overwhelm you and cause you to quit all together. Not every meal has to be made from a recipe, so 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, beef, pork) + bagged salad + freezer rolls
- Easy Spaghetti & Meatballs: pasta shape of choice + jarred sauce + freezer meatballs
- “Panera At Home” – “Fancy” grilled cheese sandwiches + ready-made soup + bagged salad
- Grilled meat (chicken, beef, pork) + boxed rice mix + hot vegetable
Meal Planning “Lite”
During busier seasons of life, I get overwhelmed with the idea of making dinner every night. Which is why I (quite often, actually) embrace a meal planning “lite” approach. As in, I make big batches of only 3 meals for the week, and we rely on leftovers for the remaining days.
When I use this method, I save money by shopping for a smaller variety of ingredients and time by preparing fewer meals. These benefits alone are usually enough to keep me on bored with cooking during busy seasons.
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 Night
- Saturday – Meal 3 (Doubled)
- Sunday – Meal 3 Leftovers
Theme Night Planning
If you find yourself struggling to come up with a variety of meals spread across the week, try using “Theme Nights.” By collecting (and then organizing) recipes into themes, you just have to pick a corresponding meal for each day!
Here’s how a simple Theme Night Meal Plan would look:
- Mondays – Italian (e.g., Spaghetti & Meatballs, Macaroni & Cheese, Lasagna, Pesto Pasta, etc)
- Tuesdays – Mexican (e.g., Tacos, Fajitas, Rice & Beans, etc)
- Wednesdays – Asian (e.g., Stir Frys, Sushi, Curry, etc)
- Thursdays – Seafood
- Friday – Pizza Night
- Saturday – Grille Night (e.g., Burgers, Brats, Chicken Legs, etc)
- Sunday – Casserole Night
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 ready-made 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…but you have to be willing to go with whatever is planned for you!
Keep Good Meal Plans (With 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 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 it” 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!
Meal planning can indeed be a tedious and annoying “chore.” But in my experience, the time spent meal planning pays dividends all week long. The key is finding a system and process that truly works for you, so that it seamlessly fits into your schedule and routine. I hope everything I’ve shared here empowers you to create a solid meal planning habit that truly sticks for good!