Meal planning is an “adulting” skill that can be self-taught very easily. I can say that with confidence because if I can do it, anyone can do it!
I used to be the person that would come home from work & say “what sounds good?” Which meant my husband & I ate a lot of fast food, spent way more than we should on food, & rarely ate healthy, balanced meals.
Learning how to effectively meal plan will not only help you achieve your goals, but also provide you with an ongoing menu that you are excited about cooking & fully prepared to execute. Taking control over this aspect of your life is rewarding in so many ways.
This skill is especially helpful for parents who need to provide meals for the entire household. It makes dinner-time easier because you already did all of the thought-work & you’re prepared with the necessary ingredients to make your family a yummy dinner.
Okay, now that I’ve (hopefully) convinced you to give it a try, here are my tips for effective & successful meal planning.
Meal Planning Tips
Tip #1: Start Small
Learning a new skill is easier if you take it one step at a time rather than trying to climb the entire mountain in the first attempt. Evaluate where you are currently at (be honest with yourself) & determine a goal you can commit to.
When I first started meal planning & cooking at home, my goal was to make just 4 dinners every week. Doesn’t sound like a lot, but it was a big change for us! It was a sustainable goal that helped me build the skills I needed without being stressful or overwhelming.
Find that sweet spot for yourself & set a goal you can stick to. And if you’re willing to share, I’d love to hear what your goal is in the comments!
Tip #2: Make a System
What do I mean by “system”? A strategy for organizing your meal plan, recipes, & grocery lists. I’ve used several different strategies over the years; here are some ideas for you…
- Magnetic Dry Erase Board with a permanent grid with days of the week & blank spots to fill in dinner plans. Grocery list on phone or on paper.
- An app on your phone like Prepear or Plan to Eat
- The basics: paper & pen. Get a $1 notebook from the dollar store & a pack of pens. Your system does not need to be fancy or complicated.
Tip for success: make your meal plan visible in your kitchen so it’s harder to stray off plan.
Having a system in place for organizing your meal plan, recipes, & grocery lists will make the entire process easier, faster, & even enjoyable. You can make your own system (highly recommended), or there are also meal planners available to buy (examples below). Also – I am including some basic meal planning templates at the end of this article to help you get started. These are similar to the templates I used when I first started & I found them to be very helpful.
If meal planning is a priority for you, it’s important to know that establishing a system that will work for you takes time in the beginning. Don’t let the initial time investment deter you from sticking with it! It will get faster & easier the more you do it.
Tip #3: Establish Your Goals & Priorities
In other words, “Find Your Why”. Why are you meal planning? What is your goal? Maybe you want to eat healthier & you need meals that are “low sugar” or “heart healthy”. Or maybe you want to eat out less & need meals that are fast, simple, & easy. Maybe your budget is a priority & you want budget friendly meals.
Determining your priorities & finding your “why” will help you effectively meal plan in a way that will be sustainable & enjoyable. What works for one family will not always work for another family.
Searching for recipes is daunting without specific goals in mind. Once you know what your meal plan needs to accomplish, you will have the search terms you need to find recipes to fit your goals.
Tip #4: Find Your “Back Pocket” Recipes
Having a handful of tried & true recipes that you can fall back on is so helpful when you’re meal planning. Sometimes inspiration comes easily & we are feeling adventurous to try new foods. But for when inspiration & creativity are lacking, I always lean on the recipes I can pull out of my back pocket.
My ‘back pocket’ recipes are ones that I don’t need to look up & I can improvise if needed. For me that includes recipes like… Turkey Tacos. Hawaiian Roll Sliders. Sheet Pan Salmon. Homemade Pizza. Healthier Sloppy Joes. And Classic Shrimp Scampi.
Your back pocket recipes will look different than mine because we all have different goals.
Trying new recipes is great too! But it can be frustrating, right? Not every recipe will be a winner or a keeper. Keep your chin up when that happens, try to brush it off & learn from it. And when you’re feeling discouraged, return to your tried & true back pocket recipes.
Tip#5: Be Realistic!
Meal plans are excellent for staying organized & accomplishing your goals effectively. However, in order for them to work best, we need to be realistic with ourselves about what we are able & willing to do or not do. You do NOT need to meal plan 7 days at a time, with all three meals included for your entire family. (Unless that works for you!)
If you have a tendency to burn out from cooking & order take out on the weekends – then put “take out” on your meal plan Friday, Saturday & Sunday! Or maybe you get burnt out but want to save a little money … add a #Frozen-pizza-night-Friday to your weekly template! Or another idea is instead of making an elaborate Sunday family feast, grab a ready-made rotisserie chicken, some deli counter side dishes & a bagged salad for a much easier Sunday dinner.
Like the title says – make IT work for YOU.
“Meal planning” does not mean all of your food is “home-cooked” or “healthy” or “clean”.
Meal planning is really just a way to decide your menu in advance so that you don’t make poor choices due to HANGER.
Now you are ready – it’s time to plan!
First, let’s build your Dinner Idea Index. When the hardest part of cooking is planning what to eat – rely on your index for ideas. After a few minutes of effort, you will be armed with a tool to make weekly meal planning quick, easy, & painless.
Don’t stress over picking the “right” things for your list. Just think of the foods you already love to eat & use those to fill in the blanks. Check out this screenshot of the index …
And if you’re feeling totally stuck, here are some example ideas of each food group to get you started …
- Protein: chicken breast, pork chops, salmon, black beans, chickpeas, chicken drumsticks, tuna salad … taco seasoned lean ground turkey
- Non-Starchy Veggie Sides: roasted broccoli, Caesar salad, steamed green beans, roasted carrots … sautéed peppers, pico de gallo, shredded lettuce
- Carb – Grain or Starchy Vegetable: roasted potatoes, sourdough bread, brown rice, pasta, butternut squash … tortillas
- Additional Items: fruit salad, vanilla yogurt, roasted almonds, apples with peanut butter, hummus, milk … shredded cheese, guacamole
See what I did there? Tacos are an essential food group in my diet – who’s with me?
Okay, now that you have your handy dandy Dinner Idea Index to fall back on, you might want to take a few minutes to procure some new-to-you recipes for you to choose from next time you’re looking for something new & exciting to try. Check out Pinterest, yummly, or grab that cookbook you’ve been neglecting.
Consider different themes ideas for inspiration, like foodie hashtag inspired dinners (#meatlessmondy & #tacotuesday for example) or using a single ingredient different ways all week, like the time I did a Pesto Week with Chicken Pesto Pizza, Pesto Salmon & Roasted Veggies, and Lemony Pesto Green Beans. Be sure to save the new recipes in a way that will work with your chosen meal planning system.
By this point, you should be armed with an arsenal of recipes & meal ideas. Now you’re ready to plan your week’s menu! Choose from one of the links below, depending on which meal plan you want to tackle.
Here’s a preview of each of the meal planners…
Each meal planner template includes some tips at the bottom to set you up for success. The tips I’ve included are based on my own experiences, as well as the feedback I’ve gotten from other readers about what they struggle with when meal planning. I’d love to hear your feedback too! Please let me know in the comments what tips you find the most (or least) helpful.
And last but not least, you’ll need a Grocery List Template to keep everything organized while you shop. I’ve included a section at the end of the grocery list template for “extras” as well, like toiletries, household cleaners, etc. And a reminder to ALWAYS triple check what you already have!
Now it’s time to fill out your meal plan! I can’t do this part for you, unless you want to follow one of my ready-to-use meal plans (with grocery lists!).
So here’s my last tip before you start crafting your menu –
Have fun with it!
If you’re ever feeling like meal planning is just another “chore” – take a break from it & use a ready-made meal plan or one of those meal delivery services like Blue Apron or Hello Fresh.
Or maybe it’s time to revamp your system for a fresh outlook! Go back to the dinner idea index & start over with creating your go to list of ideas. Once you’ve been meal planning for a while, your dinner idea index will look different, so redoing a fresh one every few months is always a good idea.
Alright, that’s all I’ve got for now! I sincerely hope this is helpful for you!!
I really appreciate hearing from you too! Please leave a comment below & let me know your thoughts on meal planning, the tips I shared, & if the templates are helpful for you. I’d love to hear all about it!!
Healthy 7 Day Meal Plan #12 on the Mediterranean Diet
This 7 day meal plan is based on the Mediterranean diet principles using the plate method to structure the whole week & each meal. Full of flavors from all around the world.
Healthy 7 Day Meal Plan #11 on the Mediterranean Diet
Balanced 7 day meal plan based on the Mediterranean diet principles but not full of Mediterranean cuisine. Just easy recipes that are family friendly.
How to “Whole 30” [with 4 Week Meal Plan & Grocery Lists Included]
Tackling a nutrition program like Whole30 can be overwhelming but I’ve created this 4 week meal plan to help make the process simple & easy for you.
Healthy [+Free] 7 Day Meal Plan #9: Eating the Mediterranean Way
Healthy 7 day meal plan with breakfast & lunch for 1 plus dinner for 4 with kid friendly recipes. The menu is balanced using the Mediterranean Diet principles.
Meal Plan #8: 5 Easy Weeknight Dinners
This meal plan includes 5 easy & healthy dinners to feed a family of 4. With a detailed grocery list included.