The weekend never feels long enough to do everything you need or want to do.
You do your best to plan and prepare for the week ahead as much as you can, but some things slip through the cracks and don’t get done.
Meal planning should not be one of those things! With some up front effort and creativity, planning your meals in advance pays dividends all week long; how many weekend chores or activities can you say that about?
You reap the rewards of meal planning at least 15 times (3 meals/day x 5 workdays) in one week, making it well worth the investment of time, effort, and money.
It can be as simple or complex as you make it; it’s up to you and it’s easy to tailor. We even made a free downloadable meal planning worksheet to help you get started.
So whether you enjoy meal planning, or you don’t know what it is and haven’t tried it before, this post will get you started with a plan that will work for you.
What is meal planning?
Meal planning is creating a plan of action for what meals or food you’re going to eat and when, typically for a week at a time. It’s a roadmap for your week that eliminates the need to ask yourself what is for breakfast, lunch, and/or dinner every day or multiple times a day.
It can feel daunting to plan meals for an entire week because food is personal and heavily dependant on vague and fuzzy notions like what we “feel” like eating in the moment or near future. The desire to eat certain foods is fluid and influenced by mood, what happened in our lives today, and what we’ve eaten recently. It is no less of a challenge when you’re cooking for more than just yourself, e.g. a partner and/or little ones.
But don’t let these worries deter you because you know you, your likes/dislikes, how much you’ll eat, what your week ahead looks like, and your cooking abilities and resources.
Making practical choices about your food in advance will actually keep you from making bad choices in the moment. Your eating life will improve when you’ve given a little bit of thought to it in advance before you’re standing in your kitchen starving.
The benefits of meal planning
Feeding yourself is a given. You have to eat every day. But grocery shopping without a coherent plan, with a hodgepodge of different foods in your cart that don’t go together, means you’ll be asking yourself one question too many times in the coming week: “what should I eat?”
So why is meal planning so helpful and what will it do for you? You’ll be…
More efficient. Many of us eat at least three meals a day, more if you eat smaller meals more frequently or include snacks. That’s at least 15 times a week you’re asking yourself the same question.
Your time is so precious. Every time you ask yourself that question you’re a little less efficient in your day; you’re spending more and more time trying to make a decision about something, taxing an already fatigued and hungry brain. The great thing about meal planning is that you only have to ask yourself the “what should I eat” question one time a week.
You save time on the planning end, but also shopping. Rather than shopping for individual meals throughout the week, you shop once and have all that you need for the week ahead.
The more efficient you are in your planning, shopping, and cooking process, the more time you’ll have to do the things you want or need to do, which is quite valuable.
Less stress. I don’t know about you, but when I don’t have a meal or the components of a meal ready for me at home at the end of a workday, it’s a little stressful. Especially if I can’t decide or don’t know what I want to eat and when I have more work to do later that evening or am getting home late. It’s just one more thing to think about. But with a meal plan, your stress, and the hunger, don’t become a problem.
More cost effective. Meal planning allows you to maximize leftover ingredients because you’ve planned them into your week. You buy and cook foods in bulk, and reuse ingredients from one meal to the next. How many times have you bought a bunch of parsley but you only use half of the sprigs?
It’s also gentler on your wallet because when you don’t have a meal ready at home, what’s plan b? Eating out. Getting food to go may be easy, but it’s much more expensive than a meal at home.
Less wasteful. Food waste is a problem in many developed countries, especially the United States. Buying food without a plan or recipe in mind exacerbates that problem, allowing food to go uneaten or uncooked. Each of us can do our part to be less wasteful.
Make healthier choices. Knowing how much salt goes into your soup or the quality of the ingredients you use to cook a meal means you’re in control and get to decide what you want to fuel your body with.
By planning what you’re going to eat ahead of time, you set yourself up to make good decisions when you’re at your hungriest. You won’t be faced with the option of eating out or reaching for whatever you have in your fridge; neither will give you the balance and portion control your body needs.
Making your meal plan
Here is a roadmap to get you started. It’s basically three steps: (1) the plan, (2) the shopping trip, and (3) the cooking/prepping.
Until you find strategies that work for you, avoid doing all of your planning, shopping, and cooking in one day. It can be done, but breaking the steps up will make the process less daunting. Don’t overwhelm yourself from the get go:
1. Make a plan
As mentioned, you can do your planning session one day a week like on a Friday or Saturday, but if you get ideas throughout the week, jot them down in a notebook or your planner. Don’t limit yourself to one brainstorming session a week if that doesn’t work for you. However, make sure you give yourself a deadline for when the planning must end, such as Saturday by noon.
How many days and what days are you planning meals for?
- For example 5 days, Monday through Friday.
- If you’re new to meal planning and want to go slow, or know that you have dinner plans two nights next week, plan for fewer days, e.g. Monday, Tuesday, and Thursday.
Which meals are you going to prepare for?
- (1) The trifecta: breakfast, lunch, and dinner each day. This is the most efficient and time saving of the three.
- (2) The double: lunch and dinner each day.
- (3) The single: dinner each day.
What recipes do you want to make?
Look for recipes that have some of the following to make cooking easier:
- Make great leftovers, like a lasagna or big pot of soup. Incorporating leftovers into your week for lunch or dinner means fewer recipes to shop and prepare for, and less to cook.
- Can be assembled in advance and cooked later. These are easy options for later in the week when leftovers have been eaten and you’re ready for something different. Assemble a casserole one day and cook it the next; recipes will tell you if you can do this and for how long it will keep.
- Can be easily modified to satisfy different tummies. For example, pasta or grains are a great base to work from that can be tweaked and built upon in many different ways, easily satisfying different family members’ tastes.
- Are flexible. If you want to make something that calls for kale, but you get to the store/farmer’s market and they’re out or it doesn’t look fresh, use chard instead. Substitute where you can and don’t be afraid to get creative or give something new a try.
- Use a crockpot or slow cooker. If you don’t have one, add it to your wish list and see how easy it can be to dump in a few ingredients and have a delicious meal 4-8 hours later.
Also, when you’re perusing recipes, consider what’s in season, what’s on sale at the stores near you, and how much time you need to prep and cook it.
And remember, for meals like breakfast you don’t have to cook for it to be a “meal;” it can be simple. For example, yogurt with granola and fruit, overnight oats, or a hard boiled egg are easy to make in advance and in bulk, and don’t necessarily have to be reheated in the morning.
Inspiration is out there if you need a boost. Blogs and Pinterest are great resources:
Finally, map out your plan on the worksheet provided or in your planner; write down what you’re having for breakfast, lunch, and dinner each day.
Write down your recipe ingredients.
For each recipe, write down the ingredients you need, plus your basics for the week, like milk, bread, bananas, etc. If you’re looking to get in and get out of the store quickly, write your list based on the sections of the store, e.g. grouping all of your produce together, your meats, dairy, etc. This will save you from running back and forth between multiple aisles.
Meal planning doesn’t mean everything has to be home made. Find shortcuts; buy pre-diced onions (no tears!), spiral veggies, marinated meats, rotisserie chicken, or ready-to-eat salad mixes. These items will be a little pricier, but explore the options and see if it’s worth paying a little more to save you prepping and cook time.
2. Grocery shop
Now you’re ready to get all those ingredients on your list and hit up your local grocery store or farmer’s market. Keep to your shopping list if you’re trying to be especially good and follow a particular diet or budget; the grocery store offers many temptations…
3. Cook and prep, prep and cook
Before you start the week, on Sunday for example, set aside time to prep your meals or the components of them. Prepping includes those tasks that can be done ahead of time such as:
- Washing fruits and veggies
- Cutting, chopping, and peeling
- Cooking grains in bulk, such as quinoa or farro
- Mixing salad dressings or spice mixes
Cook one or two meals for dinner that night and/or to use as leftovers the next day. Doing as much as you can on your prep/cook day will make the rest of the meals for your week that much easier.
Use lots of storage containers to keep everything organized. You can save pre-cut vegetables and other ingredients in small ziploc bags, and store full meals in glass tupperware — or even divide the meal into multiple servings in their own grab-and-go containers. The goal is to make the rest of your week as easy as possible, so a little extra organization work now will pay off in the future.