I was searching through my archives the other day to try and find a post I’d written on the exact steps I take to meal plan to send to a friend. Only to find out that apparently I have never written such a post.
As an enthusiastic meal planning proponent, mostly because of the peace it brings me throughout the week, this is just silly. So I’m writing this post now! I don’t claim originality to any of these steps, but I have been meal planning for years, and do consider myself an expert in the topic thanks to all the trial and error I’ve been through during life’s different seasons. What I’ve learned is that it really all boils down to these 5 easy steps.
How to Meal Plan in Five Simple Steps
Step 1: Gather materials. Printable meal plan sheet. A grocery list paper. You can get free versions of these on my resource page. Cookbooks and your phone or computer for inspiration from blogs, IG, or Pinterest.
Step 2: Look at your calendar and note the weather. What does the next week have in store for you? Last night practices? A stormy day? That should be taken into account. Perhaps a crockpot chili that can be served up whenever someone needs it can be a good choice for practice night, while a cozy afternoon at home might lend itself to baking fresh rolls for dinner.
For our current spring schedule I know that Sunday I have time for a more intricate meal, Monday I need to cook early before sport practices, Tuesday I have time to make something fun if I’d like, Wednesday we are gone almost all day and the crockpot is my best friend, Thursday I’m tired of cooking and what something simple, and Friday is always pizza night. It’s a nice predictable rhythm and makes meal planning easier.
Step 3: Shop the kitchen. I check it all- are there items in the fridge that need to be used before they expire? Does my freezer have chicken thighs that need to be used up? Am I getting low on a pantry grain or have an excess of diced tomatoes? Is my countertop basil out of control and begging to be made into pesto? I take note of all of this, either mentally or in the margins of my meal plan. I aim for no food waste and meal planning helps so much with this. We all know how expensive groceries are getting; I track my grocery spending here if you’re curious.
Step 4: Get cozy. My favorite time to meal plan is in the quiet of the morning, with a cup of something warm and a sleeping puppy on my lap. But maybe you like evening on the back deck with a glass of wine or while the kids are at a practice and it’s just you and your sparkling water in the car. I know the atmosphere doesn’t technically matter, but for me it’s become a cozy ritual, and that makes me more likely to continue to process because it’s a time I enjoy.
Step 5: Look at the sales flyer. Digital is easiest in my opinion. Whole Foods has their weekly deals listed on their app and Publix has their sales flyer on their website. I comb through whatever store I plan on shopping and note deals on items I normally buy- which produce is on sale? Do they any BOGO products that I’m running low on? Is there a sale on a protein that I don’t already have in my freezer?
I’ll let the flyer dictate some of my plan- usually the kid breakfast of the week (if bagels or English muffins are on sale) and the fruits or vegetables I choose.
Now you’re ready! You know what your upcoming schedule looks like, the foods you need to use up, the foods that are on sale. Now find your inspiration! What has sounded good to you lately? Have the kids requested a certain meal? Do you have time to try that new recipe you’ve been eyeing or is it best to stick with family staples this week?
A couple meal planning pointers:
- Consider leftovers and the addition of a wiggle meal. We don’t often have much food leftover, but what we do have I usually end up eating for lunch the next day. I do, however, plan what I call a “wiggle meal” each week. A wiggle meal is a dinner that does require much and can be easily pushed to the next week without wasting any food. For me, it’s very often mom’s spaghetti sauce because it’s an easy meal that everyone loves, but since it’s comprised of ground beef, an onion, and pantry staples, it is flexible with when I make it (do fresh produce will go bad and therefore be wasted). Other good wiggle meals are bean and cheese burritos and a silly simple stir fry (using frozen veggies).
- No matter how inspired you feel, don’t plan to try more than one new recipe a week. It can be exciting to want to switch things up, but the implementation on a day you feel overwhelmed is going to lead to take out instead. Plan for a new recipe on a day you know you have more time and stick to family favorites you can make with your eyes closed on the other day.
- For families with young kids, component based meals are a great option. Everyone eats the same thing, but in a way that works best for them. All in separate compartments for the toddler, in a bowl for mom, etc. Also see: How I Make One Meal Work for the Whole Family
- Note breakfast and lunch options, too. For me, I usually have a different kid breakfast of the week and they eat that everyday. I’ll switch it up the next week. Lunch around here is often snack plates or Daily Harvest, but make a note on what you’ll eat for that in case you need to pick up an extra dippable veggie or some ham.
- Meal planning should take stress off your plate, not add to it. If you’re new to it, start simple. Plan 2-3 meals a week, simple meals that don’t require too much of you. Then build on that experience slowly. Like anything, it gets easier with practice!
Fellow meal plan fans, what’s your best tip to share?