How to meal plan. I’ve realized people usually fall into one of four camps when it comes to meal planning. Camp 1: they LOVE meal planning and can’t really imagine tackling the week without it. Camp 2: they don’t like meal planning, but they think it’s really helpful so they do it. Camp 3: they aspire to be a meal planner, but can’t seem to get the hang of it. Camp 4: they don’t care to plan at all.
I really can’t imagine doing this week without a plan for our meals so I guess I’m in camp 1 or camp 2. There are many reasons why I’m a big meal planning advocate:
- Meal planning combines days of decision-making into one half-hour burst
- Meal planning makes me feel on top of my game during the week because I’m not scrambling (re: stressing) to figure out what to make each night
- Meal planning helps reduce food waste and budget waste
- Meal planning makes it easier to divide and conquer the dinner-making among my husband and I
- Meal planning (and my meal planning notepad) reduces the number of times I hear “what are we having for dinner?”
So, how does someone who loves meal planning meal plan in 30 minutes or less? Here’s my workflow, I call it the three P’s of meal planning because I love an alliteration.
How to meal plan: 3 simple, easy to remember steps
Prepping for meal planning is a really critical part! It helps you reduce food waste, keep your budget in check, and make meals that work with your schedule for the week. Some of these steps are optional, but if you can, do them all! It will reduce frustration and make your meal planning sing. If that’s a thing.
These four steps are in an intentional order because one might inform the other.
Your calendar is the key to knowing how quick + easy or on-the-go your meals need to be. Without consulting your calendar, your meal plan could be really frustrating. You don’t want to plan a 40-min Thai curry on a night you barely have time for a 10-minute stir fry.
Look at your calendar to see if you have particularly busy days. Maybe you need to plan a crockpot meal that you can prep the night before because you have a day of meetings or maybe you have a night full of soccer practice so you need a meal you can pack on-the-go for the kids.
Take inventory of your fridge, freezer, and pantry. What items or full meals do you already have on hand that you could use? What produce do you still have in the fridge from last week that you need to use up? What item did you buy at Costco that you need to start working your way through? Taking inventory is one of the most important steps to avoid waste and grocery list frustration.
3. Budget + Ads
Do you follow a budget? We use the free version of the EveryDollar budgeting app to budget and track our expenses for the month so we can maximize our budget for our family goals. If you follow a budget, look at your budget before planning meals for the week so you can adjust your meals if you’re getting tight.
We shop at Aldi, Costco, and sometimes Meijer or Trader Joe’s. Check ads at the stores you plan on going to. Checking the ads is great for maximizing your grocery budget, but it’s also great for getting the freshest in-season produce.
*If this list sounds like too much, focus on your calendar and inventory — those will make the biggest difference in the ease of your meal planning.
Using all of the inputs from your Prep, now it’s time to pick your meals and then pick your groceries. If you let out a big sigh from reading that, you’re not alone. When I asked you what your least favorite part of meal planning was I heard “picking the meals”, “finding new meals”, and more just like that. Picking meals can feel tough when you dread it because you don’t think you’re a good cook, or your mind is at capacity, or you’re fatigued from trying to find new ideas.
There are a lot of ways to approach picking your meals, both analog and digital. You can definitely just think of something off the top of your head each week, but I’ve found that having a tool to catalog meals your family likes is incredibly helpful. I tried several solutions and ended up making my own Google Doc to serve as my system. If you’re interested, you can hear the whole story, check out my solution, and download it here.
After you’re done picking your meals it’s time to pick your groceries based on what meals you picked and what you already have in your fridge, freezer, and pantry inventory. If you’re using the Let’s Eat, Let’s Plan notepad or digital download, use the Let’s Plan side to pick your meals and your groceries!
After you’ve picked your meals and groceries for the week, it’s time to grab that fresh sheet of notepad paper and plot your meals onto the days of the week that make the most sense. Think back to your prep stage (calendar and inventory) to decide. If you picked two easy meals because you have two really busy days and need something simple, plot them there. If you picked stir fry to use up your bell peppers that are leftover from last week put that at the beginning of the week. Plot your meals on the day of the week that makes the most sense.
How to meal plan is an art
Unfortunately, meal planning isn’t a science, some weeks you won’t eat all the meals you planned, some weeks the store won’t have the produce you planned for. Some weeks your husband accidentally eats your dinner ingredients for lunch (speaking from experience). Even with the inevitable adjustments, meal planning still helps reduce the chaos of our week. I hope you use this framework to give it a try!