Prior to 2020, I wasn’t great at meal planning. Then the COVID-19 pandemic gave me a very compelling reason to limit my visits to the store. The result? My wife and I now have a very simple, and easy meal planning method that saves us time, money, and mental energy.
If you’ve been wondering how to start meal planning, I think you’ll find the following guide simple, and straightforward. You’ll even find a meal planning template, and weekly meal plan sample to download and use for yourself.
Here’s an overview of everything I’m going to walk through (feel free to skip ahead if you’d like):
The Benefits of Meal Planning
I’ll be honest. There’s some extra effort that goes into meal planning. After all, planning always takes extra effort, right? But it also sets you up for success.
So, let’s walk through the benefits of meal planning. After we do, I think you’ll recognize why it’s worth your time and effort.
We’ll start with the one benefit I’ve already touched on…
Fewer Trips to the Grocery Store
This benefit is obvious in the pandemic life we live today. However, even prior to the pandemic, there was value in efficiency.
If you make multiple trips to the store, you’re spending more gas, more time traveling, and more time thinking about what to eat. That results in less time for relaxation or attending to other needs.
By planning ahead, you can claim more time and mental energy back during the week, and redistribute it elsewhere. That means less stress and overwhelm.
Less Food Waste
Seventy-six billion pounds of food is wasted in US homes each year.
And, did you know that food waste accounts for 8% of man-made greenhouse gas emissions? When food waste ends up in the landfill, it’s more likely to produce methane which is 26 times more potent than carbon dioxide.
If you’re not worried about climate change, I suspect you’re at least worried about your pocket book. Did you know that the average family of four wastes up to $2,275 per year in food waste? Approximately 25% of the food they purchase ends up in the garbage.
Meal planning has the potential to reduce food waste because there’s already a plan for each food item on your grocery list. That decreased food waste can save you money, and lessen your impact on the environment.
Save Time and Money
Are you noticing a trend forming in these benefits of meal planning? Let’s do a quick recap to add things up:
- Fewer trips to the grocery store = Saved time + Less gas
- Less gas = Saved money
- Less food waste = Saved money
- Time = Money
I’m no math whiz, but this sounds a lot like meal planning adds up to saved money. And, even better, more time.
But if you’ve got time and money coming out of a fountain, by all means, carry on how you are. Who am I to tell you what to do?
I may not be a math whiz, but I am a dietitian. And, I can tell you that meal planning is a powerful tool for healthier eating.
We all are capable of finding and choosing healthy meal options. You know where people have the most trouble? It’s when they’re stressed, overwhelmed, and overworked. That’s when eating healthy is the most difficult.
You get home after a long day of work. You’re tired, hungry, and fresh out of brain power. You have a hodgepodge of food items in your pantry, and some random uninspired veggies chilling in your fridge. There’s no meal plan. What do you do?
You head toward the path of least resistance. Oftentimes that path is the least healthy option as well.
- Take out
- Fast food
- Processed meals that come in a box/can/bag
But, what if you already had a weekly meal plan, and had all of your food items on hand?
All of a sudden, eating healthy becomes easier. You don’t have to think about what to eat. You simply choose an already planned meal, and start cooking.
You’re not choosing meals from a place of stress and overwhelm.
How to Start Meal Planning
If you’re just starting out, I don’t recommend planning every single meal of the week. Just focus on what feels doable and start there.
As meal planning becomes easier, you can graduate to planning more meals.
For my wife and I, we keep our meal planning fairly simple. We plan for breakfast, dinner, and snacks as follows:
I don’t mind eating the same meal for breakfast during the week. My priority is having something quick, simple, and satisfying. For me, that meal is overnight oatmeal.
I make one bulk batch of overnight oatmeal to last me until the end of the week. This helps make meal planning simple, because I can account for 5 meals with the ingredients for one.
To make sure I don’t get bored, I alter the recipe from week to week by varying the fruit and nuts I include.
Dinner (and Lunch)
A bulk of our attention goes into dinner planning. Dinner is also a two for one meal, because we aim to cook enough to provide leftovers for lunch. This is convenient because it reduces the number of meals we need to plan.
So, how many dinners should you plan for?
In our house, we typically plan for 5-6 meals per week. That leaves us 1-2 extra days that we fill by either eating leftovers or going out to eat.
When you’re just getting started with meal planning (or cooking), it’s okay to start small. Planning an entire week might feel intimidating, so start by planning 2-3 meals per week.
You don’t want to overwhelm yourself. The goal is to gain confidence in your meal planning and cooking skills.
I don’t rigorously plan or measure out my daily snacks. Instead, I just make sure we have a few of our favorite nutrient dense staples on hand:
- Apples and Peanut Butter
- Protein Powder, frozen fruit, and yogurt for Smoothies
- Hummus and Veggies (Carrots, Celery) or Whole Wheat homemade Pita
- Nuts (Almonds, Pistachios, Walnuts, Hazelnuts)
Correspondingly, we try to minimize the number of low quality, processed snacks we have on-hand. That includes:
- Baked goods
It’s okay to have these on occasion, but I consider them treats, and not snacking staples.
The 3 Steps of Meal Planning
Okay, so let’s put together a meal plan, shall we? To do so, we’re going to follow these 3 steps:
- Choose Your Meals
- Make a Grocery List
And, to help you out, I’m also including a meal plan template, and a meal planning example so you can follow along. You’ll find those below.
Picking Out Your Meals
This step is easiest if you have a couple of trusted go-to cookbooks or websites to refer to. Otherwise, there are so many recipes available online, it’s easy to get information overload.
Here are four of my favorite cookbooks, I routinely use:
- The New Mediterranean Cookbook
- The Weeknight Mediterranean Kitchen
- Vegetables Illustrated
- Vegan Richa’s Indian Kitchen
If you don’t have a good cookbook, or you prefer to go online, the following are decent websites:
- Food & Nutrition Magazine – Provides a variety of recipes from dietitians. Free to use.
- MyPlate Kitchen – A great free resource from the USDA. Provides a variety of easy, low cost meal options.
- The New York Times Cooking – This is the only paid one listed here.
As you perform meal planning each week, you’ll start to identify your favorite cookbooks, and go-to recipes, which makes the planning process accumulatively easier.
How Many Meals Will You Plan?
Start by deciding how many meals you need to plan.
For my sample meal plan, I’m going to plan one breakfast, and 4 dinners. You can work off of my example, but I’d also encourage you to walk through these steps to develop your own meal plan, based on your own preferences.
Choosing Your Recipes
Next, we need to find some recipes. To get ideas, I often start with:
- A favorite meal. Tacos? Yum.
- An adventurous meal I’d like to try. Jambalaya? Sounds fun.
- A meat or protein I want to eat. Salmon… Tofu? Pick your protein.
- A vegetable that I enjoy. Veggies don’t have to taste bad.
For instance, baked salmon is one of my favorite proteins. And, it’s recommended to eat seafood 2 times per week, partially due to the benefits of omega-3 fatty acids.
So, if I do a search for baked Salmon I might end up with the following recipe.
I chose this recipe because it only requires a few ingredients, and it’s simple.
Next, to fill out this meal (following the plate method), I’d like to add a vegetable and a grain.
I then add this meal to my list of dinner meals, and include a link to the recipe, for easy reference. If I’m using a print cookbook, I include the cookbook name and page number.
You’ll repeat this process until you’ve found all of your recipes for the week.
As you add each recipe, I recommend adding the ingredients to a grocery list, and cross checking with any items already in your cupboards.
How to Make and Organize Your Grocery List
As I add each recipe to my meal plan, I also add the necessary ingredients to my grocery list, which is included on the bottom half of my meal planning template.
I try to organize my list according to how it’s organized in the grocery store, with the following categories:
- Bulk Goods
- Canned Goods
- Frozen Goods
- Household supplies
To make it easy, organize your list according to what areas of the store you’ll hit first.
For instance, I tend to get canned goods first, and meat items last to reduce the amount of time they are unrefrigerated.
Shopping for Your Grocery List
This seems pretty self explanatory. If you’ve planned your meals, and developed your list as outlined above, this step should be the easiest of all.
However, you might face a couple challenges, such as the following:
In some cases you’ll find that your chosen grocery store doesn’t have everything you need. Don’t panic. Improvise.
Fortunately, there are some common and easy substitutions.
Herbs – dry herbs and fresh herbs can be used in exchange for one another. You’ll just need to modify the amount you use. If you’re using dry thyme in exchange for fresh thyme, you’ll reduce the amount to 1/3 of what’s called for. So, if you’re recipe calls for 1 tablespoon (equivalent to 3 teaspoons) of fresh thyme, you can use 1 teaspoon of dried thyme.
Some herbs can easily be substituted as well. For example, oregano and marjoram can be substituted for one another in a pinch.
Vegetables – If you can’t find a desired fresh vegetable, check the freezer section. Sometimes you’ll even find rare veggies like frozen artichokes and okra. Plus, frozen veggies are typically cheaper than fresh, and they maintain a better nutrient quality than canned veggies.
Oils – Oils can often be substituted, depending on the meal. For example, I typically use avocado as a substitute for recipes with canola oil, because they are both good for similar high heat cooking methods, but avocado oil is less refined.
You can find a comprehensive list of common food substitution here.
The Best Time to Go Grocery Shopping
I hate busy grocery stores, where everyones jockeying for isle space. So, I try to go when it’s less busy. From my experience, I’ve found that evenings tend to be fairly nice, especially Friday nights.
Yeah, is that lame? I don’t think so.
The whole shopping process is low stress, and I wake up relaxed on a Saturday morning with freshly stocked cabinets, and a full week’s worth of meals. That means I have a jump on the following week and I can just kick back, and enjoy my favorite weekend activities. Bam!
Sample Template for Meal Planning
As promised, here’s the meal planning template to get you started. I’m also including a sample meal plan that’s already completed and includes 4 dinners, 1 breakfast, and a grocery list for all of the items.
Personally, I usually write my meal plan and grocery list out on a piece of paper, because that’s easier for me. But it follows the same format.
So, try each out and see what works for you.
3 Meal Planning Pro Tips
Okay, so you’ve created a simple, easy meal plan. Now what do you do?
Aside from actually cooking the meals you planned, here are a few tips to keep you organized and efficient.
1) Post Your Meal Plan to the Fridge
After we’re done shopping, we magnet our meal plan to the fridge. It’s simply a list of the meals we have to choose from for the week.
Anytime someone asks “what’s for dinner?” you can just refer to the list and say, “which of these meals do you prefer?”
It’s surprising how big of an impact this simple organizational hack can make.
2) Recycle Your Favorite Meals and Meal Plans
As I said before, the more meal planning you do, the easier it gets. That’s because you start to create a library of recipes that you’re familiar with and enjoy. You can then repeat those recipes every few weeks.
When we do meal planning, we typically aim for 3-4 recipes that we’re familiar with, and we then add 2-3 new recipes.
You can also recycle entire weekly meal plans. That’s one of the convenient aspects of creating your meal plan in an electronic format like Google docs – it’s easier to save and refer back to.
3) Plan Meals Based on the Ingredients You Have
At the end of some weeks you’ll find that you have some extra veggies in your fridge. Rather than letting them go to waste, you can incorporate them into the next week’s meal plan, or improvise by adding them to recipe that looks low on veggies.
As you get more practice with cooking and meal planning, you’ll find this easier to do. You’ll also begin to notice what vegetables tend to be leftover, and then accommodate your meal planning to make better use.
For example, we often have arugula leftover if we only use it in one meal. So, on weeks where we need arugula, we often try to incorporate two recipes that need arugula, that way we’re reducing waste.
4) Include Others in the Planning Process
If you have a significant other, or children, include them in the planning process. You presumably won’t be the only person eating the meals for the week, so you don’t need to be the only one planning them either.
You can start by just asking others what they want to eat over the next couple of days. Let’s say you’re married, and have 2-3 kids. If you poll everyone, you could easily gather 4-5 meal ideas. It also provides an opportunity to introduce a conversation about food and cooking with your children.
For young children, you can start by asking them what their favorite vegetable is, and developing a meal around that item they chose. You can even include them in the cooking process!
What are Your Thoughts?
Okay, we just covered an extensive amount of information, and I’d love to hear from YOU.
Can you see yourself using this meal planning method? Does this process sound easy and helpful?
Have you tried meal planning before? Did it make your life easier?
As always, let me know in the comments below.