Learn the ins and outs of meal planning the easy way with this simple meal planning guide for beginners that answers all of your questions.
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Meal planning… Some people swear by it, but for others, it seems like an impossible mountain to climb.
I’ve been planning my family’s meals for many years. My method has changed as our budget, schedule, and dietary needs have. Along the way, though, the basics have stayed the same and enabled me to feed my family of 4 pretty well on a budget.
If you’re new to meal planning or just want to improve your routine, I’ve created this guide to be the ultimate collection of resources that will help you and answer all your questions.
Why meal planning matters
Simply put, meal planning is creating a list of recipes, shopping for ingredients, and preparing the meals.
You’ve likely heard the “sales” pitch before. Meal planning can help you:
- Save money
- Stick to a budget
- Eat healthier
- Follow a specific diet
- Improve your skin… weight… mood… etc.
- Feed picky eaters
- and more
All those things are true (within a range of circumstances – food isn’t a magic fix-all). But meal planning can also be a challenge, particularly if you aren’t a Type A organizer.
Fortunately, just like there are many diet plans, there are also many meal planning methods. The trick is to find the one for you.
How to start planning meals
There are plenty of elaborate ways to plan and prep your meals. But this isn’t an Olympic sport and there is no winner. The key is to find the meal planning routine that you can follow. Like so many things, simple is best.
1. Start with what you know.
It’s easy to scroll through Pinterest and find a week’s worth of new and exciting meals to try. The thing is, when trying new things there is a lot that can go wrong. Meal planning can be a simple as writing down the meals you love to eat and the recipes you know by heart.
2. Create a simple plan.
Start by writing down 7 of those meals that you can cook this week. Add the ingredients that you don’t already have to a list. Shop and set aside time to prepare food each day.
3. Stick to a routine.
The best way to create a habit is to do the same thing over and over. Choose a day for meal planning and shopping that fits your schedule. Those things don’t have to happen on a certain day – or even the same day as each other.
Planning for a week, a month, or a season
Meal planning is all about planning ahead so that you don’t get to 5 p.m. and wonder what to do. You can plan for any amount of time.
Weekly meal planning
If you’re just getting started, once per week planning and shopping is a great place to start. It gives you some time to get used to the process without becoming overwhelming.
Example schedule: Make your plan and shopping list on Saturday. Grocery shop on Sunday. Enjoy your plan through the week ahead.
Monthly meal planning
Once-a-month grocery shopping is great for people who like to buy groceries in bulk. It’s perfect if your schedule is busy, but generally the same from week to week. You can also plan out a whole month but still shop weekly.
Example schedule: Use a calendar with your activities filled in, such as work hours and after school activities for kids. Create a routine that includes repeating the same easy meals a few times over the month. Plan and shop on the first weekend of the month.
Seasonal meal planning
If you don’t mind a little repetition, you can create a meal plan that loops for three months and takes advantage of seasonal produce. The easiest way to do this is to create a few weekly meal plans that you rotate through.
Example schedule: Create 3 weekly meal plans. Schedule each one to repeat over the course of 3 months. You’ll follow each plan 4 times, but they’ll be spread out so it doesn’t feel as repetitive.
Meal planning methods
No matter how long your meal plan lasts, you can use a few different methods to create it. For simplicity, each of these methods is explained with weekly meal planning in mind. They can easily be adapted to monthly or seasonal routines as well.
1. The “pick a meal” method
How to do it: Make a list of 7 meals and grocery shop for the week ahead. Each morning, spend 2 minutes looking at your plan to decide what you’ll have for dinner that night. This works best when you have time to cook in the evenings.
What to remember: As you get closer to the end of the week, you’ll have fewer choices.
2. The “mom schedule” method
How to do it: Make a list of your family’s activities each day. Plan meals around your schedule, choosing easier meals on busier nights. For example, cook a skillet meal when everyone will be home at dinner time, a slow cooker meal when people will be eating at different times, and pack sandwiches when you’ll be driving to the soccer game.
What to remember: Plans change, especially when it comes to kids and school. Don’t create a schedule so rigid that you can’t adapt.
3. The “daily theme” method
How to do it: Choose a daily theme and plan the same type of meal each day. For example, every Monday is meatless, every Tuesday is Mexican, every Friday is pasta.
What to remember: Even your favorite meals can lose their appeal if you have them too often. Rather than Taco Tuesday, switch it up and make nachos or burritos sometimes.
4. The “freezer meal” method
How to do it: Plan a week’s worth of one-dish meals and set aside an hour to do food prep on the day you shop. Chop and bag ingredients, then freeze. Each day, grab a bag to drop in the slow cooker, toss onto a sheet pan, or heat in a skillet according to the recipe.
What to remember: Not all foods freeze well. You’ll need to find recipes that are created for freezer meal cooking.
5. The “tradeoff” method
How to do it: If you have older kids who can cook, assign each person a night of the week to cook supper. Even if mom is still cooking most nights, delegating the meal for 2 or 3 can make it less stressful.
What to remember: If your teens aren’t used to cooking dinner once per week, they might need some help and supervision. You might also find yourself eating ramen more often than you would like.
4 tips and tricks to follow
1. Plan for every meal.
Planning out 7 days of breakfast, lunch, and supper ideas is a lot. Choose simple meals for breakfast (like smoothies) and for lunch (like this school lunch list) that you can eat every day or alternate between a few.
2. Shop your pantry first.
When planning your meals, look at what you already have on hand in the pantry, refrigerator, and freezer for inspiration. You’ll use up ingredients before they expire and avoid food waste. This will also keep you from buying something you already have.
3. Let ingredients do double duty.
Plan meals that use the same ingredient in different ways. This will help you use up things like fresh produce that might not last an extra week. It will also keep your shopping list shorter and avoid purchasing ingredients that will fill your pantry and not be used again.
Try making a spinach salad on Monday, then spinach pesto sauce on Thursday. Or use broccoli in stir-fry on Tuesday, but pack it raw with a dip in lunchboxes on Friday.
4. Take smart shortcuts
Look for time-saving tips that really make a difference. For most, it’s a trade-off between time and money. You’ll have to decide which is more important.
Pre-cut produce will cost more but could save you hours of food prep. Walmart Grocery Pickup (and similar services) will cut down on the time you spend at the store, but you might miss a great manager’s special offer.
3 meal planning “hacks” you can skip
1. Hours of Sunday food prep.
If you have the time, pre-chopping and cooking ingredients like meat and vegetables can save you time during the week. But planning simple meals that require little prep will also save you time.
2. Cooking everything from scratch.
Planning frozen food, semi-homemade meals (like pasta with jarred marinara), or even grabbing takeout still counts as meal planning when you’ve included it as part of your schedule and budget.
3. Cooking with unitaskers.
Food Network chef Alton Brown is famous for discouraging cooking tools that only have one job. While some might save you time, most will just add an extra step to food prep and take up storage space.
Instead of slicing with a mandolin, practice until you’re quick with a knife. Instead of purchasing a slow cooker, instant pot, rice cooker, and air fryer, choose an appliance that will do more than one… or simply spend a few minutes more at the stovetop.
How to budget for groceries
How much to spend
What you spend on groceries will depend on the size of your family and where you live. USDA food plans, which are updated monthly, show the middle of the road at around $900 per month for a family of 4 (2 adults, 2 older kids).
If you’re thrifty, you could spend a lot less than that. If you have a few dietary restrictions (vegan, food allergies, etc.) or a larger family then you’ll probably spend more.
Creating a budget
Food is almost always going to be one of your family’s biggest expenses. After all, you’ve got to eat. The best method for choosing the food budget that’s right for your family is to create a price book. Keep track of what you spend on food over a few weeks, then find areas where you can cut back if necessary.
Creating a grocery budget should be part of your overall household budget. And like all of your budget categories, there will be times of the year when you spend more and times when you spend less. The trick is to anticipate these times and plan for them.
Tips to save money
- Coupons – Clipping paper coupons isn’t as big of a money saver as it was a few years ago. But your grocery store probably has an app for digital coupons that can be linked to your card.
- Cashback apps – If you’re already purchasing the items they include, cashback apps like Ibotta and Shopkick can earn you a few dollars.
- Shopping sales – In addition to your weekly supermarket circular, you can find grocery deals on Amazon.com.
- Shopping in bulk – You don’t have to shop in a warehouse store to get a better deal. Usually the bigger the package, the cheaper the cost per ounce at any store. Buy the bigger package of ground beef this week and divide it up to last twice as long.
- Go meatless – Try Meatless Monday or choose any one day of the week to cut out meat. Pizza can be a great meatless meal, especially if you can load it up with veggies.
Meal planning printables
I’ve got tons of free meal planning printables here on the blog that you might find helpful:
- Meal Plan and Shopping List Printables
- Printable Master Grocery List (blank and filled versions)
- Printable Kitchen Cheat Sheet
- Freezer Inventory Printable
- Pantry Inventory Printable
- All-in-One Menu Planning System with Sticky Notes
- Bright and Colorful Kitchen Labels
Check out these other fun and creative ideas on One Mama’s Daily Drama:
If you’re looking for an easy step-by-step guide to start meal planning for beginners, grab my ebook, “Meal Plan Like a Boss: 8 Days to Organized Meal Planning.”