When we first think of meal planning, it can seem overwhelming. But if you break it down into steps, it is pretty simple, empowering, money saving, and sets you up for stressless dinners.

Meal planning is most often a weekend activity, but it works best when it works with your schedule. Meal planning is not a book or a binder with a month full of meals. It is something you can write in your calendar, on a sticky note, Google doc, whiteboard, or anywhere else. Some people include breakfasts and lunches as well.

It does not have to be entirely home cooked – think about planning to use leftovers, a store-roasted chicken is an excellent example of this. You can meal plan for a family for one, two, three, four, five, six … Meal planning lets you front-load some of the work around dinner while still having flexibility. You can break meal planning into three steps.

1. Look at your schedule for the week

2. Plan your dinners and choose your recipes

3. Do your shopping (or ordering)

 

Step 1 Look at your schedule

Take a look at your schedule and think about your week. Maybe you need an extra-quick and easy dinner on the night you work late, or you want to make sure that you have leftovers for lunch. If you have a school or work function that is serving food, you may not need to cook dinner that night. Think about how much time you will have for cooking and spend a few minutes reflecting on your goals for meal planning. Are you looking to make your life easier, more variety, to improve your meals and health, prevent waste, save time? Will you be including extra food in your plan for lunches?

Step 2 Plan Your Dinners and Recipes

Now that you have your calendar and goals in place look you can figure out how many meals you want to plan for. Some people skip the weekends, and others prep for it. One way to do meal planning is to assign a few nights during the week a theme. Meatless Monday, Taco Tuesday, chicken night, fish night, beef night, pork night, breakfast for dinner, leftovers…and use a recipe that follows the theme.

Now that you are clear on your schedule and goals you can pick some recipes. For a long time, I kept a notebook on the table with the recipes and meals I cooked. My kids rated them with a thumbs up, thumbs down system. It helped them feel like they were being heard, and it made planning easier for me. Over time I created a bank of recipes that I knew they liked and I could go to over and over again.

Plan to give one or two new recipes a try a week to add variety, without becoming overwhelming. Look for recipes that have some common ingredients – if you make tacos one night and use half a bunch of fresh cilantro, you can put the other half in a Thai coconut soup the next day.

Think about things that you might want to double the recipe so you can freeze one to eat another time. You can also leave some room in your plan to turn leftovers into another dinner. This might mean turning leftover rice into fried rice or turning a roasted chicken into tacos. It might be a dinner where everyone is eating something different, but it is all leftovers from the week

You can incorporate meal kit delivery services as part of a meal plan too. Plan to have a night off of cooking at least once a week. Maybe you bring something in, go to a restaurant, have someone else in the house cook dinner, or go to someone else’s house to eat.

Lastly write into your meal plan a plan B in case something unexpected happens like bad moods, missed trains, and meetings that go long. My plan B is sausages with greens. If I have other veggies, I will sauté them all together. Eggs are another favorite Plan B.

Step 3. Shopping

Make your list of the ingredients you are going to need and decide if you are going to shop once or twice during the week. Create your ingredient list. Look through your kitchen to see what you already have and then write up your grocery list. I like to group things by aisle or department – all of the produce together, proteins together, canned goods together … to make shopping easier and quicker. Think about using a grocery delivery service if you are short on time.

Optional Prep

If you have time and you are inclined to do so, spend an hour prepping your weekly meals on the weekend to make the weeknight dinners that much faster. You can dice garlic, chop veggies, wash lettuce and herbs, make a sauce, and even cook some chicken thighs or lentils for lunches.

Every time you go through the process of meal planning you learn how to improve what works for your family. If at first, it seems tedious or overwhelming, I encourage you to stick with it. Like any skill, it gets easier over time.