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Meal planning used to take me forever.
I had no system. I wasn’t organized. And to be honest? The whole process stressed me out.
However, the good news is that after a whole lot of meal planning fails, I started to pinpoint some critical mistakes I was making.
And after making a few tweaks, I’m happy to say that meal planning is much easier these days.
If you’re feeling like meal planning is not working for you or you tend to go blank when you sit down to get a plan together, these tips are for you!
Benefits of meal planning
But first – Let’s talk about some of the reasons why it’s beneficial to plan your weekly meals.
It saves you time
How many times have you opened the fridge after a long day, having no idea what you were going to make for dinner? (And, of course, no one else knows what they want either.)
Does it often result in you giving up and ordering pizza? Door Dashing some Taco Bell?
When you have a plan for what you’re going to eat for the week, you don’t have to spend time and energy each time day digging through your kitchen trying to figure out what to make.
Meal planning also reduces stress
Meal planning can take a lot of the daily decision-making off of your plate (pun intended), which can reduce stress and make life easier. Much easier.
It helps you avoid the fast food lines and save money
If you know what you’re going to make ahead of time, it’s much less likely that you’ll find yourself in the drive-thru line.
You’re also less likely to make impulse purchases at the grocery store if you know what you need to buy before you go.
Meal planning helps you eat healthier
Meal planning is especially helpful if you’re trying to lose weight or feed your family more nutritious meals in general.
Since you’ll be eating at home, you’ll be avoiding a lot of the unhealthy convenience foods that are often high in calories and sodium and low in nutrients.
Meal planning helps you avoid food waste
When you are in control of making your own meal plan, you can plan to eat the foods you already have at home that you may have otherwise let go to waste.
Tip: If you’re not sure what you can make with the ingredients you already have at home, check out Supercook. It’s a free resource that can help you find meal ideas based on the ingredients you have at home.
Tips for successful meal planning
Whether you’re new at meal planning or you’ve tried it before with mixed results, here are a few golden nuggets I’ve learned through my own trial-and-error to help make your meal planning efforts successful.
1. Start small
One common misconception about meal planning is that you have to plan every single meal for an entire week (or month) in advance.
This is just not necessary or realistic for most people. Instead, start small.
Instead of planning every meal for every day, maybe you can start with the meal that stresses you out the most. For most busy families, that’s going to be dinner.
You also don’t have to assign a day to each meal if you don’t want to. You can simply pick out 7 dinner ideas for the week, buy your ingredients for those meals, and then pick and choose depending on which one you’re in the mood for.
2. Track your family’s favorite meals
A favorite meals tracker was one of the first meal planner printables I ever created (you can print one of these below) and definitely one of the most useful.
Do you ever just “go blank” when you sit down to plan out your meals?
Having a list of favorite meals to pull ideas from really is a game-changer and can help you keep the meal planning process fast and easy.
Creating your own list is really simple. All you need to do is set aside a few minutes to brainstorm the meals you already know your family enjoys. That’s your starting point.
Then, whenever you try something new and it’s a huge hit, be sure to add it to your list/tracker.
Think of this sheet as a running list that you’ll probably always be adding meals to.
If your list starts to get too big, you can always organize it by category or theme.
3. Be realistic with your time
If you want meal planning to work for you, you have to keep it realistic, especially when it comes to your time.
And how do you do that? By being honest with yourself.
How much time do you have to spend on cooking and preparing meals?
Not only that. How much time are you willing to spend on cooking and preparing meals?
You may not want to plan Grandma’s homemade all-from-scratch lasagna (even if everyone loves it) if you have a busy family and you need to have dinner on the table in 30 minutes or less.
Which leads us to the next meal planning tip…
4. Plan simple meals
This goes for any new venture. It’s much easier to stick to something when it’s not overly complicated, especially at first, right?
So, try not to plan simple meals you know you won’t make or that will take way too long to cook when you’re short on time. No matter how delicious they may look on Pinterest!
5. Organize your favorite recipes (so that you can find them quickly)
Ever head to the kitchen to make something and then *suddenly* the very recipe you need is nowhere to be found? Which Pinterest board did I save that to again?
Getting organized and keeping all your favorite recipes in one place is essential. Most of us don’t have time to waste going on a wild goose chase for a certain enchilada casserole recipe. Do you feel me?
One way to do this is by creating a recipe box. You can certainly do this by buying a recipe box and writing your favorite recipes on cards. My mother-in-law gifted me one of these for Christmas one year and I love it!
If you’re not a fan of pen-and-paper and you’d rather access everything straight from your phone, another option is to create a digital family recipe box by using an app like the Cozi Family Organizer.
With the Cozi Meal Planner, you can:
- Import recipes from a specific URL or add your own
- Create a shared family calendar
- Create shopping lists
- Make to-do lists
- & more!
6. Try something new each week
Until you’ve built up a decent list of favorite meals, try planning one NEW recipe every week or two.
This will prevent you from getting bored and falling back into the fast food trap.
Eventually, you’ll have several new family-approved meals to rotate.
Best places to find new recipes?
I really like $5 Meal Plan. It’s an inexpensive meal planning service that sends you a new meal plan and shopping list each week.
The recipes are budget-friendly, easy to make, and (most importantly) they’re family-friendly.
Best of all, you can try it for free.
If you’re not interested in signing up for a meal planning service, there are always endless recipes to try that you can find on Pinterest.
7. Try planning by theme
What if you have a list of tasty meals to make, but your problem is you just can’t decide what to pick and which day to assign it to?
Planning by theme can help you speed up the process.
Dinner themes or “theme nights” help to narrow down your options for each day, making it much easier to pick something and move on.
Some example themes include:
- Taco Tuesday
- Pizza Friday
- Soup & Sandwich Monday
- Slow Cooker Sunday
- Leftovers Wednesday
8. Meal prep when you can
Meal prepping can save you a ton of time during the week.
And that doesn’t necessarily mean you’re prepping full-blown meals (although you can definitely do that if you want to).
For me, meal prepping can mean anything from preparing snacks for my kids to take to school for the week, pre-chopping fruit and veggies for the fridge, or freezing meals to make ahead of time so that I have one less thing to worry about later during the week.
Just be sure to invest in some quality meal prep containers. BPA-free plastic containers can be a good option, but my personal favorite are glass containers with a good airtight lid. They’re easy to clean and don’t hold any odors!
9. Cook once, and eat twice to save time
Another trick you can try is doubling a recipe and having that for dinner two days in a row. I realize this tip isn’t for everyone as some people do not enjoy leftovers.
However, if you don’t mind leftovers now and then, and if it’s something your family loves to eat (like vegetable beef soup for mine for example), it should be no problem.
If you have picky eaters that don’t like to have the same thing two days in a row, you could do this for the main dish and have a different side with it the next day so that it’s not completely the same!
You can also take this a step further and try some make ahead meals.
10. Use leftovers creatively by incorporating them into a new meal the next day
If you have picky eaters that don’t like to have the same thing two days in a row, you can pair it with a different side the next day so that it’s not completely the same.
Or, you can use certain leftovers to an entirely different dish. For example, there are numerous leftover chicken meals you can make if you have any extras, and many of them can be made in 30 minutes or less.
Meal planning doesn’t have to be complicated or time-consuming. Hopefully, by following these tips you’ll see that it’s quite easy to get started.
And there are plenty of benefits that’ll make it worth your time!