Meal planning seems to be a problem area for a lot of women. They either hate doing it, or they don’t know how to do it.
Personally, I don’t see how you can effectively grocery shop unless you have a plan. The few times I’ve tried that, I ended up with things that didn’t go together so I had no way to make a complete meal.
In our house, a complete meal usually involves a protein (meat) and a vegetable. I don’t always do things the way my mom did – adding something like potatoes, rice, or even sliced bread to “balance out” the meal.
People eat differently now than when I was growing up. We’re more health-conscious for one thing (another reason to drop the carbs and load up on greens). And of course, a lot of people are trying to avoid packaged foods as well.
These things may make our meals healthier, but they can also make meal planning more difficult.
In our house, our son is a pretty easy to please guy, but I have to be gluten-free and my husband is trying keto because of stomach issues. It’s the latest in a line of things we’ve tried. I think I have less than ten vegetables I can choose from for dinners.
How to Begin
One of the biggest things I hear about meal planning is, “I don’t know what to cook”. So what are you doing, then? Eating out every night? That’s not good for your body or your wallet.
I’ve got three easy ways to help you get started figuring out what to make.
- Start a list of things that the family likes to eat. You should be able to come up with ten or more easily: tacos, spaghetti, pizza, roast chicken, burgers, grilled chicken or chicken nuggets, maybe fish or even fish sticks, pork chops, ham steak, brats, Add to your list as you think of things and get everyone involved. And don’t forget Pinterest! I have dinner ideas on my boards.
- Start keeping track of what you have for dinner each night. If you use a planner, note it in there. Maybe you could start a Google Docs or spreadsheet and list them there. If you’re good with spreadsheets, you can even add the link for the recipe and comments.
- You can always do the theme week thing: Taco Tuesdays, Meatless Mondays, and so on. Or maybe you could do it by cooking method: crockpot, sheet pan, grill, etc.
After you have at least two weeks of meals (more is better), you have a plan.
I should mention that I only plan dinners. Breakfast is pretty predictable for each of us, so if we have eggs, milk, and cereal, I feel like we’re covered. Lunches and snacks are sort of freestyle. Fruits, granola, maybe some deli meat, whatever looks good basically.
Check Your Calendar
Something that you need to consider early on in your meal planning is what your schedule looks like for the week. If you work, you might want easy, quick meals. The same is true if you have kids, especially if they’re involved in lots of activities.
Save your lasagna recipe for a day when you have lots of time to assemble and bake.
Slow cookers and Instant Pots are lifesavers on those crazy days. The other day we made two racks of ribs in our Instant Pot in about 45 minutes. 25 minutes to cook, then about 15 minutes to let the steam release naturally. Super tender and delicious!
Another thing that I always look at is the weather. Is it nice enough to grill one day? Is it going to be so cold and miserable that a good soup or stew might be welcome?
Even with your limited selection of meals at the beginning, you should be able to fill out your week. And then, of course, keep adding meal ideas as you think of them.
The Grocery List
You’re not done with meal planning yet! Once you have your meals planned out for the week, you have to decide what you need from the store. I have a printable in the library for a grocery list. Everything is organized by category – dairy, meat, produce, etc – so it’s easier to shop.
The next step after deciding on meals (and sides) is to look at the recipe (if you need to) and check your pantry and fridge to see what ingredients you need. Then just use a highlighter to note them on my printable list. That way you don’t end up listing something twice.
Also don’t forget to highlight other things you might need, like laundry detergent or breakfast cereal. (You can choose to plan your breakfasts and lunches too if that helps you. If you’re packing a lunch or two, that might be a good idea.)
After that, it’s time to shop!
A Few Tips
Here are some tips that might help make meal planning easier for you:
- I find that a planner or calendar helps immensely. You can see your week at a glance and make notes as to what you’re eating when. And by adding your dinners in your planner, you are creating your own resource for what your family eats and likes. (It’s also handy for when you’re cleaning out the fridge and find some leftovers. You can look back and see when you made that meal so you’ll know if they’re still good or not.)
- I have started printing my recipes from Pinterest rather than relying on trying to find them on my boards. My Pinterest boards are divided by beef, chicken, Instant Pot, etc, but it can still be hard to find something. I keep the recipes in a binder with dividers and write notes on each recipe. We almost never make anything exactly according to the directions, so I note that and also things like whether we liked it or if it was easy to make.
- Once you get the hang of this (and please keep trying until you do), you might find you want to change things up seasonally. After all, you don’t eat the same things in the summer as you do in the winter.
- Keep whatever you’re using to make these plans. Don’t throw them away! Think about it: each season is about three months long. Make four weeks of meal plans and you’ve got three months covered. You can switch out the order you serve things or the sides, but the work has been done. And once you’ve done this for a year, you only have to change things if you want to. I think all of us tend to eat pretty much the same things over and over.
- Learn to get smart with meal planning. This article is a great place to start. Find a great sale on ground beef? Here’s what I do: I cook all of it at once, seasoned with salt and pepper, onions and garlic. Then I can divide it up and add additional seasonings for tacos, chili, spaghetti sauce, and more. Keep some out for the week, and freeze some for later.
- Take a look online. There are all kinds of websites that offer meal planning, often for free. AllRecipes lets you type in what you have on hand and they give you ideas to cook. And The Kitchn has meal plans, recipes, and even advice on how to make your own.
You can get your own free meal planner just by signing up below.