Helping the Newbie Become a Master Meal Planner: What to Do and How to Plan For Success
As I write this, we are approaching the beginning of a new year – the perfect time to start new habits! First up on the list: learning to menu plan!
Becoming a meal planner takes some practice. However, with a few simple tips and an easy system, it doesn't take long to go from being a newbie to a master meal planner.
Like many aspects of homemaking, meal planning can feel overwhelming…at first. And while it does take work, it only seems overwhelming when we think about the big picture all at once.
However, just like with almost everything, when we break up the huge, daunting task into smaller, manageable tasks, the stress and overwhelm just melt away.
If you are new to meal planning you may be sitting here thinking: “But where do I even start?”
Think of meal planning as a system of 3 tasks:
- choosing your recipes
- planning and shopping for your ingredients
- prepping your meals.
Are you sitting there saying “well, yeah, I could have figured that out”?
These steps might seem fairly obvious, and I agree that in a lot of ways they are.
The real key to successful meal planning is knowing the pro tips or essential strategies in each of these tasks.
These tasks are the difference between a master meal planner who sees the enormous value of the practice and a mediocre meal planner who doesn't feel like it is worth their time.
If you take the time to implement a few of these strategies, you'll soon find your own rhythm and discover the true benefits that meal planning offers.
But first, what exactly is meal planning?
What is meal planning?
Have you ever come home from work stressed, exhausted, and hungry only to decide that tonight might be a great night to order in?
Do you find yourself doing this two or three times a week simply because your life is so busy?
These questions aren't meant to shame, we have all been there. Oh man, have I been there. Like ordering in every single night because I didn't have anything planned.
Talk about a budget buster!!
But the reality is that life doesn't stop just because your day has been crazy busy.
The kids still need to eat, the laundry still needs to get done and you still have a night of homework and running from one activity to another ahead of you.
Let's be honest, who would have time to even think about cooking with a schedule like that?
This is where the importance of planning comes in.
When you are able to plan your meals ahead of time you won't need to hit that drive thru window because you will already have your dinner ready, all you need to do is some minor work to get it on the table.
Even better, because everything is already set in place you can focus on other things while your food is cooking.
Here's the beautiful thing: meal planning answer the “what's for dinner question” once for the whole week (or month) instead of every. Single. Night.
Then, once you have a plan in place, you simply need to make your shopping list, shop for the ingredients that you need, and prep the ingredients for the recipes you are using that week.
Through LOTS of trial and error, I have found that you really only need to accomplish 3 simple tasks in order to be successful at meal planning.
Those 3 tasks are:
- select your meals (and find recipes, if needed)
- make a list of needed ingredients and shop for them
- prepare the ingredients you need for the week
Taking time each week to plan your meals might seem like a hassle, and honestly, in the beginning, it might feel like a bit of a hassle.
But, truly, this can save you hours throughout the week. Doing something once a week is a lot easier and more efficient than doing it multiple times every week.
One good trip to the grocery store and one afternoon in the kitchen is all you need to set you up for an entire week of meals for your family.
Start over the weekend: I tend to do my planning on Saturdays and then do my shopping and prepping on Sundays. The beauty of this practice that is that it's flexible.
If it's easier for you to do shopping on Sundays and prep on Monday mornings while kids are in school, do what works for you. 🙂
Pro Tip: if you want to complete your store trip in the least amount of time possible, complete your trip either early in the morning or at night. There are fewer people in the stores then.
What Meal Planning Won't Do For You
Being a great meal planner won't solve all your problems!
I hear so much hype that makes meal planning sound like it's going to change your life in such a way that people tend to take that to mean it will make all their problems just disappear.
Unless you have a magic wand hiding in your pocket, meal planning won't do all that. But it will simplify your life, make it more efficient and allow you to use your time doing other things.
One important note: meal planning does take time to get into your groove. You will spend time (at first) tweaking the way you do these tasks to make it work for you.
Our Meal Planning System will get you well on your way!
The Benefits of Meal Planning
Meal planning is a vital part of eating a healthy diet and there are many benefits of meal planning.
Even if you’re a healthy eating veteran, I’d highly encourage you to take half an hour a week to meal plan healthy meals for your family that week.
1. Save Money
There's just nothing more expensive than impulse shopping and making multiple trips to the grocery store.
The key to saving money is making a plan.
Put simply, that's what meal planning is. By becoming a meal planner, you will learn effective strategies for saving money!
Plus, by having a plan, I can buy things in bulk when they are on sale and use them effectively, allowing me to save money on groceries!
2. Save Time
Just like meal planning saves money, it saves an enormous amount of time in many different ways. I save time by
- making 1 (maybe 2) trips to the store instead of going almost every day
- not needing to scramble every day to figure out what I'm going to make for dinner
- cooking things in larger quantities and freezing the extra for a quick dinner another night
Want to take time management to the next level and save more time? Learn my essential time-management tips to help you save more time in other ways!
3. Add Variety
It may seem that meal planning is rigid and boring, but it's anything but.
Realistically, families are more likely to eat the same meals over and over if they don’t meal plan. I know that's the case in my own home. If I don't meal plan, we're eating burritos 3 nights a week.
Meal planning allows you to ensure variety and avoid falling into the trap of eating the same five meals over and over.
And variety is the key to a healthy diet and lifestyle.
4. Reduce Stress
I finally realized that 5pm was the witching hour in our house and I didn't have a plan already in action by then that disaster struck.
But let's face it, when I am spending all day running after kids, I don't have time to think ahead to dinner! I would start to think about it and then get pulled away in several directions at the same time.
Next thing I knew, it was hours before I got back around to trying to figure out dinner. And by then we had hit the witching hour. Disaster…again.
Whether you have kids or not, doing it once ahead of time still reduces the stress of figuring out your meal plan on the fly.
One thing of note: I tried for a while to just have a mental plan without writing it down.
You may have a fabulous memory but I don't and would forget my plan – causing more stress all over again trying to remember my plan.
Do yourself a favor…just write it down. You'll thank me!
5. Reduce or Eliminate Food Waste
I absolutely hate finding a container of food in the back of the fridge and realizing that the contents which now smell horrible and look just as bad came from dinner…2 weeks ago.
With meal planning, I feel good that we are going to use all of the food for that week. I have a weekly game plan that even takes leftovers into account so that food is rarely wasted. Woohoo!
Meal Planning Myths Busted
I am a huge fan of meal planning and have seen it work wonders in my life.
It has made my life easier in many ways and helped to greatly reduce my stress when it comes to getting dinner on the table.
And over time (and finding a system and works) I have learned a few things. Here are some meal planning myths and the facts about them.
Menu Planning Means ‘Entirely Home Cooked'
Oh my goodness. So not true!
I love home cooked meals…and real food…and healthy eating. And I wholeheartedly believe that anything made at home is healthier than anything that's been mass-produced.
But the reality of life these days is that there just aren't enough hours in the day to make everything from scratch.
Unless that's all you do every day.
I don't know about you, but I don't have that kind of time.
To save time (and stress), I love:
- pulling out frozen meals (that I made ahead of time) for a quick dinner
- using leftovers from a meal earlier in the week
- keeping meals simple so they are quick to prepare
- use premade dough
- utilizing frozen veggies into the meal
- pizza night
- planning take out or out to eat nights
Menu Planning is Expensive
Just like with anything, you can do it well or…not. When done well, meal planning will save you money, not cost you extra money. Really really.
Meal Planning Only Works For Families of a Certain Size
Not true. Meal planning is for everyone. At the same time, depending on the number of people you are planning for, you can use different strategies to make it work for you.
Meal Planning Is Not Flexible and Doesn't work For Different Schedules
I know from first-hand experience that meal planning is extremely flexible!
Are Tuesday and Wednesday your days off? Do it then instead of over the typical weekend days!
You can also adjust your system as you go – add to it, take out unnecessary steps. There's so much room for customization, and that's one of my very favorite parts about it.
Meal Planning Takes a Ton of Time
Nope! I have gotten my own personal system down to 1 hour for 30 days of meals! A whole month!
If I get super motivated one month to try more new recipes, I may spend a little extra time because I'm researching recipes. But my basic system helps me save tons of time every month!
Menu Planning is a lot of work
Remember how I said it might feel like a hassle at first? You do need to do just a bit of work on the front end to get set up.
Then, once you get set up, it's smooth sailing after that. And it only gets faster as you tweak your system over time.
How to Menu Plan: Choose Your Recipes Strategically
Why do you want to become a meal planner? Is your goal to save money? To add variety to your diet? Something else?
Remember that 3 task system for meal planning? Choosing your meals and recipes is the first task, and, in my opinion, it's the most important task.
That's because picking your recipes puts your reasons for meal planning into action.
Whatever you do, don't just choose a bunch of random recipes and hope for the best! That completely undermines the usefulness of meal planning.
Here's how I recommend you pick your recipes.
Decide how many meals to plan for and what they need to do.
Have a look at your calendar for the coming week and month. Then decide the number of nights you want to make dinner at home.
Five nights is the most common denominator, but that sweet spot differs for every family.
The next step is to dig in a little deeper. On the nights that you're cooking, what do those meals need to work around?
For example, on the nights that you are running between activities and don't have time to stand at the stove, a 10-hour slow cooker recipe is a good idea.
Just to make life easier, I highly recommend doing at least a recipe or two a week that will give you leftovers to use for lunches or other dinners in the same week.
Pro Tip: Here's the real time saver!
Have a list of recipes that you know your family loves, plus a list of recipes that you want to try.
When you are planning your meals, I recommend sticking to roughly a 3-to-1 ratio of recipes the family loves to recipes you want to try. That means that you may try 1-2 new recipes a week.
If your family is really resistant to change, shoot for 1 a week or even every other week. On the other hand, if your family is really adventurous, maybe you shoot for 2 new recipes a week.
This way you still add variety to your diet and avoid total anarchy if you were to only do new recipes (plus, who has the time to search for a new recipe for every day?).
But by adding in occasional new recipes, you still have the potential to add new favorites to your collection.
My Meal Planning System can help you simplify this process and get the task done in a fraction of the time!
How to Menu Plan: The Grocery List
I am old school and still use paper and pencil to meal plan and generate my shopping lists.
I love that feeling of having it written down where everyone can see it (and add to the grocery list, if needed).
Call me old fashioned 🙂
And if you are just starting out with meal planning, I recommend you start with my super simple meal planning system.
Going through the actions on paper and pencil has a way of making the process more tangible and comfortable at first.
However, if you prefer to do your planning on the go or in an app, I highly recommend Platejoy! It's super simple to use and:
- is highly personalized and includes your health goals
- allows you to indicate food restrictions and preferences for individual family members
- create custom meal plans with personalized recipes
- allows you to note which ingredients you already have so you don't waste a penny
- gives you the option to send your grocery list to Instacart so you get your groceries delivered – a huge time saver!
This lets me plan and grocery shop in much less time and simplifies my week!
You can get $10 off your plan to get you started – I hope you love it as much as I do!
If you have been meal planning for a while, I highly recommend using a meal planning service like Platejoy to take your menu planning to the next level (and reap even more benefits).
How to Menu Plan: Spend an Hour One Day a Week Prepping
Going back to those 3 tasks I talked about earlier: you have chosen your recipes, made your grocery list and gone shopping for your ingredients.
Now there's one more step — and this one will be your biggest help in defeating cooking stress during the week.
You've got to do some prep! I recommend you set aside an hour one day a week for batch cooking and prepping your ingredients.
You might do this on a Sunday, or it might be any other day of the week where you can dedicate an hour to prepping your ingredients after you purchase them.
What you should do depends on the recipes for the week, but generally, I'm talking about dicing up onions, chopping veggies, washing lettuce and herbs, and even cooking some rice or chicken ahead of time.
I have even been known to go ahead and steam some veggies on meal prep day as well.
Anything you can do ahead of time will reduce the time and stress you will have during the week!
Great Job! Get Ready to do it again!
Meal planning is not hard, but it's not a walk in the park either — especially when you're new to it.
If you are reading this post because you want to make your life in the kitchen a bit easier, then you're off to a great start!
Every time you go through the meal planning process, you figure out ways to make it work even better for you… promise!
As my kids' teacher likes to say: “practice makes better”!
Tell me in the comments below: have you done menu planning before? If so, are there any aspects of the process that you find difficult?
If you haven't done menu planning before, do you have an idea of any aspects of the process where you may need a little more help?