“What’s for dinner?”
Imagine answering that question without hesitation every night of the week. With meal planning, it’s not only possible – it can actually be a lot of fun.
Whether you’re interested in monthly meal planning to stay on track with your diet, to save money or for other reasons, this guide will help you lay the foundation for success with your meal-planning efforts.
Although time and planning go into making a meal plan, the payoff is considerable. Here are just a few of the benefits of mapping out and prepping your meals ahead of time:
- save time
- save money
- reduce stress
- eat healthier
- manage portion sizes
- improve your cooking skills
- develop a better relationship with food
Step-By-Step Meal Planning Guide
It’s easy to feel overwhelmed by the prospect of planning out all of your meals for the week ahead of time. However, by taking a systematic approach to the situation, you’re sure to find that it’s way easier than you think. In fact, once you’ve realized some of the benefits of monthly meal planning, you’ll wonder how you ever went without it.
Without further ado, here’s a five-step meal-planning process that’s sure to make a difference for you.
1st Step: Identify Your Goals
Meal planning can be adapted to suit just about any need, so the ideal first step is deciding why you’re interested in it in the first place.
Some common reasons for wanting to plan out and prepare meals ahead of time include the following:
- to add more variety to your weekly dinner menu
- to save money by budgeting for weekly meals
- to keep food wastage to a minimum
- to eat healthier
- to be more mindful about what you will eat each night
- to reduce stress and preserve your sanity
- to be more organized
All of these may sound great, but try to select a few that matter the most to you. That way, you’ll be able to gauge how well meal planning is helping you achieve those goals and can tweak things as needed along the way to stay on track.
2nd Step: Map Out the Week Ahead and Choose Recipes
The primary goal of this step is to select recipes to prepare for the week. Here is a rough outline for doing so effectively:
- Review the Upcoming Week – Which evenings will you have the availability, time and energy to cook?
- Decide How Many Nights You Will Cook – The sweet spot tends to be between 3 to 5 meals per week but will vary depending on various factors. Plan on starting slowly with 1 to 2 meals per week until you hit your stride.
- Schedule Specific Times to Cook Meals – Specify the exact days and times you’ll be cooking dinner. You’re more likely to follow your plan when you schedule firm times in a calendar.
- Consider What You Have on Hand – Reduce waste by quickly inventorying what’s already in your fridge and pantry so that you can use up stuff that’s about to expire, avoid wastage and save money.
- Plan Theme Nights – A great way to choose recipes for the week is by assigning themes to different nights. For example, you might schedule meat-free nights, Taco Tuesday nights or pasta nights.
- Choose Recipes – Select recipes for the week using cookbooks, family favorites, and the internet.
- Include Tried-and-True Recipes – and Try a New One – Most of the recipes you choose should be ones that you’ve tried before and that your family enjoys. Try to broaden your horizons by including at least one new-to-you recipe per week.
- Plug the Recipes into Your Schedule – Finally, use a calendar to plug each recipe into a designated time slot. You now have a dinner schedule and menu for the entire upcoming week!
3rd Step: Make Your Grocery List
Creating a grocery list is one step you don’t want to improvise. Nothing is worse than having a plan only to realize you’re missing a crucial ingredient when the time comes, so take your time and be meticulous while putting together your shopping list. Here’s a brief rundown of how to proceed:
- Create a Master Ingredient List – Using the recipes you’ve selected, write a master list of everything you’ll need to prepare each meal.
- Perform an Inventory of What’s On Hand – Using the master list you’ve created, go through your pantry, refrigerator and freezer to see what you already have on hand. Cross off ingredients you already have to avoid buying stuff you don’t need. Staples are the only exception; plan on replenishing them even if you have some on hand to avoid running out completely.
- Categorize Your List – Sort your ingredients into categories mirroring the departments at the grocery store.
- Sort Your List by Store Layout – This optional step will help you to glide through the store with ease and help you avoid having to double back.
- Consider Sales and Seasonality – Check if any stores have weekly sales for items on your list. Try to use seasonal produce whenever possible for savings and freshness.
- Do Your Shopping – With your list in hand, head to the grocery store and buy what you need. If time is limited, consider ordering ahead and picking up your items, or use a service like Instacart to have it delivered.
4th Step: Do Prep Work for the Week Over the Weekend
Set aside a block of time on the weekend for the actual meal prepping. Schedule this time in your calendar to know when to do it.
Use the time you’ve set aside to create your menu for the week, select recipes, create a shopping list and do your shopping. At first, it will seem like a lot. As you repeat the process, though, it’ll become like second nature.
Review your recipes to determine steps you can perform ahead of time. For example, you can chop, dice or otherwise prepare fresh ingredients and store them in containers until you’re ready to cook. You can also prewash lettuce, fresh herbs and other ingredients.
Whenever possible, cook ingredients ahead of time for easier assembly later. For example, you might boil potatoes or bake up some chicken to use in a recipe during the week.
Last Step: Follow Your Plan – and Then Do It Again!
With your menu planned, your schedule in place, your groceries purchased and much of the prep work done, all that’s left to do is follow your plan for the week!
At first, it may seem like a lot. Remind yourself that you’ve concentrated much of the work into your weekend preparations. Pay attention to how nice it is not to wonder when and what you’re going to cook all week.
Over time, you’ll figure out what works for you and what doesn’t. Be flexible and allow yourself to switch things up as needed. As you gain more experience with weekly or monthly meal planning, you’ll be able to fine-tune and customize the process more to suit you and your family’s needs better.
Top 3 Tools for Effective Meal Planning
Now that you know how to make a meal plan, it’s time to decide which tools you’ll use to streamline the process to suit your needs.
Here’s a breakdown of the three basic options for mapping out your meal plan for the week:
Pen and Paper
If you’re eager to get started with meal planning, you probably already have the basics for doing so: a pen and some paper.
You’ll have to work hard to keep things organized for this method to work. However, putting pen to paper can also be a terrific way to make sense of everything in the beginning.
Use a notebook or copy paper to develop these tools for planning meals ahead of time:
- Weekly Schedule – Use a calendar or a plain piece of paper to write the meal schedule for the upcoming week. Cross-reference it with your family’s schedule to confirm that it works for everyone.
- Recipe Pages – Compile the recipes you will follow during the week.
- Lists – Use lined notebook paper to create your master ingredient list and grocery shopping list.
Compile the above materials for the upcoming week. That way, you can glance at the schedule to see what’s on the menu and find the relevant recipe.
Meal Planning Apps
If you prefer not to deal with actual paper, which can be tricky to keep organized, a meal planning app for your mobile device may be right for you. However, many people dislike referring to their phones or tablets while cooking.
These days, there are tons of apps on the market to help you streamline the meal prepping process. Some have free versions while others charge monthly fees.
Some of the top features of today’s most popular meal planning apps include the following:
- recipe databases
- ability to add recipes from the internet
- built-in nutritional information
- ability to manually enter and save recipes
- ability to choose from various dietary restrictions or special diets
- database of popular restaurant menu items and packaged foods
- batch cooking features
- ability to sync with fitness apps
- ability to search by ingredient
- syncing to the cloud for easy access across devices
Examples of popular meal prepping apps include BigOven, PrePear, Paprika, Eat This Much, Mealime and PlateJoy.
Paper Meal Planners
If you dislike using apps and are looking for a more organized way to write up meal plans for the week or month, a paper meal planner may be right for you. These meal-planning solutions provide organized, pre-printed templates that make it easier to stay organized without using mobile apps.
The Clever Fox Meal Planner is an excellent example. This cleverly designed paper meal planner covers 12 months, so you’ll be set for a while after investing in it. It’s also very affordable and available in a wide array of designs.
With colorful, gorgeously printed layouts, hardcovers made out of durable vegan leather and sturdy, no-bleed paper stock, this planner is designed to last. Developed by nutrition experts, it includes everything you need to embrace meal planning to the fullest.
Some of the features included in this paper planner include the following:
15 Pro Tips for Making the Most of Your Meal Planning Experience
Now that you know the process and are familiar with the best tools, it’s almost time to put the pedal to the metal! Before you get going, though, here are 15 helpful tips to help you make the most of your meal planning journey:
1. Invest in a decent assortment of food containers. That way, you’ll have plenty of options for storing prepared ingredients – and for saving leftovers, further extending your savings.
Recent studies proved that plastic is harmful to our health, so it's better to go with glass ones.
2. Have a backup plan for when things go awry. Keep easy, back-pocket recipes in mind for times when you unexpectedly can’t follow your usual schedule. Breakfast for dinner is always a winner, for instance.
3. Start slowly. Ease yourself into the meal planning life by starting with one or two planned meals. Once you’ve mastered the process, you can add more meals to enjoy even more benefits.
4. Be strategic about grocery shopping. Try to determine the least busy time to go, or avail yourself of options like grocery pickup or delivery.
5. Reduce food wastage by seeing what you can make with ingredients on hand before creating your schedule for the week. Some apps and websites let you input ingredients to see what you can make with them.
6. Avoid recipes that call for ingredients you hardly ever use. Otherwise, you’ll end up with a lot of stuff you don’t need that will end up being thrown away and wasted.
7. Instead of looking at meal planning as a chore, look for ways to make it fun. Encourage input from family members while developing the menu for the upcoming week. Consider theme nights that are repeated every week to build anticipation. You could even design and print fun meal schedules and menus for the household every week to make things more interesting.
8. Look for ways to incorporate leftovers into subsequent meals. For example, use leftover chicken from dinner one night in a stir-fry later in the week. You can also purposely choose meals that will create leftovers for lunches and snacks.
9. Set aside ample time to prepare for the week ahead. Especially in the beginning, plan on spending two to three hours per weekend getting everything done, including creating a menu, compiling a grocery list, shopping, and completing the prep work.
10. Save every recipe you’ve tried and liked. That way, you can refer to your list of recipes later to create new weekly menus faster.
11. Keep your pantry stocked with staples. Doing so will get easier as you determine your go-to recipes. By keeping non-perishable staples like olive oil, rice and canned goods on hand, you will already have the basics for preparing tons of different meals. Consider stocking up on staples at a big-box store like Sam’s Club or Costco to save money and time.
12. Try to include at least one meat-free meal per week. Doing this will help add some variety, and it’s also a great way to keep costs in check.
13. Primarily use tried-and-true recipes for your weekly menu, but try to add one new recipe each week to discover new ones. Trying something new every week is also a great way to broaden your horizons and enhance your cooking skills.
14. Map everything out ahead of time using a meal prep planner or app. At first, this will seem like a lot of work. Once you’ve done it a few times, however, you’ll be able to fly through the process quickly.
15. Be flexible. Sure, you’ll be precisely outlining what you’ll be eating and when you’ll be eating it, but that doesn’t mean it’s set in stone. Give yourself wiggle room to improvise when needed. Go easy on yourself those nights when other things get in the way, and you have to resort to takeout.
Gain Control of Your Budget, Diet and Sanity by Making a Meal Plan
If you’re tired of scrambling to figure out dinner every night, last-minute trips to the grocery store and expensive takeout meals, meal planning could be the answer. Although it may not come naturally at first, it’s a practical and accessible strategy for sticking to a budget, eating healthier and generally maintaining your sanity in today’s hectic world.
Follow the process outlined in this guide, and select a meal planning tool that works for you. Remember that paper meal planners like the Clever Fox Meal Planner are affordable ways to stay organized and on track. By embracing meal prepping and planning, you can get most of the legwork out of the way over the weekend and fly through the process of preparing dinners the rest of the week. You’ll save time and money while keeping stress to a minimum, so what’s not to like?