Meal Planning 101
Updated: Jun 28, 2021
I've heard you. For many years now.
"How do you meal plan.... and how do you actually stick with it? What about allergies in the family? What about different dietary needs? What about kids activities and all that craziness? What if I'm just too tired to actually cook? I don't like cooking. I actually stink at cooking... do I have to cook if I meal plan? I have a disease that makes it hard for me to actually want to eat healthy... what should I do?"
And the list of questions goes on and on and on.
This post is going to lay it out from START to END. This is the MOTHER of all Meal Planning posts. :)
We will cover:
What is meal planning? What is it not? What are the benefits? HOW do I do it for MY family's needs? How is meal planning for weight loss, or other dietary needs different than meal planning generally?
What is the framework to work through each week as I implement this?
I will GIVE you a blueprint to execute a successful meal plan at the end- so stay tuned. ;) And if you are like me... you are going to scroll down to the bottom right now, and check it out. A WORD OF CAUTION: I highly suggest reading this entire post in addition to printing the blueprint. I guarantee it will shorten any overwhelm you might feel, and it will give you good visuals and understanding beyond the bare bones of a blueprint. ;)
Let me lay out some basics here about meal planning.
Meal planning is, in the simplest terms I can muster, just simply organizing your food needs over a specified period of time.
Here is what meal planning IS NOT:
Meal planning isn't planning where, or how, or even when you will eat.
Meal planning doesn't cure diseases, or make your health magically better.
Meal planning will not fix your marriage or your child's obesity.
Meal planning, as it stands alone, won't bring you more money.
Meal planning, as it stands alone, will not give you more energy or help you lose excess weight.
Ok, Robyn, so what is the big deal then? If I'm not going to get all the benefits I've been hearing about, why the heck should I meal plan?
My friend. Meal planning is a tool. Meal planning is a foundation for so many benefits to come into your life. It is a base plan, a jumping off point. Meal planning is the cup to the drink. It is the trampoline to the backflip. It is the toast to the butter. It is the foundation---------> to all the benefits you hear about. So alone, it doesn't solve much more than a budgetary need and a time efficiency need. And even then, if you aren't doing it RIGHT---- it might not even do those two things. And ONE more word or caution---- meal planning is like anything else you change in your life. It will TAKE TIME. Be patient with yourself, and your family. Give this a good 3-4 months before deciding you haven't seen all the benefits. :) And even then.... I expect an email explaining yourself. lol!
So let's talk about doing this RIGHT.
Cuz.... I've heard people say to me "Oh ya, I meal plan. I just think about it at work, and grab what I need on my way home from work...." or "We are just so busy that we just plan to eat together as often as possible." or "I'm a college student, so meal planning is important. I just buy everything in bulk." <---thats not meal planning people. Kudos for thinking ahead, but you aren't MEAL planning. You aren't thinking about your days or your nutritional needs.
There is a MOUNTAIN of factual evidence that shows that people who plan their food choices with their health in mind either weekly or monthly, DO see:
faster results in healthy food habit change
more attractive monthly bottom lines in their budget
reduced stress and anxiety around their nutritional needs
faster weight loss if they are striving to lose weight
less anxiety overall
better overall health
less family anxiety over food, resulting in
less family food and eating related disorders
more family connection overall
better control over food related disease or disorder, allergies or intolerances
more awareness of their household budgets
more awareness of their eating habits resulting in healthier choices when desired
less time wasted looking for "what to eat" at meal time
more positive feelings of their self productivity and self worth
more overall familial security perceived by the children and spouses
are you convinced yet that this is something that you might want to master??
I KNOW something in that list will bless your life. So let's get to it.
Basics of meal planning.
You're gonna need a sheet of paper (or print out the free blueprint offered at the end!)
I love to meal plan for a week at a time. I go grocery shopping (or do grocery pick up) once a week. It only takes about an hour, and its totally worth it. When we don't have a plan... my very busy family feels anxiety and stress and we just don't eat as well and we ALWAYS end up spending more money than we planned or wanted to. Our days change so often with rescheduled classes or lessons, or days that just don't go as we preferred, etc, that I like to have just 7 days planned that I can swap around as needed.
Let's work a week at a time for today's sake.
Now, every plan that will be correctly executed, starts with a blue print. A basic sticks and stones layout. And then we break down the steps to execute the blueprint.
Step #1) Start with choosing what "day" your "week" begins. I know that culture and tradition has many of us starting our week on Monday, or some begin on Sunday. HOWEVER- when meal planning, the "week" begins on the day or day after the shopping day is. The reason for this, is that most perishable foods will not last longer than 5-7 days. So by starting your meal plan the day you shop or at latest, the day after, you will not waste food.
For this example we have chosen Wednesday. (This is my personal start of our meal planning week, since I go shopping or do grocery pickup on Wednesdays at 11am. Yes. I schedule it in, it is non-negotiable. I've learned over enough years that meal planning is the central tool to much of the peace and well-oiled machine-like movement of our household of 7, with two working parents.)
Step #2) On your blueprint, decide who specific you want to be- what meals are you planning? Are you planning breakfast lunch AND dinner with a few snacks? Or are you planning on only dinners? I've found 100% of my personal clients like to plan dinner, and a few, who are planning around a lot of stuff including a goal of weight loss, also benefit greatly from planning every meal. Please understand that you CAN swap meals. DON'T get stuck worrying "what if I don't want to eat that that day at that time?" or "what if that meal doesn't work out like I think it will?" You can simply look at another day, and determine to swap out that meal. Because, you'll have all the food/ingredients you need regardless, so eating something different won't harm you at all. :) For this post, we are going to just plan the family dinners. There are other posts that will teach different tangents of meal planning so if this is something you need, please subscribe so you don't miss them!
Step #3) Write the day you are beginning on top of the first days' planning slot. Then add the other days in order at the top of the other slots (you'll see the slots in the blueprint offered below). Or if you are simply on a piece of paper, write a simple abbreviation of the weekdays down one side, like this photo shows:
Step #4) Now its time to pull out the your smartphone, planner, whatever you use to jot down your appointments, kids activities, parent teach conference, dinner work parties, date nights, etc. Really visualize everything going on this week. You might even need to take 5 minutes to consult with your partner or spouse about what they have going on so you don't miss something. What interfere's with dinner time? What days will you be gone? What days will you feel rushed at dinner time? What days will you need to consider a freezer meal or take out? What days will you be entertaining or feeding extra people? Will you be eating out for a date night? Will you or your spouse be out of town on some of the days? The more specific you get about these details, the smoother your plan will execute. I've conveniently put prompts on the blueprint offered below so you never forget to do this step! It is THAT important. I will often add notes next to my meal plan so I remember (and as your kids get older, they can step in and help out when they read your awesome meal plan.)
Step #5) Time to write the meals in. I used to get stuck here and spend WAY too much time online searching recipes for ideas. Time is something I cherish, so this highly BUGGED me. I bet it will bug you too. SO- we aren't going to do very much anymore. ;) Deal? Something I have developed, that keeps variety in our meals is this meal type list (don't write this down--- its in the free blueprint offered below!):
1. Soup as main dish 2. New recipe 3. Breakfast foods 4. Pasta dish 5. Sandwich of some kind (grilled cheese, baked bagelwiches, french dip, burgers, etc) 6. Salad night (or something like a salad- nachos, potato bar, pasta/chicken salad varieties with rolls, green salad with all sorts of yummy toppings, etc) 7. Pizza (gotta have it once a week around here- one day a week I know I don't have to plan.) 8. Fish meal 9. Casserole/Skillet mixture 10. Out to eat
11. Crock pot meal
Little extra tip here: Trying brand new recipes weekly is stressful. For you and your family. Let's be honest... when its new, you've got to be prepared for the twisted faces and even a plan B because it just doesn't turn out. So keep a list somewhere of the dinners your family likes, and always pull the majority of your meal ideas from there. I keep a running list of successful meals on a sheet of paper taped inside my pantry door.
Here is an example of our meal plan so far on simple paper:
How are we doing? Good so far? Awesome.
Step #6) Starting the grocery shopping list directly under your meal plan. I take a minute to look in my fridge and pantry, so over the recipes for the week and make sure I have everything for these main dishes. (Yay for Pizza night! You can skip right over that one!). Start your master list with items needed for your main dishes, then work on the side dishes (See step #7). I usually have spices and herbs on hand, and usually that random 1/2 c of milk or that few tsp of butter, even some canned items I've stocked up on during a really good discount sale. But what I don't see, I start adding to my list.
Tip: I think it is a MUST that you make your list on the SAME paper. If you are like me, our minds are always working. We inevitably forget something- for whatever reason, and having the meal plan right there, makes it almost impossible to forget something vital. You will be taking this list to the store with you. Fully intact, just like this. :) OR if you've gotten the blue print below, you can transfer that info to a sheet of paper or take the blueprint as is, so you have ALL the details to consider as you take precious time to do your shopping.
Step #7) The side dishes. I like to also plan my side dishes, because otherwise I inevitably open my fridge and can't find a good fresh fruit to add or any vegetables either and I feel stress and my family goes, "so is this it?" and I'm like, "Maybe?" with a pained smile on my face. So I do think it's worth it to make this a step in the process. Take a quick second to think of the veggies your family likes, along with fruits that are in season and jot down what you'll need. I like to serve canned green beans, fresh asparagus, baby carrots, chopped salad mixes from the produce section, simple chopped romaine with dressing, steamed broccoli, etc. Fruits I like to serve are fresh apple slices, fresh pineapple chunks, fresh oranges/tangelos/mandarins either sliced or sectioned, fresh pears, melons, mangos, or berries. On breakfast night I often make a fruit smoothie with spinach as a side of fruits and veggies. :) YUM! Add these things to your list, and keep how much your family eats in mind. My family of 7 eats about 2 apples or 3 oranges, or if they are small they'll eat 1 each, so if you have small kids or a small number of people eating, 1 pineapple, and a few apples might be all you need for the week.
Step #8) Write the rest of your shopping list. This is anything else you need for breakfasts and lunches and snacks or homemade cookies (send me some!) for on the go and any non-food items you'll be getting at the same store. Refer to your appointments and activities you jotted down, to see if you need anything specific. If you are a coupon clipper or know of certain sales your store is having, be sure to put these on the list too! If you are a total time efficiency nerd like me, you can even categorize your list based on how grocery stores categorize their foods (they are ALL the same my friends.) Produce, Deli, Meats, Frozen/refrigerated, Bakery, Juices/drinks/snacks, non-foods, and many also include a bulk section and if you are have an exceptional store- a specialty section for food allergies and organic living. I find if I categorize my lists I never find myself having to double back to areas of the store because I forgot something.
Here is what a real list of mine looks like coming from my kitchen and our family needs (I really did use this list):
You'll see I plan breakfast too. To learn why, read this post. You might notice I don't have every single thing needed for the planned meals on my shopping list. This is because I have things on hand, in my fridge or pantry already that I will use. For instance, I'm making lentil meatloaf. But you might notice there aren't any lentils on the shopping list. I simply have a bin of lentils at home that I can pull from. So I don't need to put that on the list.
Step #9) Go shopping! Stick to your LIST. Another tip here: Do not go shopping HUNGRY. Grab that protein bar on the way out. Trust me on this.
Step #10) Put your food away at home in a place you'll be able to find things easily. I have a shelf in the pantry for "this week's dinner items." This might seem OCD... but honestly, a lot of hands go through that pantry through the week, and its too much to ask as well as annoying and super rude, honestly, for me to expect my kids to know which food is off limits or not due to the meal plan. They know that food on that particular shelf is planned for, so they don't eat it or ask for it. (My hubby and I have specific nutrition needs- gluten free, low carb or all natural stuff, so we also have a shelf to ourselves that the kids don't touch in addition to the dinner item shelf. GENIUS my friends. Just sayin.)
Step #11 is 100% optional depending on your needs. FOOD prep. I am NOT a fan of food prep. I am a huge fan of buying food that is half prepped though (ALLLL about saving time!). What I mean by that, is I buy the broccoli florets, instead of a head of broccoli. The extra 8 cents per lb (could be different at your store) is 100% worth my time, and the stuff I throw away after cutting florets off a head of broccoli? I call the price debate a wash. I buy pre-shredded cheese and cheese slices. I buy waffles pre-made and frozen. I buy pre-spiralized squash for my pasta dishes. I buy legumes in cans- no question. I buy baby carrots instead of big ones. No peeling and chopping for me! I even buy precooked meats or pre-sliced apples or pineapple depending on my week. But I do NOT pre-cook full meals and store them. I don't even own a deep freezer. Not only do I believe in freshly cooked foods being more nutritional than reheated foods, but oh my goodness.... the taste of fresh food vs reheated? That's almost non-negotiable for me (I am a culinary graduate... and foodie don't forget!) BUT----- if you LOVE food prep, there is only about a million and one articles about it in Google, and even more Pins on Pinterest if you need ideas there.
There you have it my friends. That's how to meal plan from start to finish.
If you have specific needs, like weight loss, food allergies, lots of kids, no kids, a really busy schedule- I got you. I'll be writing posts addressing those as an appendage to this one as the weeks go on! AND I'll be adding blueprint printables to ALL of those posts. I know. You are welcome.
Inside this blueprint you'll have prompts to help you get started, and a basic meal plan sheet to print as needed. OR... one of my tips: print it out ONCE, and then put it into a plastic page protector, and use a crayon pen, or fine-tipped dry erase marker to reuse it every week, easy peasy. I'm positive though, in time, you'll be doing this second nature on a scrap of paper (if you are like me and tend to use scraps of paper a lot... lol!)
Stay tuned for specific Meal Planning tangent posts with corresponding blueprints and processes for Weight loss, planning with multiple dietary needs, planning for small children, planning for teens, planning for road trips or vacationing, planning for outings and events, planning for College students and for when you just aren't home to prepare dinner. :)
Excited to hear how you do! Use #HMPMealPlanning in your social media post sharing your meal plan skills so I can find you and see what you are planning and cheer you on!