How to Meal Plan: 8 Actionable Steps to Make a Meal Plan for the Week
If you’re like me, you have yet to try a meal planning service like Hello Fresh or Blue Apron.
And it’s not because you don’t want to… because they sound lovely and convenient.
Instead, chances are you haven’t tried a meal planning service because:
- You’re trying to save money
- You actually enjoy shopping and cooking for your family
Now, this is all fine and dandy.
But, if you’re finding meal planning more stressful than enjoyable these days... it may be time to consider learning how to make a meal plan that works for your life.
Here's a quick look at our 8-step meal planning process:
- Pick your Meal Planning Day
- Check your Calendar for the Week
- Schedule your Shopping and Prep Day for the Week
- Decide What’s for Dinner
- Get Organized
- Save Time with Multi-Ingredient Prep
- Complete What You Can
- Educate Yourself on Proper Food Storage
Companies like these (and there are more, believe me) essentially force you to sit down and start your meal planning for the week.
So whether you use them or not, the concept is a good one.
They are onto something.
Get into the habit of meal planning for the week!
Don’t worry... I’ll walk you through it.
I will provide:
- Tips for how to make a meal plan
- Meal planning ideas and recipe links
- A list of apps to guide you
- Grocery shopping and food storage tips
- Time savers
So let’s get down to business.
Step #1: Pick your Meal Planning Day
Most families have some down time each week… for mine, it’s typically Sunday evenings.
There is no work that day. No extracurricular activities. No homework kids are in a rush to finish.
Sunday is our family day. Our day of rest, as you will.
So... Sunday evening is our meal planning day.
The night where we crack open a bottle of wine and discuss how to make a meal plan for the upcoming week that works for us and our kids.
What night works for you?
If you have older kids, take their meal planning ideas into consideration. If you have younger kids, wait until they are asleep to start your meal planning.
Whichever night you decide on, just remember to plan for 7 days!
Step #2: Check your Calendar for the Week
Whether you’re trying to figure out how to make a meal plan for one… for a couple… or a family… you need to start with your calendar.
Meal planning ideas are only as good as the time you have to dedicate to them.
For example, if you work late on Tuesdays, you may want to have something that is either:
- Already prepped and quick to cook (10 mins or less in the oven or microwave)
- Is good served room temperature/warm or leftover
If your son is brought home from soccer practice at 5pm and your daughter gets picked up for dance at 5:30pm, that evening’s meal planning maybe should include either:
- Something that can maintain its freshness for at least 45 minutes (your daughter eats at 5, you son at 5:15)... like a piping hot lasagna or casserole?
- A “make your own” meal planning idea, like tacos! Just have the ingredients on the table and the kids will do all the work. Pretty cool, right?
With just a quick glance of the upcoming week, you’ll be able to figure out which nights a fancy sit down meal will work vs. the ones where “build your own pizzas” or leftovers may be in order.
But before we get ahead of ourselves…
Now is a good time to make sure your family utilizes a shared calendar.
Whether it be an old fashioned white board hanging in the kitchen, or one of the many calendar phone apps available for IOS and/or Android users, you’ll be wasting your precious meal planning time if you don’t have everybody’s schedules in one place.
Now that we’ve gotten that out of the way…
Let’s move on.
Step #3: Schedule your Shopping and Prep Day for the Week
In order for meal planning to be a success, you need to actually set aside time to shop for and prep the food.
And if you’re anything like me, you need to have something on the calendar and plan around it.
I personally prefer hitting the grocery store first thing in the morning before it gets busy.
As for the meal prep, I prefer to do that on a Tuesday or Thursday afternoon... when I know I only have two children at home with me, as opposed to three.
Then again, I’m up early every day because I have small kids.
And, yes, I am a stay-at-home mom... so my flexibility is different that someone working a 9-5 job.
Regardless of your situation, making time to get the grocery shopping done and prep your meals ahead of time is the best way to bring your meal planning ideas to fruition.
If you can, try doing all in one day for a stress-free and enjoyable break from your hectic life. Just crank up some tunes in the kitchen and get chopping!
Step #4: Decide What’s for Dinner
Now that you’ve got a grasp on how to make a meal plan, it’s time to answer the big question… what’s for dinner tomorrow?
And the next day?
And the next day?
You get my drift.
Have fun with it!
Recipes are everywhere:
- In the old recipe box your grandmother left you
- In those cookbooks your mom passed down... or the ones you received as housewarming presents when you got married
- Television and online videos
- Recipe websites
Today, there are not only recipes for every type of cuisine… but for every lifestyle choice, diet and schedule as well.
If you’re a vegan, there’s a recipe for it!
If you’re gluten-free, there’s a recipe for it!
If you’ve only got time for 30-minute meals, there’s a recipe for it!
If you’re cooking for a family, there’s a recipe for it!
In fact... there are entire cookbooks, magazines, cooking shows and websites dedicated to these things.
There’s no excuse.
You can make healthy, delicious, simple and quick meals for the entire family with just a bit of research and meal planning.
Here is a list of some of the best recipes resources I’ve come across over the last year or so, broken down by category:
Yes, I included a crock-pot cookbook.
Now hear this!
If you don’t have a crock-pot… it’s time you invested in one.
Crock-pots are meant to be turned on and left for hours at a time… with automatic shut-off and controlled temperature settings, the threat of fire is not really a factor.
Regardless of what happened to the Pearson Family on “This is Us”. So sad.
Slow cookers, or Crock-pots, are a wonderfully convenient way for your meal planning ideas to come to life... even on the busiest of days.
Nobody has to be home to watch the oven, or stir anything… just turn it on and go!
And when you come home… a delicious, hot meal awaits the entire family!
The crock-pot even works when you’ve got older children at home, waiting for mom and dad to finish work. All they need to do is turn it on and wait.
If you’re more of a visual person, cooking along with your favorite celebrity chefs on tv (or YouTube, Hulu, etc...) may be the way to go!
Not everyone has a television in their kitchen, but you can stream almost any program these days onto a laptop or tablet.
I, personally, enjoy watching the Food Network… have gotten some great ideas from chefs like Rachel Ray and Bobby Flay.
No, I didn’t meant to rhyme.
Emeril Lagasse, Giada De Laurentiis, Paula Deen.
The list goes on.
But I’ve also found that I’m often looking for something specific… such as quick meals or kid-friendly meals. And that is where the internet-based shows and tutorials come in handy.
Check these out!
Online Cooking Shows:
Conversely... for those times when you just want a little peace and quiet while you cook, you can venture online and print recipes out from a multitude of websites like these:
Online Recipe Resources:
Step #5: Get Organized
Now that you’ve learned how to make a meal plan, it’s time to take your meal planning ideas and organize them.
Efficiency is key!
What you’ll need:
- Easy access to the recipes you’ve selected
- A list you can take to the grocery store
Now, call me old fashioned... but I prefer post it notes and a handwritten grocery list.
That’s just me.
In this fast-paced, high tech, app-riddled world of ours… there are so many ways to get your act together and save time, it would be a shame not to take advantage of such things.
So, because I am not adverse to change, I’ve done the legwork and found some awesome meal planning apps.
Wait for it…
Many of them are free.
And while free is always good, especially for those budget conscious meal planning types, it occasionally pays to upgrade.
Such upgrades typically mean getting rid of the advertisements and enjoying premium services, such as family calendar sharing.
It’s up to you.
That being said, here are my votes for the top meal planning apps:
1. Cozi Recipe Box & Dinner Planner
Free basic, premium upgrade
2. Mealime Meal Plans & Recipes
3. Yummly Recipes & Shopping List
4. MealPlan Meal and Grocery Planner
5. AnyList for Busy Families
Free or $8 for Premium
6. Pepper Plate
All of these apps offer their own recipes and will automatically create lists for the ones you’ve selected.
The Cozi app even syncs the recipes into your family calendar, so everybody knows what’s for dinner that night!
It doesn’t get any easier.
And if you are using recipes from a cookbook, some of these apps like CookBook (and a handful of others) offer page scanning directly into the phone.
It’s the perfect marriage of old school and high tech.
If you are loyal to a particular grocery story, check out their app! Many of them (like Wegmans) offer a shopping list creator, automatically sorted by aisle, as well as recipes which will sync to a list as well.
Talk about convenience!
Step #6: Save Time with Multi-Ingredient Prep
When cooking for the week, you will notice early on that many recipes call for the same ingredients.
Fresh herbs and spices especially play a big role in meal planning.
Herbs, in particular, are often sold in bunches and will perish quickly if not used. So learning proper storage techniques is an essential part of meal planning.
But we will get to that in a bit.
For now, as you’re getting ready to chop and slice and dice for the week… take a gander at all of the recipes and see how much of each ingredient you’ll need.
Taking care of it all at once is a huge time saver.
A teaspoon here, a cup there…. then, just separate the portions into meal prep containers or small storage bags and you’re ready to rock!
As for getting the meal oven, grill or slow cooker ready… marinating is always a good idea. Doing so makes meats or fish more flavorful.
Regardless of whether or not you’re marinating, or just doing a dry rub or seasoning, you can get the hearty ingredients ready ahead of time as well.
Pound that meat, devain that shrimp, chop or julienne those veggies...
Then, say it with me, separate and store it!
There are tons of meal prep containers to choose from on Amazon. So many, in fact, in can be daunting.
We will be doing an article on the Best Meal Prep containers in the coming weeks… so be sure to keep an eye out!
In the meantime, baggies will work just fine.
Step #7: Complete What You Can
While not all of your meal planning ideas will be fully oven-ready on your designated prep day, it is a good idea to get them as close to it as possible.
Recipes like meatloaf, veggie lasagna and chicken milanese, for example, can all be mixed and put together in a casserole dish ahead of time… leaving very little to do for dinner besides preheating the oven.
Most modern ovens have a “time bake” feature, which allow you to just put the food in and program it to turn on and off later. This is especially handy for a teenager who gets home a few hours before you.
Thanks to modern technology, dinner waits for no man (or woman)!
Step #8: Educate Yourself on Proper Food Storage
Meal planning ideas can go south fast if the ingredients are not stored properly. It can lead to spoiling, which can make your sick.
Nobody wants that!
The internet is crawling with food safety tips, so definitely be sure to check them out if you’re uncertain.
As for weekly meal planning, here’s a quick guide:
Not all vegetables or herbs need to be refrigerated. It can actually accelerate spoiling.
Make sure you’re up to speed on this.
Nothing would be more frustrating than to have all of your hard work and meal planning go to waste over something so easily avoidable.
Oh, and yes, there’s an app for that!
FoodKeeper, an app available through FoodSafety.gov, is a collaboration between various government agencies on food storage and safety. It is compatible with IOS and Android devices.
Ok, so now that I’ve got my “public service announcement” portion of the article out of the way…
Let’s sum up what we’ve learned.
Learning how to make a meal plan starts with a commitment.
A commitment to spending a few hours each week:
- Going over your calendar for the week
- Looking through recipes
- Making a grocery list
- Shopping for ingredients
- Prepping meals
- Executing your meal plan ideas require a little organization:
- Utilize online resources and convenient apps
- Prep and store ingredients for multiple meals at the same time
- Make as many oven-ready dishes as possible in one day
If you are meal planning for one, or a couple, try doubling the recipes. Then simply break up the meal into individual portions to freeze.
This way, should you find yourself short on meal planning ideas (or time) one week, you’re just a quick thaw away from a delicious do-over.
Now that’s how to make a meal plan last!
Meal planning can save your family time and money in the long run.
But it is not an exact science. And it is not always the most convenient thing to do when you’re busy.
However, the pros certainly outweigh the cons:
- You’re serving home-cooked, fresh meals daily
- You’re cooking what you like
- You’re cooking as healthy as you want (if dietary restriction are a priority)
- You control your portions (if weight loss is an incentive)
- You’re cooking “in bulk” so to speak, saving money by using the same ingredients for multiple meals
- You’re cooking once a week, theoretically
- You’re more likely to eat as a family
- You’re enjoying yourself in the kitchen (hopefully)
You should also know, and this is important, that it is perfectly acceptable to work one “take out” night into meal planning for the week.
Maybe not every week... but it can certainly be a nice treat, and welcome reprieve from kitchen and dish duty, once in a while.
So don’t be afraid to pencil in pizza or pad thai now and again.
Who knows? You may even be inspired to create a recipe of your own next week.
After all, some of the best meal planning ideas often come from a little inspiration.
In this article, I covered meal planning for dinner… but if you’re feeling brave, you can take it a step further and try planning all three meals for the week!
21 meals sounds like a lot, but there are people who do it.
Meal planning for breakfast, lunch and dinner has its benefits:
- Eat healthier by avoiding those last minute “drive-thru” or “take out” orders at the office
- Save money by not having to buy lunch every day… instead, put that money towards something fun (like a massage or weekend away)
- Be more efficient at work (or home)... since you won’t be wasting precious time deciding what to eat
- Websites offering complete meal plans do exist. And they can be super helpful if you’re feeling up to the challenge.
Attempting to develop good habits, such as meal planning, has to work for your particular situation in order to be successful.
And your commitment to those habits has a shelf life. It will expire if you try and take on too much too soon… and set unrealistic goals and expectations.
For instance, if you are a couple with young school-aged children… it may behoove you to make a chart of what is for breakfast every morning.
- Monday - cereal
- Tuesday - toast
- Wednesday - fruit cup
- Thursday - yogurt with granola
- Friday - eggs and bacon
- Saturday - pancakes
- Sunday - bagels
It may make sense to make their lunches the night before school.
You can add the necessary items to your meal planning grocery list each week.
Conversely, if have older children, it may be a good idea to make them accountable for their own breakfast and lunch as part of their weekly “chore chart”.
Teaching kids responsibility at a young age will result in self-sufficient adults… not to mention, take some of the pressure off mom (or dad) to do it all.
So here’s the bottom line…
In a fast paced world, where life moves way too fast, meal planning is a time saver... regardless of how many meals you choose to plan.
Americans, in particular, spend an exuberant amount of hours each year asking themselves the question, “what should we eat?”
In a fun little study published in the New York Post last year, U.S. couples spend an average of 5.5 days a year deciding what to eat.
That’s 5.5 more days you could have spent with your loved ones, at the gym, catching up on house projects, visiting a museum… or on an airplane flying to someplace exotic.
Life is too short to spend it being indecisive.
Wouldn’t you agree?
So if you take anything from this article, I hope that it’s how to make a meal plan… that works for you.
That is enjoyable for you.
That saves you money.
That saves you time.
Now go… plan… eat!
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Nicole Krause has been writing both personally and professionally for over 20 years. She holds a dual B.A. in English and Film Studies. Her work has appeared in some of the country’s top publications, major news outlets, online publications and blogs. As a happily married (and extremely busy) mother of four… her articles primarily focus on parenting, marriage, family, finance, organization and product reviews.