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If you’re like me, you have yet to try a meal planning service like Hello Fresh or Blue Apron. (But if you're interested, check out this review of the 13 best meal kit delivery services.)
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 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.
A Quick Look at Our 8-Step Meal Planning Process
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. Sound good? Good.
So let’s get down to business.
Step #1: Pick Your Meal Planning Day
Most families have some downtime each week… for me, 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 our kids and us.
What night works for you?
Quick Tip: If you have older kids, consider their meal planning ideas. 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, 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 at room temperature/warm or leftover
If your son is brought home from soccer practice at 5 pm and your daughter gets picked up for dance at 5:30 pm, that evening’s meal planning maybe should include either:
With just a quick glance at the upcoming week, you’ll 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 whiteboard 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.
A printable weekly meal planning template is also an option if you prefer to have a physical copy of your meal plan.
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
For meal planning to succeed, you need to set aside time to shop for and prep the food for your meal ideas. 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 from 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 ideas to fruition.
Try doing it 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!
Tips and Guidelines on Meal Prepping
Knowing a few tips and guidelines when it comes to meal prepping will save you a ton of time and help keep you on track during the week and remove the temptation to order out.
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:
Today, there are not only favorite recipes for every type of cuisine but every lifestyle choice, healthy 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. And more. There’s no excuse.
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 crockpot cookbook.
Now hear this!
If you don’t have a crockpot… it’s time you invested in one.
Crockpots 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 Crockpots, are a wonderfully convenient way for your meal planning ideas to come to life… even on the busiest 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 crockpot 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 mean 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 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:
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 averse to change, I’ve done the legwork and found some awesome meal planning app options.
Wait for it…
Many of them are free. Yay!
And while free is always good, especially for those budget-conscious meal planning types, it occasionally pays to upgrade.
Such upgrades typically mean eliminating 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 $9.99 per year for AnyList Complete for an individual and $14.99 per year for a family
6. Pepper Plate
These apps offer their own recipes and will automatically create lists for those 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.
If you are planning meals and intermittent fasting, there are great intermittent fasting apps that can help you track your eating and fasting cycles and work well with meal planning.
It’s the perfect marriage of old school and high-tech.
Side Bar: If you are loyal to a particular grocery store, check out their app! Many of them (like Wegmans) offer a shopping list creator, automatically sorted by aisle and recipes that will sync to a list. 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 timesaver, as you probably figured out from our meal prep tips and guidelines outlined above.
A teaspoon here, a cup there and then separate the portions into meal prep containers or small storage bags, and you’re ready to rock! As for getting the 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, devein 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, it 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.
Novice tip: Most modern ovens have a “time bake” feature, which allows 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 you 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:
Listen Up! 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, collaborates with 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:
Side Bar: 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 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 a 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!
Twenty-one meals sound like a lot, but some people do it.
Meal planning for breakfast, lunch and dinner has its benefits:
Attempting to develop good habits, such as meal planning, has to work for your particular situation 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.
It may make sense to make their lunches the night before school.
Each week, you can add the necessary items to your meal planning grocery list.
Conversely, if you have older children, it may be good 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 taking some of the pressure off mom (or dad) to do it all.
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!
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.