A friend recently told me what you may be thinking right now:
“I’ve been meal planning regularly for a while but it never seems to get easier. Always the weekly sigh of “ok, what now for this week…”
I totally get that. It can feel SO repetitive and tiresome.
But fortunately, there are simple ways to improve your meal planning skills that will save you time, give you direction & momentum, and maybe even keep you from doing it as often!
How can you get better at meal planning?
- Know the right meal planning frequency for you
- Build an easy and realistic selection of recipes.
- Choose main ingredients first.
- Consider shelf life of ingredients.
- Use a grocery list AND a staples list to prepare for shopping.
- Be creative with food prep.
- Reuse your meal plans.
I’ve experimented with MANY versions of meal planning, and I am confident that these tried-and-true strategies can make a huge difference for you – whether you are planning for one, for a large family, or for a crowd.
Getting Better at Meal Planning
Before we get started on the specifics, I want us to “begin with the end in mind”.
Why are you interested in getting better at meal planning? In what way do you want to improve?
There are so many benefits to meal planning:
- Saving time
- Improving health
- Reducing stress and uncertainty
- Saving money
- Reducing waste
Which one of these motivates you the most?
Which would bring the most relief to your situation?
Which one are you struggling with?
I ask this because you may not need or want to implement all these strategies at once. Choose the one(s) that are most in line with your goals, and focus on that!
1. Know the right meal planning frequency for you
Deciding how often you’ll sit down to meal plan is a crucial element in creating a system that will feel natural and be something you can stick to.
Too often, we choose a meal plan that may work for someone else but is not aligned AT ALL with our lifestyle or personality. That makes it very frustrating, difficult, and unproductive. So let’s get this right for you!
The 3 most common “frequencies” of meal planning are:
In order to determine if you should plan your meals weekly, biweekly, or monthly, consider these 5 key areas.
What is your predictability factor?
Shorter timeframes work for more unpredictable schedules. Also consider how close you are to your favorite stores or if a special trip is needed.
How much room do you have?
Consider how much food can reasonably be stored in your fridge, freezer, and pantry. Would 1, 2, or 4 weeks of food fit?
When do you have the cash on hand?
If money is tight, purchasing groceries week-to-week may be best. If you are paid monthly, it may be feasible to purchase everything at once.
Do you live for a good sale?
If so, you might plan more frequently and/or go shopping on specific days to make the most of sales or coupons.
What is going to work for you?
Be true to yourself! If you’re a planner, you may feel more prepared by planning further out. If you’re spontaneous, just keep it short and stay flexible!
If you’re unsure of the right balance for you, download this quick worksheet (instantly, no email required). Files will download as editable Word documents.
Printer-friendly templates for weekly, biweekly, and monthly meal plans are provided below.
2. Build a realistic and easy-to-use selection of recipes.
I know from many readers (and from my own experience!) that simply filling in the meals can be the most intimidating part. It is often where people feel most discouraged.
There are a few ways you can help yourself in this area – specifically in how you select and store your recipes.
How to gather recipes & meal ideas
The number of meals you plan at each session will of course vary by how often you are planning. You may only need 5-7 meals each week, or you may be looking at 25-30 for a whole month!
Either way, it will help tremendously if you have AT LEAST this number of meals to choose from.
At this point in your process, I don’t suggest getting lost in the world of Pinterest goals and complicated recipes. Instead, build up a list of recipes by:
- Jotting down your favorite, tried-and-true meals.
- Asking anyone else involved in your mealtimes (partner, family, roommates, etc.)
- Combing through any recipes you want to try and adding the ones that are simple, easy, and something you’d really want to eat!
After this, if you haven’t reached your goal, consider other ways to brainstorm. Some really helpful approaches are included below.
|Themed Meals||Methods of Preparation|
|Italian / Pasta||One-Pot Meals|
|Mexican / Taco||Sheet Pan Dinners|
|Asian / Stir-fry||Slow Cooker|
|Meat & Sides||Grill Out|
|Breakfast for Dinner||Air Fryer|
|Salads / Soups / Sandwiches||Pre-Prepared Meals |
(Frozen dinners, etc.)
Remember this, if nothing else: the most important way to ensure success in meal planning is to choose meals you will ACTUALLY cook. 🙂
How to store your recipes
The way you store your recipes can be a HUGE way to improve your meal planning process. And it doesn’t have to be difficult!
The main principle is keeping all of your recipes in one place. However, it is also very handy if you use a tool that can:
- search all your recipes by ingredients
- search all your recipes by categories or tags (one-pot, Indian, breakfast, whatever you want to use!)
- scale serving sizes for easy adjustments when cooking
- import recipes from multiple sources (online, photo, or manual input)
- assign meals to a certain day and generate a shopping list (only if you want to meal plan digitally – I don’t always use this)
While there are many tools out there designed for this purpose, my favorite is Cookbook. Here’s why:
- It is a one-time cost, instead of an ongoing membership.
- It is MUCH cheaper than its competitors.
- It has so many features to make cooking easier – like checklist-style ingredient lists, read-aloud instructions, and built-in timers.
However you choose to store your recipes, you will be grateful to stop coming up with & keeping track of ideas in your head! This will make it easier and quicker to choose meals and move on to the rest of your meal plan.
For further help in gathering your recipes, download these worksheets below.
The next two techniques can improve how you assign meals to your meal plan.
While it is important to NOT overthink your meal choices, there are two factors that can especially set you up for success, if considered when choosing and pairing meals:
- Making the most of shared ingredients
- Prioritizing the perishable; stretching the non-perishable
Let’s break those down!
3. Choose Main Ingredients First.
It often saves money to buy in larger quantities – whether you’re at a bulk store or just buying produce in a bag instead of individually.
If you plan to do so, planning multiple meals with that shared ingredient avoids waste and captures those cost savings!
You can structure your plan around these type of items by choosing your main ingredients first. Determine how many meals could be made from that “bulk” amount, and plan accordingly.
For example, these might include meats, potatoes, eggs, or even dry goods like rice. Personally, I often buy a HUGE bag of potatoes because it is cheaper, and plan 5-6 meals to use them all up.
Not only does this ensure all of the food is used (and none goes to waste!), it also can help you select your meals more quickly by searching shared ingredients.
4. Consider the shelf life of ingredients.
“The Perishability Factor” 🙂
Another tip regarding ingredients is to “prioritize the perishable; stretch the non-perishable.” This simply means that you plan meals with more perishable items first, then save the ones with ingredients that last longer for the end of the time period.
If you are planning week-to-week, you may only need to consider this when using very sensitive produce (see table below for examples).
However, as your planning length increases, you may need to rely on more meals that use longer-lasting produce and/or dry & frozen items.
|Sensitive Produce||Longer-Lasting Produce||Dry or Frozen Items|
|Asparagus||Cabbage||Rice or pasta|
|Leafy greens||Oranges||Canned foods|
Some great ideas for completely or mostly “non-perishable” meals include:
- Lentil spaghetti (uses dry lentils, canned tomatoes, and dry pasta)
- A simple stir fry with frozen veggies, prepared frozen chicken, and dry rice
- Rotel, beans and rice skillet (uses canned or dry ingredients only)
- And many other recipes can be made to last longer by freezing individual ingredients like meat and veggies, and thawing when it’s time to cook
Again, there’s no need to get bogged down on this step. It is just a helpful technique if you have struggled with food waste and/or would like to begin meal planning for longer periods of time.
5. Use a grocery list AND staples list to prepare for shopping.
Creating your grocery list
Of course you don’t need to be told how to transfer each meal’s ingredients to a grocery list! Here are just a few tips worth mentioning:
- As you add items to you list, you can keep track of how many servings you need simply by adding a tally mark next to the item. When you are finished adding all your meals, use that number of servings to determine what size or how many of that item you need. For example, going back to the potatoes – I’ll add a tally mark for each meal that needs potatoes. At the end, I erase the marks and add 5lb bag, 10lb bag, etc.
- For this reason, consider writing in pencil OR typing on a computer.
- Try to organize your list by store (if you go to multiple ones), then by the order of the aisles. This is easier if you type your list and can easily rearrange it.
- Keep your list of meals with you at the grocery store. Hopefully you won’t need to refer back to it, but in case you can’t find an ingredient you need, you can quickly reference the meal to determine a replacement.
Shopping your pantry
Prior to going to the store, check your pantry, fridge & freezer for any items on the list. Mark off anything you already have.
This will reduce waste, save money, and cut down on time in the grocery store! Win, win, win.
I recommend doing this within 1 day of going to the store. I have tried doing this too far in advance, and it can be confusing to remember which items-on-hand are actually extra and which ones are needed for meals already planned.
Using a staples list
THIS is one of the best ways to keep things from falling through the cracks and free your mind from the burden of “what were we running low on?”
The Staples Checklist is a list of every little thing you want to “always have on hand” so that you don’t have to buy it every time.
You create this list once and use it for reference. Just run through the list before you go to the store, and you’ll make sure you have everything you need!
This will be highly personalized to you and your family, but you can get a master list and full guide here. I’ve included some simple examples below for reference:
|Milk||Coffee, tea||Salt||Toilet paper||Shampoo|
|Butter||Peanut butter||Pepper||Paper towels||Deodorant|
|Salad dressings||Sugar||Vanilla||Plastic bags||Soap|
|Marinades||Baking soda||Italian seasoning||Dish soap||Make-up|
|Olive oil||Chili powder||Cleaning supplies|
The best way to build your staples list is simply to:
- Make notes of what is currently in your fridge, pantry, spice rack, and supply storage.
- If you are adding ingredients from a recipe to your grocery list, notice what items you normally have on hand.
Once your list is complete, save it to check off every time you meal plan. I usually check for these items at the same time I “shop my pantry”.
Click here to download templates for your grocery list and staples checklist!
6. Be creative with food prep.
I know, I know – is food prep really a part of meal planning?
While it certainly is a process all its own, I am a firm believer that the more proactive you are with food prep increases your chances of sticking with your meal plan!
It’s important to broaden what we mean by food prep. It’s not just prepping 20 crockpot meals once a month, or packaging 5 meals for lunches on Sunday.
It also can be:
- Freezing or storing produce appropriately when you get home from the store so that it will last longer
- Chopping & portioning ingredients for each meal
- Cooking time-consuming components ahead of time, like brown rice
- Batching shared ingredients, like shredded chicken
► Related Resource: 4 Time-Saving Ways to Batch & Freeze Meals
Use the worksheet below to help you come up with your own ideas.
I highly recommend making a list of these tasks while you are meal planning, and knocking them out as soon as possible after shopping.
In addition to the templates above, you can use this one to identify food prep for each meal plan.
7. Reuse your meal plans.
I think I could talk about this strategy all day long. It has single-handedly changed the whole way I meal plan, and it is so simple.
Just save your meal plans on your computer!
- Save your meal list – already grouped by shared ingredients and perishable items.
- Save the grocery list you made for those meals – before you added miscellaneous items, used it to cross off during shopping, etc.
- Save the list of any food prep needed for those meals
Then, all you have to do is print those lists out, along with your staples list, and you are 90% done with your meal plan.
If you want to learn more about how to set up reusable & rotating meal plans, head over here for a full overview and FREE 16-page, quick-start guidebook!
You did it!
There’s your crash-course on improving your meal plan. Meal Planning 201, if you will. 🙂
Remember, you don’t have to master all of these skills at once. Think back to your main goal, and implement a strategy that will help you get there. The free simplified meal planning templates will help, too!
Click here to download all the worksheets & templates mentioned throughout this post.
Or head over to the Meal Planning on Autopilot resource for Meal Planning 301 😉 (Okay, I’ll stop now.)
► Related Resource: Your Guide to Reusable, Rotating Meal Plans (+ free workbook!)
► Related Resource: 4 Time-Saving Ways to Batch & Freeze Meals (+12 Recipes)
► Related Resource: 10 Easy, Reliable Recipes for Beginners