Meal Planning for Beginners

I used to come home from a long day at work tired and stressed, and then have to decide what’s for dinner. Hamburger helper, anyone? As I discovered in my own life and verified while researching for my decision fatigue post, my brain clocks out at that time of day. I dreaded the daily dinner decision, and so I turned to meal planning to solve it.

I didn’t do anything scientific. My husband and I would just think of a few meals we’d like to eat that week and jot them down. Often we would make some meal decisions at the grocery store as well. We were childless and both working full-time, so that worked for us. When I cut down my working hours, some of my goals were to cook more from scratch and spend less on our groceries.

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Creating a Habit - Meal Planning for Beginners

What is Meal Planning?

At its core, meal planning is having some kind of plan for what you will eat. It avoids the dreaded “What’s for dinner?” question.

Potential benefits of meal planning:
• Save money
• Eat healthier
• Avoid decision fatigue

Meal planning can be as simple or complicated as you want it to be. People can be scared off because there are a lot of things that can go into it. The only thing you need to have a meal plan is a general plan for your meals.

As you go through the rest of this post, you can take or leave options depending on what works for you. If you’re just a beginner, add one option at a time. Don’t try to do everything at once or you will get overwhelmed! As you get comfortable with what you are doing over time, you can slowly do more.

Saving Money with Meal Planning

Eat at Home

The #1 way meal planning has saved us money is that we have a plan to avoid eating out. If I don’t know what I’m going to make for dinner, it’s much easier to give in to the temptation of not cooking or creating dirty dishes.

Shop Sales

The ability to plan meals around sales can save you money. I check the sales flyers for my local grocery stores online. If I have one meal’s worth of chicken in the freezer and it’s not on sale this week, I know to only put one chicken-based meal on my plan. Other weeks when it is on sale, I will stock up the freezer again.

Fewer Impulse Purchases

Having a plan lets you make fewer impulse purchases at the grocery store. A grocery list also makes the trip faster since you can go straight for the items you need instead of browsing. That saves you time and money!

Eat What You Like

What meals are some of your family favorites? Most families have meals that make it into the regular rotations, whether or not they think about meal planning. Some things we like every few weeks are pizza or grilled cheese and tomato soup.

Making a list of meals your family likes to eat will give you a pool to pull from when you get down to figuring out what you want to eat this week. Hanging this list on the inside of a cupboard door keeps it accessible without being in the way.

Using a Weekly Template

An example of this is Meatless Monday, Taco Tuesday, etc. Creating a template will help cut down future decisions. I like a lot of variety in my meal plan, so feel free to make your template longer than a week! It just gives you a starting place when you sit down to choose specific meals.

Here are examples of things you could include

• Soup & Salad Sunday
• Meatless Monday
• Taco Tuesday
• Stir-Fry Wednesday
• Breakfast for Dinner Thursday
• Fish Friday
• Sandwich Saturday

Different ethnicities:
• Italian
• Asian
• American
• Indian
• Etc.

Different proteins:
• Beef
• Chicken
• Fish
• Beans/tofu
• Eggs

Creating a Habit - Meal Planning for Beginners

Making a Plan

Getting Organized

You can plan for a week, two weeks, a month, or whatever works for you. I like to plan weekly because that makes it easier for me to track the fresh ingredients and eat them before they go bad.

First, I write down the days/meals I want to plan for. You can start by planning 3-5 dinners for the week and growing from there. I have found that I like to plan all the dinners as well as weekend lunches, but I still have built-in flexibility that I will talk about below.

Things to think about:
• Nights when you have less time to cook
• Nights when food needs to be kept warm for another family member
• Family tradition nights (pizza & a movie, etc.)
• Do you have plans for a dinner out with friends or an event to attend?
• Best day for grocery shopping

Choosing Recipes

Now you can choose recipes to fill in your plan. There are a couple days every week where I know I’ll need a quick meal or something ready in the crock-pot. This makes half the meal decision for me, along with my meal template.

As you write each meal down, add the ingredients to your shopping list. I leave off ingredients I know we have but add ingredients that I’m not sure about. After the list is complete I check my pantry for all the not-sure items at once so I don’t have to make several trips. I also make a note of odd ingredients at this time so that the following week I can try to plan a meal around them.

Tools for Meal Planning

Since I like a lot of variety, I tend to rotate between choosing meals from my recipe books, Pinterest, or Build A Menu. Build A Menu is an online meal planning tool which will help you choose recipes, estimates your grocery cost, and creates a shopping list for you.

I use a free shopping list app for my grocery list. OurGroceries lets you create multiple lists, customize categories, and share your list with family members. I like its clean look and have used it for a couple years. It also integrates with Amazon Echo devices so I can add items to my list hands-free in the kitchen.

When Things Don’t Go According to Plan

I have a few emergency meals to use as a fallback plan. These are made from ingredients that store well (pantry or freezer) that you can substitute for one of your planned meals if necessary. If you’re in a hurry or want a different meal that night, it helps to have a couple easy alternatives on hand!

Weeks don’t always go according to plan. If we unexpectedly go out to eat or substitute an emergency meal, it makes my meal planning for the following week that much easier. I carry over those uneaten meals to next week’s plan and don’t have to make as many decisions that week. It means fewer groceries to buy too!

Pro Tips

Prep in Advance

Prep food ahead of time. Some people prep for an entire week as soon as they get back from the store. I do not usually do this but I will use free time earlier in the day to cut veggies for that evening or set out a pot of water.

Freeze for Later

Make a double batch of a recipe and throw one of those in the freezer for another week. Some recipes freeze better than others. Pinterest has many freezer-friendly recipes.

Change it Up

Rearrange your plan as necessary. You might want to eat fresh ingredients near the beginning of the week. Or maybe your meat didn’t thaw fast enough so you decide to have that the following day.

Look Ahead

While cooking, glance at meals for the next two days to see if you need to pull anything out of the freezer to thaw. I have not perfected this art yet. It seems like things take forever to thaw in my fridge so I might have to adjust the temp.

Ready to Meal Plan

These tips will help you whether you’re a beginner or more advanced at meal planning. The lack of stress about what to make for dinner has made this one of my favorite weekly habits!

Do you have any more meal planning tips? Remember if any one of these tips is too much for you right now, leave it out! You can start with thinking about a couple meals a week ahead of time and grow from there.

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