How to make a meal plan like an expert… with a cheat sheet

Inside: When you hear “meal planning”, do you break out in a cold sweat? Get overwhelmed? Run the other way? Use these proven tricks to learn how to make a meal plan without the overwhelm.

A while ago, I heard something that intrigued me.
A person was saying how they wanted… no, needed, to meal plan, but the very thought of actually doing it sent them wanting to run for the hills because they didn’t know where – or how – to get started.

They needed to meal plan because they were spending too much money on groceries and eating out, they never knew what to make for dinner, and more times than not, they end up eating frozen pizzas and eleven dollar ready-made salads for dinner.

Eating all this ready-made food was sending their grocery bill through the roof, and they knew enough was enough, a change needed to be made. But they had tried meal planning in the past and they just couldn’t get it to work for them.

I was inspired by their drive to do something that overwhelmed them since they knew that continuing down the road they were going down of overspending and stressing over what to make for dinner wasn’t a healthy one – financially or mentally.

When I was first learning how to make a meal plan? I was a mess. 

After doing a quick Google search of “how do I start a meal plan?” and devouring every last article that told me “it’s easy” “it’s so worth it” and, my personal favorite, “you’ll save so much time”, I dove into learning how to make a meal plan. 

It was a disaster.

Following the tips I found was anything BUT easy, it DIDN’T save me time, and I wasn’t seeing any reward for my efforts.

Because I was doing it wrong. (But I didn’t know!)

I would spend hours searching through countless cookbooks and scrolling Pinterest and Google for that perfect meal. I made several (several) trips to the grocery store in a week, and I would usually end up ditching my meal plan in less time than I spent making it.

See, my problem was that I didn’t want my meal plan to “tie me down”. I was a free bird when it came to cooking and I liked to be able to make whatever I wanted to make for dinner, not have to follow some schedule.

But, deciding what I wanted to make the day of sent me into a state of panic and, more times than not, sent me straight into the open doors of a grocery store to spend another $50 on groceries that we really didn’t need.


How to meal plan like an expert in 7 easy steps

Since everything I found on how to meal plan was proving to be a lie – for me, anyway – I decided to throw the “meal planning expert” advice to the wind and do what worked for me.

I just didn’t have the time to spend 3 hours on a Sunday afternoon planning the meals for the next week, then finding all the ingredients and making a grocery list.

Oh yea, and then actually going to the store and going shopping, after that.

And I doubt you have time for that, too. So here are the best meal planning ideas I’ve come across that work for me.

Download: Free Cheat Sheet: 5 Things to Do to Create a Successful Meal Plan – and 5 Things Not to Do

1. Premade plans. Always.

This one’s easy. Get pre-made templates so you don’t have to spend 3 hours planning meals for the week.

“I don’t want to spend money on a meal planning service!” 

…but you want to get the benefits of meal planning, right?

So you either need to spend your time creating your meal plans and shopping lists, or you can spend less than $10/month and get pre-made meal plans, with recipes, and pre-made shopping lists.

You have to ask yourself how much your time is worth.

For me, I valued my time more than spending 3 hours a week just to save $10 a month. 

Now, instead of spending that time making my meal plans, finding recipes, and creating shopping lists, all I do is spend less than 5 minutes clicking a button and printing my plans for the week.

And then I get to use the 2 hours and 55 minutes I just saved doing something I actually enjoy. (Or something I don’t, but that needs to get done anyway, like vacuuming.)

If you’re set on manually meal planning, click here to learn the easy way how to make your own meal plans. (Then come back to this spot and follow the remaining steps.)

Solution: Purchase this Eat at Home meal planning service, then reap the rewards of meal planning (like saving money, saving time, and eating healthy, homemade meals).

2. Shop your list

This one’s not as easy. When you go grocery shopping, ONLY get the what’s on your list.

Anything else? Pass it up.

Don’t even go down the aisles that you don’t need to go down.

Use your grocery list to see which areas of the store you even need to go to, then avoid the areas you don’t need anything in.

Resisting the urge to put an extra bag of potatoes in your cart just in case you need them is hard, but it’s something you need to do if you want to have successful meal planning.

3. Follow your plan

A meal plan will do you no good if you don’t follow it.

Sure, it’ll look pretty posted on your fridge. 

But it won’t do you any good.

Once you’ve made your meal plan and bought your groceries, follow that plan to a T… but, there’s one important thing to remember when following your plan:

4. Make wiggle room

Following your plan to a T means not making any meal that isn’t on the plan. However, you need to have some wiggle room so that if plans change (because we all know life happens), you can accommodate life.

Meaning, if your Wednesday afternoon just got crazy busy and the meal planned for that day takes an hour of prep time, and Friday’s meal only takes 15 minutes, make Friday’s meal on Wednesday, and Wednesday’s meal on Friday.

You CAN switch meals around.

You just can’t make a meal that’s not on the plan (because you won’t have the ingredients to make it, and you don’t want to make another trip to the store). 

Related: 8 Hacks That Will Make You a Meal Planning Professional

5. Plan ahead

Got roast on the plan for tomorrow? Take it out of the freezer the night before to let it thaw out. Know you’re going to be busy right before dinnertime? Find time in the afternoon to pre-chop salads, make side dishes, and get everything you can get ready in advance, ready.

This way when it’s time to make dinner, all you have to do is add dressing to the salad, re-heat the side dish, and throw the chicken in the oven.

Meal planning makes planning ahead 1093438x easier than when you don’t know what’s for supper.

When you have a meal plan, you know exactly how much time you’ll need to make dinner. When you don’t have a meal plan, you’re stumped until you decide what to make (then scavenge your fridge and pantry to be sure you have all right the ingredients).

6. Leftover, who?

I love that the meal plans I use give the option to choose how many people I’m cooking for (and then they automatically alter the meal plan and grocery list accordingly) so we don’t end up with a week’s worth of leftovers from one meal.

However, leftovers still happen some nights. And it’s important to use them up.

(Throwing leftovers away is just like taking your paycheque to the bank, cashing it, then taking $25 and throwing it straight into the trash. Yikes.)

When you do end up with leftovers, use them up by packing them in lunches or freezing them to pull out for dinner on a particularly busy night.

(I find using these containers to store leftovers in the fridge works best, then you can take a dry-erase marker and write the date the food has to be eaten by.)

7. Wash once

I’ve started washing my produce as soon as I bring it home from the store. I find I’m much more likely to make a salad on busy nights when I do this since I can grab the produce out of the fridge, chop it, and throw it in a bowl.

When I don’t pre-wash it, I have a hard time convincing myself to make salads because I have to get the produce out of the fridge, wash each piece, dry it, then chop and put it into a salad bowl.

If you have extra time, you could even chop your produce into appropriate sizes (and, thanks to your meal plan, you’ll know how much of each item you need chopped into different sizes) to make meal prep even quicker.

How to meal plan on a budget

Meal planning is the best way to stay on budget, no matter what your monthly food budget is.

I personally chose these pre-made meal plans because the meals are budget-friendly, so I don’t have to worry about raising our grocery bills.

However, if you don’t have any spare money to spend on a meal planning service, here are a couple of tips for meal planning on a budget to keep things simple and affordable:

Plan meals around sales

Before you create your meal plan, look through flyers to see what’s on sale at your local grocery stores. (You can use a free site like Flipp to view flyers online.)

If ground beef is on sale, grab a few packs and plan mostly meals that contain ground beef for the week (or freeze some of the meat to use next week).

Cheap meals

Try to incorporate at least one “cheap meal” into your meal plan every week. A cheap meal could be something like:

  • Rice and beans
  • Breakfast for supper
  • Grilled cheese and soup
  • Homemade burritos
  • Ham, beans, and cornbread
  • Black beans, roast chunks, and rice

Make double

Make a double recipe and freeze the second batch to use as a quick dinner on a later night. Or, keep it in the fridge and eat it another night this week. 

As well as making double, you’ll also want to be sure you use up any leftovers. Sometimes you’ll have enough leftovers from two or three different meals to make an entire meal in itself. That is a fantastic way to meal plan on a budget.

Download Your Free Cheat Sheet on Meal Planning

  • Download the free cheat sheet: 5 Things to Do to Create a Successful Meal Plan – and 5 Things Not to Do. You’ll get the free printable, plus join my newsletter! Click here to download and join.
  • Print. Any printer paper works for this cheat sheet, and you can choose whether to use color or black ink.
  • Keep it somewhere handy and easy to see, like the fridge.

Here’s a sneak peek of your printable meal planning cheat sheet:

Download my FREE meal planning template as a bonus for joining my newsletter: Manual Meal Planning Template

Meal planning ideas… your turn

How do you conquer meal planning overwhelm? Share your tips in the comments below!

Related Posts You May Find Helpful…
A Step-by-Step Guide to Creating Your Own Meal Plans
How to Save Money on Groceries With Meal Planning
8 Meal Planning Hacks That Will Make You a Meal Planning Pro