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 like an expert, without the overwhelm. This post contains affiliate links. Learn more here.
Have you ever done a quick “how do I start a meal plan?” Google search only to read dozens of articles telling you it’s easy, it’s so worth it, even my blind guinea–pig can do it…?
And, my personal favorite… “you’ll save SO much time!”
When I was learning how to meal plan, it was not easy, it did not feel worth it, and I was most definitely not saving any time. In fact, I was spending, on average, 3 hours each week planning out our meals.
When it came to meal planning, I was in the express lane heading to failure-ville.
If you’ve tried meal planning in the past and just can’t seem to get it to work for you, if you’re eating frozen pizzas and $15 dollar ready-made salads more nights a week than you’d like to admit, it’s time to take control of this meal planning disaster.
Continuing to eat like this will send your grocery bill through the roof and your diet down the drain.
Here’s how you can take the reins and make a change.
No more waiting until 5 o’clock to decide what to make for dinner. If you’ve been there, you know doing this is the type of thing that sends you straight through the open doors of a grocery store to drop another $50 on groceries that you really don’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.
And I doubt you have time for that, too. So here are the best meal planning ideas I’ve come across that actually make your life easier (not more complicated).
1. Premade plans. Always.
This one’s easy. Get pre-made meal planning templates so you don’t have to spend 3 hours planning meals for the week like I did.
“But I don’t want to spend money on a meal planning service!”
…but you want all the juicy benefits of meal planning, right?
So you either need to sacrifice hours of your time to create a meal plan and shopping list for the week, or you can spend less than $10/month and get pre-made meal plans, with recipes, and pre-made shopping lists.
…And have all your meal planning for the week complete in less than 5 minutes flat.
You have to ask yourself what your time is worth.
For me, it took a while, but eventually, I decided that I valued my time more than spending 3 hours a week just so I didn’t have to spend $10 a month on a service that would do the hard work for me.
Now, instead of spending hours making meal plans, finding recipes, and creating shopping lists, all I do is spend less than 5 minutes clicking a button and printing off my plans for the week.
And now I get to use the 2 hours and 55 minutes I just saved doing something I actually enjoy.
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 give you any of the benefits of meal planning.
Once you’ve made your meal plan and bought your groceries, follow that plan to a T.
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).
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!