How to Meal Plan in 4 Simple Steps

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If you’re looking to make eating healthy easier, then one of the first things you need to learn is how to meal plan. Meal planning has been one of the best skills I have learned for my budget and my waistline!

I first started meal planning shortly after my first daughter was born. Once I emerged from the haze and sleep deprivation of those first 9 months, I became aware of just how much money we were spending eating out.

Since then I have tried different meal planning services, gone through a lot of trial and error, and have learned a LOT about meal planning. In this article, I’m sharing everything I have learned about how to meal and plan and how to do it well.

How to Meal Plan in 4 Simple Steps

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What is Meal Planning?

Before we get started on how to meal plan, I want to be clear on what meal planning is. People often get meal planning and meal prepping confused.

Meal planning refers to simply deciding what meals you’re going to cook ahead of time on what day. Meal prepping is when you actually cook the meals ahead of time so they’re ready to go throughout the week.

A lot of people have some crazy ideas about meal planning, so let’s go over a few myths real quick.

Meal planning myths

Meal planning takes up too much time. False!

Meal planning can take as little as 15 minutes. Not to mention, how long does it take to figure out what’s for dinner each night when you don’t have a plan?

I have engaged in more than one debate with my husband that has easily lasted longer than 15 minutes when we can’t decide what we want. This is a little bit of up-front work one day a week, so the other 6 days are a breeze.

Meal planning kills spontaneity. False!

If you worry that planning your meals ahead of time ruins the spontaneity of dinner, I want to ask you two things: 1.) Are you really as spontaneous as you think? Most of us end up eating at the same restaurants and ordering the same meals pretty regularly.

2.) What’s your spontaneity costing you? Are you struggling to eat healthy or stick to a budget?

Meal planning might not sound like the most exciting thing in the world, but I promise you the money I save and the weight I’ve lost because of it provides me with plenty of excitement and enthusiasm. 🙌

Plus, if you really need to have a few nights where you don’t know what’s for dinner, you can always add that in to your meal plan. Meal plan your dinner for 4-5 days of the week and then leave 2-3 days open for adventure.

You have to cook a different recipe each night. False!

You can meal plan however you like. It’s your menu! So if you want to meal plan spaghetti 4 nights of the week and chili for the other 3 nights, that’s your prerogative. You can plan whatever kind of meals you like.

Meal planning is only for eating healthy. False!

Now I admit, I will be the first person to go on and on about how much meal planning has helped me lose weight and get in shape. But I actually did it for years before I ever used it to eat a healthier diet.

Meal planning can help you spend less money on groceries, cut down on food waste, and save you a lot of stress and peace of mind. But you always have the option to plan whatever meals you want to eat, regardless of the health factor.

Weekly Meal Planning Bundle - How to meal plan

Benefits of Meal Planning

Tired of spending too much money on food?

Meal planning helps you cook at home more often, which is great for the budget. Plus, you don’t overbuy at the grocery store when you know exactly what you need.

When I first started meal planning, I cut my grocery bill by ⅓ and was able to cut our eating out down to almost nothing. Which saved us about $300-$400 a month!

Wanting to cook healthier meals and lose weight? 

When you plan your meals ahead of time, you are a lot more likely to follow through with your diet. I can say for a fact that if I didn’t plan my healthy meals and meal prep each week, I would struggle to maintain my weight loss.

It’s been a key part of keeping me on a consistently healthy diet.

Tired of scrambling to figure out what to cook when everyone is hungry?

You guys know the time of day I’m talking about. When the kids are getting hangry, your husband just got home from work, you’re tired after a long day, and everyone is asking what’s for dinner. 

The last thing you want to do is rack your brain for something everyone will eat. And if you’re trying to eat healthy, it can be super easy to just cave and order pizza.

With meal planning, it’s all been figured out ahead of time and all you need to do is follow your plan. You’ve already done the hard work of trying to figure out some healthy meals your kids will actually eat and all that’s left is the cooking.

Tired of complaining kids who don’t like what you made?

When you meal plan, you have the opportunity to get everyone’s opinion ahead of time for what they would like included in the menu that week. When my kids know I have planned at least one or two meals they like, there is a lot less drama about the other meals that may not be their favorite.

With two seriously picky eaters, I can tell you this little benefit sometimes makes it all worth it.

Weekly Meal Planning Bundle - How to Meal Plan

Tired of hitting the drive-through because you don’t have the ingredients you need?

Before I started meal planning I can’t tell you how many times I would get all excited about cooking a recipe just to realize I didn’t have all the ingredients. 

Or worse, get halfway through the meal and realize I’m missing something important. 🤦

Which inevitably meant my husband or I was hitting the drive-through. Because I can promise you, with 3 hungry kids, I’m not trying to wait for someone to get back from the grocery store with my missing ingredient and then finish cooking before we can all eat.

 When you meal plan you avoid that whole situation. You know everything you will need ahead of time, so the ingredients are waiting for you when you start cooking.

daily meal plan

How to Make a Weekly Meal Plan

The steps I’m going to talk about are how I meal plan for the week. If you want to know how to meal plan for a month, read through these 4 steps and then check out the tips on how to make a monthly meal plan.

Step 1: Identify your goal for meal planning

The very first step in how to meal plan is to decide what your main goal is. What are you hoping to achieve by meal planning?

Are you hoping to eat healthier and lose weight, save money, make mealtime easier, prevent food waste, etc?

Depending on your goal, you will want to take different approaches to meal planning

If your goal is health and weight loss you will focus on planning healthy meals for the week.

If your goal is to save money you will focus on picking recipes with inexpensive ingredients.

If your goal is to make your life easier you will focus on picking easy and fast meals your family likes.

If your goal is to prevent food waste you will focus on picking meals that use similar ingredients.

Pro Tip: If you have multiple goals for meal planning, pick your most important one and start there. It can be a little overwhelming to try to pick healthy meals that save you money while also being fast and easy.

I mean, it’s possible, but it can be a little harder to manage if you’re new to meal planning. For the first few weeks, start with your biggest priority and then add in more when you get the hang of it.

How to Meal Plan Bundle

Step 2: Decide how many meals you are going to cook

The next step in how to meal plan is to decide how many meals you’re going to cook. You need to know how many nights you’ll be eating at home.

When I do this, the first thing I do is check my schedule and figure out how many nights I need to cook. I take into account things like:

  • Are we meeting friends this week?
  • Do we have family in town?
  • Do we have any sporting events coming up?
  • Will we have leftovers in the fridge?

All of this plays into how many meals I need to cook. For example, I typically plan 5 dinners for the week. For day 6 and day 7 I plan to eat leftovers and have dinner out.

Pro Tip: If you’re new to meal planning, just start with planning your dinners. As you get more comfortable with the process, you can try adding in breakfasts, lunches, and snacks.

Recipes search results for learnin how to meal plan

Step 3: Pick your recipes

The next step in how to meal plan is to pick your recipes. Now that you know your goal and how many meals you’re cooking this week, it’s time to actually choose what you want to eat. 

my number one suggestion is to pick recipes you actually like. Even if your goal is eating healthier.

A meal plan you ignore because you never want what you planned doesn’t do you any good and sure won’t save you time or money.

I’ve also found it really helpful to pick recipes with simple ingredients. Especially as your first learning how to meal plan.

The simpler the meal, you more likely you’ll be to stick to your plan and actually cook it.

Read on for a few more tips on picking recipes for your meal plan.

Pay attention to your schedule

We talked about looking at your schedule in regards to how many meals you’re going to cook that week, but you also want to use it to help you decide what meals you’re going to cook.

For busy days that you’re running around to soccer and baseball practice, you want to plan either crockpot meals or something that can be put together in 10-15 minutes.

If you have some longer, more complicated recipes you want to try and plan them for nights when you know you’ll have enough time to cook.

Meal Plan with Grocery list

Check the sales at your local grocery store

This is a great step to help save a little money. You can check the flyer each week to see what’s on sale at your grocery store and then plan accordingly.

If you see a sale on chicken, it might be a good week for BBQ Chicken Sandwiches and Chicken Quesadillas. If you notice a sale on fresh fruit, you can add fruit salad as a side dish to some of your dinners.

Check your pantry

Another thing to keep in mind when picking your recipes is what ingredients you already have on hand. Adding a few meals that use up the food you already have is a great way to help save on your grocery bill and cut back on food waste.

You can often make a quick vegetable soup or side dish with some of the veggies that get lost in the bottom of the fridge or freezer.

Pay attention to seasonal ingredients

When you’re planning your menu, keep in mind what fruits and vegetables are in season at that time of year. For example, fall is a great time of year to plan meals around vegetables like pumpkin, winter squash, or mushrooms.

You can check out this Seasonal Produce Guide to get some inspiration for your meal plan.

How to Meal Plan worksheet

Try themed dinner nights

One of the struggles of meal planning can be wracking your brain for dinner ideas each week. That’s why I like to use themed dinner nights. 

Each night has its own theme for dinner and you just repeat it each week. It’s a lot easier to pick recipes when you have a theme to give you a starting point.

Here’s an example of some themes I used in the past:

  • Monday – Mexican night
  • Tuesday – Crockpot meal
  • Wednesday – Breakfast for dinner
  • Thursday – Casserole night
  • Friday – Kid’s Choice night
  • Saturday – Leftovers
  • Sunday – Soup night

Where to find recipes

One of my favorite places to find recipes is of course Pinterest. The selection is endless and people are always adding new recipes each day.

I’ve also put together some collections of recipes you can look through:

Pro Tip: Don’t try too many new recipes at once. Especially if you have picky eaters at home. It’s easy to lose your enthusiasm for meal planning when you have dinner flops multiple nights in a row.

Weekly Meal Plan

Step 4: Make your list

The next step in how to meal plan is to write down all the ingredients you need. As I’m looking through recipes and I pick one I like, I immediately write it on my meal planning template, and then I write down all the ingredients listed.

I also like to save it to Pinterest if it’s not a recipe I’ve made before. That way I can easily find it again when it’s time to cook.

If you’re feeling fancy, you can even organize your grocery list by categories (produce, dairy, meat, frozen, etc.)

It makes it easier to make sure you find everything on your list as you go through the store.

Pro Tip: Before you head to the store, double check your pantry, fridge, and freezer for any ingredients that you might already have on hand. This step has saved me from overbuying ingredients at the store plenty of times.

Picture of a monthly meal planning worksheet

How Do I Make a Monthly Meal Plan?

Once you’ve mastered a weekly meal plan, you might be wondering how to meal plan for a month. The basics are the same, with just a few minor differences.

You will still want to have a goal in mind, figure out how many meals you need to make, pick your recipes, and make your list. Here are a few other things to keep in mind.

Use a meal planning template

When you’re planning for a month, you will definitely want to use a meal planning worksheet or template. Being able to visually look at a calendar with all the days listed out and start filling it in will make it a lot easier to plan.

Being able to see the whole month laid out also helps with checking your schedule to make sure you’re planning the right kind of meals for the right days. (Fast or crockpot meals for busy nights, leftovers, eating out, etc.)

Weekly Meal Planning Bundle

Don’t be afraid to repeat meals

When you’re meal planning for the whole month, it can be a little challenging to try to think of separate meals for every night. Especially if you’re cooking 6-7 days a week.

Don’t be afraid to repeat any family favorites 2-3 times a month. This is something most of us naturally do anyway and we don’t realize it. 

As long as you spread it out by a couple of weeks, I doubt your family will even notice.

Buy in bulk

One of the benefits of meal planning for the month is that you can buy in bulk. When you buy in bulk, you can save a lot of money. 

You can hit up your favorite wholesale store like Costco or Sam’s Club. Or you can also just take advantage of a good sale at your local grocery store. 

You can plan your menu around the local sales just like you would with weekly meal planning. Just check what’s on sale, pick your recipes, make your list, and then hit the store.

Once you get home, just portion everything out and throw anything in the freezer that you won’t be cooking in the next couple of days. 

Meal Planning Templates

Here are a few meal planning templates you can use to help keep you organized.

Weekly Dinner Meal Planner

Simple Weekly Meal Plan

You can grab this free Weekly Dinner Meal Planner worksheet HERE.

Monthly Meal Planner

Monthly Meal Planner

You can grab this free Monthly Meal Planner worksheet HERE.

Weekly Meal Planning Bundle

How to Meal Plan Bundle

The Weekly Meal Planning Bundle includes:

  • Weekly Dinner Planning Worksheet
  • Weekly Dinner & Breakfast Meal Planner with Grocery List
  • Full-Day Weekly Meal Plan Worksheet
  • Monthly Meal Planner
  • 1 Month of Themed Dinner Ideas

You can grab a copy of the Weekly Meal Planning Bundle HERE.

Meal Planning Tips for Beginners

Now that we’ve covered the basics of how to meal plan, here are a few extra tips I’ve learned over the years.

Set a specific time to plan

Life gets busy. As a mom, life gets BUSY! So do yourself a favor and set aside a specific time to plan each week.

I do my meal planning on Fridays. I put it in my calendar with a reminder. Then I sit down and get it all done at once. On Saturday I get my groceries and it’s all taken care of for the week.

Picture of a meal plan worksheet and food

Create a list of meals your family likes

The hardest part about how to meal plan is honestly coming up with recipe ideas each week. That’s why it’s super helpful to have a list of your family favorites.

Add to the list any time you make a recipe everyone (or almost everyone) liked. Then you can periodically refer to the list for dinner ideas.

Ask your family for dinner suggestions

I use this handy little tip to make sure I get no complaints about our dinner menu. 

My husband is not a big soup fan. (He calls it a “four-letter word.”)

When I know that I am planning soup as one of the dinners for the week, I give him an opportunity to pick something else for dinner that week that he really likes.

That way I get a lot fewer complaints when it’s time to eat the soup. It works for the kids as well.

Plan easy dinner nights

Just because you make a meal plan doesn’t mean you have to slave away over the stove every night. Make sure to plan some easy dinner nights too.

On those nights you might throw in a frozen pizza, have your husband cook, order in, or just have leftovers.

You have the option to plan as many easy dinner nights as you want. Remember, it’s your menu, your meal plan, and it needs to fit your life.

I usually plan at least 1-2 easy dinners a week. And if we have a really crazy schedule going on, I might plan a whole week of easy dinners.

It’s still way cheaper and healthier than eating out because we’re too busy to cook.

Pay attention to the cooking time of your recipes

An important tip for how to meal plan is to pay attention to the cooking times of your recipes. I can’t tell you how many times I had a great dinner idea planned out, just to realize that I didn’t have enough time to cook it.

I found it very helpful to write down how long the recipe takes to cook on my meal planning worksheet. That way I can start cooking early enough to get everything done.

A woman cooking a recipe

Factor in preparation time

Also, make sure you factor in prep time too. That includes chopping vegetables, marinating, thawing out frozen ingredients, etc. All of that plays a big part in how long your meal will take to cook.

Make use of your freezer

Whether you’re cooking freezer meals ahead of time or just using it to stock up, your freezer is a huge asset when it comes to meal planning.

You can use it to freeze extra ingredients when you buy in bulk so they stay fresh. You can pre-prep your ingredients for meals ahead of time (chopping, marinating, browning the meat) and then put them in the freezer.

That way all you have to do is thaw and then finish the last few cooking steps to have dinner ready fast.

This definitely comes in handy if you’re meal planning for a whole month.

Weekly Meal Planning Bundle - How to Meal Plan

Limit your trips to the grocery store

When you’re learning how to meal plan, one of the things I would suggest is to limit how many extra trips you make to the grocery store. If you can, try to keep it to just once a week.

The problem with making extra trips to the store is that it makes it harder to stick to the meal plan you made. Especially if you go to the store hungry.

Seeing all the different foods and meal ideas, you might get pretty tempted to change or stray from your meal plan. 

Plus, I can tell you from experience, I always spend extra money when I make unexpected trips to the store.

You’re much better off, no matter what your goal is with meal planning, by trying to cut back on how many grocery trips you make a week.

Have a few backup meals in the pantry or freezer

I would love to say that every meal I’ve cooked has been a culinary success, but that’s simply not the case. Sometimes I try a new recipe that doesn’t turn out, or sometimes the meal just got away from me. 

It always pays to have a few quick backup meals just in case. For my family, our backup meals are usually spaghetti, sandwiches, or frozen pizza.

I always have enough ingredients on hand for one of those meals just in case my planned one doesn’t work out. Whenever we end up using them, I add them to my list for next week so we’re always stocked up.

It’s always cheaper to eat at home, and knowing we always have something to eat goes a long way to keeping us out of the habit of hitting the drive-through when dinner is a flop.

Picture of a notebook with the word budget written on it

How to Meal Plan on a Budget

The last thing I want to share with you is a few tips on how to meal plan on a budget. Like I mentioned at the beginning, for years I meal planned to help keep our grocery bill down. 

Here are a few tips to follow:

  • Build your menu around the weekly sales at your local grocery store.
  • Buy in bulk when possible. Then “shop” from your freezer and pantry until you run out.
  • Skip pre-cut or pre-mixed products. They always cost more than if you prep it yourself.
  • Cut back on the meat. Meat is one of the most expensive ingredients in most recipes.
  • Use what’s on hand. Try to build your menu around food that you already have in your pantry or fridge.

Meal Planning Services

If you’re still a little lost on how to meal plan or you’ve tried it and just can’t get the hang of it, you can always try a meal planning service.

I used one when I was just getting started with meal planning and I’ve also used them when I felt like I didn’t have the time to sit down and think of recipes each week.

They definitely help make the process go a lot faster.

Here are two of the meal planning services I recommend:

The Dinner Daily

How to Meal Plan with The Dinner Daily Screenshot

The Dinner Daily is great if you want something that will do all of the hard work for you. They offer personalized meal plans based on your store’s weekly sales.

When you set up your account, they ask you a few questions about your diet, how many people you’re feeding, and what store you shop at. Then they do all the rest.

They provide a weekly menu with ingredients and instructions for each recipe. They even create a shopping list for you.

You have the option to switch out any meal you want with a new recipe and the shopping list will automatically be updated. 

At only $4 a month (if you get the annual membership), this meal planning service is more than worth trying out if you’re looking to make meal planning easier.

Click here to check out The Dinner Daily.

Emeals

How to Meal Plan with emeals

Emeals was the very first meal planning service I used years ago. Back then they just created meal plans based on the weekly sales at your local grocery store, but the diet options were fairly limited.

Now they offer several types of diets. Here are some meal plans you can try out:

  • Quick and Healthy
  • Low Carb
  • Keto
  • Clean Eating
  • Budget-Friendly
  • Kid-Friendly
  • Gluten-Free
  • Vegetarian
  • And more!

They also make it super easy to do your shopping. They put the list together and with a click of the button you can send it directly to Amazon, Walmart, Kroger, Instacart, or Shipt.

From there you just have to pick up your groceries or have them delivered and start cooking. It really doesn’t get much easier than that.

They offer an annual membership that breaks down to just $4.99 a month.

Click here to learn more about Emeals.

Conclusion on How to Meal Plan

So there you have 4 simple steps on how to meal plan. A few minutes once a week can make your whole week go more smoothly, help you stay on track with a healthy diet, and save money.

I hope these steps and tips are helpful for you and that they give you the confidence to start planning meals at home. You got this! For recipe ideas and more meal planning tips, follow me on Pinterest here.

If you have any questions or want to share what you are meal planning this week, add them below or shoot me an email at Candice@littlestepsbighappy.com.

Pin this for later! 👇👇

How to Meal Plan in 4 Simple Steps

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