Kitchen Tips

A Beginner’s Guide to Meal Planning

Meal planning can feel like a hassle with all the life interruptions that happen and throw you off your course. But it doesn’t have to be hard, and you can save a lot of money on your groceries and avoid wasted food by doing it! Here’s my extremely simple strategy for meal planning and prepping.

meal planning guide

I started meal planning about ten years ago when Scott and I moved in together {and let me sit in shock for a moment at that length of time – it’s been ten years already!}. I’m still not an expert, but I’ve got a pretty easy system for mapping out the week’s meals, grocery shopping, and feeding my family and the host of family and friends we fill our kitchen with.

If you’re looking to start meal planning or looking for some ideas on how to improve your process, here are my best tips!


The System

My system of meal planning covers everything you’ll need to do to feed your family {or yourself – you can meal plan for one!} over the course of a week, and I break it up into four steps:

  1. Take inventory of your fridge and pantry.
  2. Select your recipes for the week.
  3. Go shopping for the extra ingredients.
  4. Prepare your food!

It’s really that easy. I’ll give you some more detailed tips and tricks for each of those steps below and outline some of the tools I use, but this doesn’t have to be complicated. In fact, the less complicated it is, the more likely you are to stick to the plan.

When to Meal Plan

There’s no right answer to when to do this. It really depends on when you’re in the mood to think about food!

I usually end up doing my weekly meal plan on a Friday night, when everyone has gone home and we’ve put our son to bed and it’s just me and the kitchen and I’d rather meal plan than deal with the pile of dishes in the sink. That way, I can figure out what we need for the upcoming week before I do any shopping to get fresh ingredients for any weekend entertaining we might be doing.

I’ll typically do the bulk of our shopping on Saturday morning. Once or twice a month, I head to Costco to get bulk items and protein, which I’ll separate out and preserve with my FoodSaver – this has been a huge money saver. And the other times, I’ll head to the store with our little man and get the rest of our ingredients. Saturday morning is usually pretty quiet, so he can toddle around with me and not have to worry about being underfoot.

I do a fair amount of prep when I get back home from the store, not just Costco. Washing and drying vegetables and lettuce, chopping vegetables and garlic if needed for recipes, portioning out protein for different recipes, and basically making sure things are as ready to grab and throw in a pot as possible. It’s all about the mise en place, and until my little prep chef is old enough to help, I like having it done early.

Again, this is just what works for me. See how your weekly rhythms go and pick the times to plan and shop that work best for you.

Some Bonus Tips

Look at the calendar first. Take into account the office socials, the work dinners, the sports events, the date nights, the travel days, all the things that might interfere with your meal plan {and might leave you with wasted food}. Also take into account the days where you’ll be feeding more than the average number of human beings.

Plan for flexibility. Plan a few meals in there that can slip. I keep a couple batches of ravioli and lasagna frozen that I plan to rotate into the meal plan, so that if anything needs to slip, I can drop those out of the rotation until later in the week.

Don’t forget breakfast and lunch. I plan breakfast and lunch as a grab bag of meals. I’ll make scrambled eggs and toast a couple of days, smoothies a couple of days, and bake biscuits or scones one day. Sundays are for pancakes or waffles. And we’ve got cereal, oatmeal, and fruit on hand. Don’t forget those breakfast items on your grocery list, or what you need for lunch sandwiches and salads – although lunches can be a great way to use up leftovers.

Plan easy meals. If your meal plan is all recipes with 30 ingredients that will take hours to cook, you’re going to have a hard week! These are the recipes that most often result in frustration, late meals, or saying forget it and ordering takeout. I’ve made this mistake a few times. You can add in a new fun recipe, but for the most part, you should plan simple recipes you can get on the table in under 30 minutes, and go first for the ones you know.

Post your menu. I have a calendar whiteboard on the entrance to the kitchen that has the weekly meal plan on it. That way, everyone knows what’s on the menu and can give feedback on things they’d like added, and if I get hung up at work, Scott can help me get it started.

Plan for takeout or quick meals. Hey, we’re busy people. Life happens. Sometimes you know you’re going to have long days and someone needs to plan on just picking something up on the way home, or throwing something in the oven because you’re flying solo while chasing a toddler. We buy a number of healthy meals-in-a-bag as Scott calls them that you can throw in a pot and have done with, and we keep takeout menus posted next to the menu board so that we have busy night options other than ordering a pizza.

organized fridge

Taking Inventory

I always do this before making a meal plan, because one of my major goals for meal planning is cutting back on wasted food. With all the hungry people on this planet, it seriously pains my soul whenever I have to throw out something that has gone bad.

Here are some considerations when you’re picking out what you have in your fridge and pantry that you want to cook and picking out what you need new.

Check Expiration Dates. This weekly inventory is also how I keep my pantry under control. I am a total out-of-sight, out-of-mind chef, so if it’s hidden away in my cupboards, I forget about it. Doing the inventory and checking expiration dates reminds me that I have beans and chiles and diced tomatoes and wouldn’t Crock-pot Chicken Chili be awesome during this busy cold week?

Nutritional Balance. You may have a lot of variety in your fridge and freezer. Or you may be like me, having gotten a great deal on a salmon fillet at Costco that you just didn’t use, and have a freezer full of salmon fillet and a single package of frozen ravioli. Don’t try to feed your family six varieties of salmon in a week. Pick a couple meals and fill in the gaps.

Avoid Burnout. In keeping with the nutritional balance and need for variety, you also want to avoid menu fatigue. Even when it comes to our favorite dishes, there’s a time everyone hits when you go, “Oh, no, this again?” What do you need to fill the gaps.

Fresh to Frozen Ratio. This isn’t a necessary planning factor, but it’s something I keep in my head as I’m doing my inventory. I plan the number of meals I want to serve fresh vs ones I’ll cook up from frozen or canned foods. The fresh side of the ratio is much higher in the spring and summer, as fresh produce comes back into the market and doesn’t have to be shipped from as far away {and won’t go bad as quickly}. In the winter months, I lean heavily on the frozen and canned – which means I need to make sure my freezer and pantry stay stocked.

fresh arugula steak salad

Pick Your Recipes

This is it – the meal planning part. What do you actually want to eat and when do you want to eat it? Don’t just randomly choose a bunch of recipes and go for it, though. We need to be smart here to avoid a lot of wasted time – and wasted food!

Planning Factors

Here are some important things to consider.

  • How many meals are you planning for on each day?
  • How many people are you planning to feed each day?
  • What do you have in your pantry inventory that you want to use?
  • How many lunches/dinners do you need leftovers for?
  • What do you need for breakfast, snacks, drinks, and the rest?

This will tell you how many recipes you need to get through the week, and will help you choose the ones to meet your goals, along with making sure you’ve covered the rest of your food needs. So many meal plans just focus on dinners and forget that you need to eat a few more times in the day {most health planners will tell you to eat light and eat often for the best performance!}.

Choosing Smart Recipes

As you’re looking at the questions above, think about choosing smart recipes. By that, I mean picking ones with common ingredients to make sure you use up the fresh ingredients you buy or all of the can or freezer package instead of having something else to try to preserve. Choose the recipes that will give you leftovers you can use in lunches or other meals. Choose the ones you can have on the table quickly and only need a few ingredients, or ingredients with minimal prep.

And while you’re considering that, consider picking mostly from recipes you know. Don’t challenge yourself to make a new recipe every night {unless you know you’ve got the time}. I will normally choose 1 new recipe during the week, and the rest are tried and true, things I don’t even need a recipe to cook. I do most of my recipe experimentation on the weekends when I have time.

Oh, and make sure the things you’re choosing to cook during the week are things you and your family actually want to eat. I personally love baby bok choy, but I know if I buy it, unless we have guests who like it, I’m going to be the only one eating it.

Finding Smart Recipes

Looking for good recipes and how-to’s? The Internet is a wonderful, wonderful place. You can literally find tutorials and instructions for how to make anything here.

I’ll give you a little plug for my Recipe Index here, but if you’re looking for exceptionally good weeknight cooking, here are some of my favorite recipe sources:

meal planning guide

Go Shopping

Time to go get all the things for your recipes – and don’t forget stocking your pantry and freezer – that you don’t already have in your inventory. Here are a couple tips along the way.

Make Your Grocery List As You Go. I use my Amazon Alexa to call out things I need as we use them up. It’s a great way to keep a list that my husband and I can both access from our phones. My one complaint? I can’t organize it by section – I like to have all my produce grouped, all my dairy grouped, and so forth so I’m not running all around the store after a forgotten item.

Hit the Grocery Store AFTER You’ve Eaten. Don’t shop hungry. To me, that’s the catalyst for so much impulse shopping. Everything looks good. I like shopping Saturday morning after breakfast so that I’m not looking at everything in the store like Maui looks at Heihei {we watch a lot of Moana}.

Minimize the Impulse Purchases. Okay, so there’s a sale. So they just got fresh rhubarb and it looks beautiful. So…any number of things can happen. Before you buy something not on your list, make sure it’s something you’re actually going to eat, that you’ve got room in your recipe plan to slip something so you can use it, and make sure it’s something that doesn’t require a thousand other ingredients you might not be buying already to use effectively.

Consider Canned or Frozen. I don’t know many food bloggers who advocate for canned or frozen ingredients, but seriously, every chef worth their salt can prepare an awesome meal from a batch of cans if they need to. They’re nutritionally sound and they keep longer. If you’re going to throw it into a stew or a Crock-pot, does it really need to be fresh? Bonus – canned and frozen items are usually ready to throw in the pot.

meal planning guide

Prepare Your Food

Okay, great! You’ve got your inventory, your list of recipes, your menu plan, and now you’ve got all your food. What’s left except to make your meals, right? But…when should you do all that?

You don’t have to spend your entire weekend meal-prepping for the week {although if you make all those freezer meals and actually eat them, more power to you!}. But you can do a few things that will make your life easier over the course of the week.

Here are a few things I recommend doing:

  • Wash and dry your veggies and fruit!
  • Portion your protein – and freeze what you won’t use in the next day or two.
  • Chop or dice any veggies that need it.
  • Make any stock you’re going to make.
  • Grill or bake some chicken breasts for salads and sandwiches.

You can also do some of this the night before you’re going to need that ingredient to save yourself some hassle. Whenever I’m going to make mashed potatoes or roasted potatoes, if I peel them and dice them the night before, my life is so much easier.

I also highly recommend the FoodSaver vacuum sealer for all of this. I use the heck out of mine, and it’s really been handy for meal planning and meal prepping. The link here takes you to the site, but if you’d like to support me through my affiliate program {no extra cost to you, but I make a little money if you buy through my link}, please see the Shop This Post links below!

What are your best tips and tricks for meal planning?

About the ChefKristin

Career Army officer with a tendency toward workaholism. On the side, self taught cook, carpenter, and gardener, working to build a beautiful life for my family. Trying to tilt my balance in the right direction.

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