Are you tired of struggling with making and sticking to a meal plan?
Maybe you don’t even know where to start…
I have been getting a lot of meal planning questions lately so I thought I would share my meal planning tips that are helpful for beginners.
Don’t worry, I got you covered on meal planning. I should because I have been the one meal planning since I was 15 that’s almost 20 years (eeek!).
I’m going to give you all my meal planning tips and strategies along with my free meal planning printables.
Are you ready? Wave goodbye to your meal planning struggle because here we go.
Helpful Meal Planning Tips
Meal planning doesn’t have to be a big ordeal, I am going to give you my best tips to get you to where you can make a meal plan for the week in 15 minutes.
Yep 15 minutes a week to make a meal plan. That’s all I spend and that’s all you have to spend once you get this initial set up down.
Tip #1: Dinner Greatest Hit List
Making a dinner greatest hit list isn’t as difficult as it sounds.
All you have to do is to list all the meals you know how to cook and your family likes.
So it’s brainstorming time, grab a cup of coffee or a glass of wine and let’s get all those ideas written down. Ask family members to help you think of things.
Just recently while I made our meal plan for the week and my husband said, “You know what we haven’t had in forever? Armadillo Eggs. Can we make that this week?”
That wasn’t even on my meal hit list. It’s an easy, cheap meal that takes very little time and my family loves them for breakfast, lunch or dinner.
(I may type up a recipe for it later but for to satisfy curiosity it’s basically breakfast sausage, cheese and salsa wrapped in a rolled out biscuit. They are amazeballs)
Ideally have 28 meal ideas but if you can just come up with 14 and you don’t have a picky family just make them on a two week rotation.
🔥🔥🔥Hot Tip: If you can’t think of 28 meals try using theme nights to brain storm.
Can you think of 3 meals that are pasta based, rice-based, ground beef based, vegetarian, casseroles, chicken based, Mexican meals, Italian meals, Chinese or Asian Inspired meals?
You can? Easy Peasy? Well guess what? That is 30 meals. Woot Woot!! 🙌🏻🙌🏻🙌🏻
Tip #2 Consult your Schedule
Now that you have your list of meals, you need to also grab your calendar.
You are probably like me with multiple kids in multiple activities, with a job, and a spouse. In our house both parents are also running small businesses, which makes life even more hectic.
So calendar time!
Take your meal planning sheet and put a star in the corner of any day that is super busy.
No you cannot star all the days. Well I guess you could, but the purpose is to identify any days that you would normally grab some fast food or eat another concession stand meal.
In our family this was the night that my husband worked late, my son went to basketball practice and my girls went to theater practice. Those days I would usually loop through and grab something fast, greasy and cheap.
That added up to $1800 💸 a season in fast food purchases. 😬😬YIKES! 😬😬
And you can’t choose your schedule most of the time. Practices get scheduled on whatever day, work runs late, and dinner is just whatever it is.
But it doesn’t have to be. On those days you can either make a slow cooker meal and take it with you to eat as a picnic, or you can pack something to have sandwiches, chips and cut up veggies as a picnic.
Cut up the veggies days before your busy day.
You just saved yourself a bunch of money 💰. Also your digestive system will thank you.
Tip #3 Plan for Takeout Nights
Mama Hack for when eating out just can’t be avoided:
If you are going to order something to go, don’t order the sides.
Plan in advance that you are going to get pizza or chicken nuggets or sub sandwhiches and bring your sides from home.
Things you can pack for sides:
- Bags of Salad
- Cut up fruit
- Cut up Veggies
- Bag of Chips (I get the cheap ones from Aldi)
- Bottled Water
- Juice Pouches
- Carrot Sticks
- Crackers (Goldfish, Saltines, Ritz)
Ultimately when we order pizza, the kids eat less pizza because they fill up on sides. Win-Win.
Tip #4 Start with What You Have
To start your meal plan you need to take inventory of what you already have because if you don’t you may wind up with 18 bottles of ketchup.
Yeah at one time I had a shelf of ketchup bottles and a shelf of mustard bottles. I gave literally anyone who came to my house a bottle of ketchup or mustard.
For 6 months I would get to the store and think “Do we have ketchup? Ah, it’s just a couple of dollars.” And that’s how I got 32 bottles of ketchup. 🤦🏻♀️
Make a list of everything in your fridge. Make a list of everything in your pantry and see what meals you might have on hand or can be used to make your meal plans.
So if you have milk, cheese, pasta, 3 loaves of bread, broccoli that has seen better days. You could use those to make grilled cheese sandwiches one night and just add some fruit or steamed veggies. Another night you could make some broccoli cheese soup and just need to grab some cream cheese and half and half.
Two meals and you have spent maybe $8.
Take your inventory list and make
Tip #5 Fool-Proof Your Plan
Shit is going to happen. It just does. So let’s fool proof that plan.
We are going to fool-proof it in two ways: shelf stable meals and freezer meals.
No more forgetting to thaw dinner and having to get fast food. That is a big money drain.
No more being too tired to cook and skipping it for bowls of cereal.
Shelf Stable Meals
For shelf-stable meals, I include things that last a long time even if they are refrigerated.
It doesn’t need to be actually sitting on your shelf, but it could be. You can include cold ingredients that last a long time in the fridge.
Here are some of my favorites to add into my meal planning or just have on hand.
- Grilled Cheese (bread, butter, cheese)
- Spaghetti (box of pasta, jar of sauce)
- Fettuccine Alfredo (box of pasta, jar of sauce)
- Mac and Cheese (boxed mac and cheese)
- Chalupas (corn tortillas, cans of refried beans, iceberg lettuce, cheese)
Iceberg lettuce can last 1-3 weeks and can be turned into a salad if you don’t use it for a meal.
Likewise, a block of cheese can last 2 to 4 months unopened. Not that a block of cheese has ever stayed in my house that long.
Freezer meals are meals that go from the freezer to either the crockpot, the oven, or the skillet without thawing.
These can be premade from the store or you can make freezer meals.
A good way of making freezer meals is to double whatever recipe you are cooking and freeze the second one. Then over time, you build up a good amount of freezer meals.
This can also be freezer dump meals. Those are the ones that you basically cut up all the ingredients for a crock pot meal and then dump it in your crock pot, turn it on and walk away.
Make sure you have two of these for your first meal plan even if they are store-bought. In fact, I suggest you get store-bought ones to start. There is no need to make more work for yourself.
Tip #6 Treat Yo’ Self!
Give yourself a treat for meal planning.
For me to do something I don’t want to do, I have to reward my inner brat.
Bratty me says “I don’t want to meal plan.”
So I tell her, “Why don’t we go and have Starbucks and meal plan by ourselves? No kids.”
Bratty me has the keys and is already in the car.
Sometimes I make my meal plan while sipping a Cherry Coke Zero from Sonic and sitting in my car scream-singing to Lizzo.
You just have to find what little treat works for you.
The money you save by meal planning will more than make up for your little treat.
Tip #7 Make a Breakfast Rotation
Do not overcomplicate your life by trying to plan a different breakfast every single day.
We are going to make a 3-4 day breakfast rotation.
Pick 3-4 Breakfast meals and just rotate through them.
Our breakfast rotation right now is scrambled eggs, yogurt and fruit, pancakes/waffles, and cereal. That’s it!
It all works on rotation, so no thinking about it.
When we have had everything on the list, we go back to the top of the list.
I continue doing this until the kids get bored and stop eating it as well. Then I switch it to some new meals.
Tip # 8 Repeatable Lunch
You guessed it! That breakfast rotation trick we are going to use it for lunch too!
Some weeks I make a huge pot of soup and freeze it up into individual servings that we can take with us to work and warm up.
Now that we are all at home during lunch I buy double ingredients and only make it once. Every lunch works for two days.
Also, I make my kids cook lunch for the family so I don’t actually have to do it. They get practice and I get a break.
Decide how you want your lunches to repeat. Either make a big batch of soup or pasta and have the same thing all week or buy double ingredients and make the make lunch twice (or make one and freeze one for later).
Packed Lunches Hack:
Make up grab and go lunches on Sunday.
I make all the protein and put it in individual containers.
Choices like cubed grilled chicken, boiled eggs, rolled up lunch meat and cheese, leftover proteins like hamburger patties, diced ham, diced turkey all work weelfor lunches.
Then the kids grab a fruit and some cut up veggies (celery sticks, carrot sticks, and bell peppers make good choices that hold up well).
They also can grab a treat. To save time, I usualy buty indidivudal wrppaed treats.
The key to this is Sunday Prep and showing the kids how to grab and pack their own lunches.
Tip #9 Plan a Frozen, Easy Dinner for Grocery Night
How many times have we spent 2-3 hours buying groceries, bringing them in, putting them away to be too tired to make anything with those groceries, and order a pizza for dinner?
Yep me too.
My tip for this is to purposely grab some frozen pizzas or chicken nuggets or fish sticks for the night you buy groceries. It doesn’t take that much more energy than ordering a pizza and for our family, it usually saves us around $40.
Tip #10 Don’t Choose Only New Recipes
If you want to guarantee a meal plan failure, make it all new recipes you found on Pinterest.
Making a new recipe can be fun or so intimidating that you just order pizza.
My rule is only choose one new recipe to try a week at most. (And have a shelf stable back up meal in case you become too intimidated to actually cook it.)
Every other meal needs to be a meal that you know how to make, the majority of your household likes and isn’t too complicated. You probably already know the meals that you put off making.
Right now I am putting off making roast whole chickens, mainly because I can’t remember to thaw them. It happens.
Bonus Tip- Save your Meal Plans
Once you make 4-6 weeks of meal plans you can just put those on rotation. Seriously never meal plan again.
Or if your family is like mine and would revolt and overthrow your Queendom when they figured out their meals are a rotating schedule, use them to pick and choose and make your meal plan.
All I have to do is too look at my old meal plans, check out your local ads and pull meals that fit with the sales.
That’s how meal planning never takes me more than 15 minutes.
Grocery stores usually put their sales on rotations as well so you may accidentally document your stores sales cycles. Also making your life easier.
Now that you have all the tips to make your meal planning easier it’s time to make your first meal plan. If you need step by step instructions you can find those here.
But if you have followed this tip list you should have made a list of dinners, checked your schedule, and have your local ads and are ready to make your meal plan. You can grab this weekly meal plan printable I made for you here. It has 12 different pretty versions for each month of the year along with a coorinidating grocery list.