Ultimate Guide to Meal Planning for Beginners

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When my life feels like it is crashing and burning around me it’s usually partly because I’m not meal planning. Beginners at meal planning probably think that is a ridiculous statement but the truth is that feeling like you have one thing on lock and under control, will make you feel a lot less helpless in stressful times.

Tell me if you have ever done this, you look at the clock and it’s just an hour before time to serve dinner. Except you don’t know what dinner is going to be   You forgot to thaw anything, so you open the freezer and look for anything that can be cooked right nowadays Nothing there. Okay there has to be something in the pantry you can put together. Pasta, but no sauce. Dried beans that needed to be started hours ago. Tuna! But no bread or lettuce   How upset is the family going to be if we just have cereal? But, ugh, you don’t want cereal for dinner. You’re starving. So everyone gets in the car and goes for take out, or you call and have take out brought in.

But if you have never meal planned before or have and wasn’t successful at it, it can come off as completely impossible. My mom was a person who didn’t meal plan. Honestly, that just feels like witchcraft to me. Lol. She would go to the store, buy a bunch of stuff and then magically produce meals for the week.

My brain doesn’t work that way. I am a list person. So I need a plan, sometimes I need a plan for my plan. But you may think this isn’t for you if you are constantly having dinner time freak outs and eating out way more than you would like, meal planning even as a beginner will help you so much.

You may not understand how to meal plan right now but that’s okay. I’m going to walk you through your first meal plan with all kinds of things to help you be successful.

I promise you, you will end your dinner time struggle if you just start planning your meals and it may help your budget as well. 

Why is meal planning important?

Meal Planning is important to keep you from going through the drive-through constantly. Planning your meals can keep you from having that 4 o’clock panic attack when someone asks “What’s for dinner?”

And meal planning can help you save time by taking away the need to worry about what is for dinner every single night.


How does Meal Planning Save Beginners Money?

If you don’t plan your meals currently you are most likely spending too much money eating out and buying things at the store you don’t need. 

Meal planning can help you make a grocery list of exactly what you need. As long as you stick to that grocery list you won’t be buying extra things and you won’t have to make a quick trip to the store to get a missing ingredient.

I read that on average people spend $12 on impulse buys every time they walk into the store so a grocery list can save you from spending that money.   

How does meal planning make my life easier?


Meal planning makes life easier because you aren’t scrambling every day at dinner time   

I always say ”I fed you yesterday! What do you mean I have to feed you again today?” lol   My kids don’t find that nearly as funny as I do. But it’s true, every single day we have to feed these little people and ideally we are feeding them healthy options. 

Meal Planning gives me a game plan for the week of what I will cook. Typically I don’t schedule what food I will cook for each day. I just have a list of meals I have the ingredients to prepare. 



How to make meal planning easier for beginners

Pro Tip 1 

Brainstorm meal ideas.  Sit down with a coffee or a glass of wine and start brainstorming all the meals  you made in the past.

If cooking is a new habit for you, include meals that you really like when you eat out. Chances are you can find a copycat recipe on Pinterest.  

I suggest having a list of 28-35 dinner ideas to choose from in the beginning if your family is more picky about eating repeat meals. If your family isn’t picky about that try to have 14 meal ideas that you can repeat. You can always add to this list of meals as you try new things  

Pro Tip 2

Have your calendar handy. Don’t make your meal plan on a vacuum. Your life is busy. If you have a big family like mine your life is really busy. 

What we are going to do is take your calendar and see what nights are busy. Those nights we are either going to plan a freezer meal, a crock pot dinner, a packed picnic style dinner or we are going to plan to eat out. Yes eating out can be part of your meal plan.

Messy Mama Hack: 

A trick I use for our family is to take our own sides when we grab takeout. So if we are going to get subway, I grab the chips and bottles of water or juices pouches when I’m grocery shopping and have those ready for that busy night. That actually saves a lot of money by just getting the sandwiches and not the meals.

We do the same with pizza. I pack a little cooler bag with a couple of bags of salad, fruit plates, forks and bottled water or juice pouches. The kids eat less pizza because they have sides to fill up on and the healthier options balance out the pizza a bit. 

Pro Tip 3

Set yourself up for success by planning one or two meals that you don’t have to set anything out to thaw and one or two meals that can be cooked straight from the freezer while you are making this habit.

Pro Tip 4 

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. 

Consider how you can treat yourself for meal planning. I try to be consistent in the way I treat myself. So I know what I’m getting for meal planning and I get excited to do it to get my treat. The money you save with your meal plan will more than make up for your little indulgence here. 

How to make meal planning fun for beginners. 

so I am a big believer of make it fun it will get done   If you have executive functioning issues and impulse control issues like I do, this is the only thing that I have found that works. 

this is how I can get up every morning at 4 am, this is how I have tricked myself into exercising, and how I trick myself into meal planning.

The trick is you are going to equate meal planning with something else you really enjoy. I’m a podcast addict, so there is one podcast that I really, really love that I only allow myself to listen to if I am cleaning or meal planning. So if I want to listen to that podcast I have to get up and either clean or do meal prep.

What motivates you? What gets you excited? Could it be going and getting a coffee and a slice of cheese cake and sitting and making your meal plan with some alone time?

Or do you have a game or app you love doing? That you could treat yourself with an entire hour of if you do your meal plan.

Find what motivates you, a guilty pleasure, and use that to incentivize making your meal plan.   

Steps to meal planning for beginners.

I’m going to teach you step by step how I do meal planning so that I save money and I have plenty of meals planned so your family doesn’t go hungry and you don’t have to face the “What’s for dinner question?” And not know how to answer. 


Check your ads.

If you need to save money meal planning (and who doesn’t!) you definitely need to check out you local grocery ads first. 

There are two ways to do this; either by collecting all your paper ads and flipping through them circling what sales seem interesting or use the Flipp app to do the same thing. 

I love the Flipp app. I added all the grocery stores within. A few towns of me, and I simply can circle all the sales items my family will eat.  That doesn’t mean I am buying all these things. Once I have gone through all the ads, Flipp curates a list of all those things I have checked off and I can click and go back to them.  This method works best for my brain. 


Check your pantry

How many yikes have you gone to the store bought something and got home and had 8 identical items at home because you couldn’t remember if you needed it or not.  I have . I’m bad at buying ketchup or mustard over and over and over. At one time I was giving it away because we could never eat it before it went bad.  

Checking your pantry will also save you money by using.what you have to create meals, instead of buying things at the store. 

Make a list of items in your pantry you could use for meals.  That’s going with our list of things on sale at the stores. 


Check your schedule!

Okay, so we want over this above but do not start your menu plan until you actually know what your life is going to look like over the time you are planning.

If you don’t consult your calendar, you won’t choose meals that you can actually make in the time you have available.  

Plan on making freezer meals, crockpot meals, picnic meals, or eating out and bringing your sides. 


Make a rotating list of breakfast, lunches, sides and snacks

Make your life easier by having a list of breakfast, lunches and snacks you can rotate through.  In our family, we have 4 breakfast I rotate through all month. Pancakes, scrambled eggs and sausage, cereal, and yogurt and fruit. That’s it. In the morning those are the things I’m capable of.

For lunch I have about 10 meals that we have 3 times each month. I have about 7 snacks so the kids know Mondays mean apples and peanut butter on graham crackers, Tuesday is celery and bell peppers and popcorn in the afternoon.

I also have a list of side dishes everyone likes in our family. Side dishes were something I always struggled with. I would have the main dish and then no idea what to put with it. 

This simple step has simplified my life so much. I know what things to keep an eye out for a sale. I don’t have to spend extra time thinking about multiple parts of the meal. Choose a main dish, choose two sides from the list and done. 

Now when I’m looking at ads and I see a really good deal on an item on either my breakfast, lunch, snacks or sides, I know to grab 4-6 more meals worth. So I am now getting the best deal on these and I have my pantry and freezer stocked. 

Make a list of dinners 


So now you have seen the power of having a list to choose meals from. We are going to apply that idea to dinners.

That doesn’t mean you only have to make things on this list. But honestly meal plans often fail when you plan on creating a bunch of new recipes, because cooking a new recipe can be daunting. So you put it off and buy take out instead. Ingredients go bad. And you send yourself on an all expenses paid guilt trip. 

I know because I do that too.

While meal planning is a new skill you are building, we are going to limit making new recipes to once a week at the most and only if you have a day that you will be home for most of the day. Otherwise let’s stick to meals we know, meals we love and meals that we have successfully made. 

So take 30 minutes and brainstorm all the meals that you have made in the last 6 months that you love and have made successfully. If it helps use themes and types of meals to flesh out this list.

  • Easy Meals– meals that are so simple that you could teach a 10 year old (fast and premade, prepared meals fall in this category)
  • Ethnic Foods-  Mexican, Chinese, Indian, American (not really an ethnic food but a category to help you brainstorm)
  • Meat Centric– So all your beef meals, chicken meals, seafood meals, pork meals, meatless meals, Prepared meals. (You should relist anything from your other lists here because this list will help you when looking at ads and your pantry to make meals) This will become your master list.  


Plan your dinners

Now that you know your schedule, you have checked your pantry, and you have check your ads it’s time to plan your meals.  

You need to figure out how many meals you want to plan.  If you are just starting I suggest planning a week at a time.  But for financial reasons you may need to plan until you get paid again.  

I have 1 week, 2 week and 28 day meal planners available here as a printable. Alternatively you can just list the days you need to plan meals for. This is a tentative schedule, you do not have to cook your meals in this order. 

Now let’s s highlight or underline any days you are going to be super busy. That’s going to help us plan easy meals for those nights. 

Do Not try to make new recipes right now.  It’s going to stress you out. Meal planning is a new skill and focusing on more than one new skill is going to be torture on you. Once you get more confident in your ability to plan and stick to your meal plan, then you can start trying one new recipe a week. 

To make your actual meal plan you need to have your calendar, pantry list, meal idea list and your store ads or the Flipp app. 

Step 1: Decide how many days you want to plan for. 1 week is the easiest but if your finances dictate to do more or less that’s okay. It may just be a bit harder to maintain.

Step 2: Check your calendar for busy days. Not all busy days are the same   Some busy days you won’t make it home until almost bedtime. Other times, you will get home but have to leave again and will be gone for several hours of the evening. 

For nights you will be gone all evening to nearly bedtime plan either to eat out and bring your sides and drinks or pack a picnic dinner. The nights that you will be home for a short period is a great night for a crock pot meal or 30 minute meal. 

Step 3: Use your pantry items first. Do you have meals on your meal list idea that can be used from just your pantry items? Let’s plan those meals first. Now you do not have to cook these meals in the order you wrote down. You can cook your meals in any order as long as you are cooking your busy night meals only on busy nights. 

Step 4: Check your ads. Now I love the Flipp App and even my husband is adept at using it now. He will send me a message saying there is something he wants or dinner on sale because he knows that I’m cheap and I don’t like paying full price for anything. 

To use the Flipp App, you need to put in your zip code. This will bring you the majority of your stores weekly ads. 
Your best deals will be on the front page. These are call loss leaders. The store is taking a loss on the product to lure you into their store where you will spend money on other items. I choose all the meat items that we like regularly that are loss leaders. This becomes the skeleton of my weekly meal plan.  

Next I choose any sides that are on sale that we normally use. This is veggies, dry goods, prepared mixes, fruits. 

Step 5: Match your sales to meals in your idea list.   Don’t be surprised if this drums up more meal ideas that you had forgotten when you were making your meal idea list. Just add them to that meal idea list. Before long you will have a diversified meal list that you can go a month or a couple months without making a repeat meal (unless it’s a family favorite). 

Step 6: Write down your menu plan. You should have a meal for each night your planning. For breakfasts and lunch just choose 2-4 items to repeat over the planning period. You do not need to overcomplicate things by planning 21 different meals over a period of a week. 


Make a shopping list

Now that you have your menu plan down on paper, write down any ingredient you do not have on hand that you will need to complete each meal. This includes side dishes, main course, and seasonings. Any piece of your meal missing is going to lead you to the drive through and spending money you didn’t plan and making you feel like you are a meal planning failure. (There is no failing, it’s just winning or learning. No losing.) 

I use my Flipp app again to check and see if I can get any of the items on the list.

I write down which items on going to buy at which stores. I love grocery pick up so I use that at any store that I can.  So I’m shopping in as few stores as possible.  Plus I can make my online pick up order so that my husband or I can swing by and pick it up. 

Now if you aren’t on a tight budget and time is more limited, make your entire list a grocery pickup from which ever store you prefer.    I do this some weeks because it makes my life much easier. I just try to hit the sales that are offered at that store. 

Types of Meals that Makes Meal Planning Simple even for Beginners

We discussed earlier how their are different types of meals that can help your meal planning be successful. 


30-minute meals

These meals.should take you more than 30 minutes from fridge to table.   These are my go-to meals for my weeknights. Even if we are home, I like to have something that is good but doesn’t have me putting out a lot of effort. 


Freezer meals

Freezer meals can be either meals you make and freeze  ahead of time or they can be prepared frozen meals you grab from the store . No judgment. You do whatever feeds your family and keeps your sanity. 


Crock-Pot meals

Crock-Pot meals are great as well for saving time. Typically you can put all the ingredients together ahead of time and just dump them into your crock pot before you head out the door. We love our crock pot so much that have two big ones to feed our family. 

 Picnic Meals

Picnic or lunchbox meals are a great way to feed your family when you are not going to be home. These meals are typically something you can make ahead and just pop in a cooler and take with you to whatever event you are going to be. They are perfect for nights spent at the ball field. And it is healthier and cheaper than spending money at the concession stand.

Now make your meal plan 


Hopefully have I have given the tools and confidence to make a meal plan that will save your family time and money and stop the 5 pm freak out. Let me know if these steps and hints helped you with your meal planning. I love hearing from you guys and including your great ideas to help others. Because in the end, we are all in this big messy mama life together. 

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