Your Meal Planning Playbook

by Kimberly Daly Farrell
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Your Meal Planning Playbook

“What’s for dinner?” If you dread hearing (or even just thinking) this question, you’ve come to the right place!

Planning ahead takes the guess work out of making dinner. Plus, planning weekly meals and eating at home gives you more control over your portions, helps you avoid unnecessary calories (you won’t be tempted to order an appetizer and a dessert!), and can save you money in the long run. Believe it or not, the ingredients for an entire chicken dinner that serves four will only set you back about $6.50—and you might even end up with leftovers (take that, dollar menu!).

Once you get the hang of it it, meal planning is quite simple—all you need to do is pick your favorite recipes, shop, cook, eat, and enjoy! Here are 5 easy steps to help you get started.

Step 1: Decide to be a meal planner Just like any goal, it’s important to be clear about your intention and to set yourself up for success. Sit down with a calendar and decide which nights you’ll be able to cook, and the resolve to do it. Once you’ve made a commitment to cooking at home, put it in your calendar as a date you can’t break and set reminders if necessary.

Step 2: Pick your recipes Figure out what you like to eat, consider the tastes and preference of others in your household, and then gather your favorite recipes—and maybe a few new ones you’d like to try. Quickly searching through our Recipe of the Day posts will give you tons of meal ideas that your whole family will love. 5 recipes we find particularly satisfying:

Step 3: Make a grocery list Combine the ingredients lists from all of your chosen recipes, then take inventory of what you’ve already got in the fridge and pantry (no sense in buying more than you need!). Another good idea: Look at the foods you already have before choosing your recipes. Most dry goods can keep for months, so you may not always have to remember to grab certain spices, grains, or cereals at the store. For the 5 recipes above, the list would be:

Produce

  • Chives
  • Garlic
  • Parsley
  • Fresh Thyme
  • 1 ¼ pounds Spinach
  • 1 Shallot
  • 2 ears Yellow Corn
  • 1 Red Onion
  • 1 large White Onion
  • 2 Yellow Tomatoes
  • 2 Red Tomatoes
  • Cherry Tomatoes
  • 1 Avocado
  • 1 Lemon

Dairy

  • Butter
  • Low-Fat Buttermilk
  • Ricotta Cheese
  • Greek Yogurt
  • Shredded Cheese
  • White Cheddar Cheese
  • Parmesan Cheese

Meat & Eggs

  • Eggs
  • 8 Boneless, Skinless Chicken Breasts
  • 2 ½ pounds Ground Sirloin

Bread & Grains

  • 3 Whole Wheat Tortillas
  • 6 Whole Wheat Burger Buns
  • Breadcrumbs
  • Brown Rice
  • Bulgur

Condiments & Oils

  • Salsa
  • Mayonnaise
  • Mustard (stone ground)
  • Dijon Mustard
  • Ketchup
  • Horseradish
  • Cider Vinegar
  • Honey
  • Olive Oil
  • Vegetable Oil
  • Cooking spray

Spices

  • Chili Powder
  • Chili Flakes
  • Cumin
  • Salt
  • Kosher Salt
  • Black Pepper
  • Onion Powder
  • Chipotle Chile Powder
  • Cayenne Pepper
  • Dried Basil
  • Smoked Paprika
  • Dried Oregano

Step 4: Head to the market Follow your list to the letter and you’ll fill your cart with everything you need for a 5 nights worth of meals—without tossing incidental snacks (read: empty calories) into your basket. Also, keep your eyes peeled for items that take the work out of meal prep. Things like pre-chopped produce, frozen veggies, and pre-roasted chicken breasts can cut your cooking time in half. And consider your budget: if red tomatoes cost less than the yellow ones, you might want to tweak your recipe and stick with the less expensive color—it will still taste great!

Step 5: Cook what you buy This might seem like a no brainer, but sometimes actually using the groceries in your kitchen can be a struggle (all those drive-thrus you pass on the way home are awfully tempting!). Again, set reminders on your cell phone to keep you focused. And if you need help eating what you make, invite friends over! Turning a weeknight meal into an easy dinner party (no cloth napkins, please) can make cooking and meal planning more fun!

Do you make weekly meal plans? Share your tips in the comments below!

Related

  • Kimberly

    Thanks! Like this and know that meal planning is what I need to do with my family this fall to stay on track. Was there a ‘template’ or calendar attached?

    • Brandy

      If you want to use a calendar, you can search for blank calendars online and print them out or one of my friends gets the desk calendars and uses one of those. She hangs it on the side of her fridge for her family to see what they’re having. 🙂

  • Brandy

    I am kind of a meal planner. I pick 5 recipes/meals for each week, but I don’t assign them to specific days. I pick off my list by what I feel I am in the mood for or what someone else has requested for that night. I always pick one or two quick meals in case something comes up that day and I get home later than usual. It seems to work for my family.

  • Mellow N Calm

    hii Brandy and kimberly, I really NEED to do this. If I did this I KNOW i would be so much more successful in my goal weight and in life after. I need help…. please lets share some tips to keep this going.

    maybe we can share some daily ( I mean morning, lunch and even) tips for each other.

  • Deb

    Is there a meal planning application that My Fitness Pal is partners with that I can utilize? If not are there applications out there you recommend? Id love to be able to choose meals for the week and then the grocery list is ready for you as well as all nutritional values and calories are in sync with my MFP ‘s daily calculations. I ve tried a couple with no luck 🙁 It seems a simple enough application idea…

    • Jessica

      Pepperplate!

      • Linda

        Jessica, I just checked this out and LOVE what I’ve seen so far. Thanks for sharing! I don’t see that it ‘syncs’ with MFP, are you finding a lot of the recipes are already in the database? How are you using it to balance macro nurtrients when you’re planning?

      • jana

        Pepperplate says MFP is not a supported site. How do you use it?

  • SarahJ89

    I’m a binge cooker. I’m likely to cook a lot on weekends and toss stuff in the freezer to stock up for the week ahead. It’s a luxury to be able to just toss something into the oven when I get home. I’m also an experienced home canner so I’ve been using my canning skills to make my own convenience foods–soups, stews, chili, etc.–from my Ball Blue Book and the Iowa State University Extension Service website (one of the best in the country).

    Canning isn’t rocket science, but it does require adherence to a standardized, tested recipe. Your creativity is best used elsewhere, do not monkey around with canning recipes and stick to Ball, Kerr and university extension recipes and you’ll be fine. Opening a jar of tomato soup in January, knowing what’s in it–no fillers–is a little luxury in our house. Also, our town has implemented pay-as-you-throw trash so we save on trash disposal with the reusable jars. I buy BHT-free lids so I don’t have to worry about chemicals in my food, either.

  • Micky

    I have been doing weekly meal planning for about 8 years now. It began out of necessity when my children were in high school and were super busy with sports, activities, and homework. We all gave a meal suggestion and it was added to the white board in the kitchen(calendar). You could quickly glance at the board and know what was for dinner on any given day with the trickiest of days being left overs. It’s worked like a charm for us.

  • Richard Moore

    Its funny how the original link states Feed 4 for $10, you mention $6.50 – thats a big difference considering you do not mention where you live? In Canada your paying closer to 3.00/lb. Your making things sound so easy and cheap – just saying.

  • Caitlin

    You can find apps to help with this. There is a food planner app which gives you a shopping list and you can write up all meals for the week. You can also connect with other people. My partner always wants to know whats for dinner and how many kjs there are in it. This helps so much! 🙂

  • patricia

    I would love to see more meal plans. I try to plan all my meals and do my prepping on the weekend. So I can have it all ready for each day. As I leave the house early in the morning to the Gym and then onto work. this makes it easy when I get home after work, all I have to do is either throw it in the oven or have it set for my boyfriend to do so as well. Less stress and more time to relax!! Please help in providing more of these!! 🙂

  • Kirsten

    I plan all meals and do a fortnight at a time as it doesn’t take much longer to plan than a week so feels like a better use of time. To make sure I stick to my list I do online grocery shopping (and the time I save makes up for the planning time). All meals are on a Google calendar linked to other family members as well so they can see what we are having if they want to or turn that calendar off if they don’t.

  • Lisab

    I plan after checking sale papers, cutting coupons and deciding what needs to go from the fridge or pantry. Planning is necessary to keep track of calories, money, and time!

  • Mary

    I’m a planner for just the two of us. When hubby and I discuss this Sun afternoons, I write the entree on a dry-erase board that is magnetic and sticks to the front of the fridge. The night before, I set out the non-refrigerated items I’ll use for tomorrow’s dinner.

  • Alex Ballesteros

    Great and helpful article, I would like to ask what meal planning apps and website are out there that can help.

  • Deanna

    There are just 2 of us and we have been using a planner for years. I have a whiteboard on the fridge that was designed for this. I wait until I get my Bountiful Baskets order and then plan my meals based on what I get. I used to hate to cook and then realized that it wasn’t the cooking I hated. It was trying to decide what to cook. Now it’s all planned out for 2 weeks and I just have to remember to pick up the incidentals. Will never give this up.

  • Deanna

    One other thing…because there are just two of us, if the recipe makes more, I just mark another day, a few days later, for leftovers. And fortunately, we both like leftovers.

  • Renee

    I actually do a fortnightly menu planner. My first week is made up of meals using fresh vegetable and salad ingredients and then the second week I choose recipes that I take ingredients out of the freezer or pantry like tuna mornay, spaghetti bolognaise or apricot chicken. I then only need to buy fruit for lunchboxes on that middle weekend. My shopping bill went from about 250 a week to around 300-350 a fortnight. That mid-week shop was usually costing me about $60 – you know the old “I’ll just duck into the shop for a loaf of bread and a couple of things” trick. I’ve been doing it for about a year now and it’s a great money saving and meal planning tool. And the best thing is that if someone invites us over for dinner mid-week, it just means I’ve got one meal already ticked off for the next fortnight. I have spreadsheets for my menu planner and the supermarket if anyone needs them. Happy planning (you’ll love the relief you feel every night knowing what you are eating) 🙂

  • Joyce

    I have been doing this for over 20 years now and LOVE IT- I have a different recipe for each day. Each recipe has a picture for my husband to see, because my books are for 1 year. Only have the recipe once in that year, (thats why I have pics for my husband). My menus are planned, shopping list are filled out, and I LOVE IT. I have special meals for Holidays, Football games, Birthdays, etc. I have 4 books- one for each season, they are Winter, Spring, Summer and Autumn. I have a check off list for what I have in my pantry, (not to over buy) – a white board over my deep freeze for the items in it. I also have a group shopping list – for 4 shopping weeks at a time, so I can buy bulk foods when on sale. Love my Books

    • Julie

      Would you be willing to share this?

  • Bottle Green Girl

    This is so much work! I was expecting some easy tips 🙁