7 Steps to Super Simple Meal Planning

posted by Andrea | 08/7/2014

super simple meal planning

I’ve been thinking a lot about meal planning the past few days — partially because I’m speaking about meal planning for a local event next week, but also because the back-to-school season is almost here and fall is a great time to get back on the meal-planning band wagon.

I promise I won’t talk much about “back-to-school” yet (we still have over 3 weeks before Dave is officially back). However, I do know that back-to-school is a very busy time of year. I also know that meal planning can be an extremely simple way to alleviate some of the stress and busyness from this crazy time of year.

Not only that, but meal planning is a fabulous way to save time, money, and calories — all of which I’m sure you’d like!

I know SO many people who are completely overwhelmed with the thought of meal planning, and I think a big reason is because many meal-planning resources are so over-the-top. Planning elaborate meals for an entire month, creating mile-long shopping lists, making fancy pantry inventory spreadsheets, and assembling color-coded freezer labels to accurately detail every item in your deep freezer.

But this is all completely unnecessary — especially if you’re just “getting your feet wet” in the world of meal planning.

I’ve been meal planning for several years now and I can honestly say that I’ve never planned my meals for an entire month, I’ve never  purchased more than $150 worth of groceries at a time, I’ve never made spreadsheets for my pantry stockpile (although I do love a good spreadsheet!), and I’ve never color-coded my freezer!

However, I still mange to get food on the table 3 times a day without resorting to fast food or frozen pizza all the time — and I can assure you it doesn’t have to be difficult or overwhelming.

If you’re new to meal planning (or just got off schedule this summer) here are 7 steps to make the process as simple as possible.

1. Make a list of foods and meals your family likes.

Grab a pen and a piece of scratch paper and just start writing down the types of food and meals your family likes. Don’t worry about organizing them in any way — just get them out of your head and onto paper (or your computer screen if you prefer digital).

This should be really easy to do — and don’t feel bad if your list contains simple foods like pasta, mac and cheese, grilled cheese, tomato soup, sandwiches, salad, etc. You don’t need to impress anyone with your meal plan; you just need to feed your family food they like and food they will eat!

Keep this list handy for step 4 below.

2. Decide on a basic system for how you will create your meal plan.

I know some people who plan 3 meals a day and/or plan a full month’s menu at a time. Personally, I like to plan my meals weekly — and I usually only plan dinner.

It does NOT matter how you do this part of it — as long as it makes sense for you.

3. Automate as much of your meal plan as possible.

As I mentioned above, I only plan dinner meals — the rest of the meals are pretty automated and we do the same things over and over again.

For example, we almost always have cereal, toast, frozen waffles, yogurt, or fruit for breakfast — and then leftovers, sandwiches, or salads for lunch. I often make pancakes on Saturday morning, we almost always have cinnamon rolls for breakfast on Sunday, and frozen pizza Sunday night.

We like routine in our house, so this is not boring for us — and I can’t tell you how much it helps to simplify my meal planning!

Here are a few of our past meal plans.

4. Plan your meals.

Once you decide how many meals you’ll be planning, go back to that list from Step 1. Use your family’s favorite meals to fill up the slots in your week (I usually just write it in my planner but you can also use my free meal planning printables).

I need to plan 7 meals a week — BUT part of my meal plan might be going out to eat, eating at a church picnic, eating at a friend or family’s home, a soup supper at Dave’s school, etc.

Each day, I write what the “meal” is for that day, whether it is grilled cheese, a roast, Culver’s, or whatever. That way, I don’t forget and I can plan better for groceries (see below)

5. Make a grocery list.

I only go to one grocery store each week so I only need to make one list — you may make as many lists as you need :)

When I’m making my list, I first make sure to look through my pantry and freezer to see what I have in my house that will work for my meals. Then I put all the other ingredients I don’t have on my list.

I try to be pretty detailed with my list because I hate grocery shopping and I don’t want to forget something and then be forced to go back to the store mid-week.

6. Review your meal plan regularly throughout the week.

Since I only plan one meal a day, I’ve gotten into the habit of checking my meal plan for the next day right after dinner. I’m already in the kitchen cleaning up, so it’s really easy for me to do any prep work for the following day.

I might pull something out of the freezer, chop or mix something that I can make ahead, or just remind myself what I’m making for dinner the following day.

This step is even MORE important if you’re planning all 3 meals a day as you might need to do breakfast prep the night before.

7. Be flexible with your plan.

Even the simplest, most organized meal plan might blow up in your face on a busy day. Someone gets sick, you get held up at work or at the doctor, you forget to defrost something, you forgot an important ingredient at the store, someone invites you over for dinner, etc. etc.

In these situations, I usually have a back-up plan of pasta, but I also reserve the right to change meals around as necessary. I also don’t get too bent out of shape if we have to resort to fast food on a bad day.

These steps have helped me to simplify my meal planning over the years — to the point where it only takes me about 15 minutes to plan our entire menu and jot down my grocery list on Sunday afternoon! Not too bad considering my meal plan saves me SO much time, energy, stress, money, and calories each and every week.

If you still feel overwhelmed with meal planning and just want to throw in the towel, read this post on how I’ve (mostly) been able to avoid meal-planning burnout – and check out all my posts about meal planning.

Meal planning does not have be an overwhelming process — start planning a few meals a week and you’ll be amazed at how easy it can be!

What are your best meal planning tips?

photo source

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21 comments

  1. Kathryn

    08/07/2014

    Thank you for posting this! It’s very similar to what I do but it’s given me some ideas on what I can do to change or improve the process. I’ve started to dread meal planning but that’s probably due to a very picky 7 year old.

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  2. Kim

    08/07/2014

    Great timing for this post! We just got back from a week long vacation and need to get back on track for meals…:)

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  3. Martha

    08/07/2014

    I have been planning using your method for the last 4 months. I was so scared at first but now I love it! We got back from vacation and I miss planning for a week and it’s been so crazy how much more stressful it is. Meal planning really does help!

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    Andrea Reply:

    so glad my meal planning tips have been working for you! It is a little intimidating to get started, but everyone I talk to (any my own personal experiences) says life is MUCH less stressful with a little meal planning!!

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  4. Stephanie

    08/07/2014

    For me, meal planning goes through stages. Probably because my life changes often. :). One week my husband will be home for dinner 7 nights, the next only 3. Spring I plan on only 3 nights with him home, but I also need to have something for him to quick eat when he gets home later.
    Then I think I have it all planned out and I am doing really well and my 5 year old starts being hungry every 10 minutes. And then things change again. It definitely helps keep me from running extra trips to the store, even if my plan doesn’t work perfectly. The weeks I have done no plan are usually me running to the gas station near our house or calling my hubby and asking him to stop. :)
    Now if only we didn’t get bored eating and making the same foods…..then my grocery bill could be even cheaper!

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  5. Cathy H

    08/07/2014

    Thank you for this. I really got off track on meal planning this summer but we have just sold our home and have to find a new home and move in less than 30 days so I have been working on a meal plan this week to use up what we have in the house. I have tried to come up with simple, quick dinners for the rest of the month to save us from resorting to fast food, saving us money, and cleaning out our freezers and cabinets. Thanks for the perfect timing with this post!

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  6. Viv

    08/07/2014

    Planning what to eat each night and an organized shop would not be hard for me (I’m tres organised usually) to do but it’s the ideas for the meals that I have trouble coming up with. I therefore end up wandering around the supermarket aimlessly waiting for inspiration to hit me. That usually ends up with lots of bits and pieces in my basket an no concrete ingredients for the week so I always end up back at said supermarket the next day. Or I cook the same things over, and over and over. Anyone got any tips on healthy recipe inspiration that they use (I know there are thousands of sites out there..) but I’d just like maybe a list of 5x meals per week that I can dip into – I don’t mind some one else suggesting what I eat. Thanks peeps! (Oh, and to Andrea for the post…). Viv

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    Aa. Reply:

    I don’t know if that is your case, but I was feeling overwhelmed when reading the recipes, so I 1) prefer to watch youtube recipes, check Laura in the kicthen or 2) search images on internet.

    I think you are appealed by images (you go in the supermarket, so the visual aspect helps you), so why not try to search photos just by searching “easy meal” or “budget friendly meals” or “30 minutes meals”. Than take the inspirations from the photos and create your own recipe, adjust it to your own taste, even in writing, and you will create a set of recipes.

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    Viv Reply:

    Thanks so much for taking the time to reply. I think you’ve hit the nail on the head: I’m a designer so images appeal much more to me than reading the initial recipie. I’ll give that a whirl…
    Ta muchly! Viv

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    Emily Reply:

    I have found so many new meals via Pinterest. They usually have delicious looking pictures with the recipes. I do the same thing as Andrea with meal planning and try to throw in one new recipe every week or two. Keeps things fresh and helps my family to enjoy new things while still making our favorite meals on a regular basis. I’m usually shopping with my four kiddos. If I don’t go with a plan (shopping list usually categorized by how the store is laid out) I end up with tons of unneeded food and I forget half of what I actually needed. :) Hope you find some great new recipes to try out!

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    Aa. Reply:

    You’re welcome! :)

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  7. Katherine

    08/07/2014

    Two things that might help in starting out:
    1. Plan a small amount, not every meal for the whole week. I plan for three dinners a week and the other nights are leftovers or eating with friends or…something. Three dinners is not as daunting for me to plan and execute as 7.
    2. Some of our friends have set meal types every week. Monday is pasta night, Tuesday is Mexican, Wednesday is soup, etc etc. Less options can be freeing!

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  8. Debbie

    08/07/2014

    You described exactly how I’ve been feeling about meal planning. It seems overwhelming and I couldn’t get the hang of it from week to week. I’m a planner so it just seemed weird that this got me stumped. Working outside of the home makes it tough because I can only do most cooking during the weekend. When weekend is filled with other activities such as parties or home projects then there’s less time to prepare the meals in advance. If household chores also need to be done during the weekend then I’m buried. When you posted the 10 Freezer Meals in an Hour I thought I would try it. I looked at the recipes and they seemed simple enough to do and the 1 Hour prep was very appealing. Long story short I did it! It took more than an hour for me probably because I wasn’t familiar with the recipes yet but when it was all done I couldn’t be more proud of myself. It’s been a week since we started eating the fruit of my labor and we still have about 5 meals in the freezer untouched. The recipes were all delicious so far! Thank you for posting that plan, Andrea!!! I’ll definitely do it again, especially when we have company staying with us. Keep posting more of these!

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  9. Raquel

    08/07/2014

    I have been doing a meal plan for years. If I don’t plan the grocery shopping is usually a disaster. One other tip for those who feel a meal plan is too restrictive is to allow yourself to mix up meals. If you are tired today, pop the pizza in or make it your restaurant night. We allow ourselves to swap for what we are feeling through the week.

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  10. Heather @ My Overflowing Cup

    08/07/2014

    These are great tips! I plan a week at a time, but I also plan all my meals and as many snacks/desserts as possible. I do this because it makes it easier for me to prepare ahead of time. The biggest thing for me is keeping it simple and remaining flexible. I, too, rotate our favorite meals. We don’t get bored easily, either. We’re just happy to eat. The key is to find the system that works best for your family as we are all different. Thanks for the post!

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  11. Melinda

    08/07/2014

    I was wondering……when you go grocery shopping for your weekly menu, do you also shop the sales at the grocery store and buy the sale items along with your weekly menu list? And if so, do you still stick to a weekly budget or incorporate the sale items into your weekly budget?

    Also, do you still coupon? I know you said at one time you quit couponing as much since having children. I have been trying to get back into couponing and as much as I love it, I also hate it. ha. I hate chasing the deals at different stores. What are your thoughts on couponing?

    I guess you would say, I am at a point that I want to save all I can but at the same time it can be so time consuming doing so!

    Thanks for all your effort on your blog. I have been reading it for years. I think I discovered it when you first started blogging. I’m a grandma and so enjoy seeing the pictures and stories of your kids! They are so cute!

    Thanks ahead of time for any input. :)

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    Aa. Reply:

    I don’t know if this”advice” helps you, especially because in my country couponing is not such a big thing (there are so few coupons and only some of the hipermarket offers them and usually few times in a year), but I think that you should stick to 1-2 supermarkets where you coupon for the things that are not perishable if you’re given the opportunity or freezeble foods (meat especially). If not, then you end up paying for gas used to drive betwwen 5 hipermarkets and you actually save less or for food taht does not last.

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    Andrea Reply:

    Good tips — and I would tend to agree :)

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    Melinda Reply:

    Thanks for your input! Yes, came to the conclusion to only shop at 2 stores where the best deals are. The stores are close together. It was just the “time” it took to go in a store and check out. I realized my time was worth something too!

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  12. Brenda

    08/09/2014

    When I make a meal plan, I usually make more of a meal list. I look through the cupboards/freezer and see what recipes I have everything needed to make. These meal I put on a list and hang it on the fridge. Then I know what my options are when it is time to cook. It seems like every time I try to “assign” meals to certain days or prep ahead then something comes up and then that meal isn’t eaten. Or the meal I prepped seems to complicated to make after getting home from work and getting kids from daycare. I guess you could say I do a meal inventory.

    It is also helpful for making a grocery list…I know that if I have burger in the freezer then I need buns so then we can have hamburgers for dinner (buns would go on the shopping list).

    Also is nice with the kids that I can say, “what should we have for dinner: burgers or spaghetti?” Or whatever meals are on my meal inventory list. Then we don’t end up spending 15 minutes of them requesting meals that I don’t have ingredients for.

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  13. Lisa Rohrssen

    08/10/2014

    I can’t say enough about how much a love an app on my phone called Paprika. I did have to pay for it but I think it was around 5.00. This has changed everything for me. I have all my recipes with me when I walk into the grocery store so if I find something on sale I can pull up a recipe. You can search the web for them and then add them to your phone. You can add your own. you can change any of them easily and make your own notes.

    The best part is the ability to make a grocery list with the touch of a button. From there it is very easy to add and delete items.

    I never have to wonder what is for dinner. I have everything with me everywhere I go and I can plan my grocery list anywhere very quickly.

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