The ultimate beginners guide to meal planning

The Ultimate Beginners Guide to Meal Planning

What could you do with an extra $300 a month? What about an extra $500 a month? For many families, spending a little time on meal planning could easily free up hundreds of dollars in your budget. When you go through a drive-thru or eat out, it may not seem like a huge expense. But the bills can add up quickly. What if you added up all the money you waste on fresh food that goes bad in your fridge? How much more could you save if you had a solid meal plan and wasted no food?

In 2019, the average American spent 9.5% of their disposable income on food, almost HALF of that was spent eating out (check out the data here). What if you could put 4% of that income right back in your pocket?

Before I had kids I would cringe at the idea of meal planning. It seemed like something you did when you were on a diet. Plus I hated the idea of not being able to grab whatever I wanted for dinner. But after two little ones, I really needed more structure because I was spending tons of money on wasted food (and I really wanted to save up for my dream Disney vacation). So I dove headfirst into the world of meal planning.

I discovered that meal planning doesn’t have to be time consuming or overwhelming. You don’t even have to change what you’re eating. You can still run through McDonald’s to satisfy your McFlurry craving. And you can still enjoy a quick pizza for dinner without guilt. Meal planning can be simple and effective. It will save you time, and lots and lots of money.

What is Meal Planning?

Meal planning is simply mapping out your meals ahead of time so that you only purchase exactly what you’re going to eat. It’s not complicated, you can still have the things you love. If you want to eat Reese’s Peanut Butter cups and a Diet Coke for lunch, that’s cool. Let’s plan that out and not spend $5 on a DIY salad kit you hoped you’d eat for lunch (that’s going to rot in your fridge).

Meal Planning Misconceptions

One of the first things I notice when talking about meal planning is that many people have misconceptions about what meal planning actually entails. Here are some common myths we can debunk immediately.

  • Meal planning means I have to cook every day.” No way! You definitely do not have to cook every day. In fact, I highly discourage cooking every day. You’ll get frustrated. You’ll be burnt out. And then you’ll splurge on expensive takeout or drive-thru that you don’t really want or need.
  • I don’t have time to meal plan.” Meal planning doesn’t have to take a ton of time. With the right strategies and tools, you can plan a month’s worth of meals in the time it takes to go through the drive-thru one time.
  • I hate meal planning.” Ok, this isn’t really a myth, but it’s certainly a problem we can solve! There are many meal planning services out there than can do the work for you. You can purchase done-for-you meal plans, including grocery shopping lists. Or you can hire someone to compile a meal plan for you, including your absolute favorite meals.
  • Meal planning services are expensive.” You can find meal planning services in a plethora of price ranges. Some come from registered dietitians or contain meals on very restrictive diets, which can get expensive. But you can find monthly or even yearly meal plans (including shopping lists) for a reasonable price.
The ultimate beginner's guide to meal planning. #mealplanning #mealplan
The ultimate beginner's guide to meal planning. #mealplanning #mealplan
The ultimate beginner's guide to meal planning. #mealplanning #mealplan

Does Meal Planning Really Save Money?

The short answer is YES. Let me just show you the money. Tonight, my family of 4 wants tacos. Here are our options:

Save money by meal planning. How would you like to spend $1344 less on tacos each year?

The savings are significant. When you eat out, you’re paying for that convenience. You’re paying for the service. And those costs can really add up. If you extrapolate this example out, eating tacos one night per week for an entire year, you’d save $1344.20 on tacos a year (or $616.20 looking at Taco Drive-Thu).

On the conservative side, you could potentially save $30 a day by planning your meals (by not eating out and not wasting food that dies in your fridge). Over the course of a year, you could pay off a debt, enjoy a family vacation, or splurge on luxury items for yourself!

How to get started with Meal Planning?

If you’ve never attempted meal planning, you’re probably feeling overwhelmed. I recommend starting with just a dinner meal plan. Eventually, you can start incorporating breakfast, lunch, and even stacks, but it’s much less intimidating to focus on a single meal each day. We can break meal planning into five parts to make the process as easy as possible.

5 Steps to Meal Planning

Create a Master Meal List

A Master Meal List is a complete list of all the meals you could select for your meal plan. This is a living document, meaning it changes regularly. It could be a paper list you keep in your kitchen, or a digital list you keep on your phone. We keep our Master Meal List in our family OneNote notebook. I have a reminder on my calendar to review it and add any new items to it regularly (try monthly or quarterly). You may find it beneficial to break the list by cuisine (think Italian, Asian, American, etc), or you may prefer to organize it by main ingredient (Chicken, Fish, Vegetarian). Make sure the list is neat, organized, and easy to read. This will make scheduling easy later on.

Your Master Meal List should include anything you eat as a meal, even if it doesn’t resemble a traditional meal. For example, if you like to eat a bowl of cereal as dinner on occasion, it should go on the list. If you’re a family that likes to eat leftovers or snacks as a meal, you should include these too. I’ve heard clever names for these kinds of meals… like ‘Smorgasbord Night’ where you put all the leftovers on the table and pick through them or a ‘Fend for Yourself’ night where all the responsibility is off you. Don’t forget to add a ‘Dinner Out’ or ‘Take Out’ dinner option to your list.

Backup Meals are a MUST

You should have a small section of your Master Meal List for ‘Backup Meals’. It’s really important to have a plan for when sh*t hits the fan because it is going to happen at some point. These are meals that take little to no effort, are shelf-stable (or freezer-stable), and can be called into action at any moment. Maybe you have a slow-cooker meal planned, and the appliance dies mid-day. Or maybe the chicken you planned to cook turned way before the expiration date. Or maybe you just had a really hard day, and your plan to spend 30 minutes making jambalaya just isn’t happening. Great candidates for ‘Backup Meals’ include frozen pizza, PB&J sandwiches, and Ramen noodles.

Schedule Meals

Now it’s time to grab your calendar, your Master Meal List and start planning meals. Again, you could choose a pen and paper approach, or choose one of the gazillion digital tools to plan meals. First, decide how far in advance do you want to plan your meals?

For true beginners, a week is a great place to start. The more experience you gain the easier it is to plan farther out. Eventually, you might find that planning 2 weeks, a month, or even 3 months of meals at a time will work for you. Expert meal planners can even make an annual meal plan. The more meals you can plan at once, the less overall time you’ll spend planning, and the more you can save by purchasing ingredients in bulk (like a side of beef for your freezer, or bulk items at Costco) or when they are on sale.

Make sure your calendar has any important appointments or events that might impact your meal plan. You don’t want to plan a meal that requires 30 minutes of prep and cook time if your evening is packed full of piano lessons and soccer practice. You’ll come up with your own method for slotting meals as you gain experience. I personally like to fill in the busy days with zero effort meals first, then I fill in the other days with family favorites or items I’ve been craving. Just look to your Master Meal List if you need inspiration!

Grocery Shopping

Grocery shopping can be a chore. But if you’ve planned out your meals, you should be able to quickly make a list of all the ingredients you need. I personally like to make a list of everything I need, then I will browse my pantry and fridge to mark off items I already have. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been derailed by ingredients I ‘thought’ I had in the cabinet! Once you make your list, head to the store or order groceries online.

This step in the meal planning process may seem like the easiest part, but for many people, it’s the most annoying part. So if possible, this would be a great place to utilize grocery services. Some retailers will let you order online and pick up for free. Others offer delivery for a fee. Consider using these services if you find this part of the process frustrating!

Weekly Prep

Here’s one of the biggest secrets of meal planning: prep your groceries as soon as they land in your kitchen. This will save you tons of time later in the week. Wash the fruit and veggies, dice the chicken, get the steak in the marinade, and chop the herbs. Any of the food prep that can be done, should be done immediately.

PRO TIP: Have a section in your fridge and a spot in your pantry for items specific to your meal plan for the week. Having all the items in one place make your dinner routine run smoothly! There are also items you can completely make ahead and reheat without sacrificing quality (like soups and chilis). You’ll find that you’re more likely to execute your meal plan if the prep is all done ahead of time. Even if you’re tired from a long day, it takes almost no effort to throw together the stirfry when everything is already prepped.

Meal Time

Now, the final step in the process is to get the meal on the table. If you’ve executed the four prior steps, this should be the easy peasy part. Put all the prepped ingredients together, and voila! Don’t forget to save the leftovers for your smorgasbord night!


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How do I make Meal Planning easier?

There are a few strategies you can use to make meal planning easier. Let’s face it, the easier this process is, the more likely you are to stick with it. So here’s what you can do to make this process super simple.

  • Create a 4 or 6-week meal plan, and just keep repeating that meal plan. It’s long enough to give you some variety, but you can put it on autopilot. You can even save your weekly grocery lists, and just keep reordering.
  • Assign each night a ‘type’ of meal. Taco Tuesdays are popular. You could have Italian Fridays and Soup/Chili Sundays.
  • Make your busiest night of the week a ‘Fend for Yourself’ night. Each person can find leftovers, eat a bowl of cereal, or just a snack for dinner.
  • Delegate. Even toddlers can help in the kitchen. You don’t have to be the sole person responsible for feeding everyone. Assign tasks to each person. Kids can wash and chop veggies, put crescent rolls on a baking sheet, dress a salad, or just set the table.
  • Find a service to do it for you if there’s any part of this process that you absolutely hate. Free grocery pickup is very popular. Or have groceries delivered for a small fee. Get a complete meal subscription service for 3 nights a week. Or purchase a full month meal plan that includes grocery lists. These services are worth it if it saves you precious time and allows you to avoid an activity you dread!
The ultimate beginner's guide to meal planning. #mealplanning #mealplan
The ultimate beginner's guide to meal planning. #mealplanning #mealplan
The ultimate beginner's guide to meal planning. #mealplanning #mealplan

What are the Best Meal Planning Services?

If you google ‘Meal Planning Services’, you may be overwhelmed by the results. So here are my recommendations for services you should consider.

  • Free grocery pick-up. Walmart offers this service at many locations. We love ALDI as well, and some locations offer free pickup. Other retailers like Hyvee, Kroger, and many other grocers offer free pickup with a minimum order quantity
  • Grocery delivery. Most often this is a paid service either through the retailer directly or through a third party like Instacart. Usually, the fees are nominal, and you’ll probably save more than the fee by avoiding impulse purchases.
  • Meal subscription. These are subscription services that send ingredients and recipes directly to your door. You just cook the meal using the ingredients provided. If your budget allows, these services are great for those just starting the meal planning process. You can get a meal subscription for 3 nights per week, and then meal plan the other 4 nights. I personally have used and loved HelloFresh. Their ingredients were fresh and the recipes were absolutely delicious.
  • Done-For-You meal planning service. These can be subscription-based (pay per week for the new recipes and shopping lists), or you can purchase a set quantity (month, year, etc) of meals.
  • Custom meal planning service. This is where you have an individual taking input from you and creating a custom meal plan for you. You’ll provide your favorite foods, meals, and preferences, and your meal planner will put together your meal plan for you!

Tips for Success

Meal planning can be a wonderful tool to help your family save money and eat healthy. Here are some tips to help you stick with it.

  • Start slow. If you’re eating out 5 nights a week, don’t try to switch to a 7-night eat-at-home plan. Just plan 4 meals for the first few weeks, and plan to eat out 3 nights instead of 5. That’s still progress!
  • Make familiar meals. Don’t try 6 new recipes this week. Make meals you know your family will like and that you are comfortable making. Meal planning is a learned skill. If you try to learn new recipes and new kitchen skills at the same time you’re going to overwhelm yourself.
  • Keep it simple. You don’t need 3 side dishes with every meal. Keep your meals simple, especially at first, so you can master the meal planning part. If needed, keep an extra bag of potato chips or a few apples on hand as extras.
  • Make breakfast and lunch super easy. When it’s time to add breakfast and lunch to your meal plan, consider making it contenental, grab-and-go style. This is where you buy just 2 or 3 options, and people get to choose from those all week long. For example, lunch this week might be deli sandwiches or tomato soup. And breakfast may be yogurt cups with fruit, or blueberry muffins.
  • Reuse your meal plans. Once you find a week of meals that your family likes, reuse it! Don’t reinvent the wheel.

Common Questions/FAQ

What are the benefits of meal planning?

There are so many reasons to include meal planning in your life. First, you’ll save boatloads of money. But other benefits include saving time, controlling the quality of the ingredients in your meals, eliminating unhealthy temptations (no thanks, dessert menu!), controlling portion sizes, eliminating food waste, and eliminating stress.

How does meal planning eliminate stress?

Decision fatigue is real. Steve Jobbs famously wore the same outfit every day. This is because he didn’t want to waste his precious brainpower on decisions that didn’t matter, like what to wear in the morning. Meal planning is exactly the same. If you already have a plan, you don’t need to spend any time considering your dinner options and making a decision. You can focus on the other things that matter in your life.

What if I mess up and order a pizza outside of my meal plan?

It’s ok! Enjoy the pizza and move on. Meal planning is a learned skill. You’re going to make mistakes. Just consider the scenario and figure out how you can make a better backup plan for next time. And let’s be honest, sometimes it’s just ok to get the pizza. It’s not going to destroy your long term goal of saving for the Disney vacation with one pizza setback!

How do I handle picky eaters?

This is ultimately a parenting decision. There’s no right answer here, but you should not feel like a short-order cook in your own kitchen. I’ll give you three ideas that may work for your family.

  1. Offer one thing they like every night. Do your best to make it something you’re already working with just for your own convenience. As long as its relatively healthy, its no big deal if your kid fills up on carrots because he doesn’t like chicken fried rice with broccoli and carrots.
  2. Offer a super simple Option B. The Option B should be the same every single night so that eventually they will get sick of it. Something like PB&J works well here.
  3. Invite them to make their own dinner. This only works with kids that are a little older, but a grade-schooler could easily make themselves a bowl of cereal if they aren’t a fan of spaghetti and meatballs.
Do you have questions? Ask them below!
The ultimate beginner's guide to meal planning. #mealplanning #mealplan
The ultimate beginner's guide to meal planning. #mealplanning #mealplan
The ultimate beginner's guide to meal planning. #mealplanning #mealplan

The Last Thing You Need to Know About Meal Planning

Meal planning is a tool for you to use to achieve your family’s goals. It doesn’t need to be fancy or complicated. You don’t need a Pinterest worthy menu board in your kitchen or elegant 3-course meals every night. You need a plan that’s going to work for your family and help you achieve your goals, whether that’s saving money for college funds, helping the planet by eliminating food waste or getting healthier for swimsuit season. So don’t stress – take one step at a time, and reach out to me here if you can use some support! I’m on your team.

4 thoughts on “The Ultimate Beginners Guide to Meal Planning”

  1. I’m really glad you mentioned back up meals. Back up meals are so important for meal planning. I have a few freezer meals I make and also I’m with you on the frozen pizza, sometimes life happens.

  2. Back up meals are a must! I have to say that I second Walmart’s pick-up service. I’ve been using it since Dallas became a hotspot and they’re doing everything right! I don’t have enough good things to say about them. I LOVE this post. Do you mind if I share it on my facebook page?

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