If you’re like me, the thought of scrambling for dinner at 4:30pm with whatever is in the pantry seems crazy. This is why I rely on meal planning. Except unlike complicated methods, this is meal planning for beginners.
With meal planning, you won’t stress about what to cook every night. You’ll save time from not having to run to the grocery several times a week. And you won’t waste money buying items you don’t even need.
But don’t worry: This isn’t complicated. This is for the mom who just needs good ol’ paper and pen to jot down the ingredients for the week.
The mom who may not always have time on her hands but is tired of serving the same things every night.
The mom who groans when she finds expired food in the back of the pantry that she purchased and forgot about.
Meal planning for beginners
Disclosure: This article has affiliate links. Thank you for your support!
So, are you ready to get in the habit of planning your meals? Let’s get to it.
#1: How many days a week do you want to cook?
Every family is different: Some of us have more members to feed. Others have just had a baby and can’t fathom the thought of making a home-cooked meal.
Decide on a good number of days to cook per week that works for your family.
When I had a family of three (my husband, son and me), I planned and shopped for five days of the week. With leftovers and the occasional restaurant meal, five days was enough to hold us over.
When the twins were born, those five days shrank to zero. Gradually, I crept back into the kitchen—cooking once a day, then twice. Until now, where I plan, shop and cook for all seven days of the week. We are definitely a growing family!
Action step: How many days of the week do you want to cook?
#2: Find the same number of recipes to fill those days.
Let’s say you decide to start cooking four days a week—now you’ll need to find four recipes.
Recipes are everywhere—online, on the backs of packages, in cookbooks. I usually find my meals on Simply Recipes, a long-time blog whose yummy food has made me a fan over the years, and Budget Bytes, perfect for preparing budget-friendly meals.
I’ve also been getting into cookbooks and am digging Jessica Seinfeld’s Can’t Cook Book.
Action step: Find recipe websites and cookbooks you can turn to regularly, or collect recipes from packages you’d like to try.
#3: Vary your meals.
While you’re looking for recipes, take note of the meals you’re collecting. You’ll want to vary your meals so you don’t have too many of the same ingredients or types of meals in the same week. For instance, avoid three stir-fry dishes or four pasta meals (unless, of course, you prefer it).
Theme nights can also help organize your meals. You can have Pizza Fridays or soup on Tuesdays. Organizing your days by meals makes planning easier because you don’t have to think about what type of meal to prepare.
And if you’re expecting leftovers, you can also include them in your week. You might prepare a chili you know will provide enough dinner for two evenings.
Action step: Gather your recipes for the week, making sure you have enough variety. Optional: Designate a meal type per night (“Pizza Fridays” or “Tuesday Soup”).
#4: Make a list.
You’re going to make two lists:
The first is a list of your weekly recipes. This is where you’ll write your four—or however many—recipes for the week. Write the recipe sources on the list in case you forget where you even found them (I learned this from experience!).
The second is your shopping list. Jot down what you’ll need to buy.
How you make your list is up to you. I’ve seen some where people write the ingredients based on where the items are located in the grocery. Some, like me, make lists depending on where they shop. For instance, I have one list for the farmers market and another for the grocery.
Don’t forget to include other items you might need that aren’t ingredients for the recipes: bread, milk, formula, jam, fruits, snacks.
Need a way to organize your weekly recipes and shopping lists? Get my FREE printable meal planner! You’ll have an organized way to record your recipes and shopping lists—no more wasting time or feeling frazzled!
Action step: Write your recipes and their ingredients on a shopping list.
#5: Go shopping.
Part of meal planning is setting aside a regular time to shop for ingredients, for instance, Saturday mornings for grocery shopping. I’ve heard of others who bulk shop once a month, to every two weeks, to every few days.
I actually shop on two different days. On Sunday mornings, I head to our local farmers market to buy what I can there first. Then on Monday mornings, I shop at the grocery to buy the rest. I used to go to the grocery on Sundays too, but now I prefer going on a weekday when it’s less crowded.
Now that you have a list, you’ll bypass impulse purchases and won’t forget to buy a key ingredient. You also won’t have to create recipes on the fly based on what you find along the aisles.
Action step: Decide how often you’ll shop, then buy your ingredients.
Tip: Cook meals with the most perishable ingredients first.
If you can, start with the recipe with the most perishable ingredients. This might not always work, especially if you have themed nights or need to pack leftovers conducive for lunch the next day. But if you have the option, start with ingredients that are best eaten sooner than later.
You might prioritize meals that use seafood and fresh tomatoes, since seafood doesn’t freeze well and tomatoes lose their flavor in the refrigerator. Than, save meals with ingredients like pasta, canned food and grains for later in the week.
Action plan: Cook meals with the most perishable ingredients first.
Bonus: Subscribe to a meal planning service.
When parents ask me what they could do to save time, I ask, “Do you plan your meals?” Because peek into every home and you’ll likely find a mom scrambling to cook something for dinner using the ingredients she has, or a dad running to the store for that forgotten ingredient.
But I also understand how even meal planning itself can be time-consuming. You have to find recipes, and hopefully those that aren’t expensive or too difficult to make. Then you need to write shopping lists and hope that the ingredients are something “normal” you can find at the grocery store or farmers market. Do this week after week, and it’s no wonder people give up meal planning and cooking at home after a while.
Enter Erin Chase, the founder of $5 Meal Plan.
$5 Meal Plan is exactly what it sounds like — for just $5 a month, you get weekly meal plans emailed every Friday morning. Each weekly meal plan comes with 6 dinner meals, a breakfast, a lunch, a snack and a dessert. All the recipes are budget-friendly (yay!) and vary from week to week.
It’s the answer to every parent who has found meal planning to be too time consuming and complicated. With the $5 Meal Plan, you can cross off one more task from your list—simply print your recipes and list, shop at the store, and cook.
The best part? With the link below, you can get a 14-day free trial to see if it works for you!
You’re busy. The last thing you need is yet another run to the grocery store to pick up a forgotten ingredient, or to bundle the kids up in the car to eat at a restaurant yet again.
Meal planning eliminates those hassles and even saves you time and money.
Feeling overwhelmed? Start with a day or two. Find those recipes and post them near the kitchen. Write that list. Find your rhythm.
And get cooking! You’ll soon enjoy delicious, hassle-free dinners—no 4:30pm scrambling necessary.
Read more tips:
- Get Cooking at Home! 7 Ideas that Actually Work
- The $5 Meal Plan
- Simple Meal Planning for Beginners – Step-by-Step Instructions
- How to Enjoy a Restaurant Meal with Kids — Even without Screens or Snacks
- How to Slash Your Grocery Bill by 37% (While Still Eating Good Food)
Tell me in the comments: What are your top tips on meal planning?