Want to organize meals without complicated systems? Take a look at a simple method of meal planning for beginners, perfect for the busy mom.
Scrambling for dinner at 4:30pm with whatever is in the pantry. Stressing about what to cook every night, and wasting time running to the grocery store several times a week. Spending extra money either buying items you don’t even need, or relying on take-out yet again.
These are the downsides of winging your nightly meals, something many busy moms succumb to. After all, we’re not just dealing with our own meals, but the kids’ as well (not to mention lunches for the next day).
This is why I rely on meal planning. Except unlike complicated methods, I want a simple way to plan my meals.
Meal planning for beginners
I wanted to share what has worked for me for several years, despite raising three growing boys. I also don’t want to rely on fancy apps, systems, or containers. Good ol’ paper and pen and using the containers you have is what I prefer.
This is for 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. Or the mom who wants to serve healthy food, but can’t find the time to do so.
It truly is possible. So, are you ready to get in the habit of planning your meals? Let’s get started:
1. Decide how many days a week do you want to cook
Every family is different: Some of us have more members to feed, while others have just had a baby and can’t fathom the thought of making a home-cooked meal.
So, the first step is to 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.
Action step: How many days of the week do you want to cook?
2. Find the same number of recipes to fill those days
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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 find my meals on Simply Recipes, a long-time blog I’ve been following since its start, and Budget Bytes for preparing budget-friendly meals.
I’ve also bought cookbooks, like Jessica Seinfeld’s Can’t Cook Book. Don’t want to store all those cookbooks? Head to the library, where you’ll find plenty of cookbooks to check out.
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. Meals can also vary by the season. Summer time might not be a good season for soup, while bringing lunch for school might mean picking recipes that pack well.
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 found them (I learned this from experience!).
The second is your shopping list. Jot down what you’ll need to buy, and from where.
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.
Include other staples that aren’t ingredients for the recipes: bread, milk, formula, jam, fruits, and snacks are some examples.
Free printables: Need a way to organize your weekly recipes and shopping lists? Join my newsletter and get your printable meal planner—at no cost to you! 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. Buy the ingredients
Set 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.
Since I shop at the farmers market, I buy what I can specifically on Sunday. For the rest of the items, I head to the grocery store about once a week (weekday mornings are the least crowded time).
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.
6. 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.
Start with meals that use seafood and tomatoes, since seafood doesn’t freeze well, and tomatoes lose flavor in the refrigerator. Then, 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.
You’re busy. The last thing you need is to 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:
- How to Rock a Morning Routine for Toddlers
- What to Do When Your Child Refuses to Eat
- How to Get Rid of Picky Eating
- What to Do When You Feel Like You’re Failing as a Parent
- Time Management for Moms: Tips You Can Actually Apply
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