I like following a simple routine. It makes my life so much easier, especially in the mornings. One of the keys to my daily routine is following a meal plan.
There are tons of fancy meal plan tools and delivery services to join, but if you don’t know how to meal plan in the first place, it might seem difficult to get started. Many people wind up with a fridge full of half-used ingredients while they end up going out to eat or ordering takeout. I know I did…
If you want to simplify your life, making a meal plan is a great way to go. You’ll enjoy healthier meals, you won’t need to stress out about cooking, and you won’t resort to unhealthy fast food options.
It took me a while to get good at meal planning. There was quite a bit of trial and error involved but once I got the hang of it, it simplified my day-to-day in a big way.
1. Organize Your Kitchen
Ready to tackle meal planning? Successful meal planning means starting with a clean, organized kitchen. If you haven’t tried meal planning before, a clean kitchen will give you a blank slate to start. There are many simple ways to organize your kitchen and make it very user-friendly.
Go through your cupboards, freezer, and fridge, check expiration dates, and get rid of any expired food. Assess what’s left—anything unopened you don’t like or don’t plan to eat, donate to your local food pantry.
You may want to jot down a few notes, so you remember the items on hand, especially staples like:
- Canned and frozen vegetables
You can easily incorporate these items into your meal plan, so they become the base of your meals over the next few weeks.
2. Start with a Simple Meal Plan
Start out with a simple meal plan. It’s tempting to sign up for a meal preparation service like Blue Apron or Sun Basket. These services are great, especially if you’d like to avoid going to the store, but it’s important to figure out if you like to cook and what you like to cook first. Often, meal preparation services seem convenient with pre-measured portions and ingredients, but you’ll end up with spoiled items if you don’t use them quickly.
Instead, start out very simple. Take your cooking abilities into account. If you’re new to the basics, you may want to begin with frozen meals or options that require less culinary skill, like soups or salads. As you get more experience with your meal plan, you’ll be able to branch out and try your hand at cooking techniques like braising, sautéing, and poaching.
In the meantime, start with a simple meal plan based on familiar dishes and go-to ingredients you’re comfortable preparing.
3. Consider Your Schedule
As you work on your meal plan, consider your upcoming schedule.
- What night of the week is best for you to do your grocery shopping?
- Could you stop on your way home from work?
- Is there one store where you can easily pick up all the ingredients you’ll need?
You’ll also want to plan for busy times. No one likes to cook a three-course meal after a 10-hour work day. If you’ve got a big day on the horizon, plan a simple, easy-to-fix meal like a frozen or pre-made dinner.
I love planning my breakfasts and making them ahead. That way, it’s a simple part of my morning routine. I don’t need to worry about cooking or planning during the times when I’m busiest.
Schedule in time to meal prep on the weekends. This will allow you to organize your breakfasts, lunches, and any preparation needed for your dinners. During a busy week, meal prepping makes all the difference. If you don’t prepare, then when your schedule gets hectic, you’ll end up resorting to fast food or takeout.
Whether you’re trying to simplify your meal routine, eat healthier, or save money, having a meal plan will help you achieve all three goals. Jot your plan down in your planner or on your calendar so you can look ahead for a week or two and know what’s on the menu.
4. Plan for Special Occasions
Thinking you’re going to swear off restaurant food, takeout, and get-togethers forever isn’t realistic (nor is it any fun). You can enjoy simple, healthy, and nourishing meals while still building in plenty of time for social occasions, parties, and get-togethers.
Look at your calendar or schedule and include events with food on your meal plan.
For example, a Sunday brunch with friends, a date night, or an office luncheon are all included in your plan. If you like to enjoy Netflix and pizza on the weekends, build that into your schedule as well. Having a meal plan is much easier if you build it to fit your lifestyle.
The idea of planning your meals isn’t meant to make you feel restricted or force you to adhere to a schedule. It simplifies your life by eliminating the ever-present question of “what should I eat today?” It also helps you save money and time by ensuring you have the ingredients for meals on hand and aren’t buying food that will end up going to waste.
5. Pick Your Favorite Meals
To create your meal plan, choose your favorite meals for each time of day: breakfast, lunch, and dinner.
A sample meal plan for the week may look like:
Avocado and Egg toast
|Salad with pre-grilled chicken
Crackers & hummus
|Macaroni and cheese
Chicken Cesar salad
Pasta with vegetables
Now, I know there are menu items here that don’t seem very healthy (like pizza or macaroni and cheese) but if you’re new to meal planning, you should take it in baby steps. Pick simple foods you know how to cook at home, know you enjoy, and can purchase pre-made when possible.
Once you get the hang of meal planning, start to experiment with new dishes and swap for healthier ingredients. For now, simply choose your favorite items.
Then sort your menu by the days of the week. Keep in mind, you may eat every item on your list above during the week. You’ll also want to include any times you’ll be eating out during the week, so you don’t plan meals for those times.
|Monday||Oatmeal w/ fruit and coffee||Frozen meal and fruit||Pizza with salad|
|Tuesday||Avocado and egg toast + coffee||Salad with grilled chicken||Leftover pizza with salad|
|Wednesday||Oatmeal w/ fruit and coffee||Office luncheon||Taco bowls|
|Thursday||Avocado and egg toast + coffee||Salad with grilled chicken||Dinner date|
|Friday||Oatmeal w/ fruit and coffee||Frozen meal and fruit||Leftover taco bowls|
|Saturday||Chia Pudding||Soup with crackers and hummus||Macaroni and cheese with salad|
|Sunday||Brunch with friends||Leftovers (clean out fridge and meal prep)|
If you’re cooking for more than yourself, you may need to adjust dinners accordingly. Plan a few snacks to keep on hand (apples and almond butter, for example) as well.
6. Create a Routine
As you see with the meal plan above, there’s not as much variety as some meal plans feature. As you start out, simplify your meals by keeping them relatively routine. Yes, this may mean eating similar breakfasts and lunches each day (especially during the work week).
Not only does sticking to a routine help ensure you’re getting in regular healthy options each day, but it makes it easier to cook for one or two people.
Consider a bag of salad, for example. If you’re only making salad once a week, you’ll likely end up with a wilted bag of lettuce in your fridge by Saturday. But with a meal plan, you’ll be able to prep the salad once and then enjoy it several times during the week (as a lunch and a healthy side dish with pizza).
Cooking once but making two or three meals will save you time and simplify weeknights. Even if you aren’t a huge fan of leftovers, aim for meals that stretch over a couple days (like soup). Heat a portion each night for a few nights. Or break up the routine by taking leftover chicken from last night’s dinner on top of your salad for lunch.
As you learn to meal plan, a routine helps keep it easy and simple. As you start to get used to sticking to a regular plan, branch out.
7. Try Something New Each Week
Although routine is important to get started with meal planning, it’s also important to sample a new food new each week and enjoy variety in your diet. If you aren’t an adventurous eater, set a goal to try one new fruit or vegetable every few weeks and work it into your meal plan.
No experience with cooking? Look up a recipe that includes an easy-to-follow explanation of a new skill (like using a grill pan to cook chicken or oven-roasting vegetables). Not only will your new cooking skill make you feel like a total kitchen rock star, but it will help you branch out and incorporate new meals into your repertoire.
It’s important to take it slow. Buying several unfamiliar ingredients with new cooking methods becomes overwhelming quickly. Suddenly, you end up with Pinterest fails that go in the garbage (and you’re headed out the door to run through the drive-thru or pick up groceries at 8pm).
8. Shop Weekly (or Less)
Do you end up running to the store multiple times per week because you forgot an ingredient or need one item to complete a meal? A meal plan will help you shop once a week or less!
Meal planning simplifies your schedule by giving you a clear outline of what you need to eat and do. You no longer need to stress out wondering what’s for dinner or get halfway through cooking only to realize you don’t have all the items you need.
Once you’ve sketched out your meal plan as outlined above, plan your shopping trip:
- Create your shopping list based on your plan.
- Consult the list of items you have on hand as well (for example, if you already have boxed macaroni and cheese, salad dressing, and a frozen pizza, then you don’t need to pick those items up at the store).
- Don’t forget to add a few snacks and beverages to your list as well (of course, the simplest beverage of all is water)!
When you go to the store, save time and money by sticking to your list. You’ll complete your shopping quickly and easily. Put your items away and you’re ready for a great week ahead.
9. Prep Once
Some people prefer to meal prep on Saturdays. Other people like Sunday afternoons or even weeknights for their meal preparation. Find a time that works best with your schedule and block it out for an hour or so of meal preparation.
The great aspect of meal prep is you only mess up the kitchen one time and you’ll enjoy meals all week long. You may even want to gather your fruit and vegetables for lunch or put your ingredients for a breakfast smoothie in individual containers in the fridge. Think of ways to streamline your routine in the mornings as much as possible.
Meals like spaghetti or tacos can be pre-prepared on the weekend and reheated later in the week. Salads are easy to prepare ahead; simply add your dressing the day you plan to enjoy your salad and you’re ready to head out the door.
10. Stock Up on Staples
There will be days when your meal plan doesn’t work out according to…plan. Keep a few staple foods to eat as a backup option.
A frozen pizza, instant dinner, or a box of pasta are great option to keep in stock. A few containers of soup are another helpful item to have in your pantry.
If you can’t eat an entire loaf of bread or brick of cheese before it goes bad, you can always freeze those items. Frozen vegetables are also helpful for meals because they’re easy to store and are often as nutritious as fresh.
A simple kitchen and an easy-to-follow meal plan will take the stress out of your day-to-day life. You won’t need to worry about cooking big dinners at night or feel guilty for letting food go bad in the fridge. Meal plan and set yourself up for success all week long!