Meal planning can feel very overwhelming. Some families say it’s too much work or too time consuming or they have no idea where to start. The truth is it can be really easy and take very little time once you’re up and running.
The best way to do this is to make it your own.
Meal planning can help you cook more often. save time grocery shopping, get meals on the table faster with less stress, and reduce food waste by buying only what you need and will use.
So, if meal planning is something you struggle with, but are interested in, keep reading for my 10 tips on how to start making mealtimes easier.
- Figure out who needs to be involved in meal planning.
In our family, I am the primary cook, grocery shopper and meal planner. This currently works well for us, but if you share the cooking and shopping with other members of your household, be sure to include them in the meal planning process. This can help other family members feel invested in the change. Including them in the process makes them want the change to be successful more so than if the change is just thrust upon them.
- Don’t start planning every meal and snack.
Figure out your pain points and start there. Are suppers the meal you dread coming up with? Maybe it’s lunches or breakfast? Or for some people it’s not a meal, it’s a day. Thursday’s might have a lot going on with work and school and a virtual after school activity. Find your pain points. Think about what is the worst meal time or most hectic day for you.
- Start with your pain points, leave the rest.
Now that you’ve got your focus, it works well to start there. Planning all meals and snacks every day for the whole week can feel like too large of a task and stops a lot of people from even trying. You also don’t need to. Most families have a routine or rhythm for parts of the day or week. Leave those ones alone but make sure you know what groceries you need to buy to keep those parts of your life humming along smoothly.
- To meal prep or not to meal prep.
If your paint point is a day of the week, meal prepping will be essential to your success. Making some or all of those snacks and meals ahead of time so they require little to no kitchen time will be a huge stress saver. If your pain point is a meal you may or may not need to do any meal prepping in advance, this depends entirely on your schedule and time available to making that meal each day.
Meal prepping also doesn’t have to be overwhelming or take hours every weekend. Here are just a few bonus tips to keep it simple.
- Double a recipe you know freezes well, eat half for supper that day and freeze the rest.
- If you’re cutting vegetables, cut more than you need and put the extras in the fridge to use in a recipe or as a snack later in the week.
- Don’t be afraid of more convenient foods. Dried onion is my new favourite thing. Frozen or canned vegetables can also be great additions, but may change the taste or texture of some recipes. Frozen vegetables can also be roasted easily and taste great.
- Avoiding the “what’s for supper?” question.
Most of the people I talk to struggle the most with supper so let’s use that as an example. Everyone is usually hungry to hangry and you get asked the dreaded question, “what’s for supper?” It’s a truly lovely change when that information is somewhere that can easily be located and discovered without anyone needing to ask.
Have a central location for the meal plan. We have ours hanging on the wall as part of our control centre. Keeping it central and out in the open makes it an easy reminder for you and other members of the family. I know some people keep it in a binder or in a drawer but I have found that out of sight out of mind applies in a lot of these situations and people usually fizzle out of the meal planning game.
- You don’t need to buy the fancy premade meal plan boards, unless you want to.
Something that works really well and can be relatively inexpensive is just using a frame, you can put whatever you want in the frame as long as you can still read the writing on the glass. I used a template similar to this when I first started meal planning. This can then be hung on the wall or put on a counter, it’s up to you. Using dry erase markers you just write the new plan each week. The first time I started meal planning I used a frame stuck to the fridge with magnets and maybe about a year or two ago I changed to a much larger frame that hangs on the wall.
- Don’t reinvent the wheel.
Sit down and start writing out meals that your family eats somewhat regularly. I believe you could come up with at least 5, maybe even 20. Start there! If you need to round out the week ask your family for suggestions first. Use those meals, don’t go searching for new ones until you’ve gotten the meal planning thing down and on repeat. Then if you feel like you’d like more variety, dedicate one day of the week to new recipe day. The chosen day should be one where you have more time or you have helpers to make supper.
- Organize your list.
Once you have your list or meals, tag your meal ideas with things like season or time prep needed, doesn’t have to be exact, you just want to know which meals are going to be quick and which meals will need more time. This can make it easier to pull the meals you need when you need them. Maybe you want to create two seasonal lists that you can use to supplement your regular meals, one for BBQ season and one for cold-weather foods. You can do these lists on paper or in a spreadsheet. Either one works as long as it works for you. Keep these lists live, meaning you can and should add to them as you remember other family favourites or try new recipes.
- Take inventory of what you have on hand.
To prevent food waste and make sure you are using meal planning to your utmost advantage take a quick inventory of what you have on hand. Do you need to use up those peppers this week? Basically look to see what’s coming up to it’s expiration and plan to use those things first. By doing this you also get a sense of what you may need to buy if you really want to incorporate a specific meal idea this week and then where to place that meal in the week based on grocery shopping. I grocery shop after I’ve created my meal plan so I am ready for the week. I have found that if I grocery shop before the meal plan is created I am often missing something. Then I need to figure stuff out on the fly which removes the whole zero-stress part of meal planning.
To keep grocery shopping simple as well keep a running tally of what you need somewhere that others can add to as well. We like technology in our house so we use the Amazon Echo and say, “Alexa add “the item” to our shopping list.” This adds it to a list on my phone in the Amazon Alexa app. I am sure any of the virtual assistants on the market would be able to do this. But if you are not into technology don’t fret, you can also have a grocery list displayed on or near the meal plan or in a separate centralized place.
- Create the plan.
Using the information you know for your upcoming week, pick meals from the lists you created earlier and put them into your week. It doesn’t matter what day you start your meal plan for. Pick a day where you will have some time a day or two before (about 15-20 minutes should be all you need) to create the plan for the week. If you can line it up with grocery shopping, even better. If you feel like a two or three week plan would work better for you and your family, try it. Some families have fairly set schedules so they like to do a rotating three or four week meal plan. You can schedule restaurant meals or some “try a new recipe days” in this plan to keep variety and flexibility, if that’s something you would like to do.
Since Covid we have started a weekly order-in day, usually on Friday or Saturday, I like it on the weekend because it lets us catch up on fun family time and well, dishes. But if you choose to incorporate something like this, you may prefer it on a busier weekday.
I’ve been meal planning a long time so our meal ideas list is long. Now, our “try a new recipe” days are usually related to recipe development I am working on so they aren’t weekly anymore. When we do try a new recipe it’s still planned for, not random.
If you aren’t the type of person or family that likes to be tied to a schedule you can also just pick your meals for the week and then depending on how you feel each day make one of those meals. This way you still know you have all the ingredients and it gives you that feeling of flexibility. You will still get asked, “what’s for supper?” and I, personally, find it much more stressful to do it this way but I know some people thrive in a bit of chaos and don’t like to feel overscheduled so this is an option for you.
You will find the more you practice meal planning the easier it gets.
Please let me know if you have any questions about meal planning. I’d be happy to help. You can send me a message or send me a DM on social media.
Until next time,
Lindsay Martens, RD