Meal planning doesn’t have to be difficult or labor intensive. This is my simple meal planning method that I have been using weekly for years. It makes picking meals and grocery shopping much quicker and easier for this busy mama!
I’m asked all the time to share how I meal plan, and while I share peeks at the process frequently on Instagram, I thought it would be helpful to have it all laid out in place here on the blog too. I’ve used different methods in the past, but the steps I laid out in this post are the ones I’ve consistently followed for a couple of years (at least).
My purpose in walking you through my process isn’t to tell you that this should be your process too. There’s not really a one-size-fits-all approach to meal planning. Just the same, I do strongly believe that there are techniques and tricks that can be adapted and adopted by most to simplify meal planning.
Each weekend I pull out my bullet journal (more on that here) and open up to my meal plan page. I erase the checklist from the previous week, stick on a fresh post-it, and go through the steps. Because I repeat the same steps each week, and because I have everything I need (master lists, shopping lists, meal plan) all in one place, the process is incredibly simple and straightforward. The most time-consuming step is probably getting my husband to answer about his schedule for the week (#kiddingnotkidding).
The steps I share below are general and can be applied to anyone interested in simple meal planning. Under each step, I go into more detail about how I walk through it and share links to resources that you might find useful. I hope these tips can make meal planning a little easier in the future for you. Just remember that it can take a little bit to really find your groove, and sometimes a little upfront work (like creating a master list) can save a LOT of work later on.
Simple Meal Planning & Grocery Shopping Routine
First Step :: Write down what we already have on hand.
I use my Kitchen Essentials Checklist to quickly do this each week. I used to print off a copy each week, but almost a year ago I had the idea to laminate it and put it in my bullet journal next to my meal planning page and this little step changed my life. (I have both filled in and blank essentials lists available for you to print).
I keep three dry erase markers specifically for using on this step. I check off what we have with my black marker, and then if we are out of something, I highlight it with either my red or orange marker (red for items we get from Whole Foods, and orange for items we get at Costco).
This color coded system will become my grocery shopping list when I’m at the store. It’s one simple step that does double-duty.
Second Step :: Write down upcoming events/ special circumstances.
Once I get a list of what we have on hand, my next step is to note what is going on during the week that could affect our different meals. It’s also important to have a mini-conference with my husband so there are no “surprises” during the week.
Things I consider:
- days we are going to be out on adventure days or field trips that will require a picnic lunch
- days we are going to be out of the house most of the day and an easy (or prep-ahead) dinner would be helpful
- nights when my husband won’t be home for dinner and it’ll just be me and the kids
- nights we have extra-curricular out of the house (rare these days) and we need a “on the road dinner” or something waiting for us when we get home
- meals that we will share with family or friends
- lunches or dinners that we can rely on leftovers
- ingredients that need to be used, or recipes I need to test/photograph for the blog
- any lunches or nights we might eat out/get take-out
Third Step :: Use master lists & short lists to select meals.
With all the options available in cookbooks on the shelf, recipes on Pinterest, and search results in Google, having the constraint of a list of recipes you already know you enjoy and trust, significantly simplifies the process of selecting meals for your meal plan.
I have several different lists I can refer to, depending on the season (both figurative and literal) we are in. I also keep a master dinner list and a master lunch list in my bullet journal where I have our regular go-to meals, plus the recipes from my cookbook written out for easy reference.
In addition to the more comprehensive master lists, I also find using shortened, more specific lists helpful for finding meals within certain parameters. For example, right now I am heavily relying on my Summer Lunch Menu for figuring out our lunch meal plan. I am also regularly referring to my Easy Dinners List for meal ideas on the nights my husband is out of town. (I printed off both of them at 50% size and put them in my bullet journal right next to my meal plan page.)
I write down the meals for the week on a post-it in my bullet journal (see above picture) because this allows me to replace it each week. I plan for lunch and dinner because that works well for me. I also like to go ahead and assign days because the meals I choose are chosen according to what is going on each weekday.
Of course, if you would rather just write down a list of possible meals for the week and decide later which order you eat them, that works too. I used to do this when our weekdays looked more uniform.
*I also always plan for leftovers for Saturday lunch so that we use them up before going back to the store for fresh groceries.
*Don’t forget to add any extra ingredients needed for the meals you selected to your grocery list.
Free Meal Lists:
- Mega List of Easy Dinner Ideas (plus companion shopping list) PRINTABLE OPTION
- 75+ Frugal Dinner Ideas PRINTABLE OPTION
- Summer Lunch Menu PRINTABLE OPTION
- Master Lunch List PRINTABLE OPTION
- Super Awesome List of Healthy Snack Ideas PRINTABLE OPTION
- 50+ Fresh Summer Vegetable Recipes & Resources
- Healthy Grab & Go Picnic Ideas
Fourth Step :: Go shopping and prep ahead if possible.
I shop weekly at Costco and Whole Foods. Most of the time, I make an in-person trip to Costco and order my groceries to be delivered from Whole Foods. In this season of life, I appreciate the simplicity and regularity of shopping at just two stores for 95% of our groceries. I do not have the time or energy to make multiple stops at multiple stores in one day or during the week.
Once I’m home from the store, I put away the groceries and decide if there’s something(s) that I can prep right away to make meal times easier later in the week. This could be browning meat, cooking a whole chicken, cutting vegetables, washing fruit, cooking beans in the Instant Pot, making salad dressings, etc.
Fifth (and Final) Step :: Let the meal plan serve you and your family’s needs. Don’t serve the meal plan.
I meal plan because it helps me to make sure we have the ingredients we need in the house for the week, and also because not having to choose meals during the week when the days are super busy and full is a HUGE gift to my future self.
BUT, I do not feel guilty in the least if we have to toss out the plan on a day (or two or three) because something else came up, or because we just feel like eating a different meal than what is on the list.
There are plenty of weeks when I don’t get to everything on my list. When this happens, I usually just roll over whatever we didn’t cook into the next week.
Like I mentioned before, there’s no one-size-fits-all approach to meal planning. Everyone needs to figure out what works for them. Just the same, I do think there are practices and tips that can be utilized by all kinds of families. I hope that something I shared here helps to simplify your meal planning process!
Please share your meal planning routines and tips in the comments! Do you plan weekly? monthly? never? What is currently working for you? I’d love to hear!
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