Meal planning, not to be confused with meal prepping —where are you prep a week’s worth of meals in a single work session —has been a lifesaver for me for the past 12 months or so. Having a rolling plan of what meals will be cooked for the next 5 to 7 days has been really helpful for grocery shopping and decision-making fatigue that inevitably I feel at the end of each day while being pregnant and now with a newborn.
I haven’t done meal planning every week in the past year, but for a large majority of them. The weeks I didn’t meal plan, I definitely ate worse, ordered out more, and often felt like I didn’t have the energy to make dinner even though I’m sure I had the same amount of time to do so as I normally do.
If you’re uber-organized, you can even do a meal prepping session after your grocery shopping where you end up cooking, chopping, and other prep for some meals you’ll be having that week and having those items ready in the refrigerator. I don’t do this meal prep myself (yet), but I know others who do and love it.
Here are my tips for meal planning – if you have any to share I’d love to hear them in the comments.
Tips for Meal Planning
Start with the proteins.
In choosing a recipe and planning out a meal, I usually start with the proteins. Not only because they’re usually the center of the meal, but because I often need to clean out the freezer and make sure things are getting used to before I buy new ingredients. Making a list of proteins that I have in the freezer and in the fridge is a really good way to start brainstorming for the meals I’d like to create.
Starting with the protein doesn’t mean every meal has to have meat in it. Your star protein might be eggs, tofu, cheese, legumes, etc. or alternatively, you might just have a star vegetable like an eggplant or butternut squash as the centerpiece of your vegetarian meal. Clotilde has a good post on batch prepping and cooking some vegetarian meals.
Leave some flexibility in the week and always have the calendar in mind.
If you’re not forced to use anything by a particular date, you can move some of the meals around as needed, but keep in mind expiration dates on ingredients when planning. Sometimes I swap one night’s meal for another after the week has started, but the great part is I’ve already chosen what’s in the meal is so it’s easy to do that swap and I already have the ingredients bought and set aside.
If you have a get together or other event during the week, make sure to account for it by putting it on the calendar, and consider if that will affect your energy levels or desire to cook the preceding or following day, or if you’ll need leftovers since you won’t have time to cook that evening.
Give yourself some time off, by scheduling a night to order in, or a date night out.
Choosing a night off from cooking on a regular basis is great, and I usually choose a weeknight so that I’m not scrambling to find a table on a Saturday night. Choosing a day ahead of time to eat out or order in also makes it something to look forward to instead of being a last-minute decision or one you make when you’re tired. And, if you have the other meals planned, you can always swap the dining out night around as well.
If the recipe calls for amounts that will really be two full meals, make sure you’re using up those leftovers at lunch or you may have too much to eat for the next night and the new meal you’re supposed to be making. You can also rejuvenate the leftovers by adding a new ingredient or serving it in a different way. Add new vegetables or proteins to a soup, throw leftover veggies into a quiche, put an egg on top of most everything, etc.
Write out the main ingredients for each meal.
List out the main ingredients and the obscure ones (capers, a special spice, etc.) as you go along. After creating the week’s menu, go through the list and check what you have in your pantry and refrigerator and what needs to be bought. Anything that’s missing goes onto your grocery list.
Do meal planning before you grocery shop for the week.
Meal planning is most effective before you go grocery shopping, and allows you to figure out what needs to be used up in your fridge and what needs to be bought to make this week’s meals. It also allows you to have a laser-focused grocery list when you walk into any store. It definitely helps to stick to a budget or spending limit, too, though I love trying new ingredients and my grocery cart will definitely have some unexpected items in it as I go shopping.
Try something new, or stick with old favorites. Or do both.
You know there are some tried and true favorites that make heavy rotation in your weekly menus. Maybe it’s a soup, like this minestrone or cauliflower soup or Italian onion soup. Or maybe it’s a pasta dish, with romanesco broccoli or burrata or eggplant or pesto. Or maybe it’s macaroni and cheese, or lasagna, or even taco night! You know your tastes and your audience, so don’t stress out by trying to do everything new each week. Slot in those favorite recipes first, and then see how many days you’d like to try something new, or not at all!
Often I grab one of the cookbooks on my shelf and try to do a recipe I’ve been keeping my eye on, but I decide ahead of time and put it on the menu. It can also be really helpful to keep a list, bookmarks, or Pinterest board with recipes to try and try to do one new one a week.
Plan for one “Kitchen Sink” meal.
Try to include at least one “kitchen sink”-type meal weekly which will let you use up those scraps and leftovers. Quiches, omelettes, casseroles, soups, and even pasta dishes are great to use up that last bit of cheese in the package, those roasted vegetables, that random vegetable that doesn’t have a meal attached to it, and it will add more flavor to whatever you’re cooking!
Keep it visible.
After you plan out your week’s meals, put the menu in plain view so you and others know what’s coming! It doesn’t have to be fancy, but it can be fun if you want it to. I got this fridge magnet weekly calendar to list out meals, and these neon dry erase markers to write them with, but often I’ll just write it on a piece of paper and stick it on the fridge for an easy reference. There are so many weekly fridge magnet options!
Meal planning doesn’t have to take long.
Meal planning takes me about 20 minutes each week, from taking stock of what’s in the fridge to deciding on what to eat for the week, to creating my grocery list to go out and get any missing ingredients. Of course, preparing each meal takes its own time (and if you meal prep and do several meals in one shot, that’s even better), but according to my plan I’ll know how much I have to dedicate later that day and if I’ll have to defrost something or do some extensive chopping or veg prep.
Do you do meal planning? What tips do you have?
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