10 Tips for Successful Meal Planning

Once a week when I was growing up, my parents would have my brothers and me go through our cookbooks and cooking magazines to each pick out one meal we wanted to try and write down the ingredients we needed to buy at the grocery store for that recipe. We also had to check to see what we had in the cupboards already to avoid purchasing ingredients we had on hand.

Now that I’m older and living on my own, I do the same, except I have to plan a meal for every day. So on Sunday mornings, I comb through my cookbooks, recipes torn out of magazines, and my favorite cooking blogs, and plan what I’m going to eat for the week.

Why? Meal planning saves me time and money, and it can for you, too. Plus, it will save you a lot of stress, says Ruthy Kirwan, creator of PercolateKitchen.com. “Speaking to other parents who were in my position where they’re tired and they’re stressed, and they’re coming home from a long day, the kitchen and cooking and figuring out what to make for dinner is the last thing they want to do at the end of a long day,” she says. “But if you sit down for maybe five to ten minutes at the start of the week, and you look at how your schedule is, figure out what’s in your kitchen already, and then work that into a plan…[it] can save you a ton of time and stress throughout the next seven days.”

Meal planning is a money-saver because “you’re not going to end up ordering in as much or doing takeout or going to whatever the closest store is that may not have the items [you need] on sale,” says Jessica Levinson, M.S., R.D.N., C.D.N. It also cuts down on food waste, Levinson adds, whether it’s picking two meals that include fresh parsley so you’re not throwing any away (or composting it) or enjoying leftovers for lunch the next day.

Levinson also notes that meal planning helps to ensure you have healthy, balanced meals on the table each night, and that you have all the ingredients in the house to make those balanced meals.

I’ve been a practicing meal-planner for almost 20 years and consider myself to be a bit of an expert. Keep these tips in mind when starting out, and you, too, will be an expert in no time.

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Tips for Successful Meal Planning

Don’t bite off more than you can chew (pun intended!). Both Levinson and Kirwan recommend starting out by planning meals for two to three days and doing what you typically do (order takeout, cook a frozen pizza, eat leftovers) for the rest of the week. “This way you’re not overdoing it and setting yourself up for something that you can’t stick to,” Levinson says. Once you have those few days down, you can add more and eventually plan out meals for the whole week.

In fact, Levinson suggests planning a night of leftovers. “If it’s a family favorite, your kids won’t be upset that they’re having baked ziti two nights in a row because some kids would have that every night if they could,” she adds.

Have your schedule for the week handy. Do you have to work late one night, do the kids have after-school activities that will run close to dinnertime, is it date night for you and your partner? These are all things to take into consideration when planning meals for the week. “Be realistic about your abilities and the amount of time you have to cook, and when in doubt, don’t worry about eating leftovers or a frozen pizza,” Kirwan says.

Stockpile recipes. Levinson suggests creating a board on Pinterest to pin easy, quick weeknight meals so you have a go-to database of recipes. “Same with any cookbooks you have or recipes you pull out from magazines,” she says. “This way you’re not always having to come up with something new, but you have at your fingertips a group of resources to pull recipes from.”

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Chain your meals, as Kirwan says. This is essentially building one meal off of another. For example, if you make chicken enchiladas for dinner one night, cook extra chicken to use in your Alfredo dish for the next night. This way, part of your dinner is already prepped and you save time. “People think it needs to be a brand-new item every evening, and it doesn’t necessarily have to be. In fact, if it is a brand-new item every evening, then it sets you up for failure from the get-go,” Kirwan says.

Keep your picky eaters in mind, but don’t make yourself crazy. Meal planning helps cut your time in the kitchen, so planning separate meals for your picky eaters is counterintuitive. Kirwan says she makes sure to have at least one thing her 3-year-old daughter enjoys and will eat on the menu, as well as something new. “She doesn’t have to eat [the new food], but she gets comfortable seeing that it’s there,” she says.

And if your child only eats that one familiar thing, that’s okay, Levinson says. “Look at the week in full, and assuming that you have enough meals during the week that your kids do eat more of, if there’s one or two nights during the week that they’re not eating as much, it’s okay because it balances out,” she says.

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Write it down. While you may be the type of person who prefers mental notes, writing out your meal plan will help it stick with you whether it’s on a special meal planning chart, a simple calendar, or a chalk- or dry-erase board. Plus, your kids (and partner) can look at it and see what’s for dinner rather than bugging you about it (and maybe take initiative to start cooking!).

Get the kids involved. Older kids, tweens, and teens can help pick out recipes to set up the weekly meal plan. “Let’s say it’s a family with three kids, so you could say, [Monday] is going to be Joe’s choice, and Tuesday night is James, and Wednesday night is the third child. Everybody can pick what they want as the meal for a night during the week,” Levinson says.

A way to get younger kids involved is to let them pick an item from the produce aisle they want to try and integrating it in a meal that’s already planned. “I usually recommend planning your menu and then basing your grocery list on the menu,” Levinson says. But if you take your kids grocery shopping, “I’m a big fan of saying, pick something from the produce aisle that you want to try, and they’ll pull something from the produce aisle,” which then needs to be integrated into one of the planned meals, she adds.

Don’t forget to get the kids to help you do the cooking. Kirwan says her daughter is obsessed with pizza, so Kirwan will roll out the dough and her daughter will help with adding the sauce and toppings. “The more active you get kids in the kitchen and feel like they’re a part of the meal planning process, the cooking process, I think you have a better chance of getting them to eat the things you made,” Kirwan says.

Take stock of what you already have in the refrigerator and pantry. Before sitting down to plan your meals for the week, check out what you have in your fridge that needs to be used before it goes bad and see what ingredients you already have in your cupboards. “So if I have a bunch of cilantro that I used the week before,” Levinson says, “I’m going to base at least one or two meals on where can I use that cilantro so it’s not going to go bad and I don’t waste my money on throwing out food.”

And, as Jessica Jones, M.S., R.D., C.D.E., and Wendy Lopez, M.S., R.D., say in their FoodHeavenMadeEasy.com blog post, “The Ultimate Meal Planning Guide,” once you have your grocery list (based off your meal plan for the week), check to see if you have any of those ingredients in your cupboards already. This way you’ll avoid buying items you don’t need.  

Prep ingredients for all of your meals at the same time. “Chop all of your fruits and vegetables, cook your grains, wash your greens, and store in airtight containers,” Jones and Lopez say in their blog post. They also suggest investing in good food storage containers so your pre-prepped foods and meals don’t go bad. Plus, ingredient prep time is also a good way to get older kids involved in the process.

Be flexible. Sometimes life gets in the way—whether it’s an unexpected meeting, delays on public transit, or a flat tire—so learning to take things in stride with meal planning will go a long way. “In those instances I try to teach people to learn how to pivot and have things stored in the freezer for those crazy busy days,” Kirwan says, or find a new way to use those ingredients, or just make the meal the following night.

As with all things in life: The more you practice, the better you’ll get, Levinson says. So don’t be too hard on yourself if the week’s menu doesn’t go exactly according to plan.

Main image: My parents got me and my brothers involved with the meal-planning process as kids—we each had to choose a recipe for the week, and more often than not, I helped make it. Here, my dad and I are making his famous biscuits, a recipe I still make today.

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