Meal Planning 101

I get a lot of questions about our meal plan, and how I make our menu. Since it’s the New Year and many people have made resolutions to eat healthier or to lose weight, I thought I’d take a few minutes to go over the basics of how I meal plan.

The process will differ for everyone, but the basics are pretty…well, basic.For most people, the planning part will actually come pretty easily with just a small bit of practice. The much harder part is to switch from eating on-the-fly to eating what’s planned. Most people are used to catering to their whims for eating, and often balk at the idea of a regimented eating plan. Unfortunately, the “spontaneous” food thing is part of what has led 2/3 of this country’s adults to be overweight. So, the first part of meal planning is:


1. Commitment. It can take several weeks for a person or family to get on board with eating on a plan. We’ve been there, so we understand. But, once used to it, most people actually find meal planning far preferable to “oh, crap, what am I supposed to make for dinner?” Meal planning takes the stress out of meals, because the ingredients are on-hand, and the planning wasn’t done after a stressful day at work. So, commit to meal planning for at least 8 weeks.

2. Find 10 meals you and/or your family will eat, that you either know how to prepare or that you can find a recipe for easily. Write them down, and keep them handy.

These pre-planning items are things you’ll only need to do once. If you have them, move on to the things you’ll do for each meal plan.

Meal Planning 101

1. Get some paper and a pencil. Don’t do this in your head, it won’t work. Write it down, whether it’s in hard copy or on your computer.

2. Check your schedule. Figure out how much time you have each day/night to cook, or if you need to batch cook on your day off. Keep it realistic. If you’ve only got a half hour on Tuesday to prepare dinner, don’t plan on Duck a l’orange.

3. Start with dinners only. You can move on to breakfasts and lunches in a week or two, but unless you have lots of time on your hands, doing this all at once can be overwhelming.

4. Assign a meal from your “Top 10 list” to each day of the week for which you want dinner. We typically do two weeks at a time, and leave one night each week for leftovers; but, this may not work for you.  You can start by just planning a few nights a week, and working up from there. Again, check the prep times against your schedule to make sure you are being realistic.

5. Keep it simple. Re-check your planned meals. To start, keep them simple recipes that you’re either familiar with, or that require few ingredients. You’re more likely to stick with this if you don’t overwhelm yourself in the beginning.

6. Check for double-use ingredients. Depending on your family size, you may be able to save time by planning meals that require a few ingredients in common. That way, you prep once but use twice. Ground beef, for example, could be browned all at once, but used in both tacos and spaghetti sauce. If you’re chopping onions for one dish, check your list to see if anything else needs chopped onions and just do them all at once.

7. Write it down. List each day for which you’re planning a meal and the meal itself. Below it, make a quick note if there are double-use ingredients you can get out of the way for another meal later in the week, and note if you need to take something out of the freezer for the following day.

8. Make a shopping list. This is where the big money savings comes in, and the calorie savings. Using your meals, write down all the ingredients you need to purchase for the week. Make sure you don’t already have any of these items on-hand, of course.  Stick to your list when shopping.

9. Post your plan. Make it visible to everyone in the house. This keeps you on-track, and keeps you from having to hunt for what’s supposed to be for dinner, or what you need to take out of the freezer. It’s also a way to start re-wiring your brain to thinking about what you’re going to be eating, which will help the household get used to non-spontaneous eating.

10. Follow through. Obviously, this doesn’t work if you’re not going to do it. It’ll be a bit rough at first, as are most things that are worth doing. It’ll get easier, I promise.

There are many tips and tricks for people who’ve been doing this for a while. Some, like taking an inventory of anything in the house that needs to be used and planning meals around it, will usually become obvious after a week or two of planning. Others, like batch cooking on your day off, can take a bit more experience. So, for now, start with the basics and get used to meal planning. Use what works for you, tweak as necessary. And, let me know how it works for your family.


6 responses to “Meal Planning 101

  • shwankie

    Once you’ve been planning for a while, of course, you can add more meals to your “meals we’ll eat” list, and add breakfasts, lunches, or snacks if it works for you..

  • Stacie

    Good tips, thanks Shawn! I find that my family doesn’t work well with a routine of “We’ll eat this particular meal on this particular day.” We do better if I plan several meals for a particular week, without assigning them to a certain day. For instance, I’ll just brainstorm seven to ten meals that I can choose from as my mood changes. I don’t work outside the home, so I have more time to spend in the kitchen. I try to also always have a quick meal on hand that doesn’t take too long to prepare, ie: grilled fish and steamed veggies for the nights when we are unexpectedly away from home and come home HUNGRY.

    Also, I find that my husband DOES NOT like me to ask, “What do you want for dinner tonight?” Honestly, he doesn’t know! So his answer is almost always, “Whatever, I don’t care.” But if I give him a choice of what to have, for instance, “Honey, would you prefer tacos or spaghetti for dinner tonight?” then he can choose within parameters of what I am able to cook. I really wish I had learned that trick 19 years ago!!

    I LOVE your “meals we’ll eat” list. I have done that, and my family is up to about forty main dinner entrees now, plus several side dishes. (It has gradually grown, it wasn’t always so big!) Whenever I am in a rut about what to cook, I just refer to my “meals we’ll eat” list and find something I haven’t served in a while. I like trying new recipes, so if one turns out delicious, it gets added to my list.

  • Stacie

    Oh, I also wanted to add that I LOVE your tip #9, Post Your Plan. If a family did prefer to have a concrete plan for serving a certain meal on a particular night, this can help picky eaters know ahead of time what to expect on their plate at supper time! Also, older kids (and spouses) can look at the menu for the night and see for themselves what’s for dinner, as opposed to constantly asking Mom, “What’s for supper?”

  • shwankie

    Stacie, I know a few other people who also have tried a more free-form plan as you describe. Of those who succeeded sticking to it, one used a written plan that had the meals crossed off as they were eaten (one spouse worked inside the home), and the other had an envelope with the meals written down that they drew from (I thought this was a really cool idea, btw).

    What I’ve found from my totally-unscientific surveys of people on my various forums and in real life, though, is that most people will not stick to a free-form plan for various reasons. It often leaves the most time-consuming meals for last, which may mean there simply isn’t time to prepare them. It doesn’t allow for time to get things out of the freezer for the following night, or to start the crock pot in the morning, etc. It becomes very easy to just fall back on pizza! So, I always recommend a more regimented plan to get started. But, every family has to do what works for them; and, as you point out with what works for you, it’s going to vary widely depending on family structure, food preferences, etc.

    The specific “would you prefer X or Y” instead of “What do you want” question works great with kids, too. It gives them options, makes them feel included, but doesn’t overwhelm them. It’s great that you and your husband have worked out your own food language!

  • Stacie

    You know, Shawn, I hadn’t thought about the “leaving the hard-to-cook meals” for last. I suppose I do that to some extent, too. Good point!

    My own personal problem-area is soaking beans the night before. I am terrible about remembering to get the beans out for the next night’s meal. (To counteract that shortcoming, I use the quick-soak method and my trusty pressure cooker.)

  • shwankie

    You’re not alone on the bean soaking thing. Even though we use the more regimented plan, I still manage not to do this about half the time. I need to get far, far better about it, especially since we don’t currently have a pressure cooker (it’s on our list, but it’s somewhere below “pay college tuition” and “pay rent”). I’ve resorted to soaking big batches, cooking a huge mass in the crock pot, and then just sticking cup-sized portions in the freezer.

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