5 Things I Wish Someone Had Told Me 5 Years Ago About Meal Planning

updated Jun 8, 2019
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If a genie were to puff himself out of a lamp right now and make me master of any one cooking skill (genies are so specialized nowadays!), I know exactly what I’d ask for. No, I don’t want to make a chocolate soufflé so amazing you’d weep over your fork. (Well, I do want that. Yes, I do.) And no, I don’t want the ability to make the world’s butteriest, flakiest croissants. (Well, again, I do. But, priorities!)

You know what I really want? To be really, really good at meal planning. After years of trying to establish the habit, I’m just now getting the hang of it. Here are five things that, had I known them from the beginning, would have made the whole thing a lot easier.

(Image credit: Faith Durand)

1. Stop waiting for the perfect meal planning system.

I’m embarrassed to admit the number of times I’ve Googled “best meal planning system.” Maybe I need to move to a program that throws all the ingredients for my chosen recipes into a shopping list? Or maybe I need a program that syncs my calendars. Maybe I just need to go back to the whiteboard. Then again, writing it all down in a notebook is probably best.

Let me save you some time and agony: There is no perfect meal planning system. Jumping around and dabbling in different setups, especially when you’re trying to get the habit going, will only distract and delay you.

My advice? Pick one system and stick with it for at least a month. Go digital or go


2. It’s not just about what you want to eat; it’s about what you need to eat.

For a long time I thought meal planning meant making a list of the recipes I want to cook in a given week, and then getting ingredients for those recipes. I’d pick a bunch of random, tasty-sounding recipes from my Evernote folder, and then slot them into the week. I rarely thought about what I needed to use up in the fridge, or what I already had on hand in the pantry. I ended up with more ingredients, more food … and also more waste.

I now understand that a great meal plan isn’t just about assigning recipes and satisfying that week’s cravings; it’s about making a plan that takes into account everything you have at your disposal. It’s knowing you need to use up that bok choy before it goes bad. It’s remembering you have a few chicken thighs in the freezer. It’s figuring out that you’ll have leftover beans from Monday’s meal that you can put into something else later. The great challenge (and satisfaction) of meal planning is being able to handle all those moving parts.

(Image credit: Leela Cyd)

3. The whole point is not to start from zero every night.

Remember this. Not starting from zero means that, while you may already know the answer to the interminable “What’s for dinner?” question and have gathered all the necessary ingredients, thanks to your savvy planning, you’re hopefully also already halfway done with your prep work!

When I really got this concept, it changed everything. I started to understand that prepping is as much a part of successful meal planning as the menu and inventory. I began asking myself: What can I do on Sunday, or in the morning, or in a free five-minute block this afternoon that’ll make cooking this week a little easier or faster? Maybe it’s washing and drying a pile of salad greens, chopping an onion, or just setting out all the spices I need.

My goal now when I start making dinner is to be already halfway done. I try to make sure my plan for the week includes thoughts on what I can do ahead of time, and when I can do them. Don’t misunderstand me — I still fail at this spectacularly most of the time, but I’m getting better!

4. Make the first meal of the week the simplest meal.

For most people, Mondays are a bummer. You’re thrown back into the week after two days off, and the race is on. In terms of meal planning, this means Monday is not the night to try out that multi-step, multi-ingredient dish. Yes, it may hit all the menu planning requirements — you prepped for it on Saturday, it uses up a few ingredients you have on hand, etc. — and that’s all great! Just don’t do it on Monday.

Let yourself ease into the week. I’ve always found I’m more likely to stick with a plan — a new exercise regime, a new habit I’m trying to form — if I can just do it successfully on Monday. Then I feel like I’ve started out right, and I’m more motivated to keep it going. (Anyone else on the start-things-on-Monday train?)

So do yourself a favor and chill out on Monday. Plan to cook something you’ve made a million times. If you have freezer meals, slot one in for that day. Give yourself every chance to succeed and stick to your meal plan by going easy at the beginning of the week.

5. Embrace meal templates.

Templates are a meal planner’s best friend. When the week’s menu stretches out before you in its unplanned emptiness; when you know what you have in the fridge, but still don’t know what to make with it; when you have a recipe or two you definitely want to cook, but otherwise have no ideas … this is where a meal template will save you.

The idea, as Kelli explains here, is this: Assign a food theme to each night of the week to spark your menu planning. You’ve heard of Taco Tuesday, right? Well, you can do so much more than that! Think about pizza night, rice night, or egg night!

Working within a template has really helped my meal planning. Lately I’ve been working with a one-bowl-meal night, a fish night, and a salad night. It’s how I’ve been able to cut through inspiration and information overload and actually make some decisions. Whew!

What do you know about meal planning that you wish you knew years ago?