Imagine you knew exactly what you'd be eating for every single meal every single day of the week. Now, will that fantasy into existence by making a habit of meal planning! It's the answer to life's most frequent questions — especially "What's for dinner?"
Here at Kitchn, we will be the first to admit that meal planning isn't a cake walk — but it's also not a completely unattainable ideal reserved for a certain echelon of hyper-organized home cooks. Anyone can meal plan. Yes, even you.
Read more: The Beginner's Guide to Meal Planning
The real mystery isn't how to meal plan, though. It's how to stick with it. We asked home cooks in various stages of their meal planning journeys how they started, and how they stick with it. Here are their best tips.
1. Start small to avoid burnout.
My meal planning journey is long and meandering. I first started trying out meal planning when I went back to work full time after the birth of my daughter — almost seven years ago now. I went too hard too fast at first and burnt out quickly, especially since I was trying to prep and plan for separate feeding supplies for a 3-month-old. About a year of trial and error helped me find a reasonable cadence for our family, which at the time meant just three planned meals a week plus a few shortcut Miracle Meals as needed. Six years and another kid later, I plan for a whole week at a time, including breakfasts and lunches for everyone.
2. Make meal prep fun.
I'm a happier, healthier, and more relaxed person when I enter the week with breakfast and lunch prepped and ready. There are weekends when life gets in the way, but I stick with it most Sundays by enlisting my roommate's help, turning on good music, and trying new recipes I'm excited about.
3. Make a spreadsheet.
I created a Google doc that my husband and I share. We both drop in the dinners that we plan to have for the week and if there's a recipe associated with it, we'll drop in the link so it's easy to grab. It makes for a lot less of "What are we having for dinner tonight?" Also, it's useful for me with all of my recipe testing, so I can clearly see the nights I am testing and not testing.
4. Consider your budget.
Earlier this year I decided to tackle my budget, and I found that the biggest way I could save money was by cooking (surprise, surprise). I had tried to meal plan on and off for the last few years, but really setting a budget goal every month is what finally kept me motivated. I've planned every week this year so far. I also found that the only way I don't get overwhelmed by meal planning and prep is by embracing leftovers. I usually plan on two easy breakfast options, two healthy lunch options throughout the week, and two to three dinner ideas. Most of these things (besides breakfast — I still haven't cracked that code yet) can be made in advance. I make the more complicated meals on Sunday night, and then try for easier options for weeknight cooking. I rely heavily on hearty soups, smoothies, and grain salads with lots of vegetables.
5. Set a big fitness goal.
I started meal planning (and prepping) a couple of years ago when I was training for an Ironman triathlon. Since I had little to no time to cook on weeknights and mornings were more rushed than ever, it was purely out of necessity to ensure I ate well enough to fuel my training. It took a little trial and error to find what worked best for my family, but I got into a good rhythm and it was easy to stick with even after the race was over. When I meal plan and prep, my week feels so much more organized, I spend a lot less on food, I waste less, and I probably make better food choices overall.
6. Shop in season (and consider meal kits).
Meal planning is a game changer for me — especially during the week. I start by going to the farmers market on Sundays and buying whatever is in season. I'll make a big sheet pan of roasted vegetables, steamed brown rice, and roast chicken to use throughout the week. Tuesday through Thursday night we have One Potato boxes [Ed. Note: meal kits], which truly save my life, and then use whatever leftovers we have for dinner Friday night. Saturday night is our one big night as a family.
7. Sync your calendar with your grocery list.
I think I've always been a meal planner in some sense because I like to know what's coming, but it was after having a kid and going back to work that it really needed to happen because I had limited time to do grocery shopping and cook. Also, I cooked all day for work and sometimes didn't want to go too elaborate for dinner. My meal planning evolved slowly with Google sheets. I look at the family calendar and note which evenings we won't be home or there's swim class that limits cooking time. I put that on the meal plan first, then I see if there are things in the freezer or fridge to use up and prioritize planning around that. My grocery shopping list is on the same doc, so once meals are planned, I add things right to the list. I also try to note which days I have to start defrosting or prepping things (like soaking beans or chopping veggies). One tip that I have is to try to do a little prep or chopping after dinner for the next day if the cutting board and knife are still out. I'm usually tired, but it only takes a minute or two and cleanup is the same, plus starting the next day's meal is faster.
8. Start by prepping instead of planning.
Meal planning used to be really tough for me. I'd get overwhelmed choosing recipes and often wound up wasting food or leaving ingredients languishing in the pantry. Things changed when I had kids and started stocking my fridge, freezer, and pantry with staples I could make into dinner without really making a plan. Now I plan my meals by making sure I have three to four proteins, a few varieties of fresh or frozen vegetables, a choice of grains or pasta, fruit, and a well-stocked spice rack each week. This strategy puts me firmly into meal-prepper territory rather than meal-planner — but it works for how I shop and how life works around here!
9. Expect the unexpected.
I started meal planning after growing tired of that frustrating what-do-you-want-to-eat conversation that almost always ended with breakfast for dinner. I only plan three or four meals, though, because I've learned that stuff almost always comes up (read: I get a craving for Chinese food) and this ensures that we don't waste anything.
10. Try micro meal planning.
I started micro meal planning a little while ago when I realized that I was spending too much money going to Whole Foods every day. You see, I live in walking distance to my local store, and I love the ritual of going over there and picking out what I want to eat that night based on my mood. But that's not practical — from a time or budget perspective! So to compromise, I map out what I'm going to eat for the next two to three days, and shop for those meals. That way I don't get to Friday and dread the meal I planned back on Monday. This has been sustainable for me because it's not too big of a commitment!"