The Beginner’s Guide to Meal Planning: What to Know, How to Succeed, and What to Skip

updated May 29, 2019
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To the uninitiated, meal planning can feel like an elusive practice or an overwhelming task, but that’s usually because we think about meal planning from the end point — when all the recipes have been selected, when all the groceries have been shopped for, and a week of dinners were successfully made. Put all the information in front of a newbie and their eyes grow wide with one resounding question: But how do I do it?

We’ve identified the simplest, most effective system for meal planning and broke it down into three key steps: selecting recipes, shopping for ingredients, and prepping your meals. These steps might seem pretty obvious, and for the most part they are, but there’s critical strategy within each of them. It’s the strategy that makes meal planning worth its weight in gold — or maybe just the money it saves you! Along the way we’re going to cover what to skip, what’s absolutely essential for success, and share a few bonus pro tips you can implement as you find your own rhythm.

You’ll leave this guide with a detailed playbook on how to craft your own meal plan so that eternal question of what’s for dinner can be asked and answered with strategy and precision.

Before we go for the deep dive, let’s make sure we’re on the same page here about what meal planning is and what it isn’t.

What it is: Meal planning is asking the what’s for dinner question once for the whole week, instead of every night, and then shopping for and prepping the ingredients before cooking. We believe the simplest way to approach meal planning is with three steps.

  1. Select your dinners and their recipes, if needed.
  2. Shop for ingredients.
  3. Prepare those ingredients.

Start on a Friday: We’re big fans of putting this practice into place over the weekend, kicking off the planning on Friday, shopping on Saturday morning (or night — less people in the stores), and then using an hour or so on Sunday for meal prep.

What it isn’t: The holy grail! There’s so much fanfare about how meal planning can change you’re life that it’s easy to blow its effects out of proportion. And while it does solve so many problems, you’ve got to tailor it to fit your needs (which means you’ve got to be clear on what those are) and give yourself lots of leeway to experiment and find a system that works for you. You’ve also got to make room for pizza night — we feel very strongly about pizza night!

Other Things Meal Planning Is Not

  • A big tabbed binder with a full month of meals: Write it in your planner, on a paper you stick to the front of the fridge, in a Google doc, or on a whiteboard you hang in the kitchen. Just put it somewhere you’re going to see it.
  • Entirely home cooked: We’re big, big fans of planning for takeout, pizza night, and leftovers.
  • Just for families of four: Meal planning is for everyone. But there are different strategies to employ depending on the number of people you’re planning for. If you’re flying solo, these tips for meal planning for one are helpful.
  • Expensive: When done well, this practice will save you money. Promise!
  • A lot of work: Not true. You do a bit of concentrated work up front, but it’s smooth sailing once you begin to work your plan.
  • Inflexible: There’s so much room for experimentation, quick revisions, and customization in meal planning. It’s not set in stone.
(Image credit: Faith Durand)

Start Here: What Do You Need?

Now, we’re not asking you to do deep soul searching, just a bit self assessment. In fact, the easiest way to answer the what do you need question is to consider why you’re interested in meal planning at all. From there we can hone in on how to get there. So for your consideration, here are a few prompts.

  • Are you looking for variety?
  • To save money?
  • Eat better?
  • Prevent food waste?
  • Preserve you sanity?
  • Or to have a ready answer to the daily question from your partner or kids of what’s for dinner?

Meal planning is one of those situations where you can indeed have it all, but let’s do this slowly. Burnout is real, so if you’re a beginner, pick just two or three of the things that matter most and keep them in consideration when you move on to the next step of picking the recipes — our favorite part!

(Image credit: Hali Bey Ramdene)

Next, Choose Your Recipes Very Carefully

Choosing your recipes puts the philosophy of meal planning and the reasons why you’re doing it into action. In fact, we think it’s the most critical step since it sets this whole process in motion. But you shouldn’t really just choose a bunch of recipes and hope for the best. Start thinking about your meal plan at least three days before you want to give it ago so you have a few days to go through the full process of making a shopping list, shopping, and then prepping. Here’s how we recommend you pick your recipes.

Decide how many meals to plan for and what they need to do.

Have a look at your calendar for the coming week and decide the number of nights you want to make dinner at home. Five nights is the most common denominator, but for some people three nights is the sweet spot. Then you’ve got to hone in even further. On the nights that you’re cooking, what do those meals need to do? For example, on the nights that your kid has swim class, a 10-hour slow cooker recipe is a good idea. If it’s just you and your partner and she’s working late, you might need something that you can also bring as tomorrow’s lunch.

Where to Get Those Recipes

At Kitchn! Well, we certainly hope you find what you’re looking for here. Head to our recipe page and see what inspires. Otherwise, Pinterest, a Google search, other cooking sites, and of course cookbooks are there to inspire.

4 More Rules for Picking the Right Recipe

We’ve got the details on how to pick recipes right here, but here’s the gist of it.

  • Choose meals that bless you with leftovers: They’re the gift that keeps on giving.
  • Cook recipes you know + one new recipe: This is a pro move! Assemble that master list of recipes you know by heart — the ones you make week after week and know your family loves. Then add one or two new recipes each week, but only if you want.
  • Pick recipes based on common ingredients: This is another pro move and it starts with looking at what you already have in your fridge, freezer, and pantry. Shopping your home kitchen can help you decide on recipes and avoid wasted food. This is the money-saving aspect of meal planning in full effect.
  • Cook things you really want to eat: You might have to spend some extra time uncovering recipes that are right for you, but it’s worth it if you still can’t wait to eat them. So, we’re saying the obvious on this one: Only cook things you want to eat!
(Image credit: Kelli Foster)

Use a 2-Step Process for a Smarter Grocery List

Okay, you’ve got your recipes. Well done, you! Now what do you need to make them? We recommend a two-step process of making an ingredient list and then a grocery list. Don’t get overwhelmed! This isn’t as tedious or time-sensitive as it sounds. In fact, go through the process once and you can pretty much consider yourself an expert. If you make your final grocery list this way, you won’t ever buy another bag of shredded cheese when you already have some in the fridge!

Make a master ingredient list: This is not your grocery list, but it’s what leads to a really good one while also helping you take inventory of what’s in your kitchen. Start by going through each recipe’s ingredient list to make up the master list of things you’ll need for the week. Then, with keen eyes, go through your kitchen and cross off anything you already have. Now you’ve got a very accurate list you can turn into a grocery list.

Pro tip: If you picked recipes based on things already in your pantry and freezer, you should be crossing a fair amount off the list. But, not too fast! Consider keeping the pantry items on the list so you can restock your pantry. You never know when that can of black beans or that bag of frozen broccoli will come in handy.

The meal planning pantry
: 10 Essentials to Have in Your Pantry for Better Meal Planning

Make the grocery list: Now, of course you could take your pared-down ingredient list to the grocery store and pick up everything you need without much hassle, but there’s still a better way! For one, writing over the recipe is a nice double check on ingredients, but, beyond that, rewriting it lets you organize it for easier shopping.

Begin by grouping ingredients together by departments in the grocery store. Take it a step further and put those sections in order of how you like to hit the store. A word to the wise: Leave the frozen section for the end, and swing by the meat department first if you want them to dice up meat for you or separate a package of chicken breast — all things your grocery store butcher certainly can and will do. Don’t forget those reusable bag before you head to the store!

(Image credit: Christine Han)

Spend an Hour on Sunday Prepping

You picked your recipe, you made a grocery list, you shopped for the meals, and now you’ve come to the point where the plan truly becomes dinner. But there’s one more step — and this one will help you beat cooking fatigue during the week. You’ve got to do some prep! We recommend you set aside an hour on Sunday for batch cooking and chopping.

What you should do depends on the recipes for the week, but dicing up garlic, chopping veggies, washing lettuce and herbs, and even cooking up some chicken thighs ahead of time is always a massive help.

(Image credit: Apartment Therapy)

You Did It! Now Do it Again!

Meal planning is not difficult, but it’s not a walk in the park either — especially when you’re new to it. So if you showed up here seeking to make your life in the kitchen a bit calmer because of it, you’re already well on your way. Every time you go through the process of meal planning you learn what not to do, the places where to improve on next week, what you can skip, and how to customize the entire practice to fit your needs. Continuing to do it only makes you better.

Learn from our mistakes!

All of us here at Kitchn are at different places in our meal planning practice, which means we’ve got a whole bag of tricks to share including the ones learned from our gaffes. We put them all in once place, so have a look and learn from them before you begin your meal planning journey!