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

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counter with glass containers full of food prep: berries, pasta, salad, beans
Credit: Photo: Joe Lingeman; Food Styling: Jesse Szewczyk; Prop Styling: JoJo Li

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 broken 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 this 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. Let’s get into it.

What Is Meal Planning?

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.

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 two on Sunday for meal prep.

Meal planning can be very helpful, streamlining the process of getting all of the meals for the week on the table, but it isn’t the holy grail. You’ve got to tailor planning to fit your needs and give yourself 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!

Credit: Photo: Joe Lingeman/Kitchn; Food Styling: CC Buckley

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!

Next, Choose Your Recipes 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. Start thinking about your meal plan at least three days before you want to give it a go so you have a few days to make a shopping list, shop, and prep. Here’s how we recommend you pick your recipes.

  • Decide how many meals to plan for. Decide the number of nights you want to make dinner at home. Five nights is ideal for many households, but for some people three nights is the sweet spot.
  • Choose meals that create leftovers: Big batch cooking and meals that can be repurposed in a few ways make cooking for the week quicker and easier.
  • 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.
  • Pick recipes based on common ingredients: This 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!
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? Before you head to the grocery store we recommend trying this two-step process of making an ingredient list and then a grocery list. This isn’t as tedious or time-sensitive as it sounds. If you make your final grocery list this way, you won’t ever buy another bag of shredded cheese or bunch of herbs when you already have some in the fridge!

  1. Make a master ingredient list: This is not your grocery list, it’s a helpful step of taking an 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 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.
  2. Make the grocery list: 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 grocery bags before you head to the store!
Credit: AT Video

Spend an Hour on Sunday Prepping

This is the step that will help you beat cooking fatigue during the week. You’ve got to do some prep! We recommend you set aside an hour or two on Sunday for batch cooking and pre-chopping ingredients.

What specific tasks you should front-load depends on the recipes you’ve chosen for the week, but chopping veggies, washing and drying lettuce and herbs, and cooking proteins ahead of time can all be a massive help.

Credit: Photo: Joe Lingeman; Food Styling: Jesse Szewczyk

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.

More Meal Planning Tips

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!