Meal planning. You either love it or you hate it. But you never regret doing it. How to meal plan? It seems simple right? You write down what you’re going to eat, make a shopping list, go to the grocery store and make the food. And as a result, you eat healthier and save money. Win-win.
However, even with the best intentions, life doesn’t always go according to plan. If you’re wondering how to meal plan successfully, don’t overthink it and give yourself some grace. The key to meal planning (and successful follow through) is to build in some wiggle room – give yourself permission to grab breakfast on the way to work on a crazy morning or to order takeout on a busy night. The goal isn’t to be perfect. The goal is to be good enough. To eat healthy meals most nights and to feel good about your food choices. Meal planning is meant to relieve stress, not create more of it. So if it’s not saving you time, money and brain space, you’re doing it wrong.
First, ask yourself these questions.
How often do you go (or want to go) grocery shopping?
Do you shop weekly, biweekly, once a month? I personally find that shopping every week feels like a real chore, but that waiting too long and only shopping once a month limits the types of foods I can buy (I’ll have to buy shelf-stable, long-lasting items that will stay fresh 3-4 weeks from now). For me, doing a grocery haul every two weeks is the sweet spot.
What kind of eater are you?
How many meals per week do you eat at home and how many people do you cook for? Use the What Kind of Eater Are You quiz to help you understand your eating habits. And be honest with yourself. It’s natural to want to improve your eating habits in the process of meal planning but be realistic. Don’t set the bar so high that you won’t be able to reach it. If you currently dine out 7 days a week and your long-term goal is to cook at home every day instead, don’t go from 0 to 60 right out of the gate. Start small with planning 1-2 meals per week and slowly build up to your goal.
Next, use this 15-step process to develop a two-week healthy meal plan.
How to Meal Plan: 15 Steps to Build a Healthy Meal Plan
While everyone’s meal planning needs are unique, these 15 steps are at the core of every “how to meal plan” approach. Don’t be afraid to tweak the steps and make them your own. This is the only way you’ll learn how to meal plan in a way that consistently works for you and your family.
1) Plan Breakfast
Choose two things for breakfast – one for each week. Breakfast should be easy and stress fee. It can either be something you make ahead of time (I like to make a smoothie the night before) or a grab-and-go option like an oatmeal cup. Don’t overthink it. Plan breakfasts for 6 days a week so you have a little wiggle room (maybe you want to sleep in one day, make brunch on the weekend, meet a friend for coffee). If you find yourself breakfast-less on the last days of your meal plan, eat something else like leftovers, a snack, or just a simple bowl of oatmeal from the pantry.
Right now, it’s summer and mornings are hot! Which means for breakfast, I’m craving smoothies. In the upcoming weeks, I plan to make these two smoothies for breakfast: Blueberry Breakfast Tart Smoothie and Mystical Mango Smoothie. And don’t forget the coffee! Always coffee. I need enough coffee (and milk to go in it) for the next two weeks too. Will doesn’t eat breakfast, so I won’t be sharing. Here’s exactly what I need to make this all happen:
For the smoothies (each recipe serves 2, so I’ll make each one 3 times to get 6 days of smoothies per recipe):
- 6 3/4 cups milk
- 1 cup cashews
- 1 cup rolled oats
- 3/4 cup maple syrup
- 3 Tbsp chia seeds
- 1 ½ tsp ground cinnamon
- 6 cups frozen blueberries
- 4 ½ cups orange juice
- 1 ½ avocado
- 1 ½ limes
- ¼ + 1/8 tsp ground cardamom
- 6 cups frozen mango
For the coffee
- 3 ½ cups ground coffee (4 Tbsp per pot each morning)
- 7 cups of milk (1/2 cup for each morning)
2) Eat Leftovers for Lunch
Preparing additional food for lunch is extra work. Plan to eat dinner leftovers for lunch during the week so nothing goes to waste. Supplement leftovers with a snack (see step 3) if needed.
I take my lunch with me to work every day. When I cook, I make enough for me and a hungry husband. After dinner, I pack up whatever is left into to-go containers (see Basic Kitchen Storage Needs) so everything is ready to grab the following day. Will eats out for lunch during the work week, so I don’t have to share my leftovers.
3) Purchase Grab-And-Go Snacks
Purchase a few grab-and-go items for snacks – fruits, veggies, yogurt, nuts, crackers, cheese, energy bars, etc – for the next two weeks. There’s no real science to this step. Snack time can be creative and most snacks have a long shelf life. If you buy too many, eat them at a later date, and if you buy too few, use extra ingredients (see step 13) to piece something together. Use sales and coupons at your local grocery store to help you decide on which snacks to buy for the weeks ahead.
We plan to go hiking on the weekends so I’ll need to grab snacks that I can throw in my pack. I’ll see what’s available and on sale when I go shopping and keep this in mind.
4) Take Inventory
Take inventory of your pantry, fridge and freezer so you know what you have available. See How to Stock a Healthy Pantry for pantry staples that should always be stocked in your kitchen and can be used to make any cuisine, no matter what’s on the menu. Compare your pantry, fridge and freezer with what’s on this list and make note of what’s missing. Depending on what’s on your menu for the weeks ahead, you might not need to restock every single item that is currently “out of stock”, but this will give you an idea of what you have on hand and what you you’ll need to buy.
I compared my kitchen inventory with the pantry staples list and found that right now, the following things are “out of stock”: Grains (wheat flour, white rice, barley, bread/buns, flour tortillas), Nuts, Seeds & Dried Fruit (pumpkin seeds, dried cranberries, dried mango), Condiments (salsa, pesto), Canned Goods (cannellini beans, vegetable broth, beef broth, tomato sauce, roasted red peppers, green chilies, pickles, fruit (pineapple, peaches, applesauce), lime juice, jam, tofu, tuna, anchovy paste), Miscellaneous (almond milk, soy milk, coconut milk, almond butter), Frozen Foods (blueberries, raspberries, strawberries, peaches, corn, bell peppers, broccoli, ground poultry, shrimp, steak), Fresh Produce (celery, peppers, greens, oranges, apples, bananas, cilantro, parsley), Dairy (eggs, mozzarella, cheddar, milk, yogurt), Beverages (sparkling water), Snacks (granola, energy bars, chips, crackers, pretzels, trail mix, jerky, single-serve cheese, hummus, cottage cheese, flavored yogurt).
5) Eat with the Seasons
Eating with the seasons provides flavor, variety and cost savings to your meal plan. Determine what produce is in season and plan meals around them. when possible. See How to Eat Seasonally.
It’s the beginning of summer which means berries (blackberries, blueberries, raspberries), stone fruit (cherries, peaches, plums), tomatoes/tomatillos, corn, cucumbers, zucchini, peppers, eggplant, green beans, figs and okra are in season.
6) Browse Recipes
Browse cookbooks and website for meal ideas. Look for recipes that use seasonal produce and items you currently have on hand. Include a mix of old and new recipes in your meal plan – including those that are tried and true as well as a few new ones to potentially add to the list of favorites.
In my opinion, nothing is more disappointing than making a recipe from a cookbook or blog only to find out that it doesn’t turn out or taste nearly as good as the picture promised. There are A LOT of flashy recipes online or in cookbooks or magazine that don’t deliver.
For consistently good, healthy-ish recipes, here are some resources I trust and use: Hello Fresh (for dinners), Blender Girl (for smoothies), Oh She Glows (for healthy desserts), Half Baked Harvest (for something indulgent) and Pinch of Yum or Gimme Some Oven (for everything in between). I rely heavily on the Hello Fresh recipe database for dinner ideas (not an ad, just a service that works for me personally) because the recipes are simple, quick, nutritionally balanced, well-portioned (when I make the “recipe for 2”, I frequently have enough for leftovers) and taste great. They are also rather forgiving when it comes to substitutions (swapping out veggies or protein for what you have available) and easy to make heart healthy (reduce the amount of cheese, swap out the butter or cream, etc.) if needed. I sometimes order a box from their meal-delivery service if I’m in a pinch, but for the most part, I just use the recipes and shop for the ingredients on my own!
7) Plan Dinners
Determine how many dinner recipes you need for the next two weeks ahead, leaving some days unplanned for leftovers or dining out. Use your answers to the questions at the beginning of this post to calculate. And pick recipes that you know the whole family will enjoy.
We eat dinner at home 5 nights a week and leave 2 nights as unplanned for leftovers or dining out. This means I need 10 dinner recipes total for the next two weeks. We like a variety of cuisines, so here’s what I picked: 1) Tropical Fish Tacos, 2) Grilled Sriracha Glazed Salmon, 3) Chicken Parm Salad, 4) Wild Apricot Salmon, 5) Pump Up the Jam Chicken, 6) Spinach Artichoke Dip + Charred Tomato & Herby Ricotta Toast, 7) Salsa Verde Enchiladas, 8) Chicken Sausage Gemelli Bolognese, 9) Tunisian-Spiced Meatballs 10) Black Bean Chilaquiles
8) Match your Calendar
Look at your schedule for the next two week and ensure your meal plan matches your calendar to ensure you can execute it successfully. Assess the activities you have coming up in the next two weeks. Are you going to be home in time to cook dinner every night? Will you be running out the door early one morning for an appointment? Swap out recipes for slow cooker-friendly or make-ahead meals if needed!
In the next two weeks, I’ll be home most nights to cook dinner. One night I’m planning to meet friends for cocktails after work and one night we’ll eat out to celebrate Will’s birthday. Since I already build in 2 nights a week for leftovers or dining out, this shouldn’t be a problem.
9) Pick a Healthy Dessert
It’s fun to have a healthy-ish treat around once and a while. Choose one or two healthy-ish dessert recipes to make during the weeks ahead. If you enjoy baking, spend time in the kitchen on the weekend and enjoy the fruits of your labor in the week ahead.
Will’s birthday is next week so we definitely need a celebratory treat for that. And with all the summer berries in season, I’m thinking about making a fruit tart or pie. I have a giant tub of cream cheese in the fridge that I need to use up, so this Coconut Carrot Cake and this Strawberry Pretzel Pie should put it to good use.
10) Meal Prep
The amount of meal prep you should to do ahead of time is a personal preference. Determine steps in your recipes that can be prepared ahead of time. Some people like wash and chop up all the fruits and veggies they’ll need in the days ahead, while others like to complete the steps in their chosen recipes that are the most time consuming the day before (defrost meat, soak nuts, cook hearty grains, marinate meat, etc.). Meal prep in a way that fits your lifestyle best, but not at the expense of your precious days off.
I honestly don’t do much meal prep ahead of time. I scroll through the ingredients and instructions for my recipes to see if there is anything time consuming that I could be doing ahead of time, but that’s’ it.
For the recipes I’ve chosen above, there are a couple important time-bound considerations – cashews and oats need to be soaked for the Blueberry Breakfast Tart smoothie and the Strawberry Pretzel Pie needs to chill for 3 hours. So I’ll need to be sure to soak the cashews and oats a few hours (or even a day) before I make the smoothie and ensure that there are 3 hours between when I finish making the pie and when we want to eat it so it has plenty of time to chill.
11) Make a Grocery List
Write down exactly how much of each item you will need. Then go to your kitchen and cross off everything you already have. Lastly, organize your list by grocery store department to speed up your shopping trip.
After crossing off all of the ingredients I already have for the recipes planned, below is the grocery list I’ll be taking with me to the supermarket.
|– 1 mango|
|– 1 lb strawberries + more for decorating cake|
|– 1 pint raspberries|
|– 2 avocados|
|– 2 cups carrots|
|– 5 oz spinach|
|– 2 poblano peppers|
|– 1 Roma tomatoes|
|– 2 zucchinis|
|– 2 units bok choy|
|– 1 red onion|
|– 1 shallot|
|– 1 bunch cilantro|
|– 1 bunch parsley|
|– 1 pack fresh mint|
|– 3 eggs|
|– 1 gallon milk|
|– 1 cup heavy cream|
|– 3 sticks butter|
|– 1 cup plain Greek yogurt|
|– 1 cup mozzarella|
|– 1 1/4 cup pepper jack cheese|
|– 7 oz artichoke hearts|
|– 6 cups blueberries|
|– 6 cups mango|
|– 1 box sparkling water|
|– 4 1/2 cups orange juice|
|– 1 jar each apricot, strawberry, raspberry jam|
|– 1 can beef broth|
|– 1 jar pesto|
|– 1 jar pickles|
|– 1 jar tomato sauce|
|GRAINS + SNACKS|
|– 1 large bag tortilla chips|
|– 1 loaf sourdough bread|
|– 4 cups pretzels|
|– Snacks (TBD)|
12) Go Shopping
Take your list to the supermarket and purchase the necessary groceries. Decide where you will shop, stick to your list and don’t forget to take any coupons and reusable grocery bags with you.
Depending on what’s on my list, I usually shop at Costco, Trader Joe’s and Lucky. This time around I hit up Costco and Lucky. For snacks I bought some single-serve yogurts, apples, berries, pretzels, and snack packs (the kind with nuts, dried fruit and cheese cubes).
13) Don’t Waste
In the weeks ahead, make it a goal to use up all of the perishable items you purchased to ensure nothing goes to waste. Many times, your grocery list needs won’t match the quantities that ingredients are sold in.
I only needed 3 eggs, but eggs are sold by the dozen. I can hard boiling the extras and enjoy them as a snack.
14) Take Notes
I cannot stress how important this step is. Make notes during the weeks ahead to capture how your plan pans out. Jot down recipes you liked (or didn’t like), substitutions you made (and if they did/didn’t work), snacks that were a hit (as well as those that were a flop), food that got wasted, etc. This helps you learn your family’s eating habits and how to meal plan in a way that fits your needs.
Pump Up the Jam Chicken – In my opinion, this recipe was just OK. I couldn’t find demi glace at my grocery store, so I made some with beef broth (in a small saucepan, combine 1 can of beef broth + 1 Tbsp butter, reduce by half; mix 1 tsp cornstarch with a little cold water to make a slurry and add it to the broth, stir to combine). I used chicken breast instead of thighs and skipped the dried apricots (I don’t like dried fruit in my savory meals). I also added more jam than was called for in the recipe to create more sauce. This recipe was tasty enough to get us through dinnertime, but I won’t make it again.
Tropical Fish Tacos – These were super quick and really good! I made a couple substitutions based on what I had on hand – I used 9 small corn tortillas instead of 6 flour, shredded brussels sprouts instead of red cabbage, taco seasoning for the “Southwest Spice Blend”, plain Greek yogurt instead of sour cream and chili powder instead of chipotle powder. I also mixed the cilantro into slaw and added hot sauce to the tacos for some added spice.
15) Start over again in 2 weeks
At the end of two weeks, start the meal planning process over again – taking into consideration your learnings from step 14 and making changes accordingly. Initially, this process might seem cumbersome, but you’ll get faster at it. Learning how to meal plan takes time. But remember, it’s time well spent! Once you have a plan in place, you know exactly what you need to do each day for the next two weeks – just follow the instructions you’ve set for yourself and you won’t have to think about what’s for dinner for the next 14 days.
Between recipe searching, taking inventory of my kitchen and building a grocery list, this meal planning process usually takes me about an hour.