Meal Planner: A How-To Guide to Always Know What’s for Dinner (with a FREE printable)
Do you ever go shopping when you’re really hungry? I totally did that this week, and I had to use EVERY OUNCE of self-control I have to not buy a bunch of food I really didn’t need. Somehow I ended up only eating an apple that I already needed to buy on my way out the door. Ya’ll, I’m pretty proud of myself. Because I’m pregnant. So I’m always battling that excuse of it being “Ok, because the baby wants it.” HA!
Now, gear shift, I used to go shopping quite often without any meal plan… I just went with what sounded good, haphazardly putting things in my cart. It’s very similar to shopping when you’re hungry.
It can be pure madness.
When I shopped that way, I ended up wasting a lot of food because I had no plan after just that ONE meal I was thinking of in my brain (…and it’s pretty rare to use an entire head of cabbage in one meal, amIright?).
Using a meal planner and getting it down has saved me so much. In so many areas.
Disclaimer: This post contains affiliate links. I may earn a small commission if you make a purchase, but you will not be charged a penny extra! And mama, I never recommend products I don’t love or believe in.
Here are the main ways meal planning has saved my sanity
- I actually save TIME because I’m not trying to put together a meal frantically, usually at the most stressful time of the day, when I don’t think very quickly and am distracted.
- I save FOOD and waste less because I have a plan to use all of what I buy. Even cabbage.
And that means…
- I save MONEY since less food waste=less money waste. Duh. Even when we used to get some of our produce from our garden, letting that zucchini rot and not planning for it was a waste of money. I could have frozen it for stir fry or made a bunch of zucchini bread. Retrospect.
Now get this.
I have found that if I plan out a month at a time, instead of a week, I actually save even more time, food, and money. Win, win, win.
Plus, then I know what we’re eating for FOUR whole weeks and I only need to sit down to plan once a month! It’s not perfect, but, oh my, it has really helped my sanity. I wish I could fully express how much I love doing it this way and how I truly think YOU might benefit from it as well!
Wanna give up the frantic “crap, what’s for dinner in half an hour?!” routine?
Here are some tips of things to do before we get started on the nitty-gritty how-to.
(Disclaimer: This post contains affiliate links. I may earn a small commission if you make a purchase, but you will not be charged a penny extra! And mama, I never recommend products I don’t love or believe in. I so appreciate your support)
- Print off a meal planner you like and want to look at every day for four weeks. I think that really helps with the mindset piece to do this and stick with it. I love simple right now, so if that’s up your alley, subscribe to my email list and I’ll send you the one I use for FREE! Fill out the dates on the menu so you’re ready to go.
UPDATE: I added a few designs to choose from in the download! Yay, choices!
- Print off the meal list (Grab it HERE) and fill it out. It has a place to write down your family’s favorite meals (or new meals you want to incorporate) and a place to jot down the main three ingredients that would spoil the quickest. This will be a great tool to use to make things go quicker every time you plan. SO take the time now to fill in the blanks, and get cozy with it. You’re gonna see it a lot. (You can also download my meal list for FREE HERE if you want more ideas)
- Now, get your favorite beverage, put on some music, find a quiet time (aka after kids are in bed), and maybe even grab your partner. (I love it when my husband joins me for this time. It helps with brain storming and it also helps me to process everything going on in the month that impacts our menu). I know it sounds silly, but it’s important to set the mood and make this time enjoyable so that you keep doing it and even look forward to it. Make it like a date.
- Grab your shopping list (I use the Wunderlist app on my phone), fun pens (yes, mandatory), a pencil, and get the weather forecast out in front of you. (Just a note on my favorite pens of all time. I LOVE these Stabilo pens. They write like an extra fine Sharpie, but they don’t bleed through the paper. AHmazing!)
Now you’re ready to get started on your meal planner! Right? Ready or not, here we go.
The basic steps to help you become a meal planner master
- Consider the factors that will impact your menu and mark it on the menu in pencil.
Will you be out of town for part of the month?
Consider making a couple freezer meals before you go so that you can pull one out when you get home.
What evenings will you be crunched for time?
Maybe those are your Slow Cooker meal days.
Do you have friends coming over?
Think about what meals you can easily double or triple that are cost effective (my go-tos are sweet potato chili and some kind of chicken pot pie soup/gravy with biscuits).
What is the weather going to be like?
Is it going to be really hot? Perhaps you could plan more outdoor grilled meals to keep the house cool. What about if it’s super cold? Maybe you want to incorporate more soups than normal.
- Write down any meals that you already have a plan for. For our family, that means that almost every Friday I make gluten free pizza for our family movie night. If it’s not pizza, it’s loaded nachos. Almost. Every. Week. And it doesn’t get old for us. We love it! You might implement Taco Tuesday, or know certain days when you’ll be eating out. Fill it in for the next four weeks!
- Consider groceries you found on sale and already stocked up on. Look at what you already have and need to use. Let the items you’ve already found on sale guide your meal plan. But don’t get caught up in planning meals based on researching what WILL be on sale.
Note: Once your meal plan is done, IT guides your coupon and sale search. Not the other way around. When you know what foods you need, those are the items you watch for to come up in deals. That way you don’t go crazy AND you don’t get tossed around in a sea of endless “deal “items that can actually waste money.
This next step is long, but stick with me. It’s not as complicated as it looks here! And there are pictures.
- Fill in the rest of the dinner menu with this pattern:
- Think of a meal you really like or want to incorporate (I call this a CORNERSTONE MEAL)
- Put it down on the meal plan
- Look at the ingredients that will be left over after and will spoil quickly
- Brainstorm (or Pinterest) ideas for meals that use up the reminder of those ingredients (Refer to your meal idea sheet to help, of course).
For example, let’s say my cornerstone meal is chicken pot pie. After making this meal, I know that I’ll have half a package of raw chicken, and a bunch of celery left over. Now I think about meals that incorporate chicken and plan it within 2-3 days of this meal so that the raw chicken doesn’t go bad. Celery has a longer life in the fridge, but I know I’ll need to incorporate it within the next week or two. I LOVE stir-fry with crispy celery in it, AND it incorporates chicken, so I add that to my meal plan on Thursday. This meal uses both the chicken and the celery, but it could be multiple meals depending on what you have left over.
- Add ingredients to your shopping list as you go. I personally use Wunderlist on my phone because I think it’s the best app ever! My husband and I have our lists synced, so we can both add things to the grocery list and mark when we buy an item. And it makes a ding sound when you check an item off the list. I. love. It. (maybe I have a problem?). Anyway, use whatever shopping list is best for you! If you like a good ol’ paper list, do it. I would suggest having your shopping list separate from your menu, though. Dragging your meal planner around the store gets it gross fast. Or lost.
- Now repeat this process for the other meal times you want planned in advance! I only plan out breakfast and dinner. I usually just make a mental list of staple lunches and snacks that I’ll rotate through and make sure I add those ingredients to my shopping list. If it’s helpful for you, make a physical list so you can better visualize it.
That’s how I do it. I can already feel the burden lifting. I KNOW what’s for dinner tomorrow. And the next day. And the next…
- Feel free to swap meals around if you end up not feeling like eating what you wrote down. Just try to swap it with a meal that utilizes the same ingredients. The beauty of a plan is that you CAN shift things around and STILL have a grasp on what’s going on. It stays under control.
- Review your meal planner every day, ideally every morning. That way you stay on top of the prep needed to make it happen. It doesn’t do any good to have a plan only to realize you didn’t thaw the meat or purchase the main ingredients.
- If you DO use Wunderlist or another shopping list app, add the groceries with the store name you purchase it at FIRST. For example, I’ll add “Winco chicken,” or “Trader Joe’s gluten free pasta.” Then when I go shopping I hit the alphabetize button and all of my items are separated by the correct store.
I hope you found some useful tips to make using a meal planner a little bit easier. Do you have any meal planning ideas or methods that work for YOU? I’d love to hear them (aka read them in the comments)!