Meal planning often causes a lot of anxiety for moms. But it doesn’t need to be a big headache. And when you’re a busy mom, the last thing you need is to sit around for hours trying to figure out what to feed your family.
I recently heard something on the Comfort Food podcast that basically summarizes the process perfectly: meal planning is simply having a plan for your upcoming meals. Meaning part of your meal planning CAN be ordering take out or just knowing that you’ll have pasta one night!
The idea is to simply plan what to have for dinner. Save yourself the headache of asking “what will we have for dinner today?” 30 minutes before your kids get home from school, or on your way home from work.
Meal planning has many benefits:
- Saves time, so you can spend more time with your family;
- Saves money, so you can focus on the important things in your life;
- Can literally save your sanity.
It used to take me HOURS to meal plan because we don’t like eating the same thing two days in a row. It was a big challenge to figure out something new to cook every day that everyone would like.
But now that we’re a family of four (including a very picky toddler), I’ve had to make a change in the way that I meal plan.
So I came up with a meal planning system that makes it simple, easy, and the least time consuming for me to do.
I don’t personally do any meal prep in advance (except on the morning of or the night before). But I don’t cut up vegetables or cook meat or anything like that on Sundays to prep for the week. Having said that, I’m sure it would help save even more time! I just don’t have the energy for it.
But, my system works for my family right now and I hope that I’ll be able to help make your life easier at home!
Are you ready? Here’s my step-by-step guide on how to meal plan in under 1 hour.
If you’re a newsletter subscriber, you can grab the FREE Meal Plan Template available in my resources page.
STEP 1: PICK A FREQUENCY
The first thing to do is to pick the frequency at which you’re going to meal plan. Do you want to meal plan every week? every other week? every month? Pick what fits best within your family life and/or schedule.
I do my meal planning every other Tuesday. Seems like a random day of the week to do this, but I follow our pay cycle. We get paid every other Wednesday, so I meal plan on Tuesdays to then do groceries on Wednesdays.
STEP 2: PREPARE A LIST OF FAVOURITE FOODS
This is the most important step because this is the key document from which you’ll source most of your recipes. It should include everything that your family eats and LIKES.
I’ve separated my list by meal (breakfast, lunch, dinner, snacks). Although I definitely don’t meal plan all these categories, the document is still a good resource if I’m ever in a pinch and need an idea.
I simply use a Google document so that I can have access to it from anywhere. But this can simply be a piece of paper that you hang in your pantry or your cookbook.
Once you’ve got your list of foods, set it aside and move on to the next step.
STEP 3: PREPARE YOUR CALENDAR
Once you know when you’ll be meal planning, prepare your meal planning calendar.
This can be as simple as having a white board calendar, a chalkboard with the days of the week written on it, or even using Google Calendar. It doesn’t have to be fancy (unless you want it to). It just needs to be a space for you to write down your meals.
I use a calendar that I’ve developed in Google Docs, which includes my themes and my sources (see next steps).
- If you’re a pen and paper kind of person, the FREE Meal Plan Template available on my resources page is a print (and fancier) version of what I use.
This is where you should decide how many meals you want to plan for.
I plan for both lunch and dinner while I’m still on mat leave. But once I go back to work, I’ll have to scale back to only planning dinners and making sure I have leftovers instead.
So pick whichever meals (breakfast, lunch, dinner, and/or snacks) you think you need to plan for.
PICK YOUR THEMES
Have you heard of Meatless Monday or Taco Tuesdays as meal planning themes?
This is also very important step. Each day is assigned a theme to help narrow down the recipes if you need to look for a new one.
For example, I use Meatless, Pasta, Grill, Soup, etc. as daily themes within my calendar.
- The Meal Plan Template available on my Free Resources page includes my themes.
While I meal plan every other week, I use a monthly calendar so that I can easily move things around to the following meal planning period if need be.
Meaning, if I realize that I haven’t cooked a recipe within my meal planning period, I simply move it to the next period. Not only does this make my next meal planning session easier, but it also helps me save on groceries because I technically already have the ingredients for it!
PICK YOUR SOURCES
We’re starting to build a really strong foundation for meal planning now!
Here’s an additional tip that has made my meal planning that much easier: In addition to a theme, each day of the week is assigned a “recipe source”.
My four main sources are: Instant Pot, Cookbook, Website, and AirFryer.
I alternate these sources within my calendar.
If I’m looking for a recipe for Wednesday night, I look at my calendar heading that says
WEDNESDAY / Stir Fry / Breakie 4 dinner / (cookbook)
I have two themes here (Stir Fry / Breakie 4 Dinner) because I want to give myself a bit of a choice for that day. But you can certainly limit it to one.
Then I have (cookbook), meaning I should look through my cookbooks to find either a stir fry or a breakfast for dinner recipe.
STEP 4: START MEAL PLANNING AND POPULATE YOUR CALENDAR
Now that you’ve built your template, prepared your list of favourite foods, and decided on your frequency, it’s time to actually meal plan.
The first thing you want to do is cross off any busy dates within your timeframe. Mark down any meals where you know you’ll be eating out, or know you’ll need a quick dinner based on your family calendar (soccer game, visiting grandma out of town, hosting a party, etc.).
Once you know what to expect within your timeframe, populate your calendar with as many of your favourite foods as possible. You can choose to follow your daily themes here, but I don’t. I just plug in the meals based on what I’m doing during my timeframe. For example, I plan for easier meals on Sunday nights if I know that we’ll be gone all day.
MEAL PLANNING HACKS
- When you input your favourite foods into your calendar, find the ones that you can double up and add a symbol next to them to remember to make extra of the recipe so you can freeze half of it for later. For example, I add (++) next to my spaghetti sauce. I make extra because I know that some days I won’t feel like cooking and can just pull it out and heat it up.
- Within every planning period, I plan for at least 2 brand new recipes that I could potentially add to my favourite foods list. That way, I don’t always eat the same thing over and over again, month after month.
- Using a digital calendar is useful to keep track of where your recipes are. I pull a lot of my recipes from the Internet, so I just link up to the recipe right from my calendar.
- If you have time/energy, keep an inventory of your pantry and freezer foods. I use magnetic white boards that I found at the dollar store stuck right on my freezer indicating the foods that I have in there. While this isn’t necessary, it would definitely help with meal planning because you would preferably use what you already have in stock.
Did I miss anything? I think I’ve rounded up all the details of how I meal plan.
I know it seems daunting, but after setting up your foundation, meal planning will become a breeze and you’ll feel much more organized, accomplished, and less stressed about meal time!