As I sat down to create my meal plan today, I realized that I have a specific process that I follow each week. I thought it might be helpful to have a list of the basic steps that get me from a blank meal planning template to a complete meal plan! I have also elaborated on each item below the list.
- Look at your calendar.
- Fill in dinners on the meal plan.
- Fill in breakfasts on the meal plan.
- Fill in lunches on the meal plan.
- Fill in snacks on the meal plan.
- Make a shopping list based on the meal plan.
- Check your inventory & revise your list as needed.
- Print your meal plan for reference throughout the week.
STEP 1 – LOOK AT FAMILY CALENDAR
The first thing I do is look at our calendar for the week to see what is scheduled. This helps me figure out which nights we need a super quick meal and which nights I have time for a more elaborate meal or a new recipe. This also helps me plan in when/if we will eat out or be eating with others. If we are not eating at home a night or two, those meals do not need planned for and shopped for!
STEP 2 – FILL IN DINNERS ON THE MEAL PLAN
I start with my husband’s meals because he is the picky eater. He can’t go more than 2 weeks without repeating meals. I could definitely go longer, but I won’t force him to eat things he doesn’t like. Once I have his meals on the schedule, I fill in my dinners with items that are similar/coordinating or that are easy to cook with his meal (same oven temperature, different cooking method, etc).
We struggled for a long time to find out how to make dinners work when we have such different tastes. Now that I am cooking many things in advance, it is not always essential that we eat the same things. I try to cook things that coordinate so I am not cooking two totally separate meals. It is better to find the balance than for one of us to be upset all the time! I spent a long time eating what he would eat and feeling frustrated and unsatisfied. Now we are both enjoying our meals much more and with much less stress.
STEP 3 – FILL IN BREAKFASTS ON THE MEAL PLAN
Breakfast is usually my easiest meal because I am only planning for myself and because I have many make ahead options. I realize if you are planning for family, the dynamic will be different. However, having a plan and make ahead options can make mornings easier for anyone. I try to rotate 2 or 3 things so I don’t get bored. I’m always afraid that if I let myself get bored, I will start craving things that are not conducive to my plan. It might sound crazy to have options on a busy morning, but it doesn’t have to be if the meals are done ahead of time like mine usually are!
STEP 4 – FILL IN LUNCHES ON THE MEAL PLAN
Lunches are the meals that I can really get creative with. I used to stick to the easiest option like a frozen meal with an apple, but it really wasn’t satisfying. I would end up craving something or even getting genuinely hungry before I was finished working. When I started doing more freezer cooking last year, I found that I could have homemade delicious meals that I made in advance. I can get more creative with these meals because I don’t have to worry about my husband not liking it since I am only making them for myself! Recently a friend and I started sharing food to save on prep time. Admittedly there is a little coordination involved, but it is worth it.
STEP 5 – FILL IN SNACKS ON THE MEAL PLAN
This might seem like a silly step to some of you. You might be thinking that it is too structured or rigid. It’s really not rigid at all. It’s just designed to get you thinking about healthy, portion controlled snacks that you want to have on hand. This is also very important for sticking to a calorie or points budget. If you plan your meals but then snack mindlessly, you could be undoing all your hard work!
Snacking is the easiest time for me to get off track or out of control. I try to think of when I might need a snack out of hunger or based on the size of the meals I am having. I also try to think of when I might just WANT a snack, which is usually at night after dinner. If I didn’t plan for this and have point-friendly options on hand, I could be in big trouble. My snacks don’t vary much during the week because I have to have things that are portable and able to be eaten in the car.
My evening snacks are often different, but I recently decided that I need to plan these as well. Otherwise I end up overeating snacks just because I have the points available! My evening snacks are usually my “treats” like chips or desserts. I am adding points values to my meal plan to help me visualize what I have available for snacks. I didn’t do this before because I know that most of my meals are point friendly. However, I find myself spending too much on snacks regardless of how many points I spent throughout the day. This causes me to dip into my weekly points for a snack instead of saving them for a true indulgence. If I have a higher point lunch or dinner, I truly SHOULD use fewer points on snacks. Hopefully having the numbers on my meal plan will help with that! Having the numbers on my plan also means that I won’t have to scramble and look up points when it is time to eat dinner! I talk about the importance of this in my post about research, but I don’t always follow my own advice! 😉
STEP 6 – MAKE A SHOPPING LIST BASED ON YOUR MEAL PLAN
This step should be pretty obvious, but I always seem to forget it!!! I will think about what I have when I’m making my meal plan, but I often forget to check that I have EVERY ingredient or ENOUGH of a specific ingredient. At this step, I do not go to my kitchen or try to remember what I have or don’t have. This step is just about getting a complete list of items you will need for your week.
I always THINK I know what I have, but I get proven wrong when I am one ingredient short of making a recipe! 😀 This can be time consuming at first, but it definitely gets easier. Save lists on the computer of what ingredients you need for each recipe. When you are making that recipe, just copy and paste those ingredients into your shopping list!
STEP 7 – CHECK YOUR INVENTORY & REVISE YOUR LIST
Once I have a complete list of items needed to complete my meal plan, then I head to my kitchen to check inventory. If I already have items needed for my meal plan, I cross them off the list. If I remember something else I need as I’m looking, I add that to the list. This is also the time that I make sure I have ENOUGH of each ingredient. I know that I currently have lettuce and bacon in the fridge, but do I have ENOUGH to complete all the meals that call for those items? I am guilty of assuming, and I always regret it! What’s the point of planning ahead if you end up short an ingredient and have to change everything at the last minute anyway? It’s super frustrating and annoying, so learn from my mistakes with this one!
STEP 8 – PRINT YOUR MEAL PLAN FOR REFERENCE
Again, this step might seem obvious. The key is not printing your plan. The key is referring to your plan! Don’t take the time to plan your week and then never look at it again. Hang it on the fridge or put it on your memo board. If you don’t have the plan out in front of you, how will you remember everything? We are all so busy and have so many things to keep track of, that it is way too easy to forget the simple things.
I use my plan at night to determine what I might need to pull out of the freezer for the next day. I use my plan when packing my lunch to ensure I don’t forget anything. Of course I’ll remember that I need a lunch, but will I remember to grab my salad dressing and my snack? Without referring to my meal plan, I might forget. Then I would be at work without good choices handy, and that leads to trouble!
The plan can also help other family members. If my hubby sees that I am planning to have a Fiber One bar for a snack, he will not eat the last one (if he values his life). If he knows we are having burgers but I haven’t taken them out of the freezer, he can take them out for us. If he sees we are low on an ingredient that we need, he can alert me so I stop at the store. If he didn’t know what we were having, he wouldn’t know how he could help.
I hope this 8 step meal plan process simplifies meal planning for you. It doesn’t take that long, and it saves so much stress throughout the week. Get started today by using a free meal planning template!