Ultimate Meal Planning Guide for Beginners
If you’ve ever considered giving meal planning a try, but you’re not sure exactly how to get started (or if it’s even worth trying), then the Ultimate Meal Planning Guide for Beginners is a must read!
We’re going to go over the top reasons that meal planning is essential, how failing to plan is costing you more money, how to make meal planning part of your everyday routine, and some vital tips that will hold your meal plan together.
We have organized this guide in an easy to follow, step by step fashion so that you can follow along as you create your own first meal plan.
The first thing you’ll need to tackle if you want to start meal planning is simple: figuring out what it actually is!
The quick and dirty answer is this: Meal planning is an organizational method by which you plan out and set up the meals that you will need for a given period of time. Some people like to plan weeks or even months of meals all at once, but as a beginner, we suggest that you start by planning one week at a time.
You may eventually graduate to using a bunch of charts and timelines, and keeping your freezer stocked with frozen meals that are fully prepared ahead of time, but for now, you really don’t want to overcomplicate things.
So now that you know the ‘What’ of meal planning, it’s time to answer another question…Why?
Meal planning is a huge trend in the modern world (and for good reason), especially among mothers with large families. But families are not the only ones who can truly benefit from a solid meal plan. When it comes to saving time, money, and energy, even single people and couples can reap the rewards.
If you get stressed out trying to decide what to eat and just end up eating out all the time, you need a meal plan.
If you want to eat more healthy foods, or even lose weight, you need a meal plan.
If you’re stuck between having too little time to cook and too little money to eat out (do you see a pattern here?)… You need a meal plan.
For everyone from singles to large families, meal planning really is the answer to everything. You may think that doing a full week’s worth of work all at once is difficult and time-consuming, but it’s actually quite the opposite. If you are willing to put in the time and effort, you can actually save tons of time and money while preparing your own healthy meals at home.
So, what about those issues we mentioned earlier? How does having a meal plan solve these problems for you? Let’s take a look at them one by one.
Do You Hate Trying To Decide What To Eat Every Day?
Meal planning takes the stress out of deciding what to eat every time you get hungry. When it’s time for dinner, you will already know exactly what’s on the menu and everything you need will already be in your kitchen waiting for you.
Do You Want To Have A Healthier Diet?
Let’s face it. If you aren’t planning ahead, chances are that you end up eating out way more than you should. Or worse, putting time and effort into a home cooked meal that’s a nutritional disaster. Planning out your meals and shopping ahead of time guarantees that you will be ready to whip up a healthy and delicious meal in minutes.
Do You Feel Like You’re Just Too Busy To Cook?
Most young couples and singles these days are working a lot all the time. Start trying to balance that with some semblance of a personal life, and you won’t be left with much extra time on your hands. It can seem downright impossible to find the time to prepare home-cooked meals for dinner every night.
Or is it?
Actually, if you invest a little extra time on one day of the week, you can shave hours off of your daily schedule. Cutting out constant trips to the grocery store, waiting for food at a restaurant, and standing in line at fast food carts will free up a lot more time than you might think.
Having a solid meal plan will actually put more time BACK into your schedule!
Are Your Current Habits Becoming Too Expensive?
You can put together a delicious, home cooked meal for as little as $2 per person. Compare that to the average $5 – $10 you’ll spend on fast food, and the obvious savings are hard to miss.
You can literally save 50% or more on your monthly food budget by cooking your meals at home.
If you’re feeling a bit intimidated by learning to cook, don’t be. Everyone has to start somewhere, and there are tons of great recipes that are just as quick and easy as they are tasty and fun. It’s not nearly as difficult as you think. Whether you are a single socialite or a multi-tasking mom, planning your meals ahead of time can save you time, money, and energy.
Now that you know what a meal plan is and you’ve decided to give it a try, you’ll need to figure out what you’d like to eat. Since you will be planning out your meals (or at least your dinners) for one full week, there are a couple of important factors you will need to keep in mind.
What Types Of Food Do You Like?
Everyone has their own preferences when it comes to what they eat. One person’s favorite ingredient may be another’s culinary bane. (I’m looking at you, onions.)
Do You Get Bored Easily?
You need to consider this question carefully from both angles. If you don’t think you’d enjoy eating the same meal over and over again, you’ll need to include enough diversity in your meal plan to keep you from getting bored. On the other hand, you may not want to spend every night trying new and exotic foods that you’ve never eaten before. Even if you can power through the first few weeks like this, you’ll never stick with it forever if you don’t plan the right balance of interest and comfort into your meals.
Find you comfort zone and keep it at the front of your mind when you begin planning. Would you like to have a different meal every day of the week, or is Chicken & Rice just as good on Thursday as it was on Monday? You will come up against this question in future weeks, as well. You will need to decide if you want a different set of meals each week or if you are more comfortable with repetitious meals, like Taco Tuesday.
Anything you start to do regularly will take some time to get used to. Don’t get too gung-ho in the first week and let it wear you down before you can settle into the habit of planning your meals.
Once you’ve figured out what types of foods you will want to include in your meal plan, you need to decide on your weekly shopping budget and determine your current cooking abilities before you start choosing recipes.
How much do you currently spend on food each week? If you currently eat out all the time, you’re probably spending quite a bit more than you should be. If you don’t know yet, just track your spending for a week without changing your habits. If you normally eat out 3 nights a week, continue doing so while you track your spending. This will give you a good idea how much your current weekly food budget is. If one of your goals for meal planning is to save money, then cut that amount by about 20% to establish your weekly shopping budget for the grocery store. (You may be able to cut this down even further over time, but let’s not be over-zealous.)
What is your current skill level when it comes to the culinary arts? If you’ve never set up a meal plan before, odds are that you aren’t exactly a gourmet chef. Don’t worry, it only takes a small amount of time for virtually anyone to learn basic cooking skills.
Be honest with yourself. If you have some tougher recipes that you know you’re an absolute rock start at creating, don’t feel like you have to leave them out of your meal plan. But also keep in mind that being too ambitious could ruin your entire week’s worth of meals. Having a good grasp on exactly what you can and can’t do will play a big part in choosing the right recipes for you.
Now that you’ve evaluated how good you are at cooking, you’ll also want to consider how often you want to cook. You may want to plan 3 meals a day for all 7 days of the week, or you may want to start with just dinners. If you are feeling especially apprehensive, you may want to start planning just 2-3 meals per week, and work your way up from there. When you are planning your first week of meals, decide on something that seems incredibly easy to complete. As you gain more experience with both meal planning and cooking, you can add in more meals until you reach the desired amount.
Considering all of these factors ahead of time will make it much easier for you to select the right recipes for exactly what you are hoping to achieve. If you skip this step and jump in without any forethought, you’ll find meal planning a much more difficult task. The meals you choose to eat can be one of the most personal parts of any given day, and being aware of what you like and dislike will be directly related to whether you fail or you succeed. Catering your meal plan to your personal preferences and needs is the best, if not the only way to go.
A few years ago, this list would have been much shorter – but now, with the rising popularity of how important daily nutrition and eating habits are, customized meal planning delivery services have started to spring up to help take better care of you and your food cravings.
Here is a short list (we will do our best to updated with the newest ones as well):
- Blue Apron
- Hello Fresh
- Green Chef
- The Fresh Diet
- Dinner Answers
- Healthy Kids Inc
- Perfect Meal Plans
- Goglia Nutrition
- Slim Down Smart
- Green Blender
- Marley Spoon
- Restaurants on the Run
- Terras Kitchen
- Eat Clean Daily
While some are completely catering to one specific demographic of eaters, others are focusing on other creatures of eating habit and desire – some vegan to some meat heavy, some from fresh to dedicating themselves to deserts and healthy sweets and some are for the survivalist prepper who needs emergency food supplies (as a unique form of meal planning). There is even public figures like Doctor Oz's Day Off Diet/Total Choice meal plans out there.
It is safe to assume that these meal planning food delivery services will continue to rise in popularity, especially those who can cater to local regions. Let's continue our health guide on meal planning and review all the possibilities of feeding yourself without doing much of the thought.
Now that you’ve established what to eat and how often you’d like to eat it, it’s time to start evaluating recipes. A good week of recipes can seem difficult to assemble at first because it requires you to match recipes together based on two very important criteria: You need to establish enough diversity to keep things interesting, but enough similarity to avoid wasting food.
Your first instinct will probably be to select 7 very different dinner recipes so you don’t feel like you are missing out on anything, but if your recipes don’t have anything in common you won’t be able to utilize leftover perishable ingredients from previous meals. You certainly don’t want the same chicken soup every night, but you also don’t want to get stuck with tons of ingredients that will expire before you can use them.
What kinds of ingredients am I talking about? Things like fresh fruits and vegetables that will start to go bad if you don’t use them quickly or lettuce that you used only part of for a salad. You also want to watch out for canned goods that you’ve opened but did not use entirely. It may not seem like it’s worth much thought when you first start meal planning, but if you are trying to save money food waste can be the factor that makes or breaks your success.
Here’s one method you can use to keep food waste to a minimum:
Most of the time, the majority of food waste is due to a single factor: the side dishes. Let’s say you decided to include a side salad with one of your meals this week, but you only used half a bag of lettuce. What will you do with the other half? You’ll need to incorporate it into another meal on this week’s meal plan, otherwise, it will wilt and you’ll have to throw it away. Other food items that you will need to be considerate of include fresh produce, canned fruits and vegetables that have been opened, sauces made (or opened) that you do not use all of, and anything else that has a fairly short shelf life.
However, there are some foods that are fairly safe from the fate of becoming food waste, despite having a fairly short shelf life. Eggs, cheese, and other dairy items are so common in recipes that any leftovers will likely be used up quickly and easily. If not, you can always just make yourself an omelet. Meats also fall into this category, as they can easily be used by themselves or as part of a lunch or snack.
It is unlikely that you will ever be left with a common meat or dairy that you have no idea what to do with. That being said, you don’t want to get too creative. Unless you are sure you will be able to get the portions right, you probably don’t want to select 5 different types of meat for one week’s meal plan. Beginners are better off organizing their recipes so that they can work with two meats, and maybe one fish. When all is said and done, you need to evaluate what level of diversity you will be able to maintain while still being happy with and interested in your meals.
You’ll want to consider exactly what kinds of food that you like to eat and then incorporate them into your plan in a way that makes sense. You may love salmon, beef brisket, pork chops, barbecue ribs, and shrimp…but you may not love the hassle of trying to cook it all in one week. Will you even want to have meat at every meal, or any meal? What dishes might you enjoy that do not include meat? You may decide, for example, to cook chicken and rice on Monday and then use the rest of the rice on Tuesday for a vegetarian stir fry. Let your taste buds inspire you, and then make a game of putting together a meal plan that uses as many common ingredients as possible across multiple meals.
Knowing what you like to eat and identifying what foods on that list would work well in multiple diverse recipes will give you a huge leg up when you begin to pick out your recipes. Failing to account for both food waste and your own tastes are the two biggest stumbling blocks on the road to a successful meal plan. Once you’ve got these two factors covered, the hard part is behind you.
Finding Quick & Easy Recipes
Now that you’ve established what you want to eat and how often, getting your hands on the best recipes will be much easier.
Did you decide that you want to use meal planning as a money saving tactic?
How high of a difficulty level will you be skilled enough to handle?
How long will you have each day to prepare your meals? Would you rather spend 30 minutes a day or 4 hours on a Sunday afternoon?
Do you want to use your meal plan as a diet plan as well, and eat only healthy recipes?
Keep your specific criteria in mind when searching through recipes lists. Simplify your requirements down to easily searchable terms like “healthy recipes on a budget” or “low-cost recipes on the go”. A simple Google search for these terms will reward you with a limitless supply of amazing recipes from an unlimited number of sources.
The internet isn’t just useful for finding recipes; it’s also a great place to store them for later use. Online resources like Pinterest or Evernote are a great way to keep all of your saved searches organized and easy to find whenever you next decide to use them.
Now that you’ve found your recipes, organized them based on similar ingredients, and decided what you want to cook during your first week of meal planning, it’s time to create your schedule.
This is where you will decide which meal to prepare on what day, and exactly when throughout that day you will need to be cooking. If you selected a simple crock pot recipe for its super short “set it and forget it” prep time, you’ll need to schedule prep during the morning before you leave for work (or during your lunch break, depending on the recipe’s cook time). If you have one meal that will take a little bit longer to prepare, you will want to schedule it for a day that is not already chocked full of meetings or after work demands on your time. Don’t forget to also schedule in your grocery shopping for one day out of the week.
We suggest that you use an online calendar, such as a Google Calendar, and schedule in each step that you will need to complete at a given time. Schedule your weekend shopping trip and then schedule each meal for a specific day with corresponding prep and cook times. Scheduling your meal plan into an online calendar will allow you to set alerts which can remind you when it is time to complete a step. Imagine sitting on the couch on a Sunday night at 10:00 pm, and suddenly remembering that you didn’t do your grocery shopping that day! By scheduling your meal plan into Google or another equivalent calendar, you can avoid that nightmare by setting a reminder to go off at 4:00 pm.
You can also place a link to the recipe for each meal on your calendar, so it’s super easy to follow the steps and get cooking when the reminder pops up on your screen.
Searching for recipes online can be a huge time suck that leads you down a rabbit hole you will never escape from. This can be avoided by establishing your specific goals and needs ahead of time, including what you want to eat and how long you are willing to take cooking it.
By now you should have your first week of recipes picked out and scheduled for your meal plan. Take a minute to give yourself a pat on the back; you’re doing a great job!
Now it’s time to tackle one part of meal planning where many people can start to stumble: the dreaded trip to the grocery store.
These modern marvels provide us with massive varieties of fresh, frozen, and boxed foods on a daily basis, and most of us would be completely lost and unable to feed ourselves without them. Considering the integral part they play in modern society, you may be surprised to hear that anytime you walk into a grocery store – you are walking into a business that specializes in mind games. Grocery stores are designed, down to the very layout of the aisles, to manipulate consumers into spending more time and money in the store than they actually need to.
For example, did you know that grocery store shelves are organized in such a manner that the most affordable products and brands are always on the bottom shelf where you are least likely to select them? This is just one example of how grocery stores use psychology to make more money, and we certainly can’t blame them. After all, a grocery store is a business just like any other. What we can do is keep our own set of trick in mind anytime we go shopping.
Beating The System
Now that you are armed with your recipes for this week, it’s time to head to the grocery store to do battle. There are a few simple methods that you can use to ensure your success.
- Make sure you have a list before going to the store
- Stick to the outside edges. Avoid going down the aisles.
- Never go grocery shopping while hungry.
Making A List
This is probably the most important thing that you can do to ensure that you stay on task while shopping. Make sure you put together your grocery list before you get to the store, and don’t deviate from it. This will also help you to make sure that you don’t forget anything, and that you pick up the right portions for what you will be cooking that week.
Some people like to use a small memo pad for their shopping lists, while others prefer a more tech savvy approach. You can create very simple shopping lists on your smart phone with applications like Apple Notes or Wunderlist. Depending on where you shop, you may even be able to create a list that is specific to your store. Walmart, for example, has a free app available that allows you to select specific products to add to your shopping list, and can even tell you whether or not the items are in stock before you get to the store.
Most Grocery stores are laid out in a set pattern, which places fresh foods like meat, dairy, and produce around the outside walls of the store. Junk foods, processed foods, and snacks are then placed in the aisles. This makes sense because your fresh foods will need to be refrigerated while overly processed foods can stand on room temperature shelves. To use this layout to your advantage, go all the way around the outside of the store first, grabbing all of the fresh items you will need from your shopping list. Then, go down only the aisles that hold something remaining on your list. If there is nothing on your list down a given aisle, skip it.
Never Shop Hungry
It may seem like a simple step, and may even seem a bit odd. Just trust us, the hungrier you are when you go shopping, the more likely you are to purchase things you don’t really need. Hungry eyes do not make for good shopping gear. Plan your weekly shopping trip for a time right after one of your meals, perhaps on Sunday after you’ve just finished eating lunch.
If your shopping trip is sometime in the future, remember to schedule a reminder on your calendar to make sure that you don’t forget or lose track of time. For repetitive tasks, like shopping every Sunday, you can set your calendar event to repeat so that you don’t have to schedule it every single week.
Grocery Shopping is one of the most dreaded household chores, and it’s one that meal planning will actually make easier and more enjoyable. By planning your meals and compiling your shopping list ahead of time, this task becomes one of the easiest on your to-do list.
Time to Get Cooking
You’ve finished all of the planning, and now it’s time to actually make the meals. Despite being the final and most natural step to this process, it’s also the one where the most people fail.
People love making plans. We draw up long to do lists, write out the steps for home renovation projects, and schedule some “me time” on a pretty consistent basis. The one thing that all of these plans have in common is that they are just as consistently left uncompleted. We love to think about doing things, but we aren’t so in love with actually doing them. This is something that you will have to overcome if you want to be successful at meal planning.
You’ve already planned out your meals and purchased ingredients, so let’s take a look at a few of the reasons you still might not actually get cooking.
Are You Too Tired To Cook?
The biggest reason many people don’t follow through with their meal plan is that they feel too tired after work to do any cooking. The most interesting thing about that is that the actual motion of preparing food is not what most people feel tired from. Deciding what to cook, pulling together ingredients, and figuring out how to put it all together take a much more significant toll on a tired mind than physically completing the tasks. With a meal plan, all of those portions of the cooking process are already done. All you have to do is grab your recipes and follow the steps.
Are Your Utensils And Cookware Ready?
Sometimes before you can get cooking, you have to spend 10 minutes or more looking for the exact bowl or pot you need. This adds tremendously to the total prep time of your meal, and can leave you feeling like it was far more work than it should have been.
You can avoid this by setting out all of the cookware and utensils you will need for that night’s meal the night before during clean up, or in the morning before leaving for work. Having everything you need out and ready on the stove top or counter can be a huge jump start on your meal preparations.
Give Yourself Time
Anytime you are forming a new habit, it takes time. Whether you are learning meal planning or training yourself to get up earlier, accept that you will need a sufficient amount of time before it becomes second nature. You may forget to prepare dinner or even actively ‘cheat’ on your meal plan a few times, but don’t let that discourage you. You can always just pick up where you left off the next day.
Remember, planning your meals is only part of the process. Your meal plan is only as good as your follow through. You will get better at this as meal planning becomes a habit and you start to find all of the little tricks that make your meal plan more convenient for your personal lifestyle.
Review & Revise
Congratulations! You have successfully completed your first week of meal planning. Before you start planning week 2, there are a few things you will want to evaluate and make adjustments to. The biggest thing to remember during this step is this: No matter what happened, you’re doing a good job. You may not have cooked as many pre-planned meals as you intended to or done the best job at minimizing waste, but do not look at your first week as a failure. This first week has been a learning experience that will help you work out the kinks and improve your meal plan moving forward.
Think about how your first week of meal planning went. Did one of your recipes take much longer than you expected? Throw out that recipe or schedule it for a day when you have more cooking time. Did you try a new type of food and learn that you really hate it? Remove that ingredient from future recipes.
Take every chance you can to simplify your meal plan and tailor it to your personal needs. The best meal plan for a mother of 4 is not necessarily going to work for a single college student. If you work full-time on the night shift, you won’t have the same cooking schedule as a typical office worker. You can customize your timing, your recipes, and your ingredient until you have a meal plan that is as personal to you as your fingerprint.
Even once you have a meal plan that is 100% perfect for you, there are still some considerations that need to be made on a regular basis to ensure that your meal plan remains so.
Are Your Ingredients In Season?
You will probably choose to use seasonal ingredients in your recipes. In fact, you may find enough recipes that completely avoid using them, even if you want to. You should be evaluating your meal plan once every 3 months or so, to ensure that your ingredients have not gone out of season.
Are You Still Cooking For The Same People?
If you started your meal plan as a single person, what happens after your new boyfriend moves in? You will need to take his tastes into account when planning meals, in addition to his work schedule and goals such as budgeting or weight loss. You will also want to consider how cooking for 2 will affect your portion sizes and food waste. This is also true if you have a family and a baby is on the way, or an older child moves away. Always keep in mind who exactly you will be cooking for.
Completing your first few weeks of meal planning is a major success, but remember that your meal plan is a fluid process. Accept that there will always be adjustments needed, and there is always room to improve. Always be evaluating and improving on what went well (and not so well) in previous weeks.
Now that you’ve learned how to put together your very first meal plan, customize it to your needs, and execute it efficiently, we truly hope that you will take this new habit forward into your everyday life. From deciding on staples to selecting recipes, grocery shopping to whipping up delicious dinners, we have tried to provide you with a comprehensive and easy to follow guide that can turn any beginner into a meal planning pro in just a short period of time.
Meal planning is one of the most valuable and useful habits that you can form in your adult life, and it is likely to reap more rewards than you original sought. Your meal plan can help you have a healthier diet, stop wasting time and money on restaurants and fast food, and relieve some of the stress from your daily routine.
Whether you are planning meals for an entire family, just a couple of people, or only yourself, the benefits are undeniable. Meal planning truly is one of the best habits that you can form to completely reshape your life and your health.