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Meal planning is so beneficial that even the CDC recommends it. In my personal experience, it has enabled control over what I eat, saved me money, helped me make a healthy dietary change, and prevented waste in my kitchen. It has also made the way I write grocery lists and go shopping more efficient.
Having to think about what’s for dinner after a tiring day is exhausting in itself. A meal plan can simplify the process. Getting started can feel intimidating, but planning and prepping meals doesn’t have to be difficult. Becoming consistent with meal planning took me some time, but incorporating these six steps into my routine changed everything.
The first thing I do to put together my weekly meal plan is consider my schedule for the week ahead. I think about commitments, plans, deadlines, and my overall workload that week. There may be days I don’t need to plan for certain meals or any meals at all. On days I have late commitments or am jam-packed with work, I plan for quick and low-effort meals. I also try to plan for at least one or two easy dinners that require little cleanup to always be prepared for life’s surprises.
I check my pantry, fridge, and freezer for ingredients I already have on hand. I try to build meal plans around those ingredients and only shop for what I need or am running low on. I also pick recipes for the week that have the ingredients that are sitting in my fridge with close expiration dates.
When making my weekly meal plan and grocery list, I think about applying versatility to ingredients. For example, if a recipe calls for cilantro, but not enough to use the whole bunch, I try to brainstorm other meals I could incorporate into my meal plan that week to use the rest. If I’m having chicken breast one night, I cook enough to have leftovers to use for a Southwestern or Caesar chicken salad on a different day that same week.
Leftovers are another crucial consideration in creating my weekly meal plan. I will purposefully plan to have dinner leftovers at least twice a week (sometimes more), and have those leftovers for dinner or lunch on another day. Doing this saves me from cooking more and is a godsend on frantic weeks.
Writing out each planned meal for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, as well as penciling in my snacks for each day, helps keep me committed to eating and cooking with the groceries I purchase.
2. Choose a pre-prep day.
Meal planning and prepping is more than picking out your meal menu. Setting aside time to get ahead with meal prepping is just as important as setting the time aside for the actual prep itself.
On pre-prep day, I take the time to read over the recipes I’ll be using for the week to know what to expect when prepping. I like having my expectations set so I can feel less overwhelmed when cooking, especially when trying out new recipes. I also use pre-prep day to do things like chop the vegetables I’ll need during the week, organize everything in the fridge and pantry by recipe, and ensure that all the utensils, equipment, pots, and pans I’ll need for prepping are washed. If I’m making a meal like quinoa bowls that week, I cook the quinoa and/or boil the chicken on pre-prep day for later in the week. Having certain components ready ahead of time makes all the difference on stressful days when I don’t want to spend so much time in the kitchen and am ready to unwind on the couch. It also keeps me from giving in to the temptation of ordering takeout. Setting aside at least 30 to 45 minutes for pre-prep every week helps set me up for consistent and successful meal prepping.
3. Build and reuse core recipes.
An essential part of meal planning is amassing a collection of recipes. I got started the typical millennial way and went down a Pinterest recipe inspo rabbit hole. I used recipes passed down to me and those found online to modify and make them my own.
Each week, I cycle through my favorite recipes and occasionally experiment with new ones. Trying out new recipes and diversifying my culinary options keeps me from getting stuck in a rut. I’ve gotten a big enough rotation going that I don’t feel bored with the dishes I’m eating.
Brainstorming recipes that check off certain criteria is also important to my process. For instance, I have a collection of recipes saved in a “Whip Up in Under 10 Minutes” folder, a “Rotisserie Chicken Recipes” folder, a folder for “One Dish Recipes,” and another titled “30-Minute Meals.” This makes it easy to consider the energy I want to spend on cooking.
As my recipe list has diversified, I’ve gotten less inclined to go through the drive-through or call for takeout. The more I cook at home, the less boring my home-cooked meals get, and the bigger my recipe archives become.
My Instant Pot is my best friend on hectic weeks. Why do all the work when a slow cooker or pressure cooker can do it for me? On days it’s more difficult to put a meal together time-wise, I opt for slow cooker recipes that will have dinner ready by the time I’m off work. Meals whipped up together quickly in the Instant Pot are also lifesavers on these days. There are thousands of slow cooker and pressure cooker recipes available online, so I never run out of dishes to try. I cooked a lot of these types of recipes when I started trying to make meal planning and eating at home a habit.
5. Stock up on spices, sauces, and sides.
When I was first starting out trying to be consistent with cooking at home, it was often sides that became my undoing. Oftentimes I knew what my entree was, but had a hard time coming up with sides to serve it with. Plenty of times I used this as my excuse to hop into my car and head to the drive-through. It was a never-ending trap I eventually prevented by stockpiling my freezer with frozen veggies. Some weeks, I forgo sides altogether and cook one-dish meals.
Easy recipes can taste wildly different by doing something as simple as switching up the herbs and spices used to cook them with. Oregano, thyme, basil, and garlic powder give an Italian taste. Cumin and chili powder give a nice Mexican flavor. Chinese five-spice adds an Asian flair. Having a diverse stash of spices also comes in handy when I’m making DIY seasonings.
Stocking up on sauces allows me to cut corners for convenience when needed. For instance, I make an easy barbecue chicken dish by simply throwing the chicken into the pot with some store-bought BBQ sauce and slow-cooking it. When I’m short on time and a recipe says to whip up a specific sauce, I let myself cheat by grabbing it from the fridge if I have it.
Some weeks I make enough food to freeze to have for future weeks. I especially try to do this on weeks that I have more free time — so I can thank myself later. Casseroles, soups, and pasta sauces freeze well. I also freeze leftovers that didn’t get eaten, incorporating those into my upcoming weekly meal plan to eat right away. All I have to do is write my frozen meal into my weekly plan and heat it up on its designated day and time!