The Beginner’s Guide to Meal Planning in 7 Easy Steps with Free Printable Cheat Sheets!

What is Meal Planning, and Why Would I Want to Do It?

Meal planning is so important to me! Why? It eliminates so much daily stress from my life! You know the saying, “Having a plan is half the battle”? Well, this is so true for me when it comes to dinner time each and every night! Having a meal plan can also save you  A LOT of money!  We spend so much more money eating out than we do eating in! And the food at restaurants is usually much higher in calories, salt, fat, sugar, etc. than home-cooked meals are. It is still fun to eat out sometimes, I will admit, but making it part of your meal plan (a small part) will keep you from sabotaging your wallet AND your health!

I remember as a child seeing my mom’s meal plan on a notepad on top of our microwave once in a while. She kept a list of meal ideas handy. I never saw anything more than this, but it was the beginnings, in my own mind, of the realization that meal preparation doesn’t happen out of thin air!

Meal planning for me is mapping out my dinner plans one week at a time. If I happen to have extra time, and extra ideas for meals, or am feeling a bit ambitious, I will go ahead and plan more weeks, but always one week per plan. This keeps it simple, flexible, and much more likely for me to carry out.

When many people hear “meal planning,” they tend to think of elaborate, home-cooked, from-scratch meals that will make them a slave in the kitchen! For many busy moms, that’s a cue to turn and run! I am here to teach you that the opposite, is, in fact, true! Having a meal plan will free up your brain fog when your family asks: “Mom! What’s for dinner?!” You will be able to say, “Chicken and rice casserole with salad and fruit!” (or whatever you choose) Woohoo! You just conquered a battlefield! Go you!

Tips for Successful Meal Planning:

  • Anyone can be a success in meal planning! Just follow these 7 Simple Steps and you will be singing the praises of meal planning before you know it!
  • Remember: Keep it SIMPLE! The simpler your meal plan is, the more likely you are to follow through with it.
  • Plan foods you know your family will eat. It’s okay to throw in an adventurous new recipe here and there, but don’t go crazy! Stick with what you know will get eaten. Once you get the hang of it, you will be able to judge a little better what new foods are more likely to be accepted by your family.

How do I Get Started with Meal Planning?

All you need to get started with meal planning are a few sheets of paper and a pen (or my downloadable cheat sheets), a knowledge of what types of foods your family likes, and about 20-30 minutes. This time window will shrink as you get more practice. Soon you will be a pro meal planner!

Step #1 – Write down the days of the week on a sheet of paper or use my free meal planner cheat sheet.

  • Begin with the day of the week you will be needing to start.

    • You don’t need to start with Sunday! Start where you are! Is it Tuesday? Then begin with Tuesday at the top of your list, and write down the days of the week ending with Monday.

Step #2 – Look at your calendar for the week.

  • Mark busy evenings with a star.

  • As you go through your list of meal ideas, you can place the easiest and fastest meals on your busiest evenings.

  • If you have dinner plans elsewhere for an evening, make sure to write that down, too.

Step #3 – Take a peek in your fridge and pantry.

  • Write down any items that need to be used. If you aren’t sure what to make with them, try using as they have a search feature for ingredients. I love this feature! I have also found many great recipes there that my family loves!
  • While you’ve got your head in the fridge, go ahead and throw out any questionable items. I find that adding this to my routine keeps me from the dreaded “clean out the fridge” day. 

Step #4 – Fill in your meal planner cheat sheet or list.

  • As I mentioned above, is a great website for finding recipes if you get stuck, and each recipe has user ratings; bonus!
  • Look on Pinterest for meal ideas! This is my favorite way to search for ideas because of the beautiful pictures of each recipe!
  • Glance back over your list of meals to check for redundancy.
    • Mix it up a little! Make sure that you aren’t eating Mexican food 3 nights in a row, or chicken for 5 of your 7 meals (unless, of course, that’s what you WANT)! I find that making a final visual sweep of my plan helps me avoid these things.

Step #5 – Compile your ingredient and shopping lists.

  • Write down all the ingredients required for all of the meals you have planned on your Weekly Ingredient List Cheat Sheet. Don’t just write down what you don’t have, but ALL of the ingredients. You will save this list with your menu plan for future reference. Once you have several meal plans made with ingredient lists, all you’ll have to do is shuffle back through them to find a meal plan you haven’t used in a while, and voila! Your ingredient list is all ready to go! You smart cookie!
  • Once you have that all finished, go ahead and add some breakfast and lunch items to your shopping list. I never plan out a menu for breakfast or lunch. We usually have leftovers or simple things for lunch, and breakfast is usually every alert person for themselves, haha!

Step #6 – Look at the grocery store’s flier when you first walk through their doors!

  • I know this sounds silly, but take a quick glance through the sales ad and circle anything you see in the ad that is on your list. Then, IF there are any particularly good sales on items you use frequently, and IF you have the wiggle room in your grocery budget, stock up on those items.

Step #7 – The Last Thing You Need to Know about Meal Planning is . . .

  • STICK TO YOUR SHOPPING LIST AS MUCH AS POSSIBLE! This will force you to stick with your meal plan, and save you money as you do.
  • Resist impulse buying! This is a hard one! DO NOT GO TO THE GROCERY STORE WHILE YOU ARE HUNGRY!!! This is a huge game changer for me! EVERYTHING looks good to me when I am hungry!
  • YOU CAN DO THIS! It just takes a little practice, but the rewards of planning ahead are so worth it! 

If you have any great meal planning tips you’d be willing to share, please leave a comment below!

And if you are new to meal planning and decide to give it a whirl, please come back and let us know how it goes, and ask any questions you might have!

Happy Meal Planning!

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