Meal planning saved my life (and no, I’m not kidding). Because I was that mom going to the grocery store trying to put meals and a grocery list together in my head with my kids in the cart screaming a million-and-one requests at me.
I’d be standing there in the middle of the aisle (looking like a deer in headlights) trying to plan meals, trying not to forget ingredients, trying to keep my kids in check, and trying to stay on budget.
It was ALL overwhelming.
Has this ever happened to you? Have you ever tried to grocery shop while planning meals in your head, but you can’t even hear yourself think? It is the WORST.
So after talking to my therapist about my anxiety attacks that would always happen in the middle of me grocery shopping, she asked if I’ve tried meal planning?
She went on to explain how simple meal planning actually is, and that’s when it hit me—I knew that taking this extra step was going to change my (mom) life!
Now when I go to the store, I know exactly what I’m shopping for—instead of stopping the cart every two seconds trying to make up my mind—and I can put blinders on for all of the stuff that used to distract and overwhelm me. (Finally!)
So today, I’m going to show you the steps I take to take the overwhelm out of meal planning for beginners. Because honestly, I believe taking these steps will make meal planning less scary for you too!
But isn’t meal planning going to take a lot of time?
Of course, meal planning for beginners will be time-consuming every week…but so will grocery shopping. The biggest difference though is your sanity—you’ll stress less about getting food on the table because you have a plan.
And if you’re on a budget, meal planning will also save you more money on food! Seriously. We went from spending over $600/month to under $400/month on groceries without coupons!
Here are 6 simple steps to meal planning for beginners:
1. Check your schedule.
Before you sit down to start meal planning, it’s a good idea to pull out your calendar and check your schedule so that you can plan your meals around it. Do you have an evening doctor appointment or little league practices twice a week?
You’re simply looking for days that may interfere with you being able to cook dinner. These will be the days that you will need simple dinner solutions—like easy, quick meals or leftovers.
After you’ve reviewed your schedule, you can move on to Step #2.
2. Brainstorm simple dinner recipes to fill up your week.
When you’re just beginning to meal plan, it may be tempting to hop onto Pinterest to find a bunch of homemade recipes. But filling up your week with brand new recipes that you’ve never made before isn’t going to keep you motivated to steer clear of the drive-thru if you’re not used to making meals every night.
Because I can tell you that going from eating takeout 3-4 times a week to actually being in the kitchen and cooking 3-4 times a week is HARD…but it IS possible!
So to make things easier on you, you should stick to cooking simple meals that you already know how to make over the next few weeks or find simple dinner recipes with less than 10 ingredients until you get used to meal planning and cooking dinner.
Food like pancakes for dinner and hot dogs or sloppy joes make great simple meals! Grab a pen and paper and start brainstorming as many simple dinner meal ideas as you can, then choose 5-7 meals that you will eat next week.
3. Limit your sides to 1 or 2.
I don’t really enjoy cooking, so the one thing that helps me to get out of the kitchen faster is to limit our side dishes. You’re not a bad mom if you’re not cooking like it’s Thanksgiving dinner every. single. night.
It is perfectly O.K. to feed your family one or two side dishes. (I promise, you won’t be starving them!). Here are some of my favorite simple side dish ideas that you can steal:
- Baked Beans
- Canned or Frozen Vegetables
- Steamed Rice
- Fresh Fruit
- Mashed Potatoes
- Dinner Rolls
- French Fries
Now, you can pair your side dish ideas with your simple dinner ideas that you’ve chosen for next week from Step #2.
4. Put your breakfast and lunch on autopilot.
Now that we got dinner out the way, I know you are wondering what we should do about breakfast and lunch. And to be honest, it is SO much easier to put your breakfast and lunch on autopilot when you’re a beginner at meal planning.
The goal here is to eat the same things until you get used to meal planning for a few weeks. For instance, you can choose to just eat something like cereal and bagels or frozen waffles for breakfast. And for lunch, eat dinner leftovers or turkey sandwiches with chips and fresh fruit.
So choose 2 to 3 options for easy breakfast and lunch meals for now—that way you can completely focus all of your energy on planning for dinner each week and avoid getting overwhelmed.
5. Make a menu.
Whew! The hard part is done now. This is where things become a little more fun. All you’re going to do here is turn your list of dinner, side dishes, breakfast and lunch ideas into a menu!
If you know that you’re going to eat the same things for breakfast and lunch then there’s no real reason to write this down. However, you’re going to need an easy way to keep your dinner menu organized for next week. That’s why I created a simple dinner menu printable for beginners that you can download for free right here!
As you’re filling in your dinner ideas for the week, make sure that you’re keeping your schedule in mind. And you also want to keep in mind that any meals requiring fresh ingredients (like vegetables or garnishment) need to be made earlier in the week so that the ingredients don’t go bad before you get a chance to cook with them.
Once you’ve made your dinner menu using our FREE Dinner Menu Printable, you should put it somewhere (like on your fridge) where everyone can see it, and so that you can be committed to sticking to it!
6. Make your grocery list.
Grab another sheet of paper because it’s time to start making your grocery list. You want to do this now so that you’ll have everything you need to cook your meals next week.
While you’re making your grocery list, don’t forget to check your pantry, freezer, and fridge to make sure you’re not buying items you already have. (Trust me, taking this extra step now will save you the time and frustration of wondering if you have ketchup or not at home when you’re at the store.)
Another reason you want to make your grocery list now is, if you are anything like me, you probably dread going grocery shopping. It easily feels like an added chore that you just don’t have the time or energy for. So making a grocery list and taking inventory of what you have in stock beforehand will just ensure that you only have to go shopping ONCE (instead of making several trips to and from throughout the week).
So what’s next?
From here, you will just choose a day to go grocery shopping. And in case you are wondering, I do not do all my meal planning and grocery shopping on the same day—I just find that it’s easier on me if I split these tasks up.
Going forward, you can continue using these steps to make your own meal plan week after week. But if you want easy and done-for-you meal plans, I’m REALLY loving the $5 Meal Plan because all I have to do is buy the ingredients!
For only $5 a month, you get access to hundreds of premade meal plans, plus custom meal plans delivered to you every week full of easy and affordable recipes, a grocery list, and new, delicious meals that your family can try when you get tired of eating the same stuff!
(P.S. You can also read why I love the $5 Meal Plan here too!)