This guide to Meal Planning for Beginners will tell you everything you need to know. We break down meal planning into simple, easy, doable steps.
Are you interested in meal planning, but aren't sure where to begin?
I know, it can be overwhelming. Don't worry though, I've got you. I've devoted my career to meal planning, helping thousands of families to start the habit. Along the way, I've seen all sorts of challenges and stumbling blocks. My meal planning guide for beginners is specifically designed to help you through these challenges!
Before you begin, I just want to encourage you – don't give up!
As with any new habit, fitting in meal planning and meal prep can seem daunting. I promise though, it will get so much easier once you get going and it is SO worth it.
Easy Meal Planning in 5 Steps
1. Start Slow
One of the biggest mistakes people make when trying to start a new habit is doing too much too soon.
Just like you'll get an injury if you go from never running to running every day, you'll almost certainly get burned out if you go from zero meal planning to planning every breakfast, lunch and dinner for the week.
Instead, take a step back. Remember that you're trying to start a meal planning habit for the long run.
To determine where to begin, start by identifying your pain points throughout the week.
Do you wake up and find you have nothing quick and healthy to eat for breakfast in the mornings?
Are you sick of eating a granola bar for lunch or getting takeout because you have nothing planned and zero time to think about it during the workday?
Do you dread the 5 PM hour when you know your hangry kids will start melting down and you have no plan for dinner?
Start by planning whatever meal is causing you the most trouble! You may start by simply planning the week's dinners. Once you have that down, you can start planning breakfasts and lunches if you like. Or not – do what works for you!
2. Review Your Calendar
Now that you know what your priorities are, take a look at your calendar for the week. This will allow you to determine how many dinners you need to plan for the week. Take into account nights you'll get takeout or have dinner with friends and nights you think you'll have leftovers from the night before.
Now you should have a number of dinner recipes you'll need. For most people, this will be 4-5 dinners. However, if you have a large family and never have leftovers or if you never get takeout or go out to dinner, by all means, plan 7 dinners.
3. Choose Your Recipes
This is the fun part…but it's also the part that can be overwhelming.
Searching Pinterest or pouring through cookbooks can be fun, but it can also be a huge time-suck. There are a couple of strategies you can use here to simplify the recipe selection process:
- Utilize theme nights! Whether it's Seafood Sunday, Taco Tuesday or Friday pizza nights, theme nights mean you're not starting from scratch each week, staring at a blank page in your meal planning notebook. And, no, theme nights don't have to be “fun” or use alliteration. You may decide to do “Stir Fry Mondays” because stir fry is so quick and easy and Mondays are hard!
- Make a Master List: No, you probably don't want to eat the same things every week, but would you mind eating a favorite recipe once a month? Make a list of 20-30 family favorites and choose most of your recipes from that list each week. Then choose one new recipe each week. That way you have variety, without facing a totally unfamiliar recipe every night. If you're brand new to cooking, don't worry! You can build your master list over time.
- Check Your Pantry / Freezer: To get some recipe inspiration AND reduce your grocery budget, check your pantry and freezer before you choose your recipes. Incorporate that half bag of quinoa or that bag of broccoli that's been lingering in the freezer into your weekly meal plan.
- Choose One Source Each Week: To avoid going down the rabbit hole with recipe selection every week, choose one cookbook or one favorite recipe site each week. We have tons of meal prep-friendly recipes on the Prep Dish blog if you don't know where to start.
4. Make Your Grocery List
Once you have your recipes, it's time to make your grocery list.
Again, check to see if you already have any of the ingredients you need for the week's recipes.
Then, take a little extra time and organize your grocery list according to the layout of your grocery store. List all of the produce together, all dairy together, etc. (I have a free grocery list template available here!)
One thing I personally do to make this part of the meal planning process easier is to keep a pantry inventory. There are certain items I always like to have on hand. Keeping an inventory means I simply need to order those items once every 4-6 weeks, instead of adding them to my grocery list every week.
This is a step many people skip but it's so important!
At the end of each week, spend just 5 minutes reflecting on the past week's meal plan. If you keep a meal planning notebook, jot down some notes in the margin. You can also use your planner or simply start a note on your phone!
Include things like “too many leftovers,” recipes you did or didn't like, or “ran out of lunch options by Wednesday”.
This might seem like a small thing, but reviewing your meal planning efforts will enable you to really customize your strategy and make meal planning work for you.
Meal Planning for Beginners – Quick Win Tips
Meal planning takes time to master. With practice, it becomes second nature. Still, I know it can seem like a lot of work at the beginning. That's why I want to share some quick wins with you to help you get off to an easier start!
- Keep Your Recipes Simple – Simple doesn't have to be boring! As our super popular new Super Fast Meal Plans have shown, simple recipes can be totally delicious. They're also great for frugal meal planning – no buying a bunch of specialty ingredients for just one fancy recipe!
- Stock Your Freezer – Even the most meticulous meal planner has things come up. One of the best ways to make sure you don't have to resort to takeout is to have a well-stocked freezer. I do sometimes make a concerted effort to make freezer meals, like when I was expecting my second child, but I usually stock my freezer more organically. For instance, if I'm making a lasagna, I'll make two instead and stick one in the freezer. If I make a big batch of soup, I freeze half for a busy day. (If you do want some good freezer meal recipes, check out my free guide to crockpot freezer meals!)
- Have Some Backup Pantry Meals – Similar to the freezer, keep some pantry ingredients on-hand to make a super quick dinner when you need one. I talk about my favorite pantry ingredients here and here.
- Do Some Quick Meal Prep – I feel like there's this idea that “meal prep” means devoting your entire weekend to cooking and perfectly portioning out your for the whole week. Well, I'm here to tell you it doesn't have to be like that. Even a bit of quick meal prep, like washing and chopping your produce for the week and making a quick salad dressing or marinade, can go a long way for setting you up for success for the week.
What about meal planning websites?
If all of this sounds like a lot of work, I'm not going to lie, it is. That doesn't mean it's not totally worth it but meal planning for beginners can be tough.
If you'd like a little help getting started, you may want to check out meal planning websites like Prep Dish.
We provide our subscribers with meal prep meal plans each week.
What's a meal prep meal plan? It's a meal plan specifically designed to prep-ahead. I know that the last thing you feel like doing when you get home Wednesday evening is start a homemade dinner from scratch. Yet, home-cooked meals are so much healthier and budget-friendly.
That's why we provide not only grocery lists and recipes, but a detailed “Prep Day” plan. This guide tells you exactly what you need to do to prep for the week for maximum efficiency.
We also provide 4 meal plans each week to all subscribers: Gluten Free, Paleo, Low Carb (Keto) and Super Fast.
And hey, if you don't follow a specific diet, no worries, neither do many of our subscribers. If you just want healthy, delicious recipes with clean ingredients, our meal plans are a great choice.
If you'd like to try out our meal plans for yourself, click below to try them out, totally for free. Our Super Fast menus are particularly good for meal planning for beginners. The recipes are a little bit simpler and the meal prep takes only around 1 hour for the week!