Complete Meal Planning Guide for Beginners

Do you want to try meal planning but feel overwhelmed and don’t know where to start? This meal planning guide helps break down the basics..

Meal planning is one of the best ways to save time and money on groceries and cooking. It takes a small time investment each week, but you can decide how much time and effort you want to put into it.

Learn about basic meal planning strategies, the importance of meal planning, and a few tips so you can get started today!

What is Meal Planning?

Meal planning is a system for selecting, prepping, and planning the meals, you’re going to cook ahead of time. 

Whether you want to save time or money, you don’t have to cook everything from scratch or cook only once a month. There are several types of meal planning, and the best one for you depends on your goals and the time you’re able to invest.

Let’s dive into a few different methods to plan weekly meals and the pros and cons of each.

Types of Meal Planning

You can commit to one type or combine strategies from a few methods to create a system that works for you! The best approach is one that you can adapt to your life. 

Meal Plan From Sales

If you want to save money on groceries, planning meals from sales can help you reach your goal.

You make a grocery list from the sales advertised in your grocery store’s flyer with this method. Then, you plan meals with the food you plan to buy that week and whatever is in your pantry already. 

Sales cycles rotate. In one week, you may find coffee, eggs, apples, and laundry detergent at their lowest price. And next week, there might be a great sale on chicken and ice cream. So, relying on this type of meal planning alone means you’ll need a stocked pantry and freezer to supplement your family’s meals for the week.

Cons: You can’t always make meals from only what’s on sale that week. You’ll need to rely on a stocked pantry to fill in the gaps. 

Meal Plan From Pantry

Meal planning from what you already have in the house saves time and money and prevents food waste. 

And a pantry full of food you bought on sale means you’re saving money on the grocery budget. With this method, you create a weekly meal plan primarily from foods you have in the house. Then, once you make the meal plan for the week, you can add any additional ingredients you need for what you plan to cook to the shopping list. 

This strategy works well with planning meals from sales, although you don’t have to only buy what’s on sale if saving money isn’t your goal.

A few items a well-stocked pantry should have are:

  • Canned beans
  • Pasta
  • Rice
  • Canned tomatoes
  • Tomato paste
  • Condiments
  • Spice and herbs
  • Vanilla extract
  • Canned vegetables
  • Jarred tomato sauce
  • Flour
  • Nuts, seeds and nut butter
  • Dried fruits
  • Taco shells and tortillas
  • Oatmeal (old-fashioned, instant, and steel-cut)
  • Bread crumb
  • Yeast

Cons: You will need a stocked pantry and freezer to plan a week’s worth of meals for a family.

Meals Plan From Recipes

If you have a collection of cookbooks and like to try new recipes, this might be your meal-planning type.

After you choose recipes for the week, you plan a menu. 

This is an excellent way to learn how to cook and build up your pantry with spices and herbs, and other pantry staples. Don’t worry. You’ll need these ingredients again for other recipes!

Cooking from recipes is an excellent way to level up your cooking skills, try new meals and stock your pantry with herbs, spices, and other staples you’ll need again.

Cons: This method may not save you time or money on groceries. Also, it’s challenging to keep track of all the ingredients you need for the recipes. That could mean extra trips to the supermarket. And the ingredients you need may not be on sale, so the grocery bill can add up when you meal plan from recipes.

Once-a-Month (or Week) Cooking

When you think about meal planning, cooking once a month might come to mind.

Cooking an entire month’s worth of meals in one day streamlines the meal prep and cooking. So, for example, you only chop vegetables and clean the cutting board once a month!

This strategy can be a huge timesaver. 

Buying foods in bulk and using up all the ingredients for meals are two ways batch cooking can save you money on groceries.

But once a month, cooking is a huge time and financial investment in the short term. Maybe you don’t have a whole day to cook or the money for a month of groceries. And preparing meals for the month requires a large freezer.

If once-a-month cooking is not for you, then once-a-week cooking might be. 

I started using this method before I was married. And I continued once a week cooking after I was married with a young child while I went to graduate school and worked full time. 

Once my two kids were in school, spending one day a week cooking no longer worked for our family. My meal planning method combines cooking and prepping ahead with other meal planning tips and strategies.

Cons: Once-a-month-cooking is a big project, and you need the freezer space to store the meals you prepare. And, if something comes up and you can’t cook on the day you planned, you might end up scrambling to get meals on the table or getting last-minute takeout.

Done-For-You Meal Plans

Done-for-you meal plans seem like an easy option. You get to save time by skipping on the planning. Some meal plans even come with a grocery list.

This is an excellent option if you’re looking for new ideas, don’t have the time or desire to plan meals, and saving money isn’t one of your goals.

In my experience, this can be one of the most time-consuming and expensive meal-planning methods. When you shop from a list of ingredients and meals planned for you, you’re likely to spend more at the grocery store than you usually would. 

While you get to skip the planning process, a one-size-fits-all meal plan doesn’t consider your schedule, food preferences, or food in the house. As a result, you can also end up with a lot of uneaten food and waste.

Cons: This type of meal planning can be overwhelming because you’ll be making several new recipes a week. And, you might see your weekly grocery bill going up.

Meal Kit Delivery

Whether you follow a vegan, keto diet, or gluten-free diet, you can find a meal delivery service with options for you.

Sometimes you need a break from shopping, planning, and cooking, but you don’t want to eat takeout. Meal delivery services offer meal kits with recipes to make a meal or precooked meals ready to be reheated. This takes all the planning and guesswork out of preparing dinner.

For many busy families, meal delivery subscriptions are a convenient and cost effective option to eat healthy compared to eating out at restaurants. In 2017, USA Today reported that 81% of Americans believe preparing food from a meal kit is healthier than eating at a restaurant, according to a Harris poll.

Cons: The cost of meal kit delivery is a big obstacle for most people. The Harris poll found that 46% of people would like to try meal kits if it was less expensive. This is not a practical option if you’re feeding a family. 

Weekly or Monthly Calendar

Using a whiteboard calendar for meal planning displayed in your kitchen is the best way to get the whole family involved, stay organized and be flexible.

I like to incorporate a whiteboard calendar in my meal planning. It hangs right in the kitchen, and it’s the water cooler of our house. As they pass through the kitchen, the kids check the calendar for that night’s dinner.

Kids feel control over what they eat when you include them in the ‌planning process. This cuts down on mealtime battles over food. When everyone can see what’s for dinner ahead of time, they come to the table prepared to eat. 

The best part is I never have to answer, “What’s for dinner?”. 

Another trick to getting the family involved without derailing your meal plan is to present a choice between a few meals. For example, you can ask the kids if they want pasta or baked chicken for tomorrow’s dinner. 

Cycle Meal Plan

Hospitals and schools typically use a rotating menu to plan meals, but you can try this at home. 

There are two main ways families can use a cycle to make planning easier. 

A popular method is to assign a type of food for each night of the week. This doesn’t mean you have to have the same meals every week. It works as a meal template, and you plug in new recipes each week. It would look something like this:

Example of a cycle menu template

The benefit is you never have to wonder what to plan. The template guides you each week. All you have to do is plug in the meals you’d like to make for that week.

You can also plan your meals out for a few weeks. For example, you could create a 3-week meal plan. Then after 3-weeks, you start the cycle over again with week 1. 

Cons: You might not like predictability. This method might feel too rigid.

What Are the Advantages of Meal Planning?

There are many advantages to meal planning, but the most popular benefits are saving money, saving time, and eating healthier. 

Meal planning to save money

Making a meal plan and a shopping list is the best tool to keep your grocery bill down. 

Here are a few ways meal planning can save you money:

  • You won’t miss out on advertised sales
  • You can stock up on healthy family favorites when the price drops
  • It reduces multiple trips to the store and the impulse buys that go with it
  • Prepares you for busy nights, so you don’t end up spending money going out to eat or ordering takeout
  • You can plan to use leftovers, so food doesn’t end up in the trash before it goes bad

Meal planning to save time

Yes, it takes a little time to plan your meals and grocery list. But taking a little extra time to plan saves you time later.

For example, I often put my grocery list in the same order as my grocery store aisles. Whenever I don’t, I spend much more time at the store. I go back and forth from one end of the store to the other because I forgot something. And, inevitably, I forget something and have to make another trip.

Here are a few ways meal planning helps save time.

  • It prevents multiple trips to the store each week.
  • Helps avoid scrambling to make dinner on busy weeknights
  • You can plan cooking and meal prep around your busy days and double up on the cooking when you have time

Meal planning to reduce food waste

Did you ever clean out your cabinets and find four boxes of cornstarch or soup you didn’t know you had and don’t remember why you bought it?

And what about the leftovers at the back of the refrigerator? Or food in the freezer that’s been there for months and now has freezer burn?

According to Consumer Reports, a family of four loses about $1500 a year in food that ends up in the garbage.

Meal planning can help reduce waste by planning meals around what you have in the house and incorporating leftovers.

Fresh foods and cooked leftovers are only good for a few days. When you don’t have a plan to use them again, they end up in the garbage. 

Planning meals ahead of time reduces food waste by:

  • Repurposing leftovers instead of forgetting them in the back of the refrigerator
  • Only buy what you can eat or store before it goes bad
  • Using food you already have in the house 

Meal planning to eat healthier

Meal Planning makes buying, prep, and cooking healthy meals easier.

Many busy families eat the same meals and rely on takeout because it’s easier. However, planning and shopping for meals to prepare or the busy week ahead gives more control over the menu.

One of the biggest benefits of cooking is knowing the effort and ingredients that go into your meals. Don’t let the ingredients cause you to worry. Understanding what makes up meals can help you decide what you want your family to eat regularly.

So, just by cooking at home, your meals are probably better for your health than eating out. 

If you want to level up your family’s healthy eating, here are a few meal-planning tips:

  •  Wash and cut vegetables, so they’re ready to go when you are
  • Stock your pantry with low-sodium canned vegetables and soups, whole grain pasta 
  • Buy the leaning cuts of meat and poultry when there’s a sale
  • Plan a meat-free dinner once a week
  • Pack leftovers for lunch instead of getting takeout
  • Use baggies to portion out snacks such as nuts, dried fruit, granola, etc.

Things to Consider When Meal Planning

Meal planning may not be for everyone or it may not be for you right now. 

Your weekly schedule 

When I plan meals for the week, the first thing I do is check my calendar. And, yes, I even check the weather for the week.

Are there any nights you’re too busy to cook? Does your menu match the weather? For example, I’ll plan oven meals on colder days. On the other hand, I plan to grill on another day if it’s supposed to rain.  

Know your schedule and be realistic about how much you can take on. Meal planning is meant to make your life easier and save you time. Find strategies and tasks that fit within your life.

Your goals 

Before you get started, ask yourself what your goals are. Knowing why you want to overhaul your family’s grocery budget and meals can help you stay on track.

Meal planning strategies are different depending on the goals you want to achieve. If your goal is to save money, stocking up on sales and planning meals with what you have in the house would be a helpful strategy.

Do you want to save time and have an unlimited budget? Meal delivery or cooking from pre-planned menus and shopping lists can help.

How much do you want to cook?

Don’t set yourself up for failure by planning to cook every weeknight if it’s unrealistic with your schedule or if you don’t like to cook.

Not everyone likes to cook. While cooking at home is one of the best money-saving strategies, you might ‌find a compromise between cooking daily and saving money. You can save time and even eat healthy with convenience foods and assemble precooked and pre-chopped foods. 

Maybe you have never done much cooking before, but you’re ready to try. Great! Start slow. Try only one new recipe a week. Then, when a meal goes over well with the family, add it to the foods you make regularly. 

Frequently Asked Questions

Meal planning is a method of planning your family’s meals ahead of time. Meal prep is getting food ready to cook, store or eat. Prep includes washing, chopping, and portioning ingredients.

It can be, but that depends on the meals you plan to cook. Cooking at home can be healthier. Restaurants use a lot of butter, oil, and salt. And restaurant portion sizes are usually larger than what you’d make for yourself at home.

Start small and conquer one meal at a time. You can start with a simple meal like breakfast. Once you get the hang of applying meal planning strategies to plan breakfast you can move on to the next meal.

You can also try prepping ingredients by washing and chopping vegetables when you have a few minutes at night or in the morning. 

That depends on your goals. If you’d like to save money and time and eat healthy home-cooked meals, it is worth the time ‌to plan and get organized. Meal planning has been the biggest factor in my family achieving our financial goals.

Wrap It Up

Flexibility and creativity is the key to stress-free meal planning. 

No matter how prepared you are, things rarely work out as planned. A solid system allows you to adapt to real life and doesn’t feel restrictive.

You don’t have to go all in at once. There are degrees of meal planning. Your system is as easy or complex as you want it to be. Start small. Mix and match strategies. Incorporate simple meal planning strategies like making a grocery list or packing lunches the night before until you’re ready to add more tasks. Meal planning gets easier with consistency.

I’m here for you! Let me know what your favorite meal-planning strategies that work for you are in the comments.

About Jennifer Messineo, MS, RD

I’m a food loving Registered Dietitian. I help families plan meals, reduce food waste and save money on food!

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