I love to plan things. But I also love to have things planned for me and not have to deal with the annoying details of figuring out stuff I don’t give a fuck about. When it comes to meal planning I love how it saves my family time and money and keeps us eating a variety of healthy meals every week. Since I embraced a consistent meal planning routine, I’ve found it can actually be a lot of fun and even, dare I say it, spark joy!
Meal planning, when done right, can save you time and money. If you happen to be on a specific diet such as the ketogenic diet, weight watchers, paleo or even the Mediterranean diet, meal planning can help you stay on track with your food choices while you go through your week and help you to hit your weight loss goals.
Here’s what meal planning is: Consider this a beginners guide to meal planning. Although expert meal planners could also benefit from some of the tips below.
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What is Meal Planning?
Simply put meal planning is….wait for it…. planning ahead what you and your family are going to eat for the week or month. Meal planning can be very effective in helping you to save money by planning what ingredients you need for the week, and in saving you time in figuring out what to make for dinner.
If you’re on a special weight loss or diet, meal planning can be a lifesaver to make sure you have what you need to stay on track and keep to your fitness or health goals.
And when it comes to introducing new flavors and meal ideas to children, meal planning is a go to way to make sure you can #getitdone.
Meal Planning Strategies
There are as many meal planning strategies as there are meals that you can cook for your family. Which is really great for you because you can hopefully find something that works for your needs and for your family.
I’ve been down the path of downloading Pinterest templates to print out and write in my menu plan (and that totally works for some). Personally, I am also practicing the Kon-Mari method of tidying up and could never find the strength to keep up with the papers. Plus if I downloaded a menu and printed it out, I felt like I had to keep it to reference it in the future and that just annoyed me because I suddenly had all these papers.
You can also use the notes tab in your phone, or Pinterest to be the catch-all for your recipe ideas.
Personally, this began to make me feel overwhelmed as well, and struggling to catch a signal in the back of my grocery store to check the ingredients of a recipe I really wanted to try but forgot to look at before I headed out to the store.
I’ve also joined some weight loss or “boot camp” style fitness routines that send you a very strict meal plan for the duration of the camp.
I loved this model because it stopped me from having to think about what I needed to eat or prepare, but I hated it because it wasn’t replicable. And I couldn’t pick and choose the menu items from the meal plan and save them somewhere I could later access without going through several steps of creating my own file to save them, etc.
Plus if I really saw results from the fitness plan, how would I continue that after the eight weeks was over? And where would I store my favorite recipes or notes so I could access them again?
This ultimately led me to figure out the ultimate hack for menu planning and it’s my meal planner template and I’ll explain a bit more below but first...
Weekly Meal Plan vs. Monthly Meal Plan
Are you the type of person that needs an entire month of menus planned? Or can you survive on just doing one week at a time?
For me, I tend to go back and forth depending on the time of year, and how busy we are with menu planning either for the month or for the week.
When times are really busy and we have an overwhelmed schedule with activities, meetings, client work, afterschool play dates, and everything in between, I tend to fly by the seat of my pants and meal plan for the week in about five minutes on a Saturday or Sunday.
If things are a bit slower (like at the start of a new year) then I can sit down and plan out an entire month in about twenty minutes accessing my favorite recipes and even building a shopping list where I can include the things we’ll definitely need all month and stock up at the beginning (like buying chicken breasts, or pasta in bulk depending on how many meals we’ll eat with those ingredients).
Both methods - planning week by week and planning month by month - do tend to save us an average of $200 - 300 a month. And because we live in Southern California where there are always fresh avocados and the cost of living tends to be higher that translates to about $800 - $900 a month in groceries.
I know. It’s a lot. But we also choose to eat organic, and my two and four-year-olds will go through growth spurts where they can eat an entire box of frozen waffles in one sitting (I’m not even fucking kidding about this.)
Knowing that they’re just going to get older, bigger, and hungrier is actually another reason why I’ve spent the time it takes to figure out a meal planning system that I can replicate every single week that also saves us money in the long run.
How to Meal Plan for the Week
A lot of this depends on your dietary needs, your preferences for food, your family’s ages and activities and if you’ve got any picky eaters.
For me, this is how I meal plan for the week with the help of my meal planner template through Trello.
I take a quick glance at our activities for the week - do we have anything that will make it harder to cook dinner? If so then I schedule in a dinner out or even ordering pizza. I find that scheduling in delivery or meals out actually helps us stay on budget with our restaurant expenses too.
I quickly look through the pantry and go shopping there first to see what we have that I can use in a recipe or as a side (such as the $22 bag of rice I got at Costco last month). And then use that as a building block for the rest of the week. If we are low on vegetables I make a mental note to add a variety of different veggies to my shopping list so we can be sure to have some choices to pair with each of our dishes if they don’t already come with a veggie included.
If we’re on any specific diets (my hubby goes through phases of no dairy and I’m currently doing no sugar) I look through our menu items and figure out 5-6 recipes that we can easily make with these considerations. *This may seem like a lot but I promise once you do it a handful of times you’ll get into a rhythm of it where it feels really easy and mindless.
Then I sit down and make my meal plan for the week! It takes me about five minutes to choose about 4 - 6 recipes and copy them to my dinner list for the week.
Then I go through my grocery list section and check off all the items that I know we’re going to need again - these include staples such as milk, cheese, bread, butter, eggs and fruit for example. Also wine. I always buy an extra bottle of wine. Because #toddlers.
The meal planner template I use has a super easy way to connect your recipe ingredient list to your grocery list so it can get transferred over in about 10 seconds without having to manually import or write out the items you need off that ingredient list. And also, saving you energy searching through several different recipe cards on your phone or print outs at the grocery store. PS. I tend to do all of this on my laptop because it’s easier to see the layout of my meal planner there. (And don’t worry I’ll give you plenty of opportunities to get that meal planner below).
When I get to the grocery store everything that I had done at home is the same on the app on my phone. I usually pull up my list before I enter the grocery store because there are dead zones in my favorite Trader Joes and my favorite Ralphs and our Costco, so I want to be sure to have my list up before I head in there.
I go through the list. I don’t get anything more than I need. Unless I really want to. It usually takes me about 20 minutes to get all the grocery shopping done as well depending on how busy it is at the store. (which is another perk btw, of meal planning. Since you're not wandering the aisles wondering what to make for dinner or finding a rare ingredient you forgot about you can fly through the joint super fast.
Boom. Done. Dinner is Planned for a Week!
Meal Planning for Weight Loss
This is a big one. Pun fully intended.
If you’ve got weight loss goals then meal planning is one of the most effective and useful ways to stay on track with your nutritional preferences and health and wellness goals.
Little known fun fact about me - for about a year and a half I worked for Weight Watchers as one of those people who weigh you and check you in before a meeting. Every week I’d help members navigate the emotional roller coaster of what the scale told them - ranging from joy to despair and about what happened to get them the results they were seeing.
A pattern began to emerge - for the members who had success, they were likely on top of their food choices and their points and typically doing some meal planning and preparation. For those who were falling off the wagon, so to say, there was a common theme of “this week got away from me,” or “I had so many dinners out I couldn’t keep on top of my points.”
(If you’re not familiar, Weight Watchers counts calories via a trademarked point system which allows you to “eat everything” without feeling the guilt of being on a diet).
See where I’m going with this? Meal planning is one of the best ways to become successful in your weight loss goals.
Mary Beth over at Lifestyle for real life has thoughts about how meal planning can help her and her family stay on a ketogenic diet (and spoiler alert, this article features my meal planner as well).
Meal Planning on a Budget
Oh hey while we’re on the topic of slimming down, meal planning can be a surprisingly beneficial way to keep you on a budget to make sure you don’t spend any more or less than you actually need to feed yourself and your family each week.
As we used to say in Weight Watchers if you fail to plan you plan to fail. The same goes for your budget.
When you figure out exactly what your family is going to eat each night of the week, it makes it a lot easier to figure out the ingredients you need to buy and can then figure out what to do to stay within your budget.
Since we’ve been using my meal planner template, we’ve saved an average of $100 - $400 a month on our average monthly grocery bill.
Using a Meal Planner While Pregnant
When I first became pregnant I took a deep dive into Pinterest and Google to figure out what foods I should and should not be eating and the combination of the exhaustion, nausea, and prego brain had me all mixed up to the point that I avoided all fish altogether and took a supplement to get my Omega fatty acids and avoid potentially poisoning my child with mercury from the wrong fish.
It’s overwhelming enough to navigate all the newness of being pregnant, if I had a system like this back then it could seriously have taken the guesswork out of what should I eat while pregnant?
Meal Planner with a Grocery List Option
Let’s get into it for a second here because there are, as I’ve mentioned, as many meal planners as there are types of meals for you to make. It can be overwhelming to figure out which one works for you or what you even need out of a meal plan.
If you’re meal planning as a beginner I’ve got great news for you. You don’t have to test out a ton of different systems. Instead, you can give my meal planner template a try and see how beneficial it can be for whatever your meal planning needs may be.
Meal Planning with Trello
You can read more about my meal planner template here. Or if you’re convinced and ready to dive into the process of building a meal plan that can help you stay on a diet plan, or keep you on budget click here to purchase my meal plan template.
If you’re still on the fence about whether or not this whole meal planning thing is for you...I get it. It can be challenging to adopt a new way of thinking about things when the old way wasn’t all that bad.
But let’s break this down for a hot sec...what’s an extra $50 - $150 a month really (except when you add it all up it’s an extra $600 a year on the low end. $600 can go far with us depending on where you live it can go even further.)
And while we’re at it lets talk a bit more about the app i’ve hacked to create my meal plan.
Actually, let me just go ahead and give it to you below. Trello is a free app that you can use sort of like a bulletin board. If you’ve ever used a chalkboard or a dry erase board to meal plan think of Trello as the sort of digital version of that.
And as a bonus, instead of erasing all your favorite meals and recipes and having to start over, Trello keeps a copy for you in the cloud so when you start over it’s not from scratch and instead, you have more to do other things instead of figuring out what’s for dinner.
After you’ve downloaded Trello go ahead and watch this quick How-To-Primer video here. And then come on back and purchase my meal planner template which will take you through the whole process of setting up your meal plan for the week, month, or if you’re feeling really ambitious an entire year (you go, girl).
Once you get the hang of my meal plan template, other things in Trello start to make a lot of sense as well. You can use it to organize important family documents or events (we totally used it to plan Sam’s first birthday party.)
I have big plans to provide templates for everything from organizing family to do lists to planning trips in Trello!