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How to Meal Plan: The Ultimate Guide

Meal planning is "in" right now.

People are no longer content to take a picture of what they're about to eat for dinner - now they are blogging and tweeting about the food they are going to eat next week. The hardcore meal preppers are even instagramming Friday's lunch…the Sunday before.

With all this meal planning madness going on, you can probably relate to one of these statements:

You people are insane. Get off my feed!


You people are superhuman. What about us mere mortals?

Seriously, HOW?

I've been meal planning since you were a gleam in your parents' eyes.

What's in this for me?
We have one message for you: you can be a meal planner. It doesn't have to be ridiculously complicated and time consuming. You don't have to drink kale smoothies, eat kale salads, snack on kale chips, and "splurge" on chocolate cake with hidden kale.
Instead, you can make a meal plan that includes the recipes and store bought foods you like to eat, and you can still make realistic improvements to your diet (if you want to). That's what this meal planning guide is for - we'll show you how to make a meal plan so you can reach your goals without losing your mind in the process.
If you know how to meal plan already, we still hope you'll find some useful tips to make meal planning an even better experience.
So, what kind of meal planner are you?

Are you trying to lose weight or eat healthier?

Yes please!

Meal planning can help you eat healthier, whatever that means for you.

Maybe you want to count calories, start eating less processed food, cut back on sugar, or start following a specific diet (Paleo, Mediterranean, vegetarian, etc.)

Are you trying to keep your family well fed on a budget?

Yes please!

Meal planning can save you money. Even if you don't focus specifically on low cost meals, cutting back on convenience products and restaurant visits will almost certainly reduce your food spending.

You will also be able to reduce food waste through smart planning that accounts for leftover ingredients and extra portions.

Are you trying to save time and avoid the stress of not knowing what's for dinner?

Yes please!

Meal planning will reduce stress. You have to eat every day, but if you don't plan ahead, you'll be picking your overtired brain after work to come up with something to eat. Plus, you'll most likely have to make extra trips to the grocery store to pick up something for those last-minute meals.

If you meal plan for the week all at once, the issue is off your mind until your next meal planning session. Ahhh, what a relief.

Now that you've set some goals, I want to tell you this: meal planning will help you, but it won't work every meal, every day, every week.

Sometimes you'll get invited to have lunch with your colleagues and you'll decide to save the lunch you've packed for tomorrow. Sometimes you'll work late and opt for a quick freezer meal instead of cooking from scratch. No problem! If you expect to change your plans some of the time, you won't be so quick to view a small adjustment as a big failure.

Some people might think meal planning is all or nothing, that allowing for this kind of flexibility will keep you from making progress. I, on the other hand, firmly believe meal planning will improve your eating habits even if you don't stick to your meal plan 100% of the time. In fact, I'm convinced:

« If you make your meal planning system too rigid, it'll break. »
So, now that we've done a little expectation management, tell me about the state of your pantry.

I have a box of stale Lucky Charms, expired ranch dressing, and spices that have been opened so long they only serve as food coloring.

I've been meaning to go to the store.

I have the basics: olive oil, salt, pepper, flour, sugar, etc.

KISS principle.

I have self-fermented kimchi, homemade nut milk, sprouted grains, and a quarter of a grass-fed cow.

Oh, and a CSA subscription.
You probably need to do a little pantry clean up. Go through your fridge and cupboards and throw out everything that's long expired. Set yourself up with some basic ingredients. You can find pantry lists for just about any diet, including Paleo, clean eating, etc.
You guys sound well prepared. Next step!

The thing about meal planning is, once you've done the planning part, you still have to do the cooking. If your meal plan reads like a Michelin Star menu, you're probably setting yourself up for failure.

So really, about how many dishes do you know how to make?

Somewhere around 0.

Sad, but true.

The usual - omelets, pasta, a few stews, etc.

I can hold my own.

I could write my own cookbook.

And maybe I will.

Before you learn how to meal plan, you need to learn how to cook. This means you've got a little work cut out for you - it's time to master some simple meals.

Luckily, learning to cook really isn't that difficult and you can absolutely take a "learn by doing" approach here. Think of some meals you would like to eat on a regular basis and find recipes for them that don't have too many ingredients, use too many different techniques, or require too much multitasking.

Keep track of your successes and failures, but you'll almost certainly have more successes (or near successes) than outright failures, and soon you'll build the kind of intuition you need to salvage the meal when something goes wrong.

Excellent. You probably already have the cooking skills you need.

I suggest establishing a collection of simple recipes for breakfast, lunch, and dinner that can form the basis of your meal plans. Weekends are a great time to try more time-consuming recipes or to discover new recipes to expand your weekday collection.

If you're a spoonacular user, you can create recipe boxes like "Weekday Lunch" or "Weeknight Pasta" so you never run out of meal planning ideas. Dishes like frittatas, casseroles, and soups are especially nice since they also make it easy to use up leftover food from other meals, such as stir fried vegetables, cooked grains, and salad greens.

It's also helpful to have a selection of "back up" dishes that you can make whenever your plans change and you find yourself especially short on time, feeding an extra person, or just not in the mood to eat whatever you planned for dinner. These back up dishes should use ingredients that you can have on hand all the time—canned fish, pasta, frozen vegetables, eggs, and so on.
Enough setup. Let's get to the actual meal planning. Which of these methods appeals to you most?

Pen and paper.

Yeah, I'm old school.

Something digital, but user friendly and fun.

Yeah, I'm tech savvy.

A service that does it all for me, this already sounds like too much.

Get me out of here!

Crossing something off a physical list feels good, doesn't it? I can certainly relate to anyone who doesn't want to abandon pen and paper meal planning. It's kind of like not wanting to get an eReader because you'll miss the feel of paper under your fingertips and that wonderful "book smell."

If this describes you, there are tons of free meal planning printables out there. Some of these templates are more cute than functional, but they make great fridge décor and let everyone know what's for dinner. Others let you plan your meals for the week and make your shopping list on the other side of the page. You can also find templates that only have a spot for dinner in case you don't feel the need to plan your breakfast and lunch on paper.

Just google "free meal planning template" or "free meal planning printable" to find a huge variety. You'll know better than me what meets your needs.
You can also create a menu board with a chalk board or dry erase board. They are even available to purchase inexpensively on Amazon if you don't have time to make one yourself.

Even though meal planning by hand can be more enjoyable, it can also be more difficult.

Unless you have a physical recipe collection that you can use while you meal plan, you might end up with a kind of writer's block. Even if you have a recipe collection, it will take time to flip through all those pages (or sort through all those recipe cards), when a good digital option would make your recipe collection searchable by just pressing enter.

Plus, meal planning online makes it easier to find new recipes, for example to use up ingredients you already know you'll have leftover. Making a soup that needs half a container of broth and a few celery stalks? Find a casserole recipe with chicken broth and celery for later that week.

Some meal planning apps even double as a food tracker to help you can count calories, fat, protein, etc.

Wanna go digital?

Yes Please!
If you want to upgrade from pen and paper, some people use Excel for meal planning. This site, for example, offers numerous meal planning templates for Excel. If you're looking for something visually attractive and fun to use, though, these probably aren't what you want.

Instead, we recommend a good meal planning app. In general, meal planning apps have the primary advantage that you can easily organize a large quantity of recipes, and you can take these recipes anywhere.

Some apps (including spoonacular, hint hint!) also make it possible to generate a shopping list automatically and get nutritional information without doing any of the math yourself. Huge time savers.

Of course, not every meal planning app is user friendly, and some even require you to pay to unlock all the features. We recommend finding a free meal planner you like, so if you do take a break from meal planning, you won't be charged for the months you aren't using it.

« Using a meal planner shouldn't be like having a gym membership - you shouldn't have to feel guilty for not using it enough! »
Now that you've chosen your meal planning medium, you're ready to plan your first week. The types of foods that go on your plan will depend on the goals we talked about earlier.

I'm meal planning on a budget.

Yes, that's me

I'm meal planning to lose weight or eat healthier

Yes, that's me

I'm meal planning to save time/stress

Yes, that's me
As someone trying to save money, your meal plan should focus on ingredients that are in season or on sale. Look at grocery store flyers while you meal plan, or shop the week before so you can make your plan with a freezer full of sale items to put to use. Plan meals with cheap protein sources, such as meat you bought on sale, canned fish, beans, lentils, etc.
As someone trying to lose weight or eat healthier, you should take the common advice to "shop the perimeter" - that is, stick to the produce section, fresh meats and fish, and dairy aisle as much as possible. When choosing convenience foods, opt for less processed options like unsweetened frozen fruit, plain or seasoned frozen vegetables, even minimally processed frozen potatoes, but avoid frozen meals, frozen vegetables with sauces, etc.

As someone with a busy schedule, it is important to anticipate when you're going to be low on time and plan for it.

If you have a busy week coming up, you might use the weekend to prepare a number of dishes that you can enjoy throughout the week, such as a huge batch of overnight oats, containers of chopped veggies, nuts, and lean cooked protein for compiling salads, rice for making quick stir fries, and so on. If you own a slow cooker, that might be the route you take instead.

Always read the nutrition facts label and ingredient lists to avoid products high in sugar and sodium or products that have long, unreadable ingredient lists. Our product search can help you narrow down your search before you head to the store.
If you're not too concerned about cost you can also plan on incorporating some time saving but less budget friendly items, such as pre-cut fruit and vegetables, salad kits, etc. You might also splurge on healthy protein bars or frozen veggie burgers. Convenience doesn't have to be unhealthy (though it might cost you).

No matter what your goals, planning meals for 7 days can be quick and painless. Here's how to make a meal plan without getting overwhelmed:

The following steps in our meal planning guide contain screenshots from spoonacular's free meal planner.

Step 1

Get your schedule for the week and open your meal planner. If you have plans to eat out at any point, put that on your meal planner already.

Step 2

Now it's time to fill in the blank spots. If you don't typically cook breakfast on weekdays, you can already put your usual Greek yogurt and fruit, favorite green smoothie recipe, whatever. Otherwise put down your French toast or bacon and eggs (and please invite us over.)

Step 3

For lunch and dinner, it's important to figure out when you have time to cook and when you need something fast. As we already said, if you always pack a lunch for the office or if weeknights are always busy with the kids, you should create recipe collections called "Work Lunch" and "Weeknight Dinner." We suggest using these collections as placeholders, putting them in the right spots on the meal planner before you figure out exactly which meals you want to make. Actually, "Weeknight Dinner" is likely not specific enough - you will probably want to create several collections, such as "Vegetarian Dinner", "Egg Dishes", or "Italian Dinners."

Step 4

Once you come up with a basic format for the average week you only have to plug in suitable recipes from your collections. For example, your format might be something like vegetarian dinner on Monday, egg dishes on Tuesday, Italian on Wednesday, weeknight chicken recipe on Thursday, fish on Friday. Now when you start planning a new week, you just have to pick one of your vegetarian recipes, like your favorite quinoa cakes, and move on to replacing your next placeholder. Note: try to make your recipe collections diverse enough that you don't get tired of eating any one meal; it also helps if you choose meals that can be easily modified so they don't feel repetitive. You can make endless variations on frittatas and simple pasta dishes by using different proteins, vegetables, and seasonings, for example.

Step 5

Make a shopping list and buy what you need for the week. Stick to your plan the best you can, but don't stress out about moving dishes around as needed.

Step 6

Once you've mastered getting the week's 28 meals (!) planned, you can start thinking ahead and planning meals that repeat ingredients so there's no stress about using up leftovers. Let's say you're planning a lasagna with ricotta cheese for Sunday dinner, but you know you always have a third of the container left. You can already plan to make scrambled eggs with ricotta for dinner the next week. Having caprese salad with fresh basil? Plan on a sandwich with homemade basil pesto for the next day. You might even try doing themed weeks; it'll be easy to use up that shredded cheese, sour cream, and cilantro if you plan a week of Mexican dishes.

Step 7

After you've planned and eaten your way through your first week, reflect on how it went. Did some of your supposedly 30-minute weeknight dinners take way longer to prepare? Did you end up tossing out a bunch of wilted greens? Did you spend way more at the grocery store than you intended to? If you're following a special diet, did you eat the right amount of calories, carbs, protein, fat, etc.? Take note of what worked and what didn't and try again. Soon you'll have a system that works for you.

The "Too Long, Didn't Read" Version

How to Meal Plan: grab your blank meal planner, fill in your placeholder meals (e.g. "Meatless Monday Dinner" or "Packed Lunch"), replace those placeholder meals with recipes/products from your collections, make a shopping list, and you're done!

Try It Out with our Free Meal Planner


Crystal Schlegelmilch

Written by on May 28th 2015