How to Meal Plan: A Complete Guide for Beginners

In the next 10 minutes, I want to show you step-by-step how I plan my menu every month.

Have you ever opened the fridge at 3 pm and asked yourself, “What’s on the menu for dinner”? You shuffle through containers of leftover pizza and mashed potatoes, trying to remember when that meal was.

This was me for a long time. I knew people that did the whole ‘meal planning’ thing, and I just didn’t want to put those restrictions on my menu choice. I like being able to try out new dishes and creating a plan just didn’t let me do that.

Fast forward to March 2020 when the world stopped moving. With all of the passionate opinions about wearing masks, not wearing masks, quarantining, not quarantining, etc, etc, etc, we decided that my husband, Josh, would do the shopping.

Bless his heart, the man doesn’t know the difference between a pineapple and a bottle of ketchup. (That’s actually not true, he did a fantastic job.) To limit our exposure he went once every two weeks or so.

I finally found myself in need of a solid meal plan and an accompanying detailed shopping list so we could keep food on the table without the last-minute trips to the store. I dreaded the task but quickly found out how freeing it actually was.

I started with a few days, then a week, then a week and a half. Before long, it was easier to just do the whole month at once.

Dangers of Winging Meals

I didn’t need to stand in front of the open fridge with an empty stare anymore. While I can make jokes about how much I hate it, it really does have a lot of legitimate negative repercussions.

  1. Failure Complex. It’s easy for me to feel like a failure as a wife and mom. I already feel inadequate as I see my pile of dishes and crumbs from breakfast still on the table. I start tearing myself down about how I can’t manage the day-to-day, and now I’m not able to plan out dinner.
  2. Unhealthy Meals. Not having a plan for dinner usually leads to terrible meals. I try to make things from scratch when I can so I can see all of the ingredients I’m giving my family. If I’m doing things last-minute, there’s no way I can make good choices about the quality of meals I put on the table. (And that reinforces the first point.)
  3. Overspending. If I’m winging dinner every night, I’m not strategic about shopping. I pay less attention to my budget if I don’t have a list of ingredients I need. I quickly can fall into the ‘shop when you’re hungry’ frame of mind and spend more than I should.

But…But…It’s So Hard!

So you’re convinced a meal plan is a good idea. That’s the first step. But you’re still overwhelmed trying to understand where to start. I get it. That’s a big reason why it took me so long to come around. Now I’m planning meals for 30 days at a time?

That’s 90 meals! I can’t plan 90 meals at a time!

Slow down, let’s walk through this meal planning thing step-by-step. I’ll give you everything you need to knock out your first meal plan in no time. If you stick around, I’ll even give you the template I use to fill it in every month for FREE. You don’t need to make 90 individual meals for your family every month. That template is at the bottom of this post.)

My podcast is called Keeping My Sanity. If I had to make 90 unique meals every month, my sanity would be far from ‘kept’.

Step-by-Step Meal Planning

Now, I’m a pencil and paper kind of girl, so this is when I pull out my notebook. Feel free to use your new-fangled technology gizmos here if you want.

1. Make a list of meals

Open your Pinterest boards, crack the family cookbook, and poll your family. It’s time to list all of the meals you love, and a handful of meals you haven’t tried but have always wanted to.

Oh, and something I love to do is celebrate random days–because, why not? Each month I go to the National Day Calendar and pick out some days I want to celebrate. Fajita Day? Ummm, yea! Triple Chocolate Fudge Brownies? Heck yes! It adds some excitement each week. I don’t celebrate every day because that’s obsessive and a lot of work. Don’t stress yourself out; just have a little creativity in your meal plan!

2. Make a theme for each day of the week and sort out your meal list

Giving some sort of structure to the plan makes it easy to slide meals from my list to fill certain days. Here is what I have come up with, but feel free to be more creative with your themes.

  • Soup Sunday – when the weather gets warm we switch it up
  • Meatless Monday – not because we are vegetarian, it just flows
  • Taco Tuesday – of course
  • Pasta Wednesday – unless you know something that flows better with “Wednesday”
  • Chicken Thursday – chicken is cheap
  • Fun Friday – pizza/popcorn/ movie night to celebrate the week of school or homemade soft pretzels
  • Simple Saturdays – because the weekends are busy

These aren’t inspired, but we’re looking for structure here. Once we have a solid foundation, we can start building on it so it isn’t so overwhelming.

3. Fill the themes from your meal list

That massive list you made a while ago? Now it’s time to put it to work. Start categorizing your meals into different day themes. You will likely find that some things fit into more than one category. Cool, more options.

A few notes here…I typically feed my boys PB&J for lunches. If not PB&J, then it’s veggies or leftovers. I rarely make lunch from a meal plan because I don’t feel the need to put in more effort than I need to. And frankly, we would all really miss PB&J and chicken nuggets.

Also, breakfast can be a wildcard here. You may be cool with cereal and pop tarts more often. No problem, you do you!

4, Put the plan to paper–literally paper

Don’t forget this step! (And I’ll give you everything you need to complete the job.)

You’re going to use my free meal plan template and actually fill in the blanks. It’s a fillable PDF that you can just reuse month to month. I’ve tried to do this step all digital, but I found that I open the file on my desktop exactly zero times per month. So I encourage you to take my advice–print it and hang it on the fridge.

Now, to give you a head start on this whole calendar thing, I filled in a sample week on my meal plan. And that’s not all. Every meal I put on said sample meal plan is backed up with a recipe from my recipe index (which you should check out later). I told you I was going to give you all of the tools you needed!

Filling in the calendar is simple, but I walk through everything–start to finish–once you get your template. (Think of this post as the lecture, and the meal plan tutorial as the textbook.)

5. Rinse and Repeat

You may feel severe overwhelm right now, and that’s a normal feeling going into meal planning. I know I was intimidated for quite a while. But, there is good news! Once you do your first month (or week, or two weeks), it gets 137% easier! If I’m being honest (and don’t clue in my family), I recycle the majority of meals month-to-month. Shuffle them around and you’re good to go.

I’d suggest you add at least one new meal every week or two to build your library. Now that you have that foundation, you can mentally afford to try some new things.

Here you go. I have the technical manual for filling in my meal plan on the other side of the ‘GET THE PLAN’ button.

Tell me more

I want to know about your meal planning adventures! What are your questions? What works for you? Tell me in the comments.

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