The Ultimate Guide to Meal Planning

Do you feel like you’re always asking yourself (or being asked) “what’s for dinner”? Do you struggle with maintaining healthy eating habits? Is ordering out your go-to when you don’t feel like cooking or have nothing in the pantry? If you find yourself answering “yes” to these questions and are looking to stress less over what you eat, there’s one thing that can help you do just that: meal planning.

The benefits of meal planning

Not only is meal planning the key to helping us answer that dreaded “what’s for dinner” question, it also saves us time, money, and stress. Let’s explore some of the many benefits of meal planning:

  • Save money: By making a plan before you head out to the store, you’ll know exactly what items you need to get. You’ll be less tempted to pick up items you don’t actually need and therefore avoid overspending on unnecessary food items.
  • Eat healthier: If you don’t have a plan for what to eat during the week, it’s a lot easier to eat conveniently—ordering out, eating fast food, or grabbing a last-minute meal at the store—which aren’t always the healthiest options. Planning your meals in advance requires you to think about what you’re going to eat before you eat it, when you’re in a better frame of mind to make healthier choices.
  • Less stress: Not having a plan can be stressful. After a long day at work, trying to figure out what to eat for dinner at the last minute can result in decision fatigue—which can contribute to unhealthy food decisions and stressing over what you’re going to eat.
  • Less waste: Meal planning ensures you only buy what you need. You don’t buy too much or too little of an ingredient, but just the right amount. When you do this, there’s less room for waste.
  • Save time: Meal planning saves time. No need for last-minute or multiple trips to the grocery store each week. No time wasted wondering what you’re going to eat that day. By doing just 30 minutes of planning each week, you’ll save yourself a whole lot of time in the week to come.

5 steps for creating a meal plan

Now that we know just how beneficial meal planning can be, let’s jump in! Follow these five easy steps to start meal planning like a pro.

1. Choose a day for meal planning

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The first step to meal planning is as simple as choosing a day to start. By designating a specific day of the week for meal planning, you’ll begin building it into your routine, which will help it become a habit.

Meal planning on a specific day also helps you get into the routine of doing your grocery shopping on a certain day—ensuring you don’t have to go to the grocery store more than once a week.

Which day is the best day to meal plan? There’s no right or wrong answer, but generally, the weekend or the Friday before is a good choice. By doing so, you’ll be able to get your meal planning and grocery shopping out of the way before the business of a new week sets in.

2. Consider your schedule for the week ahead

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When planning out your meals for the week, the second thing you’ll want to do is think about your upcoming week and any plans you might have. Do you have dinner with friends scheduled? Are you going out of town? Have a work event or family commitment? Depending on what you have planned, you may or may not need to plan a meal for that day.

For the days you’re going out to dinner or leaving on a trip, you likely won’t need to plan a meal. But on days where you have commitments like an after work happy hour or a kid’s basketball game, you’ll want to take note. You can schedule in an easy, low effort meal and your future self will thank you later.

3. Choose your recipes

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Now, onto the meat and potatoes (pun intended) of meal planning. It’s time to select your meals! At this point, you should have a good idea of what the week ahead looks like. You’ll know how many days you need to meal plan for and which days you’ll need something quick and easy to cook.

When it comes to choosing your meals for the week, here are a few tips to get you started:

  • Have a go-to list of your favorite recipes: Come up with a list of your favorite recipes, the ones you find yourself eating over and over again. These are your go-to recipes. Having a list of 8-10 recipes you love at the ready will make it easy for you to start your meal plan. To ensure you’re not eating the same meals all the time, choose 4-5 of these meals each week, and then fill in the gaps with new recipes to try.
  • Balance your proteins: You might love chicken, but you probably don’t want to eat it every day of the week. When you’re meal planning, try not to include more than two or three meals with the same protein. Having this variety will ensure you don’t get bored eating the same thing and that you’re eating a well-balanced diet. Try varying your meals to include a mix of proteins—chicken, beef, pork, fish—and sprinkle in a day or two with meals that have no meat at all.
  • Incorporate fruits and vegetables: Plan your meals with fruits and vegetables in mind. As part of a healthy diet, it’s recommended that adults eat 1.5-2 cups of fruit and 2-3 cups of vegetables each day, but according to the CDC, only 1 in 10 adults meet these recommendations. When you’re meal planning, you can intentionally plan to include these amounts in your daily meals to ensure you’re getting enough fruits and vegetables. This could be as easy as adding a side salad to dinner or planning to make a smoothie for breakfast.
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  • Pick one or two quick and easy meals: We all know that life gets busy. That’s what these meals are for. Choose one or two meals that are easy to make with little effort, need only a handful of ingredients, and require little cleanup. Even if you don’t have a busy schedule, things happen—you’re exhausted after a long work day, you feel under the weather, whatever it is—you’ll be happy you have a few easy recipes in your arsenal.
  • Consider ingredients you already have on hand: Chances are you already have a pantry full of ingredients and a fridge lurking with unused items. Think about how you might be able to use what you already have on hand. Have some extra lettuce or a box of unused pasta? Try building a meal around those ingredients. Not only will you save money, but you’ll also waste less. Which brings us to…
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  • Be conscious of expiration dates: When you plan your meals, think about how quickly some of the ingredients might go bad. This is particularly important for fresh ingredients that have a short shelf life or need to be used or frozen within a couple of days after purchase. Try to minimize the meals with ingredients that might go bad quickly and for the ones that do, plan those meals to be eaten earlier in the week to prevent less waste.
  • Think about ingredients that could be used for multiple meals: Another tip for preventing waste includes asking yourself what ingredients could be used across multiple meals. Have a meal that calls for cilantro but not enough to use the whole bunch? What other meals can you incorporate into your plan so that you use the entire bunch and nothing goes to waste? Approaching meal planning this way can also help you save money at the grocery store. If you’re planning for multiple meals that use chicken, you can opt to buy in bulk to save money.

Save time on grocery shopping

  • Try theme nights: One easy and fun way to plan meals is to choose different daily themes. You could try Meatless Mondays, Taco Tuesdays, Sandwich Saturdays. The possibilities are endless! You can designate certain days for grilling, casseroles, or even choose a day for trying something new. Not only does this help you mix things up, but it can help you plan faster too.
  • Plan for leftovers: Have a recipe that makes a lot of food? Save the leftovers for the next day. Do you prefer to have extras for lunch? Size up your recipe to ensure you have enough. Meal planning allows you to be smart about leftovers so you never have too much or too little food leftover.
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When it comes to meal planning, there’s no right or wrong way to do it, but these tips will help make the process easier. If you’re just getting started with meal planning, ease into it by filling your week with those go-to meals that you already know and love. Then, as you start getting into the swing of things, you can start to get even more creative with your meal plan.

4. Schedule your meals for each day

Up next, scheduling out your meals for the week. Take the recipes you chose and pick a day of the week for each. This is especially helpful when you know you have a few busy days in your schedule. Go ahead and schedule your quick and easy meals for those days.

One important note: while scheduling out your meals for each day solidifies your plan, it isn’t absolutely necessary. You may prefer to choose your meals but leave them unscheduled—and that’s 100% ok! The great thing about meal planning is it helps you create some structure to what you eat each week, but it also allows you to be flexible if needed.

If you have a meal that requires a bit more effort but you’re exhausted by dinner time, go ahead and switch things around. It’s totally ok to shift meals around based on how you’re feeling that day. Even better, anticipate that this likely will happen from time to time so schedule in an extra quick and easy meal for days like these.

Make meal planning even easier with Whisk’s Meal Planner. Save all of your favorite recipes to one place and then add them to Meal Planner. Drag and drop recipes to specific days of the week and when you’re ready, turn your meal plan into a shopping list with just one tap.

5. Make a grocery list

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Once you’ve chosen your meals and scheduled them out, it’s time to build that grocery list. Before you dive in, here are four simple steps for creating your grocery list:

  1. Review your planned meals and write out all the recipe ingredients you’ll need.
  2. Take your written list and check your pantry, fridge, and freezer for items you might already have on hand. Cross out any items on your list that you already have.
  3. Before or while you’re checking your fridge and freezer, go through and clean out any expired items or food that’s gone bad.
  4. Lastly, take note of any staple items you might be out of or running low on. Items like spices, olive oil, cooking spray, tin foil, and any other kitchen staples or one-off items.

There you have it. Your grocery list is ready to go!

Want to make this step even easier? You can! When you use Whisk to plan your meals, all it takes is one click to turn your entire meal plan into a shopping list. When you’re ready, just click “Add meal plan to shopping list” and voila! You’re ready to hit the grocery store.

How to build meal planning into your routine

Building any new habit into your routine takes time and repetition. Realistically, there will be times when you fall behind on planning and weeks where you hardly plan at all. That’s ok. Here are some obstacles you might face and tips for how to overcome them:

  • Your life changes: Whether your kids are going back to school or you’re working from home, your daily routine might change and make it more challenging to stick with meal planning. This is a perfect time to rethink how you can make meal planning work for you. It may be as simple as changing your designated meal planning day or enlisting the help of another family member. Check out how you can use Whisk’s shared meal plans to collaborate and meal plan with other members of your household.
  • You get stuck in a rut: Over time, meal planning can sometimes become repetitive. A few of the tips we mentioned earlier will hopefully prevent this from happening, but if you find yourself feeling less excited about what you’re eating, don’t be afraid to mix things up. This is why we recommend leaving room in your meal plan for trying new recipes, whether it’s just one night a week or two. Pinterest, blogs, and magazines are all great places to find new inspiration for your meal plan. If you’re looking for meal inspiration from home cooks like you, join Whisk Communities to discover new recipes based on shared food interests, diets, and more.

Know that just by starting today, you’re making progress towards making meal planning a part of your routine. If there ever comes a time where it’s not working for you, don’t be afraid to reassess and make the changes you need to get back on track.