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22 EASY MEAL PLANNING TIPS TO HELP CREATE SIMPLE WEEKLY FAMILY MEAL PLANS
Are you determined to find a way to end the misery of arriving in the kitchen after a long day and not having a clue what to do for dinner? Well, you’re in the right place.
Here are 22 easy family meal planning tips for beginners to help you put together a simple meal planning strategy that works. A meal planning system that you can stick to week after week after week.
I’ve based these tips on my experiences with meal planning over the last few years. So please take advantage of the trials and errors I have worked through to speed up finding the best meal plan for you and your family.
Before diving into the list of meal planning tips, let’s look at what meal planning actually is.
WHAT IS MEAL PLANNING?
Meal planning is planning your meals in advance and ensuring you have everything you need to get those meals on the table.
Suppose you want to take meal planning a step further. In that case, you can also incorporate some meal prep, setting aside time each week to prepare ingredients or even whole meals in advance.
Meal planning done well can save you time, save you money and quite possibly also save your sanity at around 6 pm on weekdays..
However, there is so much written about meal planning and how best to do it that it can be very easy to get caught up with a convoluted system to which you can’t stick.
The biggest tip that I can give you is to keep it simple.
WHAT DOES A SIMPLE MEAL PLANNING SYSTEM LOOK LIKE?
Here are the different steps involved in setting up a simple meal planning system as I see them:
1. INITIAL SET-UP
- Deciding what you will use to keep track of your meal planning
- Researching and creating an initial recipe library
- Making the weekly plan
- Creating a grocery list
- Buying the groceries
- Optional: Prepping ingredients or whole meals in advanced
- Cooking and getting meals onto the table
And now, let’s bust a couple of meal planning myths.
DOES MEAL PLANNING MEAN COMMITTING TO COOKING EVERY SINGLE MEAL?
One of the big misconceptions about meal planning is that you are consigning to a life of eternal home cooking.
This is not what meal planning is about! There is no reason your meal plan can’t contain a ready meal or takeaway.
The whole point is that you know in advance so that you can plan accordingly.
For example, if having takeaway is a financial treat, you can plan to have a cheap home-cooked meal a couple of other nights during the week.
If you know in advance that you will be too pushed for time to cook a meal, you can either have prepared something earlier in the week or know that you’ve got a ready meal that is ready and waiting for you to heat up and serve.
If you live in a household where others can cook, sharing the meal plan with them is a great way of ensuring that everyone does their bit to get family food on the table.
You’ve done the hard part for them by planning what’s on the menu for lunch or dinner, so they can share duties and cook it!
IS THERE A BEST DAY OF THE WEEK FOR MEAL PLANNING?
Many meal planning guides pinpoint a certain day of the week as the best day for meal planning.
In reality, the best day of the week for meal planning depends on your family’s schedule. So look at what an average week looks like for your family.
Consider if there are evenings with lots of after-school clubs and extracurricular activities. Think about if there are evenings when you or your husband/wife/partner is regularly late from work or out. Are you a family that tends to eat out often at the weekend?
Then pinpoint the most opportune time in the week to have your grocery delivery arrive or to do the grocery shopping at the supermarket.
Work back a couple of days from that point to schedule your weekly meal planning session.
For example, I supermarket shop online, and we have a scheduled delivery every Friday. I set this up, so we always have a well-stocked fridge and pantry for the weekend.
So I plan the next week’s worth of meals on a Wednesday. This gives me breathing space to ensure the final grocery order is in by the deadline of Thursday evening.
Now that you understand the basics of meal planning let’s dive into those tips. Then you can put together your first meal plan.
22 EASY TIPS FOR MEAL PLANNING
These easy family meal planning tips will help you develop a strategy for a really simple system that works for you and your family.
Go through the tips individually, and then have a go at putting together your first week’s meal plan.
1. GET YOUR KITCHEN ORGANISED
Organising your kitchen is like setting the foundations for a good meal planning strategy.
Make sure your fridge and freezer storage is organised well. Make sure you have plenty of useful storage containers.
Aim to have a good set of kitchen utensils and kitchen gadgets. I highly recommend slow cookers, pressure cookers and air fryers as the most useful kitchen gadgets for meal planning.
2. DECIDE THE BEST PLACE TO CREATE A RECIPE LIBRARY
Keep your meal planning manageable by setting up a simple but functional way to store all your recipes and meal ideas.
In the past, I have successfully used Trello and google sheets for meal planning. Both work well for building up a library of recipes and putting together a plan for the week ahead. I also know of many people who use Pinterest for meal planning.
However, I have a new favourite way of storing all my recipes; in fact, it goes above and beyond simply being a place to store recipes. As of 2022, I started using the Whisk app. It is an all-in-one app for recipe saving, meal planning and grocery shopping. (I am not an affiliate, I love this app so much I want to shout about it from the rooftops)
I use Whisk as a recipe library that I dip into once a week to pull recipes into a plan for the week ahead. I can then add all the ingredients I need for each recipe into a shopping list – all within the app.
Once the list is complete, I send the list directly from Whisk to my online supermarket trolley, ready to check out ahead of the deadline for the next food order.
In short, Whisk is genius and has further cut down the time I spend on an already slick meal planning system.
3. MAKE SURE YOU KNOW WHAT YOU WANT FROM YOUR MEAL PLAN
Knowing the objective of your meal planning will help you decide the kinds of recipes to include and the ratio of home-cooked food with ready meals, takeaway or eating out.
Here are some of the most common meal planning objectives:
- To save money
- To save time
- To cut down on stress on weekday evenings
- To ensure your family eats more healthily and gets the nutrition it needs
- To put an end to repetitive meal boredom
- To follow a particular kind of diet – vegetarian, vegan, keto, paleo, gluten-free
- To cut down on food waste
- To ensure you eat together as a family more often
- To save your sanity
4. CANVAS YOUR FAMILY
Meal planning doesn’t have to be a solo pursuit. In fact, the more you can get your family on board with meal planning, the better the chances you will stick to it.
The best way to get them involved is to ask them what food they like most and what they dislike most. Then, get them to name their favourite meals.
5. DO AN INITIAL RECIPE-FINDING SESSION
One of the joys of meal planning is that it gives you the time and space to discover new meals to add to your repertoire as the weeks’ progress.
However, it’s a good idea to start by setting time aside to research recipes to include in your recipe library.
Good tactics for putting together your initial recipe library include:
- Including family favourites
- Looking for variations on family favourites
- Finding recipes that include favourite family ingredients
- Consider every food group to make sure that you create balance across the plan
- Dust off your recipe books and flick through them – I take a photo of the recipe page and add it to Whisk
- Look at popular recipe sites
- Google for inspiration – family-friendly meals, quick family-friendly meals etc
Divide your recipe library up, so it is easy to search each week. I have mine split into the following categories:
- Breakfast and brunch
- Weekday lunches
- School lunches
- Weekday lunches (school holidays)
- Weekday quick dinners
- Weekend meals
- Weekend meals (entertaining)
6. PLAN YOUR PLAN
Yes, you read that correctly!
There is no point in simply putting together a list of recipes for the week ahead without working out what is needed and when.
Take a look at the family calendar and determine the needs for each day of the week.
If you tend to cook a big family meal on a Sunday, could you make use of the leftovers for a Monday night dinner?
Are there evenings when you need to eat quickly before heading out to take a child to sports?
Is there an evening in the week when everyone is home, which means you can enjoy spending more time eating together?
Are the school holidays looming? In this case, you will need to include quick and healthy lunches for the kids.
7. PLAN MEALS AROUND WHAT YOU ALREADY HAVE
One of the best money-saving meal planning tips is to plan meals for the week around what you already have in the fridge/freezer and pantry.
Do a quick check before sitting down to meal plan and then look for existing recipes in your library or search for a new recipe to use what you already have.
8. LATHER, RINSE, REPEAT
Ideally, your recipe library will be ever-evolving. Add new recipes as and when you find them. Remove recipes that don’t work out or that you and your family no longer like.
However, you don’t need to constantly develop a completely new meal plan every week.
Note the recipes that work well. The things that make your kids’ faces light up, the recipes that are easy to put together but utterly delicious, the meals that always have leftovers that can be used the next day. Then rotate them into your meal plans regularly.
9. BE REALISTIC
Refrain from loading up your plan for the week with super complex meals. One of the main aims of meal planning is to make life easier for yourself.
One-pan meals are brilliant, as are meals that involve making a simple sauce that can be used over pasta or courgetti. A simple side salad is a great way of ensuring everyone is eating enough vegetables.
Use your slow cooker (don’t have one? I highly recommend the Instant Pot Duo. It is also a pressure cooker, rice cooker, and steamer and has a sauté function). I use my family’s Instant Pot Duo several times every week and wouldn’t be without it)
10. SHOP YOUR KITCHEN
A great starting point for your weekly planning is to shop your fridge, freezer and pantry for stuff you already have that you can use for meals in the week ahead.
This is a good way to ensure you don’t waste food and don’t spend needlessly on more food before you’ve used what you already have.
11. HAVE SOME MAKE-AHEAD MEALS IN YOUR LIBRARY
There are likely always to be days or evenings when you won’t have time to cook and don’t want to eat out or get takeaway.
These are times when it is great to have a pre-prepared meal to hand. I am not a fan of setting aside time specifically for batch cooking. However, I am a big fan of two make-ahead strategies:
- Doubling up – If I’m making a meat sauce or a stew, I make double so that a batch can be frozen down and used as a ready meal in the future or for a second meal the following day.
- Slow cooking – I pop some ingredients in my slow cooker and set it to be ready when we want to eat our evening meal.
12. MAKE GOOD USE OF YOUR FREEZER
Your freezer is your greatest meal planning ally.
Alongside batch cooking and freezing one of the batches to make a freezer meal, make good use of your freezer for storing leftovers.
Unless you plan to eat leftovers the next day, it is always worth checking if they can be frozen. The amount of food and meals that freeze well is amazing.
I’ve put together a list of 20+ freezer essentials, including details of many foods, meals and ingredients that can be frozen successfully.
13. BE SMART ABOUT CREATING YOUR GROCERY LIST
It can feel overwhelming the first time you look at the week’s worth of recipes you’ve put together and work out how to make a grocery list.
The best way to put together a grocery list from your meal plan is to list all the ingredients you need for each recipe.
I will mention Whisk again at this point because one of the things I love about Whisk is that it makes it so easy to add all the ingredients to a list within the app.
When using Trello, I would create a checklist in a card to add all the ingredients.
Using pen and paper is also a good way to write a list quickly.
Whatever method you choose, list all the ingredients until you have a completed ingredients master list.
Please note the quantity beside each ingredient and increase that quantity for every recipe that requires it.
You can now use this list to do a quick fridge/freezer and pantry check to see which ingredients you already have and remove them from the list.
The remaining items are your grocery list for the week. You can leave the list as it is or rework it to group items by grocery store department.
14. YOU DON’T HAVE TO ONLY GROCERY SHOP ONCE PER WEEK
It took me a while to realise that it is okay to pop into a grocery store or deli for fresh ingredients during the week. It doesn’t mean that I am being inefficient or disorganised.
The bad thing is rushing into a shop to panic-buy when you have yet to plan what you will cook.
However, nipping in with a shopping list for a recipe that requires ingredients to be as fresh as possible is a great way of doing things.
15. ALWAYS HAVE A WELL-STOCKED PANTRY
I believe in always having a well-stocked pantry or food cupboard. It is a solid and reliable foundation from which you can cook all your family meals. So I’ve put together a list of all the staples you need to ensure you have a well-stocked pantry.
16. MIX AND MATCH INGREDIENTS
Mixing and matching the ingredients across your recipes is a great time-saving and money-saving meal planning tip.
This works well for ingredients you can’t buy or don’t want to buy in small quantities—things like fresh herbs or best-value portions of meat.
It also works well for spending less time cooking, which is also a great way to save on the cost of energy!
For example, you could roast a bulk quantity of vegetables for a Sunday roast and then use half to make a hearty soup for later in the week.
17. BATCH PREPARE AS YOU GO
As I mentioned earlier, I prefer not to set aside time for meal prep each week. It just doesn’t work for our family schedule.
However, I am a huge fan of batch-prepping ingredients while making a recipe.
For example, if I’m chopping onions, I will chop up several at once and then leave some in the fridge for later in the week. Ditto for potatoes. I do the same with herbs, which I find easier to chop up in larger quantities.
I am also a fan of batch-cooking up basic sauces like tomato sauce. For example, I love the recipe for a basic Italian tomato sauce in The Silver Spoon’s classic recipe book.
18. MAKE USE OF SHORTCUT INGREDIENTS
Buy time-saving ingredients if one of your meal planning goals is to spend less time cooking. Some of the best time-savers include:
- Pre-prepared frozen vegetables are a great time-saver
- Garlic paste or ready-chopped garlic in a jar makes life very easy
- Canned beans are soft and quicker to use than dried beans
19. KEEP IT INTERESTING
Keep your weekly meal plans from getting stuck in a rut by varying the weekly.
Spending a little time each week finding a new recipe or two will keep things interesting for you as the planner and everyone eating the meals.
Easy ways to keep your recipes and weekly meal plan interesting include:
- Think seasonally and base recipes around fresh produce currently in season
- Think geographically and base recipes on cuisines from other States, counties or countries
- Think creatively and base recipes based on current ingredient trends
- Swap rice for pulses, use courgetti instead of pasta, and swap broccoli for another cruciferous vegetable like cauliflower or Brussels sprouts.
20. SLOW COOKERS, PRESSURE COOKERS AND AIR FRYERS ARE YOUR MEAL PLANNING ALLIES
Slow cookers are brilliant for days when you know you won’t have the time (or the inclination) to stand and cook in the evening. Throw a bunch of ingredients in it during the morning, set and go. There is nothing better than coming home to a meal that is ready to eat.
The pressure cooker is great for speeding up the cooking process. It is particularly great for quick stews and for quickly cooking vegetables.
My air fryer is something I have to stop myself from waxing lyrical about because I am in danger of becoming an air fryer bore. Nevertheless, I use it several times daily, from delicious cheese on toast (grilled cheese) to mouthwatering roast potatoes.
21. CREATE SPECIFIC FOOD NIGHTS
Nominating a night of the week as ‘pizza night’ or ‘curry night’ or ‘fish Friday’ is a good way of simplifying meal planning even further.
It doesn’t mean you have to stick to the same recipes each week. Still, it gives you parameters to work within – and can also encourage requests from the family that help you come up with something great to add to the next meal plan.
22. STICK WITH IT AND MAKE MEAL PLANNING A HABIT!
There is no doubt that meal planning takes a little effort, especially at first. However, one of the best ways to get the hang of it is to stick with it.
Like anything else you want to become part of your routine, you need to work to make it a habit. Find a way to make sure you stay consistent with your planning. For example, set a calendar reminder or set aside the same time each week to sit and work through your plan.
You will be amazed how much quicker and easier it becomes over time, as long as you stick with it.
So go forth, and start putting together your recipe library. Dive in and create your first meal plan, then set a calendar reminder for the same time every week to continue making meal plans.
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Hello, I’m Luci, founder of Mums Make Lists (Est. 2011). Over the last decade or so, I have combined my experience as a mum, journalist and shopping editor to create useful guides and lists of ideas and inspiration to make it easier for busy parents to plan and host kids’ parties and find great gifts. Read more.