Meal Planning for Beginners: The Ultimate Quick-Start Guide

Laura Brigance, MS, CHC

As a busy mom, I’m sure you can relate to the dinner-time frenzy of ‘what’s for dinner?’, as well as the panic that beginners of meal planning encounter regularly. It’s seriously draining to have tiny humans to feed when you have no clue how to meal plan or where to start meal planning. 

I actually advocate meal planning as one of the FIRST things to get in order in your household to help reduce stress. (Seriously–order and a plan = calm + collected).

Finding the magicmiddle between healthy + efficient will change everything.

But there are actually a lot of other reasons to meal plan, and here’s why you should get your ish in order and get started!

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1. Benefits of meal planning

Meal planning is one of those things that people just hate doing. It usually feels like an impossible task, not knowing where to start or end. Most people are very confused about what meals they should include for staying with a particular dietary style, which meals through the week they should plan for, and how to make the shopping lists.

I get it—before I started meal planning it felt completely overwhelming. Evenings were stressful, because even if we did agree on a meal, I had no idea if we had the ingredients to make it. (Forget whether or not it fit into our ‘diet’ we tried to adhere to at the time!) The frustration of not ever really knowing what was for dinner got the best of me once we had kids and our time became a gazillion times for valuable (because it was quickly becoming in more short supply).

That’s when I decided to get serious about meal planning.

And you know what? I discovered that there were several benefits to meal planning I didn’t even realize until we were into it a couple of weeks.

  • First, our ‘diet’ we were trying to follow—we stuck to it because I took the time to search out recipes that followed it. The confidence it built in both my husband and I after eating good for two weeks was amazing! That alone helped us stay motivated to keep working out as well. We didn’t want to waste our efforts of improvement at proper eating habits.
  • Second, we saved money. (Serious.) When you have an actual plan, you don’t wander through the store and grab at whatever looks good. You get your stuff and get out. This also allows to intentionally search up recipes that cost less if you’re serious about bringing your budget down on groceries.
  • Third, we eliminated multiple trips to the store. Translation: time saver!! We honestly didn’t have time to make so many trips to the store in the first place, and this just put me into panic runaround mode the days I had to ‘stop real quick’.

Think about how much time (and brainpower) it’s taking for you to realize you forgot something or you’re out of whatever you dreamed up for dinner on a whim, then the time to get into the store (especially if you have to take kids in with you!), the time in the store, loading the car back up, then unloading everything while unloading kids.

Oh yeah—and getting everything put up. This can suck hours out of your week. Only one trip a week has saved me boatloads of time!

  • And last, our stress levels were exponentially less in the evenings. That may sound like an exaggeration, but I’m not kidding. There was no scrambling around, no arguments, no searching online like a madwoman for something—anything—I could make with mushrooms and ajar of relish. We had a plan, we both helped in cooking every night, and we started having some amazing conversations while spending relaxing before-dinner time with the kiddos.

So now that you’re convinced you’re definitely on the right track...

2. How do you start meal planning?

Meal planning will come down to a couple of different things.

First, are there any dietary styles you need to adhere to? If so, those are the kinds of recipes you need to search up.

Second, how many people will you be cooking for at night? Think about if you need to cook for adults and kids.

Third, do you want to take advantage of leftovers for lunches? This will determine the number of servings you cook of the dinner recipe. This is a GREAT way to also make sure you stay on track with your dietary style.

As long as you cook your dinners in that style, you’re assured your lunch is the same when you’re using them as leftovers. Plus you don’t have to go searching for lunch when you’re hungry. It’s already done and ready in the fridge.

Do you need to plan for breakfasts, snacks, or more lunches? If so, you should also account for these when sitting down to meal plan.

3. How do I create a weekly meal plan?

Creating a meal plan takes a little time each week, but once you have a system set, you begin to follow it automatically and it gets easier.

The first thing you should do is print out a meal planning template (which you can get below), and find recipes. Consider all those things above when coming up with your plan.

Next, start filling in the days and slots you need a meal for with the recipes you’ve found. Think about any nights you won’t be home for kids’ practices, nights you eat out, or nights you’re planning for leftovers. Mark those out or make a note.

You’ll also want to note any nights you want to cook but it needs to be simple or a slow cooker meal that you threw in first thing in the morning to be ready by dinnertime.

Third, you’ll need to create shopping lists. This can be done by either using recipe or meal planning apps, or by simply writing a list with a meal planning template and shopping list template yourself while looking at the recipe. It’s a little time-consuming, but once you get the hang of it, it’s not difficult.

Fourth, double-check you don’t already have those ingredients (I hate when I buy something I already had 5 of !)

Last, I suggest posting your weekly meal plans somewhere anyone can find it. This is so that if your partner needs/wants to start the meal, or even has questions about it, you always have a designated place so there are no questions.

4. Meal Planning Template With Shopping List

Meal planning templates with a shopping list can be very simple, planning only for dinners, or you can find very complex meal planning templates when you need to plan for multiple meals per day. The advantage of printing these out is that you have a very clear, organized picture of your week right in front of you.

5. Schedule in Meal Planning Every Week

One of the biggest mistakes I see beginners make is not taking the time to meal plan, and not making it a priority. If you’re serious about saving time in your week and nixing the constant anxiety about what’s for dinner- schedule in a time to sit and do meal planning every single week! 

6. Get organized

Every time I ask a client where their recipes are, I know what’s coming: “Oh they’re on my phone”. But the 'where' is the bigger issue. I know how this works– we get going down the recipe rabbit hole on Pinterest, pin a thousand recipes that all look amazing, then we never see them again. 

Friend! Stop doing this!! If you find something you think looks fantastic and your family will love it, do yourself a HUGE favor and get organized with your recipes so you can find them again later!!

I use a recipe organization app that’s amazing at analyzing nutrition information, too. They use a ‘collections’ feature to organize recipes, and (although they will have an official ‘meal planner’ feature soon within the app), I use that ‘collections’ feature to do my meal planning.

Plus they generate my shopping list and you can send it to any store from there for shopping– SO EASY!!

7. Save + Reuse Favorites

This one is so easy, but always easily forgotten. When you find something that everyone likes, don’t forget to save it and reuse it. These start to fall under the category I call ‘Family Faves’.

What’s so great about these is that once you’ve made it a time or two, it starts to be second nature– meaning it takes you less time and brainpower to make it. Heck-some of ours I actually know all the ingredients by heart now! 

As you can see, it's well worth the time spent on meal planning ahead of time. Not just for your stress levels, but also for your health + wallet!

{Photo credit: Ella Olsson, pexels.com}

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My mission is to always find the magic middle where healthy + efficient merge. As a nutrition specialist and certified health coach with a master of science in nutrition, I firmly believe in nourishing the body, mind, and spirit with proper food, rest, movement, and stress management. My mission is to teach people how those CORE 4 things work together, how to do them on the daily, then put them on autopilot.

Montgomery, TX
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