Meal Planning for Beginners: 21 Tips to Get You Started
Meal planning can be a great way to stay healthy and organized, but where to begin? If you’re new to this awesome practice, read on as we break down the daunting concept into bite-size tips.
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Photograph by Olga Ivanova
Some people seem to glide through life as meal planning ninjas — always a step ahead of those of us who jump frazzled from meal to meal. But take heart. All that separates those experts from the rest of us are a few good meal planning tips and a solid strategy. Can you make healthy meals and curb food waste without spending a ton of time or money? Absolutely.
At its heart, successful meal planning is an investment in your future self. While it takes a bit of planning and decision-making, consider the time and money you’d otherwise spend flailing and fumbling around for meals at the last minute: That has a price, too, whether it’s the mental toll of panic or the tip money for the delivery person.
Check out the 21 meal planning tips below and you'll see that with a little preparation and practice, you, too, can be a meal planning ninja.
1. Identify the reasons you want to start meal planning so you can find purpose in the process
View meal planning as a way to help you reach your goals. Maybe you want to start a family pizza night tradition with every week’s menu. Or kick off a personal challenge to spend less money or eat more vegetables. Whatever your goal is, if you regard the meal planning process as more than just another task, your enjoyment will increase and your sense of purpose will help you follow through.
2. Designate a planning day and a shopping day
Many people choose to make their meal plan the Friday or Saturday before grocery shopping in order to be set for the whole week by Sunday night; choose a time that works best for you. With the schedule in mind, draw up a weekly menu using some of these tips.
3. Commit to your meal plan by writing it down
Whether it’s on a kitchen chalkboard with the days of the week, in an app on your phone, or on a piece of paper, we’re big fans of writing down your menu plan — so much so that we made a tool for that! Why? It’s simple: Writing it down just makes it more likely to happen. This applies not just to the master list of meals, but to the shopping list, too. That way you never find yourself at the grocery store with that annoying “What should I get?” refrain ringing in your head. Just consult the shopping list. Learn more about the Yummly Meal Planner.
Note: The Yummly Meal Planner is available to paid subscribers.
4. Use the grocery store sales circular as your guide
This one is both a planning tip and a money-saving tip: Pay attention to what’s on sale, then buy items in bulk when your favorite meats or pantry staples are cheaper. Once home, dry rub meal-size portions of the meat with various spice mixes and then freeze them in zip-top bags. From there, you’re one step away from quick pasta, tacos, or sandwiches. Many supermarkets will email you their circular. Sign up and let those sale ads in your inbox inspire your planning for the upcoming week's meals.
5. Know the highs and lows of your typical week
Are Wednesdays typically filled with practices and rehearsals? Maybe that’s an automatic leftovers night. Is Friday a bit more relaxed? Think about making that the day you introduce new recipes into the rotation. Find your rhythm; it’ll help you draw up and stick to a meal plan.
6. Cook for more than one meal at a time
It’s all about making a big batch of something. Double the recipe for Taco Tuesday and freeze half to save it for next week. Make a huge slow cooker stew (like the one below) and stash part of it in the freezer for another day. Batch cooking doesn’t have to just be about dedicating a single day to cook for a whole week — though that’s certainly one method. However you choose to do batch cooking, the principle is a big time saver: Reduce the number of times you need to cook.
Yummly's Slow Cooker Smoky Ham and White Bean Soup makes eight servings.
7. Keep your freezer organized
So you’ve stashed some leftovers for later. Great ... but it doesn’t stop there. Part of relying on your freezer for meals is having items organized and labeled. That stew you put in the zip-top bag without labeling because you’ll “remember what it is”? Spoiler alert: You won’t remember. Label the bag before you put leftovers into it. It’ll be easier to write on (you won’t be trying to scribble on top of cubes of beef and lumps of potatoes) and you won’t be able to get away with putting the bag in the freezer sans label.
8. Keep a stocked pantry
Cans of beans, blocks of tofu, boxes of pasta ... these are ways of making sure that you're never too far away from good food. Spices are another great way to make a flavorful meal when you don't have much fresh food in the house (see our fan-favorite Cajun Chicken recipe below).
Remember, part of having a stocked pantry means keeping it stocked. Don’t let yourself get caught empty-handed next time you reach for the olive oil. If you do run out of something, make sure it goes on your list for the next grocery shopping trip. Note that a well-stocked pantry may not happen overnight — that's OK. Sometimes it’s a question of buying a few things a week (check the store’s sales circular!) that can live in your pantry and swoop in to save a future mealtime.
9. Don’t be afraid to plan cold meals, too
A hot meal is not the only kind of satisfying and healthy food. A sandwich on whole-grain bread with carrots and hummus is a complete meal. Ditto for some sliced carrots, celery, and cucumber served with a dip or cottage cheese and a hard-boiled egg.
10. Pre-chop your vegetables
Just brought a bag of carrots home from the market? Peel them and slice them up for later in the week. Celery in your grocery bag? Make chopping part of the process of putting away your groceries. Dedicating that extra time to prepping vegetables at the beginning of the week means getting a leg up on the rest of the week and thanking yourself later.
Get a leg up with a little bit of prep work. Color coordination optional.
11. Stir fry and pizza are your friends
Once every week or two, make it a “clean out the fridge and freezer” night. Then, make stir fry or pizza with what you’ve rescued. Store-bought pizza dough can be stashed in the freezer for the occasion and stir-fry sauce can live in the fridge for eons. And when it comes to pizza, don’t fall into the “cheese and red sauce” trap. Expand your pizza horizons and know it’s all fair game: Turkey with stuffing, chicken with vegetables, beef with squash — all potential pizza toppings. Have a pizza crust at the ready and everything starts looking like a potential pizza.
You’ve made a list. You’ve done the shopping. But things happen, so always have a ready-to-go meal waiting in the wings. Maybe it’s a pasta dish as simple as fusilli with frozen peas and canned tuna, or an emergency frozen casserole. (Either way, make a note to replace the meal once it’s eaten. Future You says thanks.)
13. Lean on friends for meal planning inspiration
Anybody who cooks has probably dealt with meal planning in some way. So pick your friends’ brains for their strategies. If your friends are nearby, you could even start up a meal prep club and share responsibility for stocking one another’s freezers. If nothing else, you might be able to swap a few weekly menus and inspiration.
14. Breakfast for dinner
Break free from the idea that every dinner has to feature three hot components in a perfectly orchestrated symphony of flavor. In fact, break free from the idea that dinner has to be dinner at all. Dinner can be breakfast — well, “brinner.” Somehow, knowing that can take a weight off the planning process. Pencil in a brinner every once in a while, whether it’s scrambling some eggs and toasting some English muffins, or folding some leftover vegetables into an omelet with cheese.
This Easy Egg And Cheese Casserole from Yummly is oven-ready in five minutes
15. Stay realistic, not overambitious
Sometimes being realistic means scheduling a day that says “restaurant delivery.” Sometimes it means buying pre-chopped vegetables instead of chopping them yourself. Some people will make pizza dough from scratch and some will pick it up at the store. Overall, the point is to be honest with yourself about your time and budget. If your plan and goals are exaggerated, you’re setting yourself up for failure. It’s okay to be flexible with the plan once it’s in place, but the plan should be workable and realistic — even if that means penciling in delivery sometimes.
16. Get others in your household involved
If you live with others, ask them what they want for dinner next week. (Maybe set some boundaries so you don’t end up on the hook for a surf and turf extravaganza.) If you’re lucky, you can even get them to pitch in some prep.
17. Ordering out? Make it fit into your plan.
Ordering Chinese food for delivery? Ordering an extra dish can mean the beginnings of another meal tomorrow. Important: Put the extra food straight in the refrigerator so it doesn’t get gobbled up right away. Whether it’s a main course that just needs a vegetable side or some fried rice to serve with a salad, that extra order will give you a leg up on the next day. (Yes, it’s possible that this will scrap the plan already written for the next day, but remember the plan isn’t the Constitution; it can be amended by your decree.)
18. Go thematic and try a meatless meal once a week
Doing theme nights can help provide some recurring structure in your meal planning. And if tacos are for Tuesday, then let meatless meals claim Monday. Break away from chicken, pork, and beef by incorporating beans, eggs, tofu, peanut butter, and canned tuna or salmon into your meals. Alternative proteins are a good way to expand your repertoire and stretch your food budget.
Make a meatless meal for a crowd with Yummly's Four-Cheese Baked Spaghetti recipe
19. Reuse meal plans
Hey, if it was good enough for one week, it’s good enough for another. There’s no need to start from scratch every single time. If a meal plan worked out well, bring it back for an encore. (For the sake of variety, you might want to leave a few weeks between repeats.) Just remember that repeating menus from different seasons may end up costing more, since out-of-season produce tends to be more expensive.
20. Think soup and salad
When hot weather hits, a salad can be a refreshing main course. Pack it with legumes (canned chickpeas, say) and maybe a little cheese for some protein and heft. And don’t be shy about tossing in vegetable leftovers or odds-and-ends from the fridge. In cold weather, make soup a go-to. Whether homemade or store-bought, a bowl of soup can often accommodate a few extra ingredients from the freezer or fridge. Whether soup or salad, serve it with a baguette to round out the meal.
21. Don’t get discouraged; you can do it!
If you fall down on the meal plan, pick yourself up and get right back at it. There are no meal-plan enforcers; there’s just you. If you decide to deviate, that’s your prerogative. Just don’t let one day’s deviation throw the whole week off track.
Want more time-saving dinner ideas?
Check out all of our meal planning articles for tips, tricks, and recipes here. Or head straight to one of these recommended reads: