8 Things I Wish I Knew About Meal Planning Before I Started

I've been meal planning for about 15 years, and I've been successfully meal planning for about 10 years.  What's the difference?  About 15 years ago when I decided to delve into this meal planning thing, the information I found was somewhat basic, which meant there was a lot of unknowns.  Also, the way I read it, it seemed every single person who used this system was successful.  So I felt like a complete failure when it just wasn't working out well for me.

I've dropped meal planning, picked it back up, dropped it again, and then finally decided to pick it back up one last time, but only once I'd created solutions to the struggles I was having.  While I won't say it was an immediate success once I'd done this, I will tell you that once I was determined to stick with it for 2 months, regardless of any failures or stresses, it started becoming second nature.  It's now just a part of my week and it saves me time and money!

There are a few things I wish I had known 15 years ago when I was struggling to adopt this very useful routine.

1. Meal Templates Will Make It Easier
     By assigning a food theme to each night of the week, it makes it much easier when you're staring at a blank template trying to figure out which meals to plug in.
     I automatically assign either 30 minute meals, slow-cooker meals, freezer meals or instant pot meals to the days of the week that I know I just won't have time (or energy) to devote to cooking.
     Then, I've flipped between assigning proteins to the remainder days (chicken night, beef night, meatless night, etc.) or themes of meals (Mexican night, pizza night, etc.)  Either way, it works much better than having a completely empty calendar.

related: The Ultimate Step By Step Guide To Meal Planning 
              6 Common Mistakes When Meal Planning (and how to avoid them)

2.  Keep Your Meal Plans
     By recycling your meal plans (and, therefore, grocery lists) you will save yourself so much time and energy!  Why start from zero every week?

3. Plan Simple Meals For Busy Days
      I spoke to this a tiny bit in number 1.  Do not plan to make a new recipe on a night where you won't have time or energy.  Do not plan to make a complicated recipe on a night where you won't have time or energy.  It won't work and you'll be frustrated.
     I have a separate list for freezer meals and slow-cooker/instant pot meals.  I use meals from these lists on busy days (you could also have a no-cook list or a 30 minute meal list).

4. You Can Save Money!
     I had no idea, when I first dove into meal planning, that I could use this tool to not only save time, but to save money.  LOTS of money!  We used meal planning to pay off our debt by planning by a tight budget.  Meal planning made it easier in that:
  • I knew exactly what I was buying each week
  • I was able to use up items we already had on hand
  • We were able to eat a more varied diet once I started planning.  Initially, when cutting our budget down from $130.00/week to around $60.00/week, I tended to cook the same things over and over because I couldn't figure out what else would fit in our budget.  Once I could plan it out, it became so much easier.
related: 6 Reasons Why You Should Be Meal Planning
             The Ultimate List Of Meal Planning FAQ's

5. Inventory, Inventory, Inventory
      Did I mention to inventory?  It really is such a useful tool that will save you both time and money.  Take an initial inventory of your fridge, pantry, and freezer(s) and keep it updated, if you can, for a quicker check each week.
     This will be useful because:
  •  you won't accidentally purchase items you currently have
  • you won't miss an ingredient thinking you had it at home but didn't
  • you can see what's about to expire and then rotate those ingredients into the next week's meals so you won't have to throw them away
6. Use Your Perishables
     As noted above, you want to rotate in items from your fridge, freezer or pantry that are set to expire.  It's just a simple fact that American households throw out a LOT of money in food that has expired.  I used to think this wasn't me.  And then I challenged myself.  For 2 weeks I jotted down a cost to every single thing I threw out.  I was SHOCKED.  I began to take this point much more seriously, especially because we were using meal planning to pay off our debt.

7. If You Mess Up (Or Get Frustrated), Push Through
      It will happen.  It's just inevitable.  We are not perfect and we will drop the ball, make mistakes, or simply not want what we have scheduled for a meal one of the nights.  Set yourself up for success before that happens by putting a couple of back-up plans in place:
  • create a list of meals you can make from items you typically stock in your pantry/fridge/freezer. (spaghetti, buddha bowls, tacos, stir fry with rice, etc.)
  • welcome your family to participate meal planning.  Give them a cut-off time/date for requests each week and try to work in some of what they are requesting.
  • create a freezer meal or two as a back-up plan.  If they aren't needed, work them into an upcoming meal plan as a scheduled meal.  Then, create a couple more and do the same thing each month.
8. What Meal Planning Isn't
  • it isn't complicated.  We tend to rotate the same 20-30 meals all year anyway, now you're just planning in advance.
  • it isn't meant to be only for homemade meals.  You can absolutely "plan" to order take-out or go out to dinner.  The nice thing, is now those meals are planned and not something that just happens because you don't know what else to serve for dinner.
  • it isn't just for those who cook elaborate meals.  This is a planning system to allow you to answer the "what's for dinner" question once a week as opposed to every night.  And you can answer it without thought because it's already created!  Whether you serve rotisserie chicken with sides, frozen meals, or make from scratch a large portion of what your family eats, you will find so much benefit to using this tool.

Unofficially, here is #9.  Here's the thing.  Meal Planning is not for everyone.  I encourage you not to beat yourself up if it just doesn't work for you.  I receive a number of emails about exactly this.  Not everyone thrives on scheduling meals like this, and that's perfectly ok.  With so much attention given to meal planning lately it's easy to feel like a failure if you can't make it work for you.  You are not a failure at all.  Continue to seek out what does work for you.  This might be bits of meal planning or it may be nothing like meal planning at all.

How about you?  Have you tried meal planning?  I would love to hear from you what you've learned, tips you've come up with, or what your stumbling blocks are!


  1. These are great tips! I have found planning a specific meal on a specific night does not work in our household. So I plan 5 or 6 recipes for the week and shop for those, but they can be made on any day of week. My husband carries leftovers for lunch & I make breakfast the night before so he can heat it once he gets to work. No eating out saves a ton!

  2. These are super practical tips. I try to make a menu before our big biweekly grocery trips, but that's about as far as I seem to get. My husband seldom knows what he wants until the day of even when he knows the menu plan. I'd love to implement some of these tips with a twist that would accommodate my non-planner husband haha


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