A Step-by-Step Meal Planning System

In Part One of this series, we explored the benefits of meal planning and meal prep: saving time, money, and mental energy, eating healthier meals with more variety, and reducing food waste. This week, I’ll show you the step-by-step meal planning system that our family uses.

A pen and paper or digital meal planning system: your choice!

My meal planning system is designed to work with either pen and paper or digital tools.

Digital meal planning system

If you choose a digital calendar like Google Calendar, your meal plan is available to anyone in the family, anywhere, anytime, on any device. Using a digital meal planning system can be a big advantage over using a written plan that lives in only one place.

The digital tools I use for my meal planning system are:

  • Google Sheets — I keep a spreadsheet of the dishes I frequently cook — my Recipe List. It’s a key part of meal planning and we’ll talk more about it later.
  • Google Calendar — I use a shared Google Calendar to list our meal plans for the week.
  • Buy Me a Pie! — This is my favorite shopping list app, available for iOS and Android, and on the web.

You don’t have to use these specific technologies. You could use any shared calendar system, combined with a note-keeping system (such as Evernote.) The tech isn’t important, it’s how you use it.

If you’d like to use a shared Google Calendar, here are some tutorials to get you started:

Pen and paper meal planning system

If you’re into paper, meal planning with printed templates can be a lot of fun! Here are some basic meal planning templates to get you started:

I’ve just started creating printable meal planning templates, including recipe lists, a weekly meal plan list, and a grocery list. Expect more meal planning templates soon! (I can’t turn off that graphic designer in me!)

Step 1: Make a list of dishes that you love to cook and eat.

Now that you’ve decided on a way to plan your meals, let me show you how to save time in your meal planning routine by making a list of dishes that your family loves to eat, and that you love (or at least like) to cook.

We’re starting with a list because a big part of what makes the question, “what’s for dinner?” so difficult is the long list of possible answers. We have more food choices and more recipes than ever before. A Google search for “recipes” yields nearly two billion results at the time of this publication, and the number of available recipes increases every day. Even a more specific like “chicken with vegetables recipes” will you still produce about 282 million results.

Even a search through your own brain for dinner ideas can be overwhelming. The human brain is great at being creative, but it’s a terrible tool for storage and recall. And even if you can remember most of the recipes you like to make, you might not remember if you have the right ingredients to make them at home. I could tell you how to make a cilantro sauce from memory, but I can never remember if we have cilantro at home. This explains why we have three bunches of cilantro in the fridge right now.

So the first step in my meal planning system is to get a list of recipes out of your brain, and either into a spreadsheet or onto paper. We’re about to narrow your choices to a shortlist of family-pleasing dishes you like to make. You’ll reuse this list each week to make scheduling meals faster.

For paper planners:

Grab a piece of paper and divide it into the following two or three columns (or download my Printable Recipe List template):

  1. Main dishes
  2. Side dishes
  3. Desserts (optional — skip this column if you don’t regularly eat dessert — we don’t)

For digital planners:

You can create a list or spreadsheet with the three columns above, or you can make a copy of my Google Sheets Recipe List Template with columns and instructions already created.

Make your list

Think about dishes that your family loves to eat (and that you would like to cook) and list them in the appropriate categories. There’s no minimum and no limit — every household has a different level of variety in their meals, and that’s ok. (And most households rotate between a list of about 10–12 meals anyway.)

Next, I recommend listing the time it takes to prepare each recipe next to it on the list. This will help you pair main dishes and side dishes that take similar amounts of time, or let you know which side dishes can be made while a main dish is simmering, pressure cooking, roasting, or is in an otherwise “hands-off” state.

This photo session with my preschooler was not “hands-off.” (“Ooh mommy, I want rice!”)

Step 2: Identify your “back pocket” dishes

Look at the dishes on your list. Think about 3–4 dishes that you would consider your “go-to”, anytime meals, and mark them with an asterisk. These are the dishes you could make on days where you don’t feel like cooking, or you get home late, or you’re simply having a case of The Mondays.

photo courtesy of makeameme.org

Ideally, you will have about 3–4 marked dishes. In our family, these are some of our back-pocket dishes:

  • Breakfast for dinner — scrambled eggs, bacon, pancakes, or french toast
  • Egg salad
  • Charcuterie — a plate of cold meats, cheeses, vegetables, and fruit. Bread or crackers are optional. Can be enjoyed along with Netflix depending on your energy level.
  • Quesadillas — because we usually have tortillas, at least one cheese that melts, and little bits of food to put inside.
  • Roasted vegetables — grab a sheet pan, chop some vegetables, toss with oil, season, and roast. Bonus: roasted vegetables are hands-off, so you can make a quick main dish at the same time.
  • Clean-the-fridge salads — they’re a great way to use leftovers. Start with some greens; chop a few pieces of fruit or some vegetables; add canned beans, cold chicken, tofu, or edamame for protein; and toss with dressing.

Now you have a written or digital list of recipes, organized into categories, and labeled with prep times. It’s time to create a meal plan.

Step 3: Create your meal plan

Before you start planning, have your calendar or schedule nearby. You’ll want to know about any evening events that you have going on next week, like soccer matches or late nights at the office.

For paper planners:

  1. Start with a blank calendar or printable Meal Planning Chart and your Recipe List.
  2. Add main dishes and side dishes to your calendar for each day of the week, remembering that some dishes you’ve planned may produce leftovers. You can use them for lunches, or dinners later in the week.
  3. If you’re meal planning lunches, fill note them on the chart or calendar. Same for breakfasts.

For digital planners:

  1. Open your Recipe List spreadsheet and your Google Calendar for meal planning in separate browser windows or tabs.
  2. Switch your calendar to a weekly view. This is the easiest view to use when meal planning for a week.
  3. Begin creating events on your calendar for weekly dinners, lunches, and breakfasts.

That’s it — you have a meal plan! The next step is sharing it with your family. If you use Google Calendar, that’s simple — just add users by email address. If you are using paper, post your plan in a prominent place, like the kitchen. I use a plastic sleeve that mounts (and is removable) on the fridge or a wall to hold this week’s meal plan as well as a few more blank meal planning templates for upcoming weeks. You’ll save even more time by printing a few blank meal planning templates in advance, and they’ll be right where you need them.

So I have this plan. What’s next?

You have a beautiful plan. You’ve taken an enormous first step toward eating healthier meals and spending less time in the kitchen. The most important(and in the beginning, the most difficult) part of meal planning is following through on your plan. And I’ll be honest, this is the part that takes practice until it becomes a habit. If you can stick to your plan for just one or two weeks, you will see a difference in the way your evenings feel, your stress level, and how you approach making dinner.

Next week: shopping smart

Now you need a way to get the ingredients you need to make all your scheduled meals, so next week in Part Three of this series, we’re going to talk about shopping. I’ll share the best way to make a shopping list to save time and money at the grocery store, share some of my favorite shopping list tools, and show you how shopping time can roll into meal prep time once you get your fresh ingredients back home.

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See you next week!

This article is part of a four-part series on meal planning and meal prep originally published on BirdseedKitchen.com.