Tell me if this sounds familiar: you’ve eaten out two or three times this week because you couldn’t figure out what to make for dinner. The thought of creating meals for a whole week is daunting and you don’t even know where to begin!
Plus, you’re spending too much money on food and want to eat healthier. I’ve been there, starting with the first year of marriage!
Meal planning takes practice and doesn’t have to be difficult or fancy.
In time, I developed a system of 5 steps that I use every week to create meals- this guide to meal planning for beginners can help save you tons of money and start eating healthier! Bookmark this page and use these beginners tips to set yourself up for success.
5-Step Meal Planning
1.) Make a budget
2.) Create a Master Meal List
3.) Make your grocery list
4.) Set aside an hour a week to meal plan
5.) Stick to your budget and stay consistent
1.) Make a budget
This is the most important step! If you don’t start out with a food budget, you’ll end up spending WAY more than you intended, and may end up with too much food and a lot of food waste. So what’s a good number? That depends on your family’s size and needs!
- I’ve heard many people say that an average of $25 per person per week is about average. Your mileage may vary depending on where you live and what your grocery prices look like.
- Look at how much you’re already spending. Keep records of your grocery trips for one month and see how much you spend. Do you think it’s too much? Try cutting that number by 10% for the next month to see how you do; it’s a very delicate process, and you have to find that balance! John and I started out our marriage with $50 a week, but after Allison was born we raised it to $60 to help cover formula and other baby food.
- If you have any special dietary needs, like a diabetic diet, gluten-free, all organic, etc., you may need to allow a little more room in your spending.
2.) Create a master list of your favorite recipes
Every family has at least a few meals they love to eat every month. If you have a list of recipes that you make often, it would be helpful to have all of them in one place to help you choose what to make each week!
I’d recommend having at least 30 on your list, if not more, to cover at least a month of meals. Rent cookbooks from the library, get recipes from family/friends, or use my favorite sites, Pinterest and AllRecipes. Pinterest lets you create different board categories so you can keep your recipes organized, and AllRecipes has a recipe box you can send all your favorite recipes to.
Types of meals to write down
Is it hard to even think of 30 ideas? Let me give you some simple ideas. And maybe some of these will spark new ideas to write down, even if two meals seem almost the same.
For example: “Pasta with tomato sauce” and “Pasta with Alfredo sauce” count as two different meals, even though they’re both a simple pasta with sauce!
- Meatless Mondays
- Sandwiches (PB&J, deli ham, tuna salad)
- Breakfast for dinner (Pancakes, biscuits and gravy)
3.) Make your grocery list for the week
Decide the best method of keeping a shopping list for your family. Will you use a notebook? A grocery list app? Maybe Google Docs, so you and your family can access it anywhere or anytime! Either way, make sure it’s easily accessible during the day.
Here’s my ideal scenario, in order, for making my list:
- What have I run out of this week? If I know I’m out of milk or eggs, these items immediately get put on my list throughout the week as I use them up. This way, I won’t forget to do it later and have an “Oh crap!” moment when I go to make something next week and realize I’m out of eggs.
- What meals can I make from my pantry? This is why I love having a small stockpile. If I already have basic essentials like canned tomatoes, beans, cheese, etc., I can make simple and cheap meals and may only have to buy one or two items for that meal! If you’re having trouble figuring out what to make with what you have, I recommend Supercook.com. You enter in the ingredients you have and it’ll tell you the recipes you can make! I’ve used this site a couple times and it’s a great way to get ideas.
- What can I make with what’s on sale this week? The Meijer preview ad comes out on Fridays, and all other ads usually come out on Sundays with the Sunday newspaper. Look through the ads from the grocery store to see what’s cheap that week! Is chicken at a rock-bottom price this week? Find a bunch of chicken recipes! Maybe rice is on sale? This week could be a Mexican or Asian inspired recipe week.
- What can I make from my Master List for the meals I have left? If I still need a couple meals after doing everything above, I’ll then look through my Master List for any favorite recipes we want to have that week, still making sure that we’re under budget.
- Do I have any emergency “cheap” meals in my pantry/freezer? There have been a couple of times that after adding a bunch of essentials to the list that we’ve run out of, there’s suddenly not a lot of money left to buy dinners! “Oh crap, I only have $5.00 and need two more dinners!” In situations like these, we try to keep cheap meals in the freezer like chicken nuggets and fries, or frozen pizza. Sure, it’s not the healthiest, but they’re there in a pinch! If you don’t have any emergency meals but have some extra money in the budget, think about buying one or two meals to stick in the freezer in case you’re low on funds the next week.
Need an easy checklist to go with this? Download my FREE Meal Planning Checklist!
4.) Set aside an hour a week to plan your menu
This is up to you when you plan to do this! I usually start on Thursday afternoons and have it finalized by Friday for our weekend shopping.
It might be hard to set aside that much time, especially if you work full time or have young kids. Plus, you can always break it up into two separate days, as long as you get it done!
I recommend putting meal planning on your calendar as a standing appointment. Think about it this way: You wouldn’t schedule a doctor’s appointment and just not show up. Why would you do the same thing with planning your meals for your health?
I’m one of those people that forgets things pretty much right away. So if something’s on my calendar or to-do list, it’s more likely to get done.
5.) Stick to your budget and be consistent
If you can’t be consistent, it’s going to be really hard to turn meal planning and budgeting into a habit.
Try taking out the amount of cash you need for groceries that week. Using cash tends to keep you in check and it “hurts” more to hand over cash than it does a credit card, because you can physically see the money leaving you.
Using your pantry for “free meals”
This is probably one of my top tips for you. Always keep a good supply of foods in your pantry to make meals!
Let’s face it: Some days, I might forget to take something out of the freezer to thaw. Or, more commonly, I’ll actually forget to plan a dinner for that night. So having a lot of random ingredients in my pantry is a huge help, because they can help me create a simple dinner.
Here are a few things to keep at all times:
- Pasta sauce
- Canned beans
- Peanut butter
For a full list, read this article on things you should always keep in your pantry.
I call this a “free meal” because I typically don’t pay extra money that week to make this dinner!
Honestly, meal prep is a whole different ball game from meal planning. They often go hand-in-hand, but I suggest at least getting a grasp on meal planning before you try meal prep.
When you meal prep, you’re basically preparing meals or meal components for later in the week. Maybe it’s a batch of pancakes for breakfast, putting salads in lunch prep containers, or just chopping a bunch of fresh produce to save time later.
I wrote a whole post about this. If you’re ready for meal prep, be sure to check out my guide on Meal Prep 101.
Tips for making a healthy meal plan
Nowadays, many of us are trying to live a healthy lifestyle. Whether we’re trying to lose weight, lower cholesterol, or just wanting to eat healthy in general, creating a healthy meal plan is key for all of this.
Here are some tips that I use every week to make healthy meals, especially on a budget. Healthy food does not have to be expensive!
Plan meals around lean proteins
For me, protein is one of the most important parts of a meal. Protein keeps you full longer and helps build/maintain muscle. It also helps reduce sugar cravings!
Examples of lean protein are:
- Chicken breast
- Lean ground beef/turkey (At least 90% or 93% lean)
- Low-fat cottage cheese and Greek yogurt
- Beans and lentils
If you can find one of these on sale, base your meals around that one protein. You’ll save money by only sticking with the sale item!
Focus on whole grains
Whole grains tend to have more fiber and protein. Examples of these are:
- Brown rice
- Rolled oats
- Whole wheat pasta
- Whole wheat bread items (Bread loaf, bagels, English muffins, tortillas)
There’s nothing wrong with the “white” versions of these items. They just don’t have any fiber. So if you need to boost your fiber intake, go for whole grains!
I know that one of the hardest parts of meal planning is coming up with meal ideas. So here is a list of my favorites. Print them, bookmark them, save them to Pinterest, whatever you need to do!
- 45+ Dinners That Cost 5 Dollars or Less
- Sheet Pan Pancakes
- 5-Ingredient Turkey Meatballs
- Instant Pot Stuffed Bell Pepper Soup
- Black Bean Burgers
- Schedule time to meal plan
- Add the essentials
- Check your pantry
- Check the grocery ad
- Check your Master Meal List
- Buy an “Emergency Meal”
- Make sure you have at least 5 dinners
- Make sure you have breakfast for 7 days
- Check if you need to buy extra lunches
- Check if you have snacks
- Schedule a meal prep time
Get this simple Meal Prep Checklist to use every week!
This will probably take awhile to get used to if you’ve never actually done meal planning. It comes easier to some people than others!
I’m not perfect either; I have hundreds of recipes at my disposal and I still find myself staring blankly at a screen trying to figure out what to make for the next week. I also tend to go over budget by a few dollars because I forget we’re out of cheese or something!
Creating a weekly meal plan takes a lot of practice, but I promise, your bank account (and your body!) will thank you if you just take the first step towards meal planning! What other tips do you have? Share with us in the comments below!
Jaime is a Nutrition Coach and professional writer. She enjoys cooking easy meals, running, and learning more about food.
Jaime specializes in helping women with ADHD learn to meal plan and cook healthier meals without getting overwhelmed.