How to Meal Plan: 12 Tips for Sticking With It

Chalkboard menu

I am all about meal planning. Creating a weekly meal plan saves money, is generally healthier – you’re eating more real food – and it can also cut down on food waste. Win-win.

Sticking to a Weekly Meal Plan Tips

Table of Contents:

1. Make it a habit
2. Plan for nights out
3. List breakfast options
4. Plan for lunch options – out, easy, or leftovers
5. Find a couple go-to easy recipes
6. Any ingredients leftover from last week?
7. What’s in season? Any dinner ideas already?
8. Match up ingredients that will work for several recipes
9. Break the “rules”
10. Finalize your meal plan & grocery list
11. Keep your plan visible
12. Use those ingredients!

“By failing to prepare you are preparing to fail” –Benjamin Franklin.

Way to make us feel like failures Ben! For the last few years, I’ve done a Cook at Home Month challenge through one of the winter months. The first time around in 2012, the “rules” – cook at home with 1 night out to dinner per week – were made tougher by these added challenges: no alcohol, no added sugar/treats/junk food, no coffee, and less dairy.

We survived. Obviously. This year, the rules were more casual — cook at home, eat more real food, no alcohol, less added sugar — with one cheat day per week for dinner and drinks. I noticed that the easiest days were the ones we had planned out, and the most challenging days were when we hadn’t planned enough specifics.

If you’ve thought about focusing more on cooking, here’s my process for creating a weekly meal plan:

1. Make it a habit

I usually spend a few minutes on Sundays (my usual “plan for the upcoming week” time) working on my meal plan. It’s a habit for me now, but previously I had it on my calendar until it became routine. If I’m traveling or have food left from the previous week, planning and grocery shopping might not happen until later in the week. Do what works for you.

2. Plan for nights out

Decide on a reasonable amount of days, 4-5 is a good rule of thumb – I typically plan for 4-5 dinners per week. I will then pull up my calendar and quickly see what’s going on that week. If I have a lot of evening commitments, I’ll either cut back on the amount of meals I’m planning to cook or I’ll plan for quick items that can be eaten before or after a happy hour meeting etc. My biggest failure point with meal planning is meeting for happy hour and then being so hungry that I just end up ordering food or an unhealthy snack – fried food!

Note: while I typically write down a meal for a specific day (ie. Monday – tacos), I usually just pick whatever meal sounds good that day or what ingredients need to be used soonest.

3. Write down a list of breakfast options

I don’t meal plan my breakfasts, but I do make sure I have all my favorite standbys in stock so I can make my “default” breakfasts. My breakfast staples are: eggs, avocado, spinach, cashew or coconut milk, bananas, almonds, peanut butter, greek yogurt, Nature’s Path frozen waffles, dates, oatmeal, misc fruit. As long as I usually have those items on hand, breakfasts and snacks are a no-brainer! It’s enough structure to have room to get creative with whatever else is in the fridge: tomatoes, tortillas, feta, beans etc.

4. Plan for lunch options – out, easy, or leftovers

Again, write down a list of options. I buy a few frozen healthy items each week for lunch – Amy’s burritos and Kashi enchiladas are my favorite and then eat dinner leftovers a few days as well. Note: Amy’s and Kashi are not complete meals, they’re about 250-300 calories so I typically add an avocado, sour cream, and/or an egg. Plus any leftovers or an easy salad from leftover ingredients from the week.

5. Find a couple go-to easy recipes

Have a few [easy] go-to recipes. My go-to low on time meals are orzo with feta and dill, or anything egg/breakfast-y, or something salad-y [greens + veggie + veggie #2 + protein + fat + carb].

6. What do you have leftover from last week?

Write down what you have on hand already from last week. For example: onion, lemon, avocado, spinach, feta, arugula, parmesan, tuna, eggs, garbanzos etc. You’ll build off those items in the next step.

Poached eggs and asparagus

7. What’s in season? Any dinner ideas already?

Write down a few things you want to eat this week. Sometimes I pull up my local grocery store’s weekly flyer to see what produce is in season. For example: asparagus! Write down a few dinner ideas. Now that I have a small list of ingredients in my “pantry” I write down a few things I already know I could make. For example, this week Mediterranean tuna melt is something I would have most of the ingredients for.

8. Match up ingredients that will work for several recipes

Will you have extra ingredients based on what you already have in your pantry or from your ideas thus far? Match up some ingredients for several meals, with different recipes. Martha Stewart Food section is my go-to for finding quick recipes if I’m searching for an ingredient. This is a great way to waste less food. This is especially helpful in the winter months when seasonal veggies are a little more sparse.

9. Break the “rules”

Improvising and ratios give you extra flexibility in the kitchen. If you’re not comfortable with winging it by creating your own meal without a recipe, try adapting recipes. It’s a huge time and energy saver to be able to scan through some recipes (yay, less thinking for the brain!), spot a recipe that matches some ingredients and then adjusting based on what you have in your kitchen. For example: use a different pasta, substitute broccoli for asparagus, use a different cheese – Parmesan instead of chevre etc. You might just discover your next favorite recipe.

10. Finalize your meal plan & grocery list

I use the free AnyList app to organize my shopping list. It’s shareable by two people and organized by department which makes shopping super speedy. I then do the bulk of my shopping at one store (Fred Meyer here in Oregon). They have most of my staples and favorite items at reasonable prices. If I don’t find what I need or need something fresh later in the week (produce or fish etc), I’ll hit up New Seasons or Whole Foods or farmers’ markets (in-season) for produce and specialty items.

11. Keep your plan visible

Whether you write the weekly menu on a chalkboard wall, tape it to the fridge or add it into your calendar – making it visible will help you stick to your plan. Lately, I’ve been sticking my meal plan in Google Calendar. I just write the recipe name, and paste a link if applicable in the Description field. This has made it super easier since I get a popup remind on my phone of the calendar appointment and then easily just tap the recipe link. It’s also made it nice to drag recipes around to different days and have a simple way of finding what I cooked previously.

Note: I have an extra shared calendar that I put meals on (plus fun things to do etc.). This helps to not clutter up my regular calendar with extra stuff or things I don’t really have to do, but still allows for an easy shared space for things like upcoming concerts or Portland events. Feeling like life is crazy busy one week? Just hide the calendar!

12. Use those ingredients!

Some weeks are easier than others. Don’t guilt yourself for deviating from the plan, but do remember to salvage food before it goes bad. My tips for wasting less food is to freeze items (fruit etc) or try to incorporate them into another meal (breakfast etc.)

Do you plan out your weekly meals?