Meal planning means sitting down to make a plan and then taking time to shop, prep, cook, eat, and clean up after each planned meal. If you’ve been flying by the seat of your pants—eating out or picking up groceries on the fly—the very thought of so much forethought and discipline can be overwhelming.
But here’s the truth: Meal planning will make your life easier. An investment in your future self, it’s time spent today that will make tomorrow easier and way more delicious.
I experienced meal planning malaise firsthand. Initially, it made me feel too boxed in and at odds with eating intuitively—eating what I want when I’m hungry and stopping when I have had enough—which is a diet-and-dictum-free approach to food that works really well for me.
But eating intuitively actually requires a meal plan, albeit a flexible one. So, determined to try, I jumped into meal planning with renewed energy.
Along the way, I fell into some common traps:
- I focused too much on my health goals. My present self planned overly healthy meals that my future self didn’t want to eat.
- I chose complex recipes. My future self either ran out of time or got too hungry before dinner was ready.
- I was too rigid. When my future self changed course and ate something different than the plan, I gave up and decided meal planning wasn’t for me.
- I didn’t plan enough food. I’m someone who needs snacks in addition to meals. And so do kids. Over time, I have learned to include snacks in my meal planning so everybody feels nourished and satisfied.
Despite my failed attempts at meal planning, I kept refining my approach. After all, there are so many reasons why meal planning can be life-changing.
In short, meal planning simplifies life and creates more joy around food.
- Save $$$. When I created an approach to meal planning that worked, I cut my grocery bill in half. And I’m not alone: Research indicates that people spend 40% more money on groceries if they shop without a list.
- Clean Up Your Diet. If you could stand to eat a little bit healthier and you’ve kicked diets to the curb (where they belong), meal planning will help you create a way of eating that works best for your body and soul.
- Zero Food Waste. This is how meal planning literally changes the world. According to the New York Times, we throw out about “1.3 billion tons of food a year, or a third of all the food that we grow.” Some if this is a result of our food system, but the average family throws out 25% of what they buy.
- LESS Stress. I can’t tell you how many times 4pm rolled around and the question of what to eat for dinner became the main topic of conversation in my family. With nothing planned, putting dinner on the table often required another trip to the grocery store at the end of a busy day. Having a plan has made all the difference.
- MORE Connection. When we’re flying by the seat of our pants and eating a little bit here and a little bit there, we miss out on the joy of sitting down with loved ones around a shared meal. Getting everyone in the family or household involved with meal planning can create a culture of joy around the mealtime experience.
Like I said, meal planning wasn’t easy for me initially. In fact, it was really challenging. Because of my slow start, I believe that if I could find a way to create and follow a meal plan, anyone can.
Top tips for successful, easy meal planning:
- Choose a day to make your plan and include your family members in the process. Take out pencils and paper and chart your week. Be sure to create space for three meals and snacks. The visual, interactive process helps everyone feel involved. And then, when you’re done, post the meal plan to the refrigerator for everyone to see.
- KISS (Keep it Simple Sweetheart). Start by recording recipes and meals that you already love. Make a list. Add no more than two new recipes each week. People often suggest making batch meals and eating them throughout the week. We love making a big soup and integrating it into several meals throughout the week.
- Fill in the blanks. I like to choose three breakfasts that repeat throughout the week and then have a special Saturday pancake day—a new tradition in our family that we all look forward to. Lunches can be leftovers. And dinners are where the variety kicks in. That’s just what I do. Part of the joy of meal planning is finding out what works for you and refining your approach as you go.
- Make a shopping list. If you are/were like me, you went grocery shopping at least three times per week. A huge benefit of meal planning is that it saves time and energy. A detailed shopping list is essential. I keep mine digital, available on my phone for updating and referencing at the store.
- Take time to prep and wash produce. When you meal plan, you will find yourself with a new capacity to eat healthier. Taking 20-30 minutes to wash and prep produce as soon as you return home from the store will make the rest of the week infinitely easier. This is also a time when I make a batch meal (often a weekly soup, chia pudding, coconut yogurt, and hummus).
- Stay flexible. My family still checks in about mealtimes to make sure the plan is going to work for the day. Reasons for changing our plan can be as simple as the weather calling for something light and bright instead of spicy and hot. Sometimes we swap meals or leave in a flex day for heading out to our favorite spot.
Meal planning has encouraged my family to be intentional about the food we make and share with each other. The structure has set us free, filled us up with healthier food and created time for more sweet connection.
Rather than one more thing to do, meal planning helps us reflect on how we are eating and sharing food, ultimately bringing more joy and simplicity to our lives.