Looking for meal plan basics? You’re in the right place.
Your mission, if you choose to accept, is to be the boss of your meal planning like you’re the boss of the house! (a little throwback to my old Monday Missions!)
It turns out that planning a menu for the week is a massive help in being a good kitchen steward, perhaps even more than making and choosing natural green cleaners: it saves you time, money, helps your family eat better, reduces food waste AND totally improves sanity. I’m sure of it. That last one is probably scientifically proven somewhere. 😉
(And you don’t even have to be doing a special diet like the popular gut-healing GAPS or other elimination diets, although meal planning with elimination diet recipes is extra uber helpful for them.)
Meal Plan Basics
We’re all about baby steps here at KS, and while some of you are probably pro meal planners who have learned to stick to meal planning long term, others may never have tried it and many are probably like me, falling off and climbing back on the meal plan horse on a regular basis.
I’ll just challenge you to take a small step in organization and planning this week.
There are a lot of levels of meal planning, from pencil and paper 4 hours in advance to using a system like Plan to Eat, the sponsor of this post, and of course all the way to having someone else do the meal plans for you. There’s sure to be something that works for you!
What Baby Step Can You Take to Improve Your Meal Planning?
Level One: I don’t meal plan
Your mission: Plan a meal for ONE DAY this week.
Level Two: I meal plan every so often
Your mission: Plan 5 days in a row and see how it goes.
Level Three: I am a meal planner!
Your mission: Plan an “interconnected meal plan” this week.
Brainstorm a list of five “fast meals” for surprise days.
Level Four: I meal plan…but I’m in a rut!
Your mission: Find new inspiration and get back on that horse. 😉
Level Five: I do it all already
Your mission: Incorporate more nutrient density into your meals.
Before I jump into the strategies each “level” can use and a bit about my favorite, connected meal planning, let’s start with: why bother?
Meal Plan Basics: Benefits of Meal Planning
Meal planning helps you eat healthily because it gives a great motivation to cook good meals, even when you don’t feel like it and might not have the energy to follow your plan by the time you actually get to the end of the day on a Wednesday.
Once you’ve thawed the meat, or committed to using up something you cooked the night before to prep for a meal, or purchased the fresh produce that is losing nutrients every day it sits in your fridge, you just have to cook. There’s a certain pressure not to waste food or money, so you push ahead with your plans, energy or not.
I feel like there’s a momentum to the week once I’ve got ingredients in the house. Meals must be cooked, and if the plan is in place, I am likely to follow through with it.
My motivation hits crazy dips at transition times: when the season for the Farmer’s Market ends, after the holiday rush, at the beginning of summer as we finish school, etc.
Do you feel the same way? Just keep trying! It’s really important:
Nutrition benefits of meal planning:
- more likely to choose healthy meals instead of relying on stand-bys that may or may not be the best nutrition for your family
- have the forethought to do healthy things like soaking your own dry beans
- easier to plan healthy sides and remember to get the veggies in
- can soak grains
- can avoid the microwave for defrosting and cooking
Budget benefits of meal planning:
- have the forethought to do inexpensive things like soaking your own dry beans to save money
- avoid last-minute trips to the store
- pass up fast food
- make sure you’re buying items on sale/learn to stockpile
- able to use up all your perishables, produce and leftovers
- remember to plan in “low-budget” meals
Learn the secrets to getting a healthy meal on the table faster.
If you want to get better at meal planning, and save as much money as possible as you go, you’ll want to try out this free course from Grocery Budget Bootcamp entitled 5 Days to Getting Dinner on the Table Fast!
Time-saving benefits of meal planning:
- avoid last-minute trips to the store
- take advantage of “cook once, serve twice” strategies
- spend less time frantically checking for ingredients/deciding what to make right at dinner hour when everyone is already hungry (including you)
- big, pre-planned meals make big, useable leftovers
Happy family benefits of meal planning:
- lots of variety!
- can answer the question, “What’s for dinner…on Friday?”
- less stress right before dinner…ok, no promises on that one, but it’s a nice thought
Level One: Step by Step How to Meal Plan if You’ve Never Tried it Before
All basic meal planning takes is a pen and paper. Or a phone with notes. Or a laptop. It’s just making a list!
- Check the grocery sales or what you have on hand
- Decide on a meal that fits your frugal supplies; include sides and salad
- Plan backward and write it down:
- What needs to be done the day before? (Thaw meat, for example?)
- Where are my ingredients? Add to shopping list if necessary
- What time should I start preparing the meal that day? Write it in your calendar.
I promise your meal prep will go more smoothly than if you hadn’t planned anything.
Your goal: You are NOT allowed to run to the store or borrow from a neighbor for this meal! 🙂
Added Bonus: You’ll save gasoline, time and money if you don’t make extra store trips.
Level Two: Up Your Game and Meal Plan Five Days in a Row
If you meal plan haphazardly, try doing it for a full week.
Follow the steps above and see if you can knock out some meal prep for Tuesday as you’re cleaning up Monday’s meal (pulling ingredients out, etc.). Write it down, including the day before prep and start time. Challenge yourself.
I truly believe that if you know what is coming, you’ll be happier and less stressed as each day passes. And if you feel like you’re too busy to cook every night, never fear – try this list of quick and easy dinner recipes for busy families and tips to get them on the table in time!
Level Three: Try Connected Meal Planning
Sample Connected Meal Plan
- Venison roast with potatoes, onions and carrots in the slow cooker, simple seasonings.
Prep for tomorrow: soak barley
- Make venison into soup: add can of tomatoes, more vegetables, barley, frozen corn, more seasonings. Homemade biscuits.
Prep for tomorrow: soak cornbread, beans
- Chili and cornbread (the beans cooked 8 hours)
Prep for tomorrow: soak beans (make with veggies for broth)
- Three bean soup and grilled cheese dippers (currently available in The Everything Beans Book.)
Prep for tomorrow: thaw refried bean cubes and meat, soak tortillas
- (afternoon: make triple batch tortillas) Tacos with homemade refried beans, HM guacamole, and HM tortillas (over salad when grain-free of course)
Prep for tomorrow: soak beans, soak triple batch brown rice
- (cook beans all day) Chickpea wraps with homemade chicken rice-a-roni (used tortillas from yesterday, froze third batch)
- Oven-Roasted chicken and mashed potatoes with gravy (used up chicken stock thawed from meal 4)
prep: cut bite-sized chicken out of breast portion of another whole chicken, marinate for stir fry. Start chicken stock with one whole raw chicken, one raw chicken minus breast meat, and bones from tonight’s meal. Cook overnight. Soak beans.
- White Chicken Chili and homemade crackers
Prep for tomorrow: add a ladle of chicken broth to stir fry chicken.
- Chicken Stir Fry (use rice from meal 6) (Available in Better Than a Box.)
Prep for tomorrow: freeze broth and chicken, make dosa batter
- Shredded chicken in Instant Pot Lentil Lasagna along with any veggies that need to be used up in the fridge.
- Scrambled eggs with potato pancakes (leftover mashed potatoes from meal 7)
- Leftover white chicken chili and fresh homemade biscuits
- dinner out
- Creamed chicken (double batch) over Confetti Rice Squares (use rice cooked at meal 6)
- Leftover lentil lasagna
Meal Plan Basics: Making Connections
Here’s my favorite part…watch this (you know how I like to save time and hate wasting food):
- Tortillas were used in meals 5 & 6 plus frozen for next week.
- Red onion was used in meals 4, 5, and 6, plus on salads.
- Brown rice was soaked and cooked once, then used in meals 6, 9 and 14.
- Fresh parsley made an appearance in the chicken stock, plus meals 8, 11, and 14 (twice). That’s something that would often get goopy and thrown out at my house!
- I made WAY too many mashed potatoes in meal 7, but compensated by shifting things around and having breakfast for dinner in meal 11.
- Here’s the ULTIMATE best part: for around $12 worth of whole chickens, I served meals 7, 8, 9, 10, 12, 14, and 15 (either broth, meat or both), PLUS an incredible amount of broth and shredded chicken in my freezer.
I felt like I’d never stop connecting meals together. This was a fun meal plan. You can do this too! Notice that I have a few leftovers meals that take no work, and for week 2 I had almost no major prep work because my broth and chicken were waiting for me!
A New Twist on Batch Cooking
Have you tried batch cooking? It’s one of my favorite kitchen hacks to save time while cooking real food, but my take may be slightly different than the ones you’ve seen before.
Instead of making large batches of food and saving them for later, I batch together kitchen tasks and link one night’s dinner to the next. Think of it as getting a head start on your next meal. The net result is time savings AND fresh dinners every night.
The current trend in meal prep seems to be focused on taking several hours on a weekend day to chop and prep veggies, cook meats, and then assemble the leftovers into a multitude of containers.
This is great if it works for you, but my family gets sick of eating leftovers all the time and I get tired of keeping track of all the containers in the fridge! Plus, spending 3-4 hours in the kitchen on a Saturday or Sunday afternoon is usually the last thing I want to do.
My Real Food Head Start 7 Day Dinner Plan provides a framework for incorporating my technique each day to save time on future meals and even start stocking your freezer if you want, while still making and serving a fresh dinner. The best part is, you use the time you are already in the kitchen – no extra prep day needed!
The theory of Cook Once, Serve Twice (C.O.S.T.) is a real time and money saver. Try it yourself!
- Can you have stir fry one day and something else with cooked rice in it a day or two later? You’ll save a pot!
- Is spinach on sale? Plan a casserole and a soup using spinach and make sure you don’t have to throw out half the bag once it’s goopy and gross.
- Can you brown ground beef once and use it for two meals (or let the Instant Pot brown your ground beef – even from frozen – for you!)? This is best if you can put the leftovers from meal 2 in the same container you stuck the cooked meat in after meal one. It’s all about doing fewer dishes, my friends.
Your challenge this week is to make at least one connection in your weekly meal plan. Enjoy!
And a reminder about not letting the “perfect plan” gone wrong stress you out: Balancing Time, Family and Food
Level Three: Make a “Fast Meals” Folder
Some days you’ve just forgotten to extend the meal plan that far. You come back from a trip and there’s nothing to eat at 6:00. You forget to buy an ingredient – what to substitute for your perfectly planned week of meals? I have a file folder in with my cookbooks with a few recipes that
- include ingredients I (almost) always have on hand
- can be made in half an hour or less
My favorite emergency meal is spaghetti with meatballs, which are almost always ready to go (homemade) in my freezer. I just throw them into the sauce and they heat so quickly.
Other fast favorites include:
- grain-free pumpkin pancakes and green smoothies
- frozen homemade chicken nuggets – the toaster oven makes short work of them.
- cream of potato soup
- sliced nitrate-free sausages from Costco or ALDI sautéed with bell peppers and other veggies
- my post “What to eat when you’re too busy to think!” might inspire you too 😉
What are your fast emergency meals? If you have a folder or write down a list, you won’t have to work so hard mentally when it’s crunch time.
Level Four: Get out of the Meal Planning Rut!
I’ve often been asked this question:
I can only imagine many of you have experienced this reader problem – because I know I fall into a menu planning rut myself all too easily, especially in busy seasons, tired seasons, and transitions. (Oh wait…I’m a parent of four kids…every day is like that!!!)
So how DO you get out of a rut with meal planning? How do you make it work for you, even if you’ve tried before and ended up falling back on those same familiar, probably easy, maybe less nutritious or more expensive, recipes??
Here’s my advice:
1. Start with something that inspires you – is it a good sale on meat? Some local produce from the Farmer’s Market? A recipe you stumbled across that sounds divine? Or just a healthy food you know you should eat more of?
2. Keep a list of recipes you like, perhaps organized by the main meat or protein involved, to help you keep a balanced week. This list will also help you out when you think: “Hmmm, dinner. Spaghetti, tacos….or spaghetti.” Ask your husband and kids what their favorite meals are, too. Put stars by those!
3. Try new recipes. A friend of mine has a goal to try one new recipe every week. She and her husband then decide if it’s a “keeper” or…not. In order to add new recipes to your meals list for the family, you have to find some you want to try. You can start with the Recipes at Kitchen Stewardship®, of course, or just Google “recipes + the food you want to use.” Use blogs and Pinterest as resources.
4. Intersperse your new recipes with the tried-and-true meals as you plan, so that you’re not biting off more than you can chew, getting overwhelmed, and giving up.
5. Build a bridge: Start with a familiar recipe and see if you can find a new recipe to piggyback onto a favorite. Maybe you have a recipe that uses half a bag of spinach – time to find another recipe to pair with it in the same week to use up the spinach. Your family favorite might include beans – find another recipe and double your batch of dried beans on the first day.
6. Put your meal planning on your *real* calendar. I really think this is key. If you don’t look at your meal planning except at dinner, you might not remain inspired (or on the ball with prep!). Here are some ways I incorporate meal planning into my regular week-at-a-glance calendar:
- There is a list of categories on the side: beef, chicken, fish, broth/stock, beans/legumes, eggs, meatless, budget
- I plan backward to make sure I’m prepared, and I write it down on the calendar. For example, when I put in a meal for Monday that includes beans and ground beef, at the end of the day for Sunday I write: “soak beans, thaw meat.” Then Monday morning I write “cook beans.”
- That’s the best I can do, but when I really need to meal plan, I get back into my Plan to Eat account and it helps keep all my new recipes organized so well!!
7. Let someone else do it for you! If you’d like to try some of my meal plans, there’s a two-week comprehensive meal plan as a bonus with The Everything Beans Book, one of my favs that I use at my own house all the time. There’s also a two-week meal plan included in both The Healthy Lunch Box and The Healthy Breakfast Book!
In the beans book especially, you can see how I work backward and plan out the prep, how I connect meals to use everything up and “cook once, serve twice,” and how I intersperse simple and complex meals (and create leftovers for easy lunches or other dinners).
If none of these sound perfect for you, I encourage you to check out Bethany’s post on thematic meal planning and all the styles she tried first!
Level Five: Improving Nutrient Density through Meal Planning
I applaud the fact that you’re meal planning already! That makes life easier, doesn’t it?
RELATED: Cooking Real Food
My friend Tiffany from Don’t Waste the Crumbs wrote an old guest post here on KS challenging folks to up their game:
How Does Nutrient-Dense Meal Planning Look?
First you need a plan. It can be a plan you created or it can be a hodge podge from a few different sources. There’s no shame in “borrowing” someone else’s meal plans either, so feel free to use my own free meal plans to get ideas if you need to.
If you plan online, Plan to Eat‘s system can save your own meal plans that you can easily reuse from week to week and month to month.
Any plan will do for now because it’s the next step that’s important.
Review the plan and upgrade the nutrition where ever possible. Seeing the entire line-up of meals at one time is like the blimp flying over football games – it can see everything at the same time.
Here’s where you see the nights that become “grab what’s quick and easy” because of a soccer game. Family pizza night begins to stand out when you realize you haven’t been eating those starter salads after all. And those bring-a-dish meals with friends and family where everyone is afraid to bring a vegetable? Yep, those are red flags too.
Seeing all this on paper makes us suddenly aware of how often (or not often) we really eat good food. And it’s ok to not eat perfectly 100% of the time. But it is important that we eat well whenever possible.
Evaluate Each Meal
Instead of haphazardly reaching for whatever is convenient when you’re already five minutes late for ballet, plan for it.
Try a pasta salad filled with white beans and fresh vegetables; a leafy spinach salad with fresh fruits, nuts a sprinkle of cheese and a yogurt-based dressing; or even tuna salad with homemade crackers. Whatever you decide, make it ahead of time and have it waiting for you in the fridge.
For the meals planned at home, evaluate every single one and really make sure you’ve packed in the nutrition. Have colored vegetables outnumber the grains and starches in each meal. Add beans to main meats or even as a side dish. Make vegetable soup with bone broth. View these nights as opportunities to make up for lost nutrition on the other, not-so-good days.
Evaluate the Week as a Whole
We want to eat purposefully, squeezing as many nutrients into our meals as often as we can. Many times this requires advance preparation and seeing the whole meal plan for the entire week allows us to see what’s coming and plan accordingly.
- Want soup this week but don’t have enough homemade bone broth? Start two days out to really get the most nutrients those bones offer.
- Need beans for tacos? They don’t soak themselves! Start those the day before to make them easier to digest, or a few days before to sprout. Plan to Eat allows for “prep notes” so that your calendar automatically will tell you a day or two before a certain recipe is planned that you need to do something like soak beans for it! So, so amazingly helpful!! Check out the 30-day trial!
- Desiring some greens with your meals, despite being out of season and expensive? Serve those organic veggies with your meals for the week so your hard earned money doesn’t get soggy and slimy in the fridge.
Our bird’s eye view allows us to evaluate the entire week as a whole. How many nights are we eating pasta? Can we try a different grain to boost nutrition? How about planning a leftover night so that we’re not wasting all that good food?
Easy Button: Done-for-You Meal Plans
Maybe you just can’t imagine doing one. more. thing.
I hear ya!
My friend Wardee is the secret Level Six on this challenge: She runs Traditional Cooking School, and as a member, you get weekly meal plans every week using 100% real food (no processed junk like most pre-packaged plans).
Every Friday, she’ll send a complete menu plan for 3 dinners, 1 breakfast, 1 dessert, and 1 fermented food. Each menu plan comes complete with simple preparation steps, a printable shopping list, a weekly schedule (to help you decide what to make and when to serve it), and a heart-warming family devotional.
If you can let go of control enough to let someone else plan for you, I recommend Wardee! (If you love control but still wish you had help meal planning, that’s exactly what Plan to Eat will give you – your recipes, your timeline, their powerful software and automatic grocery lists.)
And if you’re not looking for cooking classes, just meal plans done for you, Real Plans is an incredible tool that lets you tweak the plans, edits your shopping list, and pretty much does everything you want in a personal meal planning assistant. The options are vast!
Meal Planning Resources
Here are the meal planning services (in no particular order) that I endorse for you to pick based on you and your family’s needs!
PrepEar Connected Cooking App (previously Super Healthy Kids Meal Plans)
Try out their freebies (some even have tree trials) to see what fits your personality and preferences!
Time to Commit to Meal Plan Basics
Writing it down makes it more real…
Need More Baby Steps?
Here at Kitchen Stewardship®, we’ve always been all about the baby steps. But if you’re just starting your real food and natural living journey, sifting through all that we’ve shared here over the years can be totally overwhelming.
That’s why we took the best 10 rookie “Monday Missions” that used to post once a week and got them all spruced up to send to your inbox – once a week on Mondays, so you can learn to be a kitchen steward one baby step at a time, in a doable sequence.
Sign up to get weekly challenges and teaching on key topics like meal planning, homemade foods that save the budget (and don’t take too much time), what to cut out of your pantry, and more.