Ah, meal planning. The phrase conjures up visions of Pinterest-worthy rows of food containers with uniformly arranged roasted veggies, grilled chicken, and a grain of some sort. If that kind of meal planning works for you, great! But that’s actually called meal prepping, which is a type of meal planning — and it doesn’t work for everyone. I know because I’ve tried meal prepping, and it definitely does not work for me.
Meal prepping is the Pinterest-y thing I described above where you spend all day in the kitchen bulk cooking stuff to eat throughout the week. Meal planning is a broader umbrella — it’s literally just having a plan for what meals you’re going to make or eat throughout the week. It’s much more flexible, adaptable, and can be easily tailored to fit your unique needs.
Psst — if meal planning (or prepping) hasn’t worked for you, that’s not because you’re bad at meal planning, it just means you haven’t found a strategy that works best for you yet. And that’s what I’m here to help with.
A quick overview of meal planning vs. meal prepping:
|Meal prepping||Meal planning|
|pros||get everything done at once||lots of room for flexibility|
|don’t need to cook on the weeknights||great for people who enjoy cooking|
|cons||not a lot of variety or spontaneity||more complicated planning|
|can feel like a restrictive diet||may need to spontaneously cook, like on tiring weeknights|
Meal planning is an ongoing process that considers your unique goals, abilities, desires, and lifestyle and can be adapted as needed. Meal prepping is a type of meal planning, but not all meal planning is meal prepping.
Some of my earliest attempts at meal planning failed because I was following someone else’s meal plan. Things that were pantry staples to them weren’t pantry staples to me, and my grocery list would balloon out with ingredients I didn’t necessarily like or just didn’t enjoy cooking with.
Trying to follow someone else’s plan might work for a bit, but following a plan that’s designed specifically with your tastes and preferences in mind will pretty much always work better. Because meal planning is not a diet, and it’s definitely not a mandate to cook or prepare certain foods.
You can meal plan and eat 40 percent microwavable TV dinners if that’s what makes sense for you. On the flip side, you can meal plan and cook 7 nights a week if that’s what you want to do.
You might come away from all of this advice and realize that meal prepping is right for you, and that’s fine! It does work for some people.
It took me a few tries to come up with a meal planning system that works for me (and for my husband, who does 50 percent or more of our regular weeknight cooking) and I’ve adjusted it over the years as things have changed. I’ll share a bit about my specific strategy below, but mostly I’m here to help you figure out how to come up with a plan that works for you.
So let’s dive in.
The first, most important question to ask yourself when meal planning is what your goals are. When I started meal planning, my goals were to reduce food waste, feel less overwhelmed at the grocery store, and to discover some easy, tasty weeknight meals that I could easily slip into a regular dinner rotation.
Pick 1 or 2 to start. Don’t overwhelm yourself.
You might want to use meal planning to:
- avoid feeling overwhelmed at the grocery store
- stop hating cooking and learn to like it
- avoid buying food that goes bad before you can think of what to do with it
- reduce food waste
- be better at using up leftovers
- hone your cooking skills
- stop feeling indecisive and lose time on weeknights trying to figure out what to cook
- get want more variety in your weekly meals
- maintain your specific dietary restrictions (low FODMAP, gluten-intolerant, etc.) with recipes that fit your needs
- help with eating consistently during the day
- break your takeout and delivery habit
- have a more mindful and positive relationship with food
Once you know what your goals are, it’s a lot easier to plan how much energy will go into cooking, shopping, and recipe hunting.
When I first started meal planning, I made the mistake of picking a new recipe for each night of the week. This lasted about a month before our fridge and pantry were overflowing with ingredients that quickly went bad because we didn’t account for leftovers.
Delegating a specific number of days for cooking helped us get out of this wasteful, unsustainable rut of buying ingredients and not using them.
When it comes to habit formation it’s good to start small. You can start with just 1 night a week and add more nights of planning as you get used to the cadence and figure out what fits your schedule and budget.
Once we started including 1 night a week for leftovers and 1 night a week for going out or ordering in, our meal plan felt totally manageable. That left 2 to 3 nights a week for cooking (depending on if we had leftovers from ordering in) and generated enough leftovers that I usually didn’t have to make separate lunches throughout the week.
Personalizing your cooking schedule might look like this: If not ordering delivery is the goal, along with wanting to cook minimally each week, you might decide to cook just twice each week, making sure those 2 meals are big enough that you have at least 3 nights of leftovers.
I love my weekly Sunday grocery shopping routine. Before heading to the store, I grab a few cookbooks and my planning pad and sit down in the kitchen to check what ingredients I have and what I need as recipes catch my eye. It helps me feel prepared going into Monday, and it gives me a chance to think about the week ahead in terms of things I’m looking forward to instead of things I’m dreading.
But maybe you don’t want to spend Sunday grocery shopping. Maybe you have a big family and want to do one Costco run every other week. Maybe you prefer grocery delivery services.
You may also find it helpful to assign specific recurring categories to different nights of the week. Think “Meatless Monday,” “Taco Tuesday,” “Takeout Thursday” or whatever. That way, you can narrow down what kinds of recipes you’re looking for and streamline your planning process.
Maybe you’re budgeting, maybe you’re not. But planning ahead for shopping, and figuring what your budget looks like, will help you waste less food and cash. The less often you plan to grocery shop, the more uses you’ll want to get out of the groceries you do buy.
Which brings me to my next point…
If something has made it into your kitchen, it’s probably there because you like it or were curious about it. So, use it! And on the flip side, if you buy an ingredient for a recipe, and you really don’t like it — there’s no shame in tossing or donating it. The last thing you want is to have a pantry full of things you hate.
Starting with what you have helps minimize bringing single-use ingredients into your kitchen and ensures you’re able to make use of them while fresh.
Maybe you needed fresh sage for a saltimbocca 1 week, and you still have some sprigs left. They’ll be good for 1 more week, but not 2. See what recipes come up that feature sage online. It might seem absurd to decide to make a recipe based on an herb, but is it any less absurd than throwing away perfectly good sage?
Once you have locked in one recipe for the week, look at the ingredients it calls for and look for other recipes that use some of the same ingredients. I often end up making biryani and tacos in the same week because both call for cilantro, greek yogurt sauce, and some sort of hot pepper.
This same advice can be applied to any recipes you add to your list that call for a small amount of an ingredient that is only sold in larger amounts — think parsley to garnish or a tablespoon of heavy cream to thicken a soup.
Extra spaghetti sauce or fresh basil about to go bad? Freeze it! For those nights when you just can’t be bothered to cook but also don’t feel like ordering in, having frozen leftovers is almost as good as having a fresh home-cooked meal. Work these frozen treasures into your meal plan to reduce the amount of new cooking you need to do on any given night.
Beyond just freezing leftovers, there are lots of fresh ingredients that can be easily frozen for future use too. If you’re not sure if you can freeze something or how to freeze it correctly, Google it. You might be surprised at just how much you can save that way.
There is no right way to do this — there’s only the way that works for you (and whoever you live with or share cooking duties with). But it is important that you write down your plan and your grocery list. If you’re meal planning with another person or people, you’ll also want to write down who is responsible for which night(s) of food.
We started with a white board on our fridge, then switched to a weekly planning pad with a perforated grocery list on one side. It has a magnet on the back and lives at eye-level on the fridge, so it’s impossible to miss. To make adding to the list easier, there’s a magnetic cup stocked with pens right next to it.
My husband is not an app person. And I tend to forget things if they aren’t in front of my face. So, an app planner wasn’t the right fit for us — both for planning and for keeping a shared grocery list. But an app might be the right fit for you!
We’ve been meal planning on and off for a little over 5 years now, and have collected over 150 new recipes that fit pretty seamlessly into our dinner routine. Now when we make our weekly plan we’re just as likely to comb through our old favorites as we are to dig into our pile of new recipes to try.
It’s like having a cookbook made up of recipes exclusively tailored to your preferences. How cool is that?
It might seem like this goes without saying, but speaking from experience, it does need saying. Reading the recipes while you’re planning helps make sure you don’t start cooking at 6 p.m. only to realize your recipe requires a 24-hour marinade or 2-hour soaking period. It also means you can start the marinade the night before so that it’s ready to cook when you get off work.
Any time I have a recipe that I know needs some prep, I make a note on my planning pad about when I need to start it, so I don’t forget.
Depending on how skilled a cook you are, this will also help you determine how involved the recipe will be for you to make it. Many recipes that claim to take “30 minutes” actually involve an additional 30 minutes of prep if you aren’t speedy with your knife skills!
If you’re just starting your cooking journey, look for simple recipes that’ll help you build your cooking skills. The more you cook, the faster you’ll get, and the more complicated your recipes will get.
Chasing perfection is rarely the noble pursuit it seems to be in the moment. That applies to meal planning too. It’s not an accident that so much of my advice throughout this piece has been “be flexible!” — planning is good, but the best plans have plenty of room to flex.
If you know you have a jam-packed week coming up, don’t make it harder on yourself by stacking 3 nights of home-cooked meals back to back just to use up some leftover sage. Be flexible. Be forgiving with yourself.
Being adaptable is especially important when it comes to breakfasts and lunches. You might find that a meal prep situation works better for you in those cases. Maybe your breakfast is always the same yogurt with granola and fruit, but you change up which fruits and granola week to week. Maybe your lunches are deli sandwiches or salads that are quick to assemble but can be slightly different every day.
My point is this: Don’t overthink or overcomplicate your meals. You’re a busy person — what matters most is that you’re able to take a moment before or during your work day to eat something tasty, not that you spend a lot of time and energy preparing it (unless you want to, in which case, go for it).
There is absolutely nothing wrong with planning for 3 nights of mac and cheese or instant noodles followed by 2 nights of takeout if that’s what it takes to get food on the table at the end of a long day.
You can always cook more next week.
Rebecca Eisenberg is a freelance Food Editor at Greatist. She’s the voice behind the food blog The Practical Kitchen, and when she’s not writing about food, she’s studying pastry at Cambridge School of Culinary Arts (Class of January 2021). She lives in Boston with her husband and two cats.