Whether you’re completely new to meal planning, or you’ve tried it in the past to mixed results, this article on meal planning for beginners will encourage you to make it a sustainable and achievable habit that can simplify your life!
Congratulations on taking this first step!
Changing your habits can be difficult and stressful at first. However, once you’ve established your new habits, the momentum you’ve created will propel you towards reaching your goals with less ongoing effort.
If you’re raring to go, feel free to download my free printable weekly meal planner for beginners below. On the other hand, if you’d like a bit of a pep talk first, read on!
Meal Planning for Beginners 101: Be Intentional with your Shopping
Being intentional can take several forms when it comes to meal planning.
According to the U.S. Food & Drug Administration, “Wasted food is the single largest category of material placed in municipal landfills.”
This is not to make anyone feel bad. Most of us have bought lettuce with the best of intentions, only to find half of it black the next day (thanks summer heat).
On the contrary, this is to congratulate you for being the kind of person who wants to improve at meal planning.
Meal planning can considerably reduce food waste.
No matter how fresh and bright all the produce looks in the grocery store lighting, if you don’t have a plan to use it within the next few days, you will likely be better off skipping it.
Of course, if your local store has fresh corn on the cob on sale, and you love corn, feel free to adapt your weekly meal plan as you go. It should be flexible and support you, and saving money is important as well.
That being said, if you go rogue for one meal, make sure you don’t buy all the ingredients for the meal you were going to make in addition to the new ingredients.
Overshopping can lead to the added stress of having to make time to cook all these vegetables before they go bad. You really don’t need to be adding extra stress to your, well, plate.
Remember, the meal plan should simplify your life, not make it harder. You can truly enjoy cooking! It’s just easier when you are intentional and mindful with your shopping.
Meal Planning for Beginners 201: Make it attainable
Particularly when I was getting started with meal planning, and even now, I only plan one elaborate meal per week. I’ll add in one more semi-elaborate meal, and then focus on easy ones the rest of the time.
I know it can be aspirational to think about all the healthy meals you could cook if you got a great night’s sleep and were full of energy every day.
However, you and I both know that life doesn’t always go the way we plan it.
You’ve probably heard Benjamin Franklin’s saying, that “If you fail to plan, you are planning to fail.”
I think that’s a little harsh.
However, when it comes to meal planning, the opposite can be equally true.
If you plan to fail (or be too busy to cook multiple course meals from scratch each night), you are actually setting yourself up for success. This is because you planned to have lots of pantry staples and simple meals at the ready.
Keep your meal planning goals S.M.A.R.T.
While different people use the acronym S.M.A.R.T. to stand for different words, many include attainable (or achievable, depending on who you listen to) and realistic as two key components that will help you achieve success at reaching any goal.
Meal Planning for Beginners 301: Progress, not perfection (you don’t have to cook everything from scratch)
You’ve likely heard a lot about how cooking from scratch will solve all of our problems. I know I have. The issue with this is that it encourages all or nothing thinking, no matter how aspirational this goal may be.
Cooking every meal from scratch, especially if you have a large family, can be a full time job. This is particularly true if you are focused on healthy meals with lots of fresh produce.
Let me give you an example of what I think is a better way to think about meal planning.
Picture this: you’ve had a very long day with work, family obligations, etc. It’s 7:30p, and you still have a 30 minute drive between you and your home.
In your past life, you would have simply grabbed a pizza on the way home, because you are way too tired and hungry to even think about cooking.
Now though, you are becoming someone who plans out their meals.
You know you have a package of naan or pita bread in your freezer. You know you bought a can of tomato sauce and a jar of marinara sauce, so you have two different pizza sauce options waiting for you in your pantry. And, as you often do, you have shredded cheese in your fridge, just waiting for an occasion like this.
If you put those ingredients together and throw them in the microwave, you will have a pizza at home in less time than it would take to find a parking spot at the pizza place.
Now, is any of that from scratch? No, they are all convenience foods.
However, that pizza at home is dramatically better for you than a greasy pizza from a big chain.
Meal Planning for Beginners 401: Run your kitchen like you’d run a business
Less is more.
Less what? Inventory! (AKA food)
It’s tempting to think that having a fully stocked kitchen full of every ingredient you could ever need will make cooking easier.
For me, and I think for many of us, the opposite is true.
We can’t find anything because we have to sift through so much stuff in our cabinets that we give up.
Whether or not your work experience has ever taught you about concepts like Lean or Six Sigma (or Lean Six Sigma), an example of a manufacturing plant can help to illustrate this point.
Manufacturing plants use just in time production to reduce inventory. They don’t want to create a stockpile of parts that they won’t need for a long time.
Making and having extra parts increases the amount of commercial space they need to rent out to store it all. It also increases the amount of money for hours they need to pay employees to do work that is not actually necessary yet (or ever, if their product becomes obsolete).
Excess inventory increases carrying costs.
In your kitchen, carrying costs include being overwhelmed with too much clutter, or being unable to find what you’re looking for in a reasonable amount of time. It can also mean losing items behind everything else, only to find them once they’re expired.
Decluttering and having a more minimal kitchen frees up your mental energy. Then, you can focus on creating healthy meals without so many distractions.
You don’t need to spend a lot of time creating an elaborate meal plan to enjoy the benefits of planning ahead.
Just taking a few moments each week before your grocery run to decide what you’d like to eat can save you a lot of time, money, and stress.
Try implementing these tips one at a time. Once you’ve mastered one, feel free to add on another.
Congratulations on learning the essentials of meal planning! I’d love to hear about your success in the comments below!
Be sure to grab my free printable weekly meal planner for beginners before you go!
Not sure where to start? Check out these recipes!
And don’t forget dessert!