Sometimes I enjoy the meal planning and organizing process more than the actual cooking process! I love browsing recipes, organizing them and then planning out meals. I really don’t mind grocery shopping either. The execution is a hit or miss! Sometimes my plan falls apart. It’s “okay”! It’s not the end of the world if I have to pull out a frozen meal or get take-out. It happens. I’ve learned to go with the flow of the week.
I do try to set myself up for success by being realistic and prepared. Over the years, I have developed a simple meal planning system that has worked great for me. Yes… there is some thought and effort involved! You have to plan the meals, shop for the food you need, cook the meals, eat the meals, and then repeat over and over again! Don’t stress! You can absolutely do this! In fact, meal time will actually become less stressful and more enjoyable when you’re in control and organized.
Below you will find a printable guide with tips to inspire you to get organized so you can plan, shop, cook, eat, and repeat with ease! Continue reading for even more info on each step!
It’s ideal to devote an hour or so once in a while (I do it once a month) to planning your meals ahead as much as possible. *To simplify, I only plan meals for dinner. I have a rotation of breakfast and lunch meals and I make sure the ingredients are always on hand. (See Master Grocery List)
To make meal planning easier, I find it’s helpful to have these 3 Essential Tools:
- Homemade Cookbook and/or List of Recipes
- Master Grocery List
Homemade Cookbook and List of Recipes
In order to plan meals, you first need some recipes! Then, once you’ve accumulated a bunch of successful recipes, you need a convenient place to store them! I use a basic 3-ring binder to create a Homemade Cookbook. To keep my binder organized I use page dividers with tabs for each category. Of course, you could also choose to store your recipes on the computer (or other device) within bookmarks or files.
F.Y.I, these are the categories I use to keep my recipes organized and easy to find:
Whether you keep your favorite recipes organized in a binder or a computer, it’s extremely helpful to also have a List of Recipes, or Table of Contents, to refer to when planning meals. This list contains all of the successful recipes in my cookbook, organized by category.
It took me a little time initially to type this out… but it was worth it. It saves a lot of time when I want to plan meals because I don’t have to search around for recipes. I simply refer to this list. I’ll choose a variety of meals from different categories, record them on my calendar and my plan is ready!
I store this list in a pocket folder. A few times a year I edit and update my List of Recipes with new recipes, etc.
When planning my meals, I write them down on a Calendar (devoted just to meals) and take into account activities, events and other responsibilities that may interfere with my cooking time. Be realistic with your plan!
I fill in my Calendar with recipes from “my cookbook” and the stack of new recipes that I’ve pulled from the web, magazines, or other cookbooks. Use my free Weekly Meal Planning Template to assist with this process!
I keep this Calendar in my pocket folder, together with my List of Recipes. You could also post the calendar on the refrigerator for everyone to see! If you prefer to keep a calendar on your phone, tablet, or computer, that will work too!
Master Grocery List
A plan helps make grocery shopping much easier and my Master Grocery List actually has a plan already built into it! Since I prefer to follow a set plan for breakfast, lunch and snacks (see my Rotation), I use this Master List to keep an inventory of everything I need. So, all I have to do when I’m ready to make a shopping list is scan this Master List for any items I need to buy. I add the items I need to make the recipes I’ve planned for the week and I’m ready to shop! I store this list in my pocket folder as well.
A Homemade Cookbook and/or List of Recipes, Calendar and Master Grocery List are the 3 essential tools that help me plan meals with ease! Sure there are apps and websites that can help with all of this, but this simple system works for me. The key is to keep your plan/recipes accessible, organized and easy to keep track of!
Before you head to the store… make a shopping list! (Much easier with a PLAN!) I’ve never been very good at figuring out what I need on the fly, at the store, so I always prepare a list ahead of time. For me, shopping is more relaxing when I have a list. You’ll also save money, only buy what you need, get in and out fast, and set yourself up for success come meal time.
To make it even easier I actually write my list in the order in which I go down each aisle, since I’m so familiar with the layout of the grocery stores I shop at. Nowadays you don’t even have to go to the store! There are lots of online grocery shopping services where you can order online and have items delivered straight to your door.
I do my shopping once a week (Mondays) at my local Publix. Additionally, every other week I will stop into other favorite stores (rotating between them). These include Trader Joes, Whole Foods, Target, and Costco Wholesale. Plus, I have an ongoing Amazon Subscribe and Save delivery every two months. There are certain items that I like to get at each store. I’ll usually stock up since I only go to certain stores once in a while. The variety of stores keeps shopping interesting for me.
Since I’m mostly purchasing the same items week after week, shopping is pretty quick. I’ve already taken the time to read food labels and know which brands/items I prefer. Still, I’m always on the look out for new, healthy products and great sales. It’s easy to get overwhelmed (an average store sells over 45,000 products). However, once you eliminate the “less healthy” products, your options decrease. The key is to try to stay focused on your list, goals and budget!
Since I have a plan, this step is generally enjoyable. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that I love it! But, preparing meals is something that I need/want to do, so I just do it! I consider myself to be a “decent” cook. Most of the time I’m just proud of myself for making the effort!
The definition of a cook is someone who prepares meals for eating. It can be as simple as making a sandwich or as complex as making pasta from scratch. I tend to stick to the simple stuff! Here are a few more things that I like to do:
1. Turn the music up! Music really can set the mood… whether I need motivation or to just relax. So, I often have my music on when I’m in the kitchen.
2. Cooking at home allows me to be in control of what is in my food. For example, I rarely add salt to my food (except when baking) and I always reduce the amount of sugar a recipe calls for.
3. Since I keep my meals simple, I’m usually in the kitchen for 30 minutes max at a time. I love my kitchen, but I don’t want to spend all day there!
4. Generally, I stick to recipes that are familiar to me. Even better, I love preparing meals when I don’t even have to “read” a recipe. However, at least a few times a month I do like to try something new. I know a recipe is a keeper when it’s quick, tasty and (mostly) healthy.
5. First thing in the morning I quickly review the plan for the day and do whatever I can ahead of time. It’s especially important to know if something needs to marinate for a few hours.
6. I try to prepare as much as I can right after I return from the grocery store. For example, fruit or veggies that need to be washed or cut-up, snack mixes that I distribute into containers for the week, or yogurt parfaits for breakfast. I find that if I don’t take the time to get some of this prep done right away, I’ll procrastinate, get busy, and never come back to do it! If I know I’m not going to have the time then I may take advantage of the pre-cut, ready-to-go items at the grocery store.
7. I always prepare lunches the day before so they are ready to grab and go when everyone is heading out in the morning.
8. Being prepared with the right tools and ingredients is key to success. I always read every step of the recipe before starting to ensure I have everything I need. I get everything out on the counter so that I’m ready to go.
9. Making a meal with 2 or more components, and having it all come together at the same time to serve, can sometimes be a challenge. With experience this does get easier. Unless it’s a major holiday, I’m usually just dealing with 3 components at the most (protein, vegetable, grain). I find that as long as I read through the recipe(s) first, how long it takes to prepare and cook, I can figure out when to begin each step. If I start with the longest step first and keep going with the rest, then I usually have success. I especially like to bake or roast because while that is in the oven you can be working on something else. Cooking is definitely a great way to improve your time management skills!
10. The most common obstacle, when it comes to cooking, is lack of time. Also, it’s not always easy to muster the energy/ desire to cook a meal at the end of the day. So, to give myself a break I will intentionally plan some super simple Grocery Store Meals for busy times. I also keep a few frozen meals on hand for back-up. Once in a while we will resort to take-out but I do try to limit that to only once a week (preferably on the weekend)! Instead of stressing out, I try to just go with the flow and do the best I can with the time I have.
Whether you prepare meals at home 3 times a day, once a day, or once a week… be safe, relax, and enjoy! Cooking is an adventure… lots of trial (and sometimes error), but always worth it in the end!
Enjoy your food!
Start the process all over again. (Unless you have a personal chef at your beck and call and you can skip steps 1-3!!) The good news is that after a few months you will have a collection of meal plans which you can use over and over again in a rotation!
Technically there is one more step I left out… CLEAN UP. “Ugh”. When deciding on a new recipe I take into account Prep Time, Cook Time and Clean Up Time. I try to keep clean up to a minimum, clean as I go, and just get it done. I can’t relax at the end of the day until I have a clean kitchen. Most nights I’m done in less than 10 minutes, especially if I’ve kept up with it during the day. There’s always the “I cook, You Clean” method too (that means you… kids and husband!)
ARE YOU READY TO GET ORGANIZED AND START PLANNING SOME MEALS?!
Also, be sure to check out my Weekly Meal Planning Template to help you streamline and simplify the meal planning process even more!