Ultimate Guide to Meal Planning: How to Start Meal Planning (and Stick with it)

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New to meal planning and want not sure where to start? In our ultimate meal plan guide, we share why you should start meal planning, tips on how to make it work for you, steps for beginners to get started, and how to stick with it.

meal planner page on ipad

Regular meal planning is a great way to save money on groceries, eat healthier meals, spend less on eating out, and reduce meal-time stress. 

But creating a habit of meal planning can be tough, especially if you’re not a natural planner. Here are a few tips to help you meal plan more consistently. 

Reasons you should be meal planning

If you’re not regularly meal planning, now is the perfect time to start! Planning ahead saves you time and helps to make you more productive. It’s been estimated that working from a list can increase your productivity by 25% (about 2 hours a day).

So when you plan ahead by making lists, meal planning, etc., you’re giving yourself extra time each day to do other things. Setting aside time to plan ahead is always a good investment!

For example: it takes me about 30-60 minutes to create a 2 week meal plan. Planning the menu and doing 1 or 2 big grocery shopping trips saves me hours of time over the course of that 2 weeks on last-minute trips to the store, last-minute pantry scrambles, and last-minute eating out.

Not only does planning your menu ahead help save time, but it also helps in many other ways:

1. Saves you money:

When you plan your master grocery list ahead and can plan meals within your budget, you spend less money on unneeded items at the store. Plus, when you plan meals ahead, you’ll often eat out less, which also saves you a ton of money!

2. Helps you eat healthier:

If your goal is to eat healthier, than meal planning can help. When you have your meals all planned out for the week (or 2 weeks or a month), then you can ensure that you’re eating healthy meals and you won’t be scrambling last-minute for unhealthy foods at meal times.

3. Reduced stress and frustration:

This is a BIG one for me. I was terrible about planning for the longest time (13+ years ?) and meal times were a huge source of stress for me. I love the freedom of knowing that everything is planned ahead!

4. Reduced food waste:

When you shop only for what you need, and have a plan for pretty much every perishable item (like veggies, herbs, etc.), you’ll use what you have and less food will go bad and go to waste. This also plays into saving money: you’re not throwing your money away (literally) when you use up your food instead of throwing it away.

5. Structure brings freedom

The best part about meal planning: you’re not leaving your meals to chance! YOU get to decide what to eat, when, and at your own budget. You can even plan dining out into your menu if you like to do that regularly as well.

As odd as it sounds, structure brings freedom.

As I mentioned in the list above, I have more freedom and less stress when I plan ahead. Planning = freedom is a paradox for sure, but one that I know is true from personal experience.

photo of meal prep bowls with text overlay that says "beginners guide to meal planning"

Tips for consistent meal planning

If you’re struggling with regular meal planning, there’s hope. As someone who has always struggled with planning things ahead consistently (not just meals, pretty much everything), once you start to create that regular habit of setting aside time to plan ahead, it gets easier.

Here are some tips for starting to meal plan and creating that consistent habit of meal planning.

1. Start out small

If you haven’t done much meal planning in the past, looking at planning an entire month of meals can be daunting. It’s so easy to just shut down and not do something when we feel overwhelmed, so take it one step at a time and plan for just 3-4 days at a time at first.

Once you get the hang of it, you can start planning out even longer if you like. The biggest thing is consistency and making sure that you’re creating the habit.

2. Decide how often you want to meal plan. 

Since we get paid every 2 weeks, I try to meal plan for 2 weeks at a time. That works for our family, but it may work better for you to meal plan 1 week at a time or 1 month at a time. Find what works best for YOU that also helps you to be consistent over time as well. 

If you are a single person cooking for one, if you have a tiny fridge, or have zero pantry storage space, then planning for just 3-4 days at a time might be helpful.

Or plan for 2 weeks, but set up 3 lists to make 3 grocery shopping trips so you don’t have too much to store at once.

Find what works for you and stick with it!

meal planning pages and cookbooks

3. Curate a binder of your favorite recipes or a list of favorite recipe websites 

Keeping your favorite recipes within easy reach makes it easier to plan out your meals. Most of our menu plan ends up being favorites, then we’ll add a few new recipes that we’d like to try.

My big meal planning kit has a place for writing out your favorite recipes and new recipes you’d like to try to make planning easier!

Most of your meal planning can be easily done off of your “favorites list” and your “new recipes to try” list.

Creating lists like this is especially important if you have food allergies and need to rotate your foods, or you don’t like to eat the same foods every day.  

4. Commit to being consistent. 

Meal planning is like many other worthwhile habits: the more you discipline yourself to do it, the easier it gets to continue doing it once it becomes part of your routine.

So even if it feels boring or you don’t think you have time for it, dedicate yourself to being consistent with it, and it will pay off.

5. Remember your “why”. 

I know this might sound cliche, but it’s important to remember your “why”: why you’re menu planning to begin with.

Whether you’re meal planning to save money for a vacation, you want to reduce meal time stress, or you’re committing to eating healthier, remember how good it feels to plan ahead.

When you feel like blowing off your meal planning, continue to remind yourself of those reasons you chose to begin menu planning. Write them on your fridge or on you mirror if you have to! 🙂

6. Decide your meal planning style.

It might take a little bit of planning for a while to decide what your meal planning style is.

Do you like to meal plan according to local grocery store sales? Do you like to meal plan based on seasonally available foods?

Those are great things to consider for meal planning, BUT if you’re new to meal planning, skip those things and keep it super simple to begin with.

Once you’ve gotten comfortable with meal planning, then you can add those other things on to your meal planning style.

If you want to start planning a menu and meals based on grocery sales, our meal planning kit has a list for grocery items on sale that can help you keep track for each week of grocery sales!

shopping list pages in a 3 ring binder

What about meal delivery boxes?

Meal delivery boxes and meal kits are one way to help with meal planning, but they do generally cost more than regular grocery shopping, so if you’re meal planning on budget or you’re saving your money for something else, meal kits might not be the best choice for you.

If you’re curious about the cost of meal subscription boxes vs. buying your own groceries, the Dave Ramsey website has a great breakdown of meal delivery services vs. doing your own planning and shopping.

One thing to consider if you’re looking at delivery meal kits is that there is more packaging waste typically. Due to the small product packaging (a tiny jar of honey with 1 serving vs. a full size jar with many servings), shipping materials, etc., delivery meal kits often result in more plastic waste than just buying your own stuff at the grocery store if you’re bringing reusable bags.

I’m not an environmentalist by any stretch of the imagination, but we recycle and try to reduce our household waste where we can.

Steps to meal plan

If you’re new to planning your meals ahead, here are some steps to start meal planning for beginners:

Step 1: take an inventory 

Take an inventory of your pantry, fridge, and freezer, and plan meals first based on what you already have. This saves you time, money, and reduces food waste. 

It’s frustrating buying a can of corn then finding out you already had 5 cans of corn hidden in the back of your pantry.

Hint: keeping a tidy-ish pantry, fridge, and freezer makes this process a little easier! It’s doesn’t have to be perfectly tidy, you just want to be able to see what you already have.

If you meal plan based on current sales at the grocery store, create a list of grocery items on sale from store flyers and use that to also help plan meals (we’ve included a grocery sale item page for that in our meal planner!). 

Step 2: Fill in your special days

Make sure to fill out your special days first, like special meals for birthdays, holidays, days you’re dining out, etc.

meal planning pages with text overlay

Step 3: Use your list of favorite recipes and new recipes to fill in the rest of your menu

Using your list of favorite recipes and your list of new recipes to try, plan your menu. First add favorite meals to your menu, then fill in the rest of  the menu with new meals you’d like to try. 

Some of our family favorites in regular rotation are things like homemade pizza, our favorite salmon recipe, chicken shawarma, etc. Our favorites make a regular appearance on our menu and help make meal planning easier.

Step 4: Create your grocery list as you plan

Instead of creating your menu then creating your shopping list last, it’s easier to make sure that you won’t forget anything if you add to your shopping list as you add meals to your menu.

For example: when I add chicken shawarma to our menu, I’ll immediately look at the ingredient list and add what we need to our itemized grocery list. Then I’ll add salmon to our menu, and add ingredients we need for salmon, and so on.

So by the time my menu is all planned out, my grocery list is all done and I have everything on it that we need that’s not already on the inventory lists.

Step 5: Go grocery shopping

You’re ready to shop! Pick a day and time to shop that works for you, or save some time by shopping online and getting pickup or delivery that is now available at many stores.

We have some great tips for saving money on your grocery shopping, including going shopping early when it’s not busy (way less stressful!) and not shopping when you’re hungry.

Ultimate Meal Planning Kit

We just released our Ultimate Meal Planner Kit to help people with their meal planning!

pages included in the ultimate meal planning kit from The Fit Cookie

Our meal planning kit, is 17 pages (18 pages including the cover) to make meal planning easier for you. Once you purchase and download your planner, every page can be printed as many times as you need it.

Here’s what’s included in our Ultimate Meal Planning Kit:

  1. Tips on how to effectively meal plan consistently
  2. Monthly meal planner pages (2 options: Sunday start and Monday start)
  3. Weekly meal planner page
  4. Three inventory lists, one each for pantry, fridge, and freezer
  5. Three shopping lists: itemized, non-itemized shopping list, and half-size shopping list
  6. List for grocery items on sale (perfect if you plan meals based on what’s on sale in your area stores!)
  7. List for favorite recipes
  8. List for new recipes to try
  9. Meal prep planning pages if you love to meal prep for the week!

You can print all the pages and keep them in a binder, or you can pick and choose which pages you’d like use based on your needs.

Our meal planning kit is also editable and fillable in PDF format, so you can fill it out on the computer, or you can print off the pages and fill them out by hand.

Get your Ultimate Meal Planning Kit or Simple Meal Planning Kit!

meal planner on the ipad
You can fill our meal planner out on your computer or ipad!

Want a smaller meal planner kit? Check out our 4-page Simple Meal Planner!

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