10 Things to Know If You're a First-Time Meal Planner

Ready to jump into meal planning? Not quite sure where to start? We've got your back! Here are 10 tips for first-time meal planners to get you off on the right track.

Black Rice Bowls Meal Prep

Sally Vargas

So, you’re ready to bite the bullet and start making real meal plans every week.

No more winging it, and no more trying to figure out how to cobble together a meal from two potatoes, a bottle of hot sauce, and a hunk of cheese (which is definitely possible, by the way).

You’re fed up with those last-minute trips to the grocery store at 5 o'clock without a glimmer of dinner inspiration.

This week is going to be different. This week you will leave work on Monday and know what you’ll be eating in an hour.

Yes, there will still be nights in your future where you fall back on takeout pizza. And yes, there might still be occasional bowls of cereal. No shame. Meal planning is not an all-or-nothing proposition.

But if you are making the leap into the realm of meal planning for the first time, here are a handful of things to keep in mind as you go forth unafraid.

2017 Favorite Cookbooks

Emma Christensen

Use Reliable Sources for Your Recipes

Not all recipes are created equally; you should look to sources you feel confident will provide reliable, successful recipes.

Reputable websites (you already picked a really good one here with Simply Recipes!), cookbooks, established food magazines—these are all good sources. Proceed with caution with recipes authored by nonprofessional cooks.

Variety Is the Spice of Life

Make sure you have a nice variety of meals planned for the week. Pick one pasta, one red meat dish, one chicken dish, and one vegetarian meal, for example, if those choices suit your family’s tastes.

Also, think about mixing up the types of cuisines, like Italian, Tex-Mex or Mexican, or Indian.

How to Freeze Soup, Beans, and Broth
How to Freeze Soup, Beans, and Broth.

Emma Christensen

Planning Prevents Problems

Make a shopping list with everything you need for the recipes you've selected, and then check it against the fridge and pantry staples you already have.

Organize the list by sections in the grocery store: group together all the produce, all the meats, all the canned goods, and so on. This way you won’t be zigzagging around the supermarket wasting time—or worse yet, forgetting something and having to run back out to the store.

Also, plan your menu around when you shop. If you have a fish recipe on your menu plan and do your shopping on Sunday, plan to make that fish recipe on Monday so your fish or seafood is at its freshest.

Likewise, if you're making something with chicken or pork, these proteins can safely hang out for a few days in the fridge, so plan to make those toward the middle of the week.

How To Make Fast, No-Soak Beans in the Pressure Cooker
How To Make Fast, No-Soak Beans in the Pressure Cooker.

Emma Christensen

Stock Your Pantry

Build up a supply of ingredients that you know you use with regularity: chicken broth, olive oil, canned tomatoes, flour, pasta, rice, grains, beans, certain dried herbs and spices, and so on.

Check the items that are refrigerated once opened, such as salsa, capers, mayonnaise and mustard, and buy a backup of anything that is running low.

Refresh Your Fridge

When you're taking inventory before your shopping trip, look at ingredients that need refrigeration, such as butter, cheeses, eggs, etc. Keep expiration dates in mind, as well as how often you tend to use these ingredients, and go from there.

Take into account perishable items such as bacon and chicken sausage that freeze well, thaw quickly, and are good to have on hand for quick weeknight meals.

Easy Chicken and Broccoli Sous Vide
Sous Vide Chicken and Broccoli.

Nick Evans

Cook for Leftovers

Make intentional leftovers, and think about how you will to repurpose them.

For instance if you are roasting a chicken on Monday, consider roasting an extra chicken and plan for chicken enchiladas or chicken salad at the end of the week using the shredded meat from that second chicken.

Also, make extra of other dishes you would be happy to have for lunch or dinner later in the week: grain and vegetable salads, soups, stews, lasagna—you might even consider making a double batch for this purpose.

I almost always cook extra food for dinner, because leftovers for lunch are pretty much how I eat during the week.

Rice Bowl Recipe with Tofu and Vegetables
Black Rice Bowls with Tofu and Veggies.

Sally Vargas

Prep for Your Week

At the beginning of the week, maybe on Sunday afternoon, spend some time prepping any ingredients you can for the days ahead.

Having chopped onions, minced garlic, fresh lemon juice, sliced cucumbers, cooked rice, and so on in the fridge means that all week long your cooking will be much easier and more streamlined.

Shredded Chili Chicken
Slow Cooker Shredded Chicken Chili.

Emma Christensen

Put Machines to Work for You

If you have a slow cooker or an Instant Pot, try to plan one meal using that appliance, ideally on a day you know you will be home in time to eat dinner, but with not enough time to actually cook dinner.

Nothing beats being smart enough to have your own dinner waiting for you when you walk in the door! Here are a few great recipes to think about making:

Make It a Family Affair

Let everyone seek out and suggest one meal they would be happy to see on the table, and ideally, happy to help prepare!

Even better, organize a binder of recipes that you know your whole family likes, and have a quick group discussion over the weekend about which dishes are on the roster for that week.

This is also a good moment to discuss who is going to be home, and who’s going to be out, and figure out how much to make on those nights. (But don’t forget the leftover tip above!)

Cheddar Broccoli Soup in a bowl
Broccoli Cheddar Soup.

Nick Evans

Let It Simmer

For evenings when the whole family just won’t be able to sit down at the table together, plan a meal that is happy to sit over low heat, and wait for people to come home and help themselves to—this is not the night to finally make that soufflé! Soups and stews are great candidates for this. Here are a few ideas:

Ready to Jump Into Meal Planning?!

Every week, Simply Recipes releases a new meal plan to help you prepare for the week. Here's a list of all the meal plans we've done so far. (Sign up for the Simply Recipes newsletter to receive them in your inbox every Saturday morning!)