April 12

How to Make a Meal Plan and Actually Stick to It


Meal Plan

How to Make a Meal Plan and Actually Stick to It

Meal planning is a brilliant way to save money, but it only works if you can actually stick to the plan. If you’re brand new to the whole concept and need a little help with follow through, read on for tips that will really help. Don’t forget to grab my free meal planning printable before you leave! It will help you with tip #3.

Start with a list

Your meal plan doesn’t start with a calendar, but rather with a list. Three, actually. On the first list, write down every meal you can think of that your family enjoys eating. Add it all, from Alfredo pasta to zucchini bread. It will really help you when you start the second step.

On the second list, jot down individual likes & dislikes. For example, if your son despises broccoli or garlic, jot them down under his name. If, on the other hand, you adore these things, write them down under your name.

The final list should be full of your healthy meal planning goals. Want to eat more fiber? Add it to the list. Trying to lose weight? Add it to the list. Thinking about adding in some vegan meals? You know what to do: add it to the list.

When your refrigerator is orderly because you used Organization Tips for Keeping the Refrigerator Orderly, making your list will be easier. 

Set reasonable meal expectations

Many meal plans fail right out of the gate because of the “Pinterest effect.” Anyone who has ever browsed Pinterest knows how easy it is to load up their food boards with gorgeous yet overly complicated recipes. If you’re an advanced chef with hours of extra time on your hands every day, by all means, go for the complex. On the other hand, if you’re a busy mom with iffy cooking skills, filling your calendar with complicated dinner ideas will make it much harder to stick to a meal plan.

Use those lists you made in the first step to find some easy starter recipes. Make sure you’re paying attention to the ingredients. You don’t want to choose the ultimate lasagna recipe only to find that it’s loaded with ingredients that half your family won’t eat.  Bookmark the recipes you’d like to try or create a new meal planning board on Pinterest. You’ll need them for the next step. Check out this 5-Ingredient Cookbook on Amazon.

Fill in every single day of your meal planning calendar

Grab your free meal planning printable and start loading in all of those ideas from the first two steps. Make sure you add something to every single day of the month, even if you know you’ll be eating leftovers or going out for pizza once a week. 

Planning something for every day allows you to ditch a recipe that you’re just not feeling and fill in the blank with one from pizza or leftover night. It also gives you a little wiggle room for those times when you discover you’re missing a key ingredient for the recipe on the evening’s agenda. The last thing you want to do is run to the store hungry to grab that ingredient. That path just leads to madness and impulse shopping.

Give yourself permission to veer from the plan, but not too far

Remind yourself that a meal plan is just that: a plan. It’s not written in stone. If you have grilled chicken written down for Monday but your family is really in the mood for soup, go ahead and have the soup. The goal is to eat healthier and save money, not to feel trapped by a calendar.  The moment a meal plan starts to feel like a chore rather than a helpful guideline is the moment that it starts to fall apart.

At the same time, you don’t want to veer so far off the path that you’re throwing out the entire plan. Decide how many nights you can feasibly afford to eat out or grab convenience food and make a note of it on your plan. If you know your budget allows for three take-out nights a month, write down “take out” three times at the top of your meal planning calendar. When you order take out, cross one off the list. When they’re gone, they’re gone. To make your kitchen meal planning and prepping friendly, check our our article on How to Rearrange Your Kitchen Counter for Optimal Space

Make it a rewarding challenge

Reward-based training isn’t just for toddlers and dogs, it’s perfect for adults, too. Turning meal planning into a game or a challenge gives you more incentive to make it work. If your goal is to save money, set your budget then try to beat it. Add the extra savings into a jar and use it for something awesome that your whole family will love. Give yourself a monthly reward or roll the money over each month to save up for a big purchase.

Sticking to a meal plan can be a challenge at first, but soon it will become second nature. Just make sure you update your plan each month as you discover new favorites. Within a few months, you’ll have that calendar loaded with delicious meals that your whole family adores.

Frequently Asked Questions:

  • How do I start creating a meal plan?

    The idea of meal planning can seem daunting when you’ve never done it before. But beginning is as simple as setting aside some time to assess your schedule and food preferences, and then tailoring an adjustable plan you can actually commit to and stick with as your life allows.

    Start meal planning by evaluating your typical weekly commitments, social engagements, commutes and other fixed schedule items that factor into evenings you’ll be home or need quick meals. Also think about family member schedules and preferences when weighing convenience versus more complex dinners.

    Gather old recipes you want to try again as well as browse new recipe sources based on your family’s favored flavors and key ingredients you tend to have on hand. Create a running list of potential meal ideas that interest you.

    Once you have your possible meals laid out, build a rough weekly plan assigning certain dishes to each night from your inspiration list based on prep time, perishable ingredients, use of leftovers, and so forth. A draft lets you tweak until it seems cohesive and realistic.

    Take inventory of your kitchen to identify ingredients you stock regularly like grains, proteins, produce and pantry staples so your initial plans match what you keep at home. This minimizes extra grocery runs when first starting out.

    Beyond the main elements, keep sides and produce flexible since plans will likely change. The key is establishing entrées for simpler shopping and cooking execution. Fill in those final touches as your week progresses.

    Above all, remember your meal plan is adaptable. Plan overestimates portions and nights out. Have back ups ready for when schedules inevitably shift. Building that flexibility into creation fosters long term meal planning success.

  • What are some good tips for actually sticking to my meal plan?

    Creating a weekly meal plan is the easy part – actually executing it night after night is more challenging. But using some key strategies makes it much more doable to turn your plan into reality.

    Once you’ve created a meal plan for the week, put together one grocery list to shop for everything at one time. This single trip minimizes chances of forgetting ingredients. Buy only what’s needed for those meals to avoid food waste.

    Get a head start on steps for busier weekday dinners by prepping ingredients on less hectic weekends when you have more time. Chop vegetables, marinate proteins, cook grains and more in advance.

    Build in flexible nights with either back-up leftovers or quick heat-and-eat options like frozen entrees, canned soups or eggs on hand. These provide easy options if schedules shift or motivation lags.

    Post your weekly meal plan somewhere visible as a constant reminder – on the refrigerator or a wall calendar near the kitchen. Cross items off as you complete them. Visible tracking helps motivate follow-through.

    If new to meal planning, start with just 3-4 dinners mapped out first before attempting to assign every meal. Small beginnings help establish the planning routine before expanding your efforts.

    Use phone alarms and desktop calendars to stay on top of when to start prepping ingredients or activate slow cooker timers for planned dishes. Use technology to prompt you along.

    When first adapting to an eating plan, focus on just dinners and let the other meals fall into place naturally around them for now. Over time, full day plans become easier to orchestrate.

  • Should I meal plan for an entire week or keep it shorter?

    When just starting out with meal planning, limiting yourself to a few days at a time versus an entire week leads to higher rates of follow-through without becoming overwhelmed. Then you can build up endurance for week-long plans.

    Attempt your first couple meal plans over just 3-4 days rather than 7. Planning and preparing for 4 dinners in a short period feels more manageable psychologically versus envisioning a full week of strict home cooking.

    A shorter plan duration allows some flexibility for shifting schedules or last minute invitations that derail complex weekly plans. Adapt more easily by incorporating those unforeseen events into a condensed plan timeframe.

    Additionally, narrowing to key dinners whittles down long ingredient lists and multiple complex recipes to keep first attempts simple. Smaller plans help evaluate realistic cooking time vs actual time before expanding efforts.

    Within that limited window, focus on using up items already at home rather than an intensive market list of specialty items. Build skills slowly by first practicing meal planning around current kitchen inventory.

    A few days allows learning curve adjustments to note where your process succeeded or needed refinement before pulling together a full seven days. Revisit and tweak your approach based on lessons from a shorter trial first.

    Once the initial meal planning kinks are smoothed after a few short-term rounds, step up to full weekly plans with confidence. But give yourself grace those first few times attempting an eating routine change. Then build endurance.

  • How detailed should my meal plan be?

    When creating weekly meal plans, the level of specificity required is ultimately up to you and what helps you cook reliably. Focusing on key details provides helpful guidance while leaving wiggle room around the edges.

    At minimum, your customized meal plan should identify the main protein and vegetable component of dinners, such as chicken fajitas with peppers and onions or tofu stir fry with broccoli and carrots. These two ingredients facilitate easier grocery lists and kitchen workflow.

    Specifying full recipes to follow or use as guidelines provides helpful instruction but locks you in tightly should plans need adjusting. Citing just the central ingredients still communicates the meal concept without rigid adherence should sides or seasons change up based on preferences or availability.

    Keeping grain and salad sides more open-ended allows flexibility within the structure of a set protein and vegetable direction. Jot down options like “quinoa/brown rice” or “mixed greens salad” without prescribing exact recipes. Circle back to finalize these supporting players closer to eating.

    Consider detailing out full recipes for very specific preparation techniques like marinades or dishes requiring lengthy, multi-step processes. Spelling out special instructions increases likelihood you’ll follow through appropriately on those nights versus winging steps.

    Portion ingredients appropriately without overbuying unless you intentionally use extras throughout the week. Be realistic about properly scaling recipes up or down to avoid waste while still enjoying ample helpings.

    Above all, detail what helps you personally cook and shop decisively. Whether directives or loose inspiration, your customized notes eliminate decision fatigue about healthy home cooking.

  • How do I avoid wasting fresh ingredients I bought for planned meals?

    Despite best intentions, life happens, and the fresh ingredients bought for planned meals don’t always get used on schedule. But with a few adaptive preparation and storage tricks, you can still utilize most components.

    First, be honest when meal planning about how many servings each recipe truly yields so you don’t over purchase ingredients for inaccurate projections of leftovers. Buy with just enough cushion while still scaling recipe quantities precisely.

    When shopping, choose produce nearing peak ripeness instead of underripe for longer fridge storage. Check eat-by dates on perishables against your plan schedule. Prioritize what’s needed soonest as you build the week.

    Pre-prep produce by washing, chopping, and storing in airtight containers during less busy times. Portioned ingredients ready for cooking prevent last minute rushing while saving prep time if unused right away.

    Move unused fresh components to the following week’s meal plan, reworking recipes and dishes to use them up soon. Adapt next week’s inspiration list to repurpose what’s already purchased.

    Repurpose excess proteins and veggies into brand new meals later in your plan rather than wasting them if original dishes get postponed. Omelets, stir frys, sandwiches or soups breathe new life into leftovers.

    Line crisper drawers with paper towels to wick away excess moisture from leafy greens or delicate herbs, extending their viability a bit longer when stored properly in the refrigerator.

    With attentive shopping choices, intentional storage methods and flexible ingredient reinvention, much of what you buy for meal plans still gets happy stomachs thanks to resourceful, creative cooking.

  • What are some good make-ahead meal options to include?

    Incorporating dishes that can be prepared in advance is a meal planning game-changer for minimizing day-of cooking time and effort when life gets hectic.

    Hearty soups, chilis and stews are perfect make-ahead meals, as flavors improve over days of fridge storage. Prepare a large batch on the weekend to portion out all week. They also transition well into leftovers.

    Casseroles assembled a day or two early bake up conveniently at mealtime. Ingredients like cooked proteins, vegetables, pasta and sauces all hold well layered together and ready for the oven.

    Burritos, homemade hot pockets, sandwiches, wraps and more assembled completely and then frozen after cooking proteins and grains make quick lunches and dinners later on.

    Dense, sturdy salads and slaws with grains or pasta endure for a few days dressed and chilled in the fridge. Heartier additions prevent sogginess over time versus delicate greens.

    Slow cooker-ready bags with seasoned proteins, vegetables and aromatics layered together in a freezer bag for future dump-and-start meals offer incredible convenience for time-crunched weeknights.

    Double batch proteins like grilled chicken breasts, roast salmon fillets, tofu or seitan. Repurpose leftovers into easy grain bowls, stir frys, sandwiches and tacos. Extra effort pays off.

    Egg bakes, frittatas, crustless quiches and strata assemble elegantly in advance before heading straight into the oven for simplified mornings or evenings.

    Build your weekly meal plans around recipes that tolerate make-ahead preparation through batch cooking, storage and easy reheating whenever you’re ready to eat.

  • Should I plan lunch meals in addition to dinners?

    While dinner tends to be the most structured home cooked meal, mapping out supportive weekday lunches as part of an overall meal plan provides extra convenience and savings versus dining out.

    Planning complimentary lunches to use up dinner leftovers saves you time preparing entirely separate dishes. Simply pack extra roast chicken, grains and roasted vegetables for easy heat-and-eat meals the next day.

    Build an aligned pantry of go-to lunch ingredients to assemble quick sandwiches, bento boxes, wraps, salads and more with components lasting all week like bread, eggs, cheese slices, canned fish and vegetables.

    Make a big batch of soup, chili or grain-based salads over the weekend to portion out for grab-and-go lunches all week long stored in the fridge. Heartier dishes hold well.

    On weekends, cooking extra proteins and grains provides ready building blocks to compose meal-worthy lunches from earlier week dinner surpluses without starting totally from scratch.

    For special dietary needs, use lunch meal planning to meet targeted nutrition goals that may prove trickier for family dinner compromises, like preparations specific to low-carb, gluten free, vegan and more.

    While not always necessary, aligning homemade lunches to complement dinner plans means enjoying current ingredients at their freshest. The pairing also provides diversity through the week’s recipes.

  • How do I accommodate my family’s food preferences in one meal plan?

    It can prove challenging creating cohesive weekly meal plans that satisfy individual family members’ unique tastes and dietary considerations all at once. But a few simple tactics help blend preferences.

    Designate one family favorite dinner each week featuring a beloved staple protein or cuisine, like taco Tuesdays, chicken parm Fridays or breakfast for dinner Sundays rotating through favorites over time.

    Embrace sides as an opportunity for personalization by cooking 2-3 grain, salad, roasted vegetable or other base options that diners can mix and match according to tastes and appetites.

    During more elaborate cooking sessions, have family members each choose and help prepare their own customized side dish to contribute to the table, like individual chopped salads or composed grain bowls.

    For nights requiring quicker turnarounds, keep back-up convenience items on hand familiars prefer like frozen pizzas, microwave rice cups or personal charcuterie snacks to supplement dinners if needed.

    Allow pickier family members to swap out one main element like protein for an acceptable substitute, coding customized versions right onto the meal plan like tofu instead of chicken.

    For meatless meals, list 2-3 possible proteins to select from like choosing between eggs, beans or a meat substitute to grant some meal decision autonomy.

    Finally, assigning each person one night to independently decide on their ideal dinner spreads control across the week for equitable input, engagement and appetite satisfaction from the collective plan.

  • What do I do if an ingredient runs out or meal takes longer than expected?

    Despite best intentions and planning efforts, some nights dinners simply don’t come together seamlessly. Missing ingredients or poor time estimates leave you scrambling come mealtime. Having backup solutions ready provides a seamless plan B.

    Keep a stock of non-perishable pantry items beyond meal plan ingredients that easily assemble into an impromptu dinner if needed, like pasta, jarred sauce, canned beans, rice, broth and frozen veggies for a fast pasta bowl.

    Designate handy heat-and-eat emergency meals to keep stocked in the freezer like frozen pizzas, nuggets, stuffed pastas or leftover soup portions. These backup nights offer easy wins.

    Get creative repurposing leftover proteins and vegetables into all-new dishes later in the week if an ingredient planned for an initial meal disappears or expires sooner than expected in the fridge.

    Undercooking grains or proteins one night leads nicely into reinventing them the next night like searing extra chicken to shred for quesadillas or tacos when initialplans go sideways.

    Let family members make personal choices assembling quick charcuterie boards, sandwiches, cereal bowls or cheese plates on their own if no energy remains to rally a proper dinner after long days.

    Syncing digital calendars and setting alerts helps alert you when dinner prep should start based on meal time estimates to help meals not drag on past reasonable dinner hours.

    Accounting for minor hiccups in even the best meal plans means that dismantled expectations won’t upend your entire week’s cooking momentum. Backup options keep success streaks strong.

  • Can I still eat out or get takeout sometimes within my meal plan?

    While creating reliable home cooked meal plans provides many benefits, that doesn’t mean forbidding your favorite takeout or restaurant meals entirely. weaving in sensible indulgences keeps plans sustainable long term.

    Be intentional when laying out initial weekly meal plans by deliberately scheduling 1-2 nights for pickup pizza, takeout bowls or restaurant visits. Treat these as any other pre-appointed meal instead of as last minute, random cravings.

    Approach takeout nights similarly to how you would any homemade dinner by selecting healthier menu options in balance with some comfort foods. Get a side salad alongside that burger or choose brown rice instead of white.

    Use the “extra” night occasioned by ordering in or dining out to stretch current grocery ingredients into an additional leftover night later in the week, essentially creating a free weekday meal from existing supplies.

    Host an at-home taco or flatbread party with family or friends assembled DIY-style instead of strictly homemade recipes to satisfy the urge to gather without total kitchen commitment every single night.

    Swap, but don’t sabotage progress by letting takeout completely displace days of thoughtful meal planning and prep. Isolate the meal instead of the whole day going to waste nutrition-wise. Get right back on track next time.

    Allowing sparing takeout meals amid a weekly plan still reduces impulse ordering overall. Just beware takeout creep from what was supposed to be “only once” as you evaluate true habits.

  • What are good resources for meal plan ideas?

    Dreaming up reliable weekly meal plans with creativity and variety year after year can perplex even enthusiasts. Seeking fresh ideas from these trusted outlets reawakens inspiration:

    Scour recipe blogs focused specifically on meal plans and prep, often with accompanying grocery lists, make-ahead tips and flexible categories like budget-conscious, family-friendly or specific diets to peruse plans matching your needs.

    Social media accounts like Instagram and Pinterest offer visually guided discovery potential through endless saved boards, hashtags and mouthwatering photography glamourizing healthy cooking. Recreate what makes your feed glow.

    Online recipe sites and apps provide search filters to pinpoint recipes fitting your on-hand ingredients, nutritional preferences, prep time limits, cuisine themes and more. Sorting what’s possible with what’s on hand eliminates guesswork.

    Trusted brand websites frequently highlight their products incorporated into balanced meal ideas alongside cooking tips and dietitian approved plans customizable to special nutritional needs like diabetes or heart health.

    Don’t overlook old school influences like beloved cookbooks, dog-eared recipe cards from family members or church and community center seasonal cookbooks which have stood tests of time with their reliable, memorable dishes.

    Poll friends, neighbors or social networks for their family’s satisfied regular meal rotations. Whether homemade or adapted short-cuts, reliable home cooking that nourishes picks up momentum through word of mouth traction and community trust.

    Using a combination of new technology enhanced discoveries paired with old familiar standbys ensures your weekly meal plans inspire through trusted sources without growing overly repetitive or dull.

  • How can technology help me create and follow meal plans?

    While good old pen and paper works to craft meal plans, modern technology offers convenient assistance designing, organizing and reminding you along the way to stick to your cooking intentions.

    User-friendly websites and phone apps allow you to strategically build weekly meal plans from their database of recipes using customized filters for your dietary needs, cuisine preferences, on-hand ingredients and more. Meal planning templates abound.

    Grocery delivery apps and online retailer services synchronize directly with digital meal plans to automatically compile needed ingredients into checkout carts, streamlining shopping straight from planned recipes. Lists perfectly match plans.

    Meal kit delivery companies ship pre-portioned fresh ingredients with recipe cards directly to your door based on weekly menus you select from their rotating offerings customized to dietary needs like vegan, low carb and more at your discretion.

    Digital assistance devices like Alexa, smart displays and home assistants set reminders for you to start prepping recipes, activating slow cookers or pressure cookers and more based on hands-free voice commands helping pace your progress.

    Photo capturing built into smartphones lets you save leftovers about to be repurposed, ingredients needing use soon or freezer meal inventory needing consumption soon flagged right within galleries for handy visual memory jogging.

    Calendar appointment settings give each meal block dedicated time frames for prep based on recipes you’ve earmarked keeping dinnertime logistics realistic. Alerts advise getting started to avoid delays.

    Built in timers on smart devices or plug in appliances sends updates to your watches, phones or displays as different dishes cook, bake or blend together perfectly.



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