How to Meal Plan for Beginners

Who doesn’t love the look of a fresh meal plan stuck to the front of the fridge? Nothing says ‘competent mature adult’ like the ability to plan a week of dinners. If you search the web or Pinterest you’ll see no shortage of menus, planners, tips, printables, etc to help you transition your life from one of Hot Pockets and Spagettios to the finer things…many of which currently include kale, chia seeds or flank steak.

I think it’s time for me to jump on the meal planning band wagon and show you all the many, many menus I’ve relied on and modified throughout the years. Perhaps one will work for you and the hours I spent carefully crafting these tables will not have been in vain. Consider this a crash course in how to meal plan for beginners.

While, ideally, I try to meal plan in advance there are often weeks when I do not and I fly by the seat of my pants each night. Sometimes it can be stressful but, unless the cupboard is bare, there is usually something I can pull together. I wish I enjoyed freezer cooking or crock pot meals or one of the many other short cuts out there but two weeks with menus and two weeks off seems to be the trend around here lately.

I didn’t start creating a meal plan until we moved to New Jersey. We were on a tight budget and I planned out meals to help cut grocery costs and also work into a routine with three little ones. It worked great for a while. Once we moved into our current house I took all our favorites and created eight weeks of menus. We had set meals for breakfast, lunch was always a goody plate (meats, cheeses, crackers, fruit, whatever wasn’t expired, etc.) and then within eight weeks, we rotated through all our favorite meals, with repeats and leftovers built-in.

Before I plan a menu, I try to always check my fridge (to see how many leftovers we have) and my freezer and pantry to see what we already have on hand. I keep a list on the front of the fridge where everyone in the family is expected to write items they’d like me to buy or food we’ve run out of. I can sometimes get ideas for meals from their requests. I have friends who are great about checking their local store’s sale flyer and they plan meals based on what’s on sale, but I’ve never mastered that system.

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Click on the snazzy graphic to view all 8 weeks of menus. They’re not pretty but you get the idea. Lunch was always a goody plate and Sat. and Sunday mornings were always “Papa’s Choice” for breakfast.

When creating your first meal plan, think about the food your family already likes to eat; don’t plan seven days of food you’d like everyone to eat. Introduce new items a few times throughout the week, possibly as a side dish, rather than announcing that you’re all going vegan. Let your spouse and kids give ideas and let them look through any cookbooks you may have for inspiration. Keep in mind what nights your family is busy, and plan easy meals or leftovers. If there’s a special occasion coming up, plan a special meal – it’ll be a lot cheaper than eating out and you can still make things memorable! Plan nights to use your crock pot or Instant Pot and be sure to make a note of any recipes that your family really likes. It won’t take long before you have a regular rotation of meals. Growing up my husband’s family had “themed nights”; Friday was pizza, another night was pasta, another was kielbasa, etc. Stick to a theme each night if that makes it easier to get started.

But then I became bored and for a bit my husband’s parents lived with us so the system was disbanded and in time I adopted a blank menu system. Breakfast and lunch are still determined by the day but meals were added in at the beginning of the week and once decided upon, formed the basis of my grocery list. I still selected many of the same recipes from the previous menu system but included new favorites as well.  I use an old recipe binder and Pinterest to keep track of all our potential meals.

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I printed and laminated this and filled in dinners with a dry erase marker. Weekends are usually when we use up leftovers.

I found that the more kids I had to feed the harder planning dinners became, because there’s nothing everyone likes. Homemade pizza used to be our across the board winner, but lately Teddy won’t touch it, much to the horror of everyone present. So I try to pick things that the majority like. Starvation is kept at bay by scheduled snack times through out the day.

For my sanity I cannot have my kids grazing all day. Snack time is etched in stone around here and as the kids get older they are responsible for getting themselves something at that time and cleaning up after themselves. However, as they took over responsibility for themselves I found I was actually getting more questions “Can I have candy? Do I have to have a piece of fruit? Can I finish the ice cream cake?” and becoming more annoyed. I had to take it a step further and create a menu where I could write in snacks. I can always override what’s written to allow for homemade cookies but for the most part, when it’s snack time the kids check the menu and leave me alone.

Planning snacks also helped me see how many granola bars and apples I needed to buy in a week. I was still stuck in the ‘three small kids’ mindset for a while and would be dumbstruck when the kids consumed all snack food and fruit within two days. When I started filling in the menu and counting the actual quantity required,  it prevented midweek trips to the store for more fruit or graham crackers. So while planning snacks is overkill for some folks meal plan, it’s been very helpful for me.

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A recent development to my meal planning has been getting my groceries delivered. It’s been a huge help in terms of time saved and since I’m not wandering through a grocery store I’m less likely to make impulse buys. Many more grocery stores are offering this service so I encourage you to check your local store’s website and find out.

So there you have it. How we stay fed. Besides my choice of fonts, it’s not all that fancy. If it inspires you, let me know. If you have a better system, keep it to yourself because I like feeling good about my own sub-par choices.

How do you plan your meals?


  1. Thanks for posting this. I feel a theme being thrown at me! Between Jen and you , I think I am being told to organize the food situation. Sigh… Why don’t I want to make my life easier here? I am starting with dinner because that is the hardest one of all! Wish me luck!

    1. I hope the take away from my post, and possibly Jen’s, is that meal planning isn’t some complicated process. Write a note and stick it on the fridge or create some reusable document. You don’t need to start eating differently, cooking new foods or shop at a new store; just take the meals you’re already eating and assign them a day of the week. I’ll bet your family easily has a dozen meals you could rotate through. The key is just finding a system that makes shopping and dinner time less stressful for your family, even for a short time. It’s nice to know you can always return to, or deviate from, the meal plan you adopt as circumstances dictate.

  2. You have wowed, me once again!
    This is awesome.
    My meal plans are usually up in my head, lets be honest…sometimes; but now I’m going to put it down in ink.
    Love and Light

  3. I just posted about meal planning. I am horrible at winging it, so to avoid tacos every night I started planning. I took a bunch of info from the interwebz and made it fit us. 🙂

  4. Great post and I agree about the more kids to feed, the harder it is. I have twins that are polar opposites in their food likes/dislikes. What worked for us is a paid meal plan that allowed us to stay on budget while introducing new and exciting recipes. Now each week, the kids looks forward to what new things to try (not sure how long this will last, but I will take it for now!). This has been so effective, that I built a website to promote it. Thanks again!

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