Meal planning is such a fabulous way to stay organised at home, saving you time, money and helping you and your family to eat healthier too. These family meal planning for beginners tips will help you succeed by simplifying the process to suit your busy household.
Plus download a free printable meal planner to get you organised!
This post was first published on 15 February 2015. Updated for 2022.
MEAL PLANNING FOR BEGINNERS
Meal planning comes with so many useful benefits, from saving money by wasting less, saving time and taking some of the stress out of an already busy schedule.
Yet so many people who try planning meals fail… Badly.
It’s not too surprising really. I’ve been there. Sometimes it can be overwhelming planning life down to such specific detail. Not all of us are great with strict routines and schedules.
I’m a spontaneous person, so planning ahead with things such as weekly meal plans was a big adjustment. So I learned how to simplify the meal planning process to suit our household.
Why Meal Planning Is Not Working For You
Often when your meal planning fails, it’s because you feel overwhelmed.
We tend to make things more difficult for ourselves by approaching it as a whole, rather than in parts.
By the time you get home from work or school pick up or whatever else it is that has given you a busy crazy day, the last thing you want to do is create that dinner masterpiece you planned 3 weeks ago!
Calling out for pizza sounds so much more appealing right now! Am I right???
Trust me, I’ve been there too. So many times. You plan to make it tomorrow night instead. Tomorrow night comes and that huge complex meal still seems like more effort than you’re prepared for mid-week. The fresh ingredients start to lose their freshness and you run the risk of wasting them entirely.
Meal planning fail!
Having a disorganised refrigerator doesn’t help either! So make sure you check out these fridge organisation tips before you get started.
Family Meal Planning Tips To Help You Succeed
A meal plan does not have to be so stressful or strict. It’s all about making it work for you. Here are the best tips to start meal planning for beginners:
1. CREATE A RECIPE MASTER LIST
Before you do anything else, grab a notepad and write down every simple meal or family favourite recipe you have in your typical rotation already. This isn’t the time to come up with new recipes or things to try. These are the meals you already make confidently and enjoy.
These meals will form the start of your meal plan and this will be your meal plan master list. This is the place you draw your weekly meal planning inspiration from.
You can find a master recipe printable in my mega meal planning bundle available in my store, along with loads of other useful meal planning printable pages to keep you organised:
2. KEEP IT SIMPLE
Experimenting with a new recipe is great fun, but it can be time-consuming. Do this maybe once a week or a night when you have some extra time up your sleeve.
We tend to plan bigger dinners or new recipes on the weekend when we don’t have work or school, so we can kick off our prep earlier and make an evening out of it. When meal planning for beginners, you may want to skip new recipes entirely during your first couple of weeks.
3. KICK GUILT TO THE CURB
Sometimes we get caught up in that perfect housewife ideal and want to give our family a fancy, made from scratch dining extravaganza every night. It sounds great but unless you really love to cook, it’s a lot of unnecessary pressure.
Don’t feel guilty about using a pre-made recipe base or ready to heat foods in your meal plan mix to save time. Not everything needs to be a gourmet meal. We are trying to make life easier, not serve meals
4. BE FLEXIBLE
You’ve planned your meals for the next week, purchased ingredients and suddenly you get an invite out to dinner with friends. No problem. A quick reshuffle and you can do both.
Move your menu back a day or do some switching so you can go out for dinner and still make use of your fresh ingredients before they spoil.
If we set unrealistic tight schedules for ourselves, we could miss out on some pretty amazing opportunities and spontaneous plan changes.
Flexibility is key!
5. LEFTOVER NIGHT
A great way to easily add flexibility into your week is having a scheduled leftover night.
One of the complaints of meal planning is there is no room for leftovers so you either end up with food waste, or you end up giving up because there’s too much food.
You can always have a leftover or a ‘make your own dinner’ night once each week to give yourself a chance to work through leftovers and take a break from your structured meal plan.
This is a great way to use up the extras you have made with big meals and a chance to enjoy your favourite again.
But of course, leftovers are also perfect for school and work lunches too! Or freezer cooking…
A great example of this is this Instant Pot Flank Steak recipe that you can turn leftovers into flank steak tacos or fajitas the next night!
6. USE A MEAL PLANNING CALENDAR
You’ve set a bit of a plan and you’re ready to get to business. You need a place to track your planned meal schedule!
Many planners these days have room for meal planning. This is great if you look at it often.
Or you can use a meal planning app. Here are some popular options:
- Cozi.com – Both an app & website
- Paprika – Organise recipes and make meal plans
A wall calendar is often better for most of us though, whether it be a weekly meal plan schedule or an everyday monthly calendar you can use to map out your meal prep plan.
A meal planner is a great thing to include as part of your family command center where the whole family can see it.
FREE DOWNLOAD – I’ve got you covered with these free home making printables.
7. COOK AHEAD
Some meals can be prepared a day or two in advance or made ahead of time and frozen.
Freezer cooking or pre-prepared one-pan dump recipes can ease your load massively.
Try cooking an extra meal or two earlier in the week if you are less busy. A slow cooker meal is a great option since you can have it running in the background while you cook another meal.
Pre-cooked meals are perfect for those days you know you are extra busy and short on time, eliminating the temptation of grabbing takeout.
THIS IS MY EXACT METHOD FOR BULK COOKING MEALS FOR THE FREEZER
All you need to do is heat, or defrost if freezer cooking. Plus one less night in the kitchen means more quality time together with your family enjoy each other’s company!
If you need extra recipe inspiration, try these to enjoy on the day or to freeze for later.
8. FRESH INGREDIENT INVENTORY
Successful meal planning usually means grocery shopping ahead of time. Usually, we only do a week at a time and avoid shopping any further ahead, simply to keep ingredients fresh.
If you have a habit of letting your fresh ingredients go bad, an ingredient inventory may be exactly what you need. Keep an easily-accessible list on your fridge with your fresh ingredients, to help you keep track of when to use them by.
For fresh fruit and vegetables, put the date purchased next to them and aim to plan meals using these items early in the week.
For ingredients with a use-by date, add this to your ingredient list too so you can ensure you always stay ahead of food spoiling in your plan.
This means less food waste and an opportunity to save money!
For a guide on safe food storage times, this is a handy reference for refrigeration and freezer time frames.
9. START A PANTRY INVENTORY
We are about to turn your meal planning for beginners up a notch with this expert tip!
Keeping a pantry inventory can also help you plan meals based on ingredients you already have. It may seem like a big job the first time, however, it doesn’t take a lot to maintain.
This means no accidental doubling up on ingredients. Saving money! Plus inspiration for what to make next. It also means an organised pantry, because there is no hoarding 3 years out of date foods anymore.
Plus knowing what you’ve got in your house and when to use by is a total gamechanger!
Get my tips on stocking a pantry, including a free printable pantry ingredient list you can take shopping.
10. SHARE THE LOAD
Who says cooking meals from the meal plan is your responsibility alone?
Have your partner or your older kids and teens do their part in the kitchen each week by planning meals others can cook. A family that cooks together is a happy family… hopefully!
Our primary school-aged kids love to help out in the kitchen. Having their help with the easier tasks is still a huge load off of me and it gets the job done quicker.
Plus it is a chance to work together and strengthen those relationships!
If you do have older children, why not schedule a night each week when it is their responsibility to cook dinner?
Let them choose what to cook and start off helping them out until they get their skills and confidence up. This is a great age-appropriate chore for pre-teens and teens.
Want to make your meal planning even easier? Set up weekly dinner theme nights. Plan a certain theme for the same night of the week each week, such as taco Tuesday or meatless Monday.
You can still mix up what you have on those nights, but it makes the planning easier when you have a theme to work with.
Find 60 weekly dinner theme night ideas here to get you inspired!
Tips For Managing Different Dietary Needs
One of the biggest challenges of meal planning is catering to different dietary needs.
Whether you’re dealing with picky eaters, allergies, or special diets, it can be tough to please everyone at the dinner table. But with a little creativity and some pre-planning, it is possible to create meals that everyone will enjoy.
From healthy meals, when one or more people in the family are focused on healthy eating to considerations around gluten-free, dairy-free or other specialised diets, such as vegan or keto, this all comes into account when you plan your weekly menus.
It can be challenging if not everyone wants to eat the same things. This may mean being flexible in your meal plan, but not to the point where it feels overwhelming.
Free Meal Planning Printable Template
We know how much easier it is to stick to a plan when it’s written down and visible. That’s why I have created this simple meal planning template for you to print out and use at home.
The ultimate meal planning for beginners hack is having your plan somewhere you can easily see it each day and stay focused on your meal prep menu for the week ahead.
Tips For Using This Meal Planning Printable
This is a free download that can be printed off as often as you like. You can print off a new one each week or print a copy and laminate it instead. This way you can reuse the same menu each week.
- Laminate or place your printable in a plastic sleeve
- Use a whiteboard marker to write your weekly meal plan
- Dedicate a 15-minute block on the same day each week to do your planning, update inventories and write your shopping list
- Repeat each week and enjoy organised meal time!
Hopefully, meal planning sounds a whole lot less stressful and manageable now, with these simple tips to remind you to do exactly that – keep it simple. Putting the planning strategies into place will help you to be successful in meal planning in no time.
Need some easy recipe ideas for your family meal plan? Try these:
- Taco potato bake
- Slow-cooked pulled pork with cola
- Slow cooker beef goulash
- Greek gyros wraps
- Air fryer recipes for beginners
- Leftover ham recipes
- Leftover taco meat recipes
- Leftover pulled pork recipes
- Leftover turkey recipes
- Leftover rotisserie chicken recipes
- Easy freezer meals
- Easy healthy lunch ideas
- Lunch ideas for home
- Side dishes for pizza
- Side dishes for chicken wings
- Side dishes for tacos
- Side dishes for soup
- Side dishes for fish
bel @ Mums Take Five
Monday 30th of March 2015
Thanks for sharing with us for The Sunday Brunch Magazine, lovely to see you Bel & Eliza xx
Luisa @ Looking for mama me
Tuesday 24th of February 2015
Oh I wish I had the time to cook ahead! We are working on planning our meals more now, its a necessity with a baby, but I so often forget the list when I go to the supermarket!
Wednesday 25th of February 2015
I have been known to do that so sometimes type it right into my phone notes, or use online grocery shopping so I have it all in front of me. And indeed it helps a lot with a baby. That's where my meal planning started :)
Monday 23rd of February 2015
Great tips - this is something I definitely need to do more regularly! So much goes to waste
Monday 23rd of February 2015
It's depressing sometimes how much money can go down the drain when we forget to use stuff. I don't miss that bit.
Sara | Kid Magazine
Sunday 22nd of February 2015
I like to be flexible with meal planning. I usually buy fresh fruit and vegetables more than once a week so I don't have to buy too much at once and risk it spoiling when things change.
Monday 23rd of February 2015
That was one of the worst habits we had before we were planning was so much fresh food waste. Veggies growing strange mould and fruit getting soft and squishy. Yuck!
Sunday 22nd of February 2015
I have meal planned for years. It is what kept and keeps me sane! I always love looking at new was to succeed in planning my meals. Thanks so much for linking to the This Is How We Roll Thursday link party! I can't wait to see what you share next week!
Sunday 22nd of February 2015
Thanks Cynthia. It's nice to hear of so many other meal planners.