Meal planning takes away the daily stress of deciding what’s for dinner. I’ve never done well with creating weekly menus by day, though. With a set schedule, I sometimes felt like I had to make what’s on the menu, rather than finish up the leftovers first. Silly, I know. Then there were the days that ended up busier than expected and I either didn’t have time to make the planned meal or I was too tired by the time dinner rolled around and needed something simpler.
The solution I’ve found to traditional menu-style meal planning is making meal lists. Not only does it offer day by day flexibility, it makes it easier to work in sale items, saving money at the grocery store.
For us, breakfast and lunch are usually either made from the same basic staples or leftovers, so I only use my lists for dinner. You can easily use the same method for all meals, if you like.
Meal Planning Lists
Step 1: Make a Master List
Start by writing down all your favorite meals to make. This isn’t the time to pull out cookbooks or look for recipes online. You want this to be a brain dump of your go-to meals. I would aim for at least 10-14, but a bigger list gives you more variety. If you don’t have that many to start, don’t worry. You can always add to this list later.
You can leave your master list as-is, or sort it into categories such as grouping it by the type of protein, ease of prep, cook time or type of appliance used if you have lots of Instant Pot or slow cooker meals. My list is just one big list.
You could also make note of what sides you like to serve with each dish, but I usually add them later.
Step 2: Decide what types of meals you need for the week
For this step, consider things like what you have on hand that you need to use up, what’s on sale and how busy you’ll be during the week. If you know you’ll be eating out any days, make note of that, too. I don’t usually make a list for this step, but if it’s a busy week you might want to make some notes.
Step 3: Make your meal list for the week
Consider the things from step 2 and pick 5-7 meals for the week from your master list. I like to cook things like big pots of soup or chili at least once a week, so I know leftovers will take care of one or two days, so I usually make a list of five. If your meals won’t include leftovers, you’ll want to list seven, or as many days as you’ll be eating at home.
This is where I consider sides and make note of them alongside the meals I plan to make.
If you’re looking to expand your master list or just want to try something new, you can add a new recipe as one of your meals and make note of the cookbook or other source. Once you’ve tried it, if you like it, add it to your master list.
While I don’t add these to my list, I like to keep staples for one or two really quick backup meals on hand at all times. You can read more about this here. If this is new to you, you’ll want to consider picking a backup meal or two before moving on to the next step.
Step 4: Make your shopping list
Make a shopping list from your weekly meal list, including sides and staples for your backup meal, if you don’t already have one. From your list, shop your pantry then grocery shop for everything else you need.
Step 5: Using your list
If one meal relies on lots of fresh produce or other time-sensitive food, you’ll want to make it early in the week. Likewise, if one day is busy and you have one slow cooker or really simple meal on the list, you’ll want to save it for that day. Otherwise, you know you have everything to make all the meals on your weekly list, so pick whichever one you like for now and one for next. Picking your “next” gives you time to thaw out or presoak anything needed for that meal. Every day, think about what meal you want to be next and do the necessary prep. If that day’s meal has lots of leftovers, you can use them as your “next” and push the rest of the week’s meals down.
Each meal you make gets checked off the list. At the end of the week, if there’s anything not checked off, add that meal to next week’s list.
Customize Your Meal Planning Lists
Planning one week at a time works best for me because that’s about the longest we can go without needing to restock staples. If two weeks at a time works for you, make your list 10-14 meals instead of 5-7. Repeats are fine if you want or need.
If you want to be super organized, turn your master list into index cards with one meal and all the ingredients listed on each card. You can even make them full blown recipe cards, which is helpful if someone else does some of the meal prep or it’s a new recipe. Sort them into whatever categories work best for you, then pick out your 5-7 meal cards for the week. Now your grocery list is as simple as copying the ingredients from the cards.