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Your Go-To Guide for Meal Planning

Let me set the scene: It's 5:30 pm, and you're leaving work. You're hungry, but you have no idea what's for dinner (or if you even have food at home at all!) I've been there. You think "A quick stop by Chipotle will give me dinner AND lunch for tomorrow. surely that makes more sense than going to the store and then cooking." I completely get it. But once you start adding up those Chipotle and Panera runs, your wallet thins out pretty quickly!

Meal planning and prepping often gets a bad wrap because it seems overwhelming, but I'm here to share my best tips and tricks for those of you who are looking to make progress on your nutrition goals this year. I'm calling this a go-to, grace-filled guide to meal planning. So what's the point of meal planning? It's two-fold, not only will planning and prepping your meals give you control over what you're putting in your body (goodbye weekly Chick-fil-a trips!), but it is also much more economical. I'm sharing my best tips below, but it isn't an exhaustive list. I'd love to hear from you in the comments.

how-to-meal-plan-and-prep
If you follow my #TendingListTuesday updates, you'll know that "Plan and Prep Meals" has been a weekly goal for months!

Set realistic expectations. It wouldn't feel fair to write this post without starting with this tip. One of my best pieces of advice is to set realistic expectations as you start meal planning and prepping. There are going to be times when you rock your week-you'll do all the organizing, prepping, cooking, and come in under budget to boot! But there will also be times you eat an entire pizza instead of saving some for lunch and you find yourself at Food Lion the next morning buying Spaghettio's for lunch...🙈  Give yourself grace, and remind yourself that you can and will make progress each week.

Invest in the right containers. I've found that having the right containers and tools is essential to meal planning and prepping. There is nothing worse than making a batch of quinoa, putting it into a Tupperware container, and then ransacking your kitchen looking for the lid. I used my recent move as an opportunity to throw out my old plastic containers and invest in some new glass containers. I'm able to easily divide leftovers into lunch or dinner portions for the upcoming weeks. I recommend starting with a set to see which sizes you use most frequently, then buying a few extras individually. My favorites are from Ikea (here, here, and here), but there plenty of other options out there, too! Budget tip: Black Friday/Cyber Monday deals are a great time to stock up!

Create a bank of easy, go-to meals. Pinterest and your favorite blogs are a great starting point, but I like the idea of crowd-sourcing, too! Use your social feeds to ask for your friends' favorite meals, and ACTUALLY RECORD THEM SOMEWHERE. Whether it's a cute recipe box or digitally on your Pinterest board or Google Drive, make sure these are all aggregated in one spot so that when it comes time to choose recipes you can be efficient. If you aren't a recipe follower (ahem, me!), then create a typical shopping list for the week, and bookmark it somewhere. This is my favorite shopping list template, and I use it week after week to avoid overbuying.

FullSizeR

Here's this week's meals for me. You'll see that it's pretty simple and there are a lot of leftovers. I didn't add breakfast since I'm eating the same thing-yogurt, homemade granola, and berries.

Know yourself, your family situation, and your lifestyle. I'm a notorious meal-repeater. I typically eat the same breakfast and lunch for two reasons. It saves me from decision fatigue, and it saves me money because I'm only cooking for one person. If I want to mix things up, I'll split a Hello Fresh delivery with my boyfriend for some variety. Depending on your family situation, your meals will likely look very different than mine, and that's okay! Budget Tip: Email me if you want to try Hello Fresh, and I'll share my referral code for $30 off your first Hello Fresh box.

Schedule a weekly meal planning session. Take 30 minutes one day per week to plan your meals and shopping list. I spend time Sunday afternoon planning my meals, and it's a breeze and prepares me to go grocery shopping. My typical agenda is below, and while it might seem long, it rarely takes more than 30 minutes:

  • Look at your calendar or planner and decide how many meals you need for the week. Consult with your spouse, a roommate, or children's calendars to make sure you on the same page. For example, some weeks I have my book club and won't need to plan for dinner. I typically write out my weekly meals in my Simplified Planner, and from there I can see any gaps. Tip: don't forget about snacks here! I plan for two snacks during each workday.
  • Check your freezer and pantry. Are you out of staples? Do you have food that is about to expire and you want to use? Figure those things out now so you can choose your meals accordingly.
  • See if there are any sales at your typical grocery stores. I do all of my shopping at Trader Joe's (there are no sales), but this can inform your meal planning for the week. Tip: You can easily view your local flyer for most stores online.
  • Plan out your meals. Using the recipe bank you created above and starting with breakfast (it's the easiest!), plan your meals and snacks for the week and write them down. Whether it's in your planner or on a notepad on your fridge or in your calendar app, make sure you can see what's on the menu.
  • Make your shopping list from the meals. Write down everything you need for the week, and be sure to stick to it. Tip: If you're prone to forget your list or aren't heading to the grocery store until later, go ahead and take a photo of it, too.

plan-prep-meals

Head to the grocery store. Grab a snack, your reusable shopping bags, and get to shopping! This isn't required, but I like to add a rough estimate of prices beside each item so I don't have sticker shock when I head to the register. When I get home, I immediately unpack my groceries and start chopping, prepping, or roasting things as necessary.

Incorporate these steps into your PowerSheets. If you're starting from scratch, add "Create a bank of recipes" to your monthly goals next month. Maybe you add "Meal plan and prep" to your weekly goals. Whatever it is, writing it down will help keep you accountable! Tip: Use the grocery cart sticker from our sticker book to add some color to your PowerSheets!

Whew! That was a long post, but I hope it was helpful. Now it's your turn; I'd love to hear from you! Leave a comment and share any tips or favorite recipes you have! I don't claim to be an expert in meal planning and prepping, and I'd love to learn from you!

Show Comments (22)
  1. Emily
    Emily
    reply

    Love these tips, Jess! We have a basic rhythm for meal planning and grocery shopping, but a goal of mine is to be better about prepping each night for the next night's dinner to make cooking even faster. I'm not sure if this counts as a tip, but one thing I've come to terms with is that in this season of life, there are things that are more important to me than cutting costs everywhere I can (like time). I used to shop at Whole Foods (15 minutes in one direction) for produce and Walmart (15 minutes in the other direction) for staples, but currently we shop at Publix (5 minutes away from our house) for everything. We spend about $15-$20 more per week, but the whole experience takes 45 minutes instead of two hours from my Saturdays, and that is worth it to me!

    • Jess Metcalf
      Jess Metcalf
      reply

      That definitely counts as a tip! It's similar to how I feel about ordering using Amazon Prime vs. headed to Target. It might cost me a few extra dollars, but avoiding that dollar spot (and other unnecessary browsing) actually ends up saving me money!

  2. Amanda Noel
    Amanda Noel
    reply

    Great post! Because we're a family of four we try to do one BIG meal prep day a month where we pre-make some meals that can go in the freezer- burritos, crock pot meals, etc that way when we have a particularly busy day or evening planned we don't have to worry about cooking, just throw everything in the crock pot!
    We also plan leftover night once a week for the busiest night of the week!

    • Jess Metcalf
      Jess Metcalf
      reply

      What a great idea, Amanda! I particularly love your "leftover night". What a great way to empty the fridge and prevent and waste!

  3. Claire
    Claire
    reply

    This was so helpful! I need to get better at this. Making a recipe bank is going on my list! Thanks for the reminder :)

    • Jess Metcalf
      Jess Metcalf
      reply

      I'm so glad it was helpful! Keep me updated on where you decide to store your recipes! I'm always curious how others do it!

  4. Glenda
    Glenda
    reply

    Great post! Love reading about ideas of meal planning and what is working for others! I have been working on my meal planning routine for the past two years trying different things and checking what works for my family. We are a family of 4, my husband and I both work and our two sons eat like crazy, oh well, they eat like teens!! I think that planning and cooking is a great investment for our health and budget. I do many things like you...I check my pantry and my fridge while doing my grocery list. I bought similar containers. I have stickies notebooks and sharpie in the kitchen to easily label the containers. I designed a grocery list that has on the left our four names and a space for breakfast, lunch and dinner. This has been very helpful because sometimes I just need to write sandwich or wrap for lunch and it helps me feel that is less cooking. Also, it helps me see the whole picture because in the past I though I was buying groceries for the whole week and it wasn't enough. On the right side of my meal prep worksheet, I did a box for the grocery list. So, while I write what I'm cooking for each meal on the left, I'm also writing the ingredients that I need on the right. I added a list of the things that I need every week like bread, eggs, milk, yogurt etc. and I only need to either check or cross from that list. Another thing that has been very helpful is adding a empty box on the top were I write the things I don't want to forget that I already have. I don't that write everything that I have, but if I'm cooking something and I have one of the main ingredients, I write it there so I don't end (like I used to) with 4 bags of croutons or 3 cans of beans. The other tip that I can share for busy moms that want to simplify is that on the bottom I added a box for easy meals that I don't need to cook for the week. So, there I add either frozen pizza, hot dog or sandwich. The last tip I can share is that I cook on Sundays (for Mondays & Tuesdays) for about 2-3 hours and put the meals in the containers and label them with stickies: "A Lunch Monday", "B lunch Tuesday". Then on Wednesdays I cook again for Thursdays and Fridays.....and Like Jess said, if things get messy or too busy during one day or another, I just give myself permission to be imperfect and I'll stop at Chick-Fil-A!

    • Jess Metcalf
      Jess Metcalf
      reply

      These are such great tips, especially for larger families! Thank for you sharing, Glenda! I love hearing how you give yourself permission to be imperfect on some days! Xx!

  5. Julie
    Julie
    reply

    Hi Jess! I've been a spectator fan of power sheets/the Cultivate team for a while now, but I am pumped to jump into power sheets for 2018! Anyway, love this post. Another blogger/pilates instructor that I absolutely love, Robin Long, has a similar post and she also has some easy meals on her blog and Pinterest board. I highly recommend checking it out! https://thebalancedlifeonline.com/how-to-meal-prep-in-30-minutes-or-less/

    • Jess Metcalf
      Jess Metcalf
      reply

      Thanks for sharing, Julie! We're big fans of Robin (she even guest posted for our blog back in February!) so I completely trust her tips. We can't wait to get PowerSheets in your hands next month! Xx!

    • Julie
      Julie
      reply

      Small world! I should have known that you all are connected. Thanks for letting me know she blogged in February, will have to check those out :-)

    • Jess Metcalf
      Jess Metcalf
      reply

      We hope you're encouraged by her post! Xx!

  6. Brooke
    Brooke
    reply

    It's like you read my mind. For the past few months a weekly goal has been to meal plan by Monday morning so I can shop Monday afternoon. And one of my monthly goals for this month was to figure out a better recipe system... I've got stuff on Pinterest, in magazines, binders, books, and everywhere else 😂 thanks for the tips!

    • Jess Metcalf
      Jess Metcalf
      reply

      I'm so glad it was helpful, Brooke! Keep us updated on what you decide :)

  7. Cortney
    Cortney
    reply

    Yes. Still trying to get meal planning & prepping down.

    I want to try to find the balance for breakfast and lunch that it is simple and pretty repeated meals but not so repetitive that I don't want it and waste food by not cooking it.

    My biggest challenge is that because it's only me, I find that I waste food because I like to buy fresh things but portions are so much verses the expiration date.
    One week I had spinach almost every meal so that I could try to use the bag before it expired.

    I'm still trying to find that balance between routein and variety, realistic consumption, and budget friendly.
    I can't believe I spend so much some weeks and it's just me.

    I'm thinking of trying to go to farmers markets more to see if that helps. Maybe that will stay fresh longer since there's not much "travel time" that the food in the stores have

    • Jess Metcalf
      Jess Metcalf
      reply

      Yes, I completely understand, Cortney! That shopping list I link to from the Everygirl has done wonders for helping me not to overbuy and waste food. Let me know if you try it! I have two go-to breakfast meals -- one is avocado toast with a friend egg and the other is homemade granola with frozen blueberries and greek yogurt. I can buy ingredients for both of those, and they don't go bad before I use them :)

  8. ashley ziegler
    ashley ziegler
    reply

    These are some great tips!

    • Jess Metcalf
      Jess Metcalf
      reply

      I'm so glad it was helpful, Ashley! It's certainly something I'm learning as I go, and I'm glad I can share my tips!

  9. Carol
    Carol
    reply

    Some wonderful tips here! Planning to implement most of them. Meal planning has been a goal on my PowerSheets WAY too long. But, one question first:

    What is avocado toast?

    Thanks, Jess. Loved your post.

    • Jess Metcalf
      Jess Metcalf
      reply

      I’m so glad it was helpful, Carol! Avocado toast is one of my go-to breakfasts. I toast a piece of bread, add mashed avocado mixed with lime juice, sprinkle a bit of crushed red pepper on it, and then add a fried egg on top! Delicious and easy to make!

  10. Nicole
    Nicole
    reply

    Love this! Thanks for sharing--I always love your tips, Jess! I just started using 'Plan to Eat' to help with meal planning and it has been amazing! You put recipes in, drag them onto a calendar to plan your week, and then it generates your grocery list for you! It's revolutionizing meal planning for me! :)

    • Jess Metcalf
      Jess Metcalf
      reply

      Someone recently told me about Plan to Eat! I'll certainly have to add that to my list of resources when I have more mouths to feed!

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