Meal Planning for Beginners in 7 Easy Steps

Think you’re too broke, too lazy, or too culinary clueless for meal planning? Think again! Follow these 7 steps and you’ll be well on your way to an easy week of meals.

1. Choose 2 breakfasts.

Select two breakfast options. One will bear the brunt of your breakfasting so you’ll want to choose something that’s quick, filling, and economical. I don’t think anything fits that bill better than oatmeal but of course toast, smoothies, or cereal are great options as well. The other breakfast is more of a treat. When it comes to the broke, lazy, and clueless categories listed above; I fall into the lazy camp. So a treat for me would be greek yogurt with a few toppings (like granola and fruit). It takes even less time to prepare than my ol’ work-horse oatmeal but it’s also not as cheap. Therefore, I would choose it as my secondary option. You could of course get fancier with pancakes, omelettes, or whatever you like. But just stick to two for the week!

2. Pack your lunch.

Plan to bring your lunch along to work or school. This will keep you from dipping into your pocketbook for restaurant or cafeteria fare but will also make sure you have a healthy option on hand. You can control your food’s ingredients if YOU are the one who prepares it. Below is an example of a work-week’s worth of lunches. Think of your packed lunches as a puzzle with three parts:

  1. An entree – like a salad or sandwich
  2. A fruit or veggie side
  3. Something extra to help keep you full – like a protein or healthy fat

work lunch meal plan

3. Use leftovers whenever possible.

Incorporate leftovers from your dinners into your lunches whenever possible. Salads are great for this. Throw some leftover taco filling on top of some greens and veggies and you’ve got a taco salad! Or include a smaller portion of the protein or veggie you had for dinner as one of your side items.

Weekend lunches are more of a free-for-all without a set plan. Dedicate these meals to eating up the rest of your leftovers! Or if you’ve done a really great job on using them up throughout the week, take the opportunity to treat yourself. (More on that below!)

4. Plan a week of dinners and REPEAT.

Now I know this might seem crazy. But if you fall into one (or all) of the broke, lazy, and clueless categories then consider how helpful this may be. Choose 7 possible meals that you can cycle through week after week. Perhaps this sounds limiting but I really believe in decision fatigue. Especially where the daily 4 o’clock “Oh God, what am I gonna have for dinner?” question is concerned. Why not make it easy on yourself? Now I’m not saying you pick 7 recipes and make those recipes to the LETTER over and over for the rest of all time. Select meals that allow you to expand or simplify as needed. Meals that allow you to switch it up when you want to or stick to old, tried and true favorites when you’re exhausted and over it. Let’s go through the examples below…

dinner meal plan menu

  • Spaghetti – This is a dish I can make with my eyes closed so it’s perfect for Monday nights. If I feel like switching it up I can use my spiralizer to make zucchini noodles or I can switch out the ground beef/turkey for veggies. I could make meatballs or a traditional bolognese or even a lentil bolognese. I can have the spaghetti with a big salad or breadsticks or even a caprese.
  • Beans & Rice – I can alternate between a Cajun style and a Cuban style. I could do baked beans and switch the rice out for toast. I can serve any of these with a side of whatever veggie is on sale or in season.
  • Breakfast for Dinner –  Scrambled eggs with fruit and toast or biscuits. Blueberry waffles or pancakes with bacon and yogurt. The possibilities are endless (and cheap) and everyone has their favorites when it comes to breakfast.
  • Tacos – You can do hard tacos or soft, tacos in a bowl (ie. haystacks), or everything served over chips instead of in a shell. Taco salads for a healthier spin. Keep them vegetarian or do them with pork, chicken, ground beef, or fish. There’s no paying extra for guac when you’re at home. Just whip some up!
  • Pizza – Topping choices galore so pick your poison! If you’re feeling especially not into it, pick up a frozen pizza or a pre-made but uncooked number from the deli at your grocery store. Or make it yourself. OR make it yourself on top of pita bread or bagels. Wanna up your veggie intake? Serve some crudites with ranch or hummus for dipping as a side.
  • Mac & Cheese – You might be feeling some comfort food on Saturdays. Mix butternut squash into the sauce or add peas. Make it super kid friendly with hot dogs or elevate it with bacon and caramelized onions.
  • Dinner on a board – Super easy and no cooking involved. A perfect way to ease into a new week. Think: Salami, cheeses, grapes, cornichons, crusty bread, etc. Yum!

You don’t have to use these meals/ideas. Create your own! And you can always switch them out or around as needed just in case you get bored or want to expand your horizons.

5. Find a few snacks that suit you.

Better to be prepared than suffer later! Just like with breakfast you’ll want to choose a few options for the week. I like to choose one that’s customizable and economical, like popcorn. Super cheap and you can make it sweet, savory, or spicy for whatever you’re feeling when the snacking urge hits. Then I like to choose another option that’s quick and filling. This is what you’ll pull out in case you’re HANGRY. My go-to for this is Lara bars but any sort of throw-it-in-your-bag snack would work. I also like to keep some bananas or baby carrots on hand for something healthy to munch on.

6. Commit to making one dessert item a week.
You can munch on whatever you make all week, serve it to unexpected guests or save it to bring with you to an event or for someone’s birthday at work. No need to get crazy… think: chocolate chip cookies, brownies, no bakes, simple cupcakes, fruit pies or crumbles. I share Michael Pollan’s belief that if you make it at home it’s probably not all that bad. Let’s not kid ourselves. You’re gonna want dessert. So, plan for it, make it at home, and then enjoy!
peanut butter chocolate no bake recipe
(recipe via Food Network.)
7. Treat yourself.

Finally, find ways to “go out to eat” that don’t involve the full-on dinner, drinks, and dessert rigamaroll. Complete restriction is a recipe for failure. Here are some ideas:

  1. Treat yourself to a nice coffee on the weekend over a good book or the newspaper.
  2. Treat yourself to an after-work happy hour drink for a catch-up chat with a co-worker or friend.
  3. Treat yourself to a supermarket lunch on Saturday afternoon. Think: salad bar, sushi, or a deli sandwich. Maybe even grab a cookie from the bakery or a fresh piece of fruit. Wash it down with your favorite drink.
  4. Treat yourself to an evening walk around your neighborhood that involves a quick stop-off at the ice cream parlor.

Choose one or two of these indulgences each week and you’ll find yourself much more capable of sticking to your plan.

Alright, over to you guys. Do you meal plan? Any tips you would add to this list? 

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8 thoughts on “Meal Planning for Beginners in 7 Easy Steps

  1. These are seriously great. I get so scared of getting bored of meals, but I think I’m going to commit to the 7 dinner plan. At least for a month, and maybe see how we feel after that. You’re right, it just makes it easier, and I like your pitch of picking things that you can customize. Great post, Beth!

    1. The 7 dinner plan totally works! I had reservations when I first tried it but it seriously saves so much time and brain-space. Instead of thinking of it as a routine, I started thinking of “creating rituals.” Before too long, in the midst of a really tough work-day, I’d be like “YES! Breakfast for dinner tonight! Woohoo!”

      1. I think we landed on: Pasta, Soup/Chili, Beans Greens Grains bowl, Tacos, Stir Fry, Pizza. We decided to leave Sunday night open to leftovers or a more experimental meal. Pretty stoked about this!

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