How to Meal Plan for a Week
Meal planning for a week doesn’t have to be hard, but there is an art to it. If you want to learn how to create a meal plan for a week that you’ll actually be able to stick to — a customized meal plan that takes your actual life into account — you’ve come to the right place.
But how do you start? If you’re new to meal planning, it can seem like a daunting task. Meal planning for a week is a bit like putting together a puzzle, so if you’ve never been able to make the pieces fit, you’re not alone.
That’s where we come in. As a meal planning service, we’re experts at creating menus that work. And in this article, we’re going to share our best tips on how to plan your meals in advance for the week — whether you’re creating a customized meal plan for one or for an entire family.
For a more detailed, step-by-step guide on how to create a meal plan for a week using specific examples, check out this post with a sample meal plan for a family of 4.
What is meal planning?
But first, what is meal planning and why is it important? Meal planning is the process of choosing what you’ll eat once a week, rather than having to make decisions over and over throughout the week. By creating a written plan, you always know what’s coming up, which makes the week go much smoother.
Having a meal plan simplifies your life, and makes grocery shopping much easier. Additionally, healthy meal planning helps you stay on track with your health goals and ensures that you consume a wide variety of nutrients. By making decisions once a week rather than at each meal, you save time by always knowing what’s coming up and never getting caught off guard.
After all, you already know you’re going to want to eat dinner 3 days from today. Might as well prepare for it now!
Ready to get started? Learn to meal plan with these actionable steps here:
1. Consider your goals
Why do you want to create a meal plan? Is it to save you time and prevent stress during the week? To save money by wasting less food? To improve your health? Whatever it is, keep that goal top of mind while making your meal plan. For one, this will help you ensure that your meal plan brings you closer to your goal, not further away. If you want a meal plan that will prevent stress, for instance, and you find yourself planning extensive, home-cooked meals at the end of busy days, remembering your goals will help you course-correct.
A second benefit to considering your goals is that having a powerful “why” will keep you going on days when you’d rather not follow your plan. It’s easy to default to takeout rather than cooking — and takeout can absolutely be a part of your plan! But we want you to choose it on purpose, not because you’ve lost motivation to follow through with your plan. Remembering why you set the plan in the first place is a powerful first step toward developing that follow-through.
2. Set your schedule
Meal planning requires a lot of decisions, so keep it as easy as possible for yourself. Decide now which day of the week you’ll do your meal planning, which day you’ll do your grocery shopping, and which day you’ll do your meal prep (if you plan to prep in advance). By eliminating these recurring decisions, you can save your focus for deciding what to eat and when — and won’t end up negotiating with yourself when it’s time to set your menus.
3. Create a visual plan
We’re all busy, and we’re all trying to keep so many things in our head at once. Not only does this mean we’re more likely to forget something important, but it’s also completely exhausting to keep juggling it all without getting it out of our head and onto paper.
Don’t let meal planning add to your mental clutter. Create a visual plan for your week, whether it’s a paper calendar on the fridge, a sheet of notebook paper, a system of sticky notes, or a whiteboard pre-labeled with the days of the week. Make it easy enough to shuffle meals around when necessary, but specific enough that you know what’s coming up when — in other words, a schedule, not just a list of meals.
4. Remember meal planning isn’t just about dinner
Decide whether you want to plan only for dinners, or whether you want to include breakfasts, lunches, and/or snacks in your plan as well. If you have kids and are making school lunches, for instance, you may want to decide in advance what you’re sending with them each day. On the other hand, if you already have a school lunch system that works for you (such as our school lunch formula), it may not be necessary to include lunches — at least kids’ lunches — in your customized meal plan.
5. Start with what you know
Begin filling in your plan with the easy stuff: Is there a night each week that you typically get takeout? A day you know you have a lunch meeting or the kids will buy lunch at school? Add it to your plan! Next, is there a day or days you’ll want to have leftovers or frozen meals? Leftovers and frozen meals are great for weekday lunches, of course, but they are also fantastic for days when an event runs into dinnertime (or the time you’d normally spend cooking), or nights that will otherwise be busy for any reason. Add leftovers nights to your meal plan now so you’ll know to choose a meal or meals to double earlier in the week.
6. Be honest with yourself
How are you feeling about cooking this week? You probably have a pretty good idea how much energy you’ll likely have during the week, as well as the amount of time you’ll have available to make food. Not everything has to be homemade, and even home-cooked meals can rely on shortcut ingredients to make them faster and easier. Instead of planning for an ideal week where everything goes according to plan or better, plan for the kind of week you’re actually likely to have.
For easy home-cooked meals, nothing beats using shortcut ingredients. Our favorite kitchen shortcuts will make cooking faster. Read more.
Similarly, be realistic about your family’s diet when making your meal plan. If you typically don’t eat your 5-to-9 servings of produce a day, it may sound like a good goal to pack your meal plan with fruits and vegetables. But in reality, that’s probably a recipe (pardon the pun!) for a lot of wasted produce. Instead, make small changes that will be less noticeable but can add up over time, such as adding in a single extra serving of vegetables per day.
Bottom line? A good meal plan is the one you’ll actually follow.
7. Choose your meals
Fill in what’s left with additional meals you want to make or buy for the week. Use cookbooks, recipe sites, Pinterest, or search engines to find the right recipes. Also don’t forget about meals you already know how to make and enjoy — having a couple of “old favorites” each week that don’t require a recipe or much thought can be a lifesaver!
8. Have some “insurance meals” on deck
No system is perfect, and we’ve all had days that just do not go as planned. You get sick. You have to work late. Your oven suddenly stops working. Help make the rough days easier by having a backup plan for when you’re not able to follow your original plan.
There are a couple of strategies you can use for this. The first is to prepare some freezer meals (double a meal you’re making and freeze half for later) or buy premade frozen meals. The second is to plan a few quick and easy meals that don’t require a recipe and use mostly pantry ingredients — think peanut butter and jelly sandwiches with an apple, instant ramen that you add frozen veggies to, etc. For more ideas of insurance meals, check out this post:
9. Create a grocery list
Once you have your week of meals planned out, go through your week and make a grocery list based on exactly what you plan to eat. For this, you’ll need to pull up any recipes you’re using, plus think through exactly how many servings you’ll need for each meal.
And there you go – that’s how to meal plan for a week for a family or an individual! If you’d prefer to skip the hassle of meal planning for a week and let someone else do the work for you, sign up for a free 14-day trial of our meal plan service. You’ll get full access to weekly dinner meals plans, thousands of additional recipes from the archives that can be added or swapped, a one-click grocery list, and full optional Instacart integration!