Step-by-Step Meal Planning for Beginners

Meal planning for a family is one of the most common areas of frustration for busy moms.  We all want to provide healthy, delicious meals that everyone enjoys.  It can be tricky, even before adding in a picky eater, tight budget, allergy, or any number of other challenges.  But by learning some easy techniques, meal planning can be a powerful tool in our hands to save time, save money, and feed our family well.

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There’s no big secret or mystery to meal planning.  Everyone has their own personal preferences for the details.  And there are many different tools to help you do it, from paper and pencil to apps and meal services.  But the basics stay the same.  So if you’re new to it, here’s a quick overview.

  1. Choosing Your Meals – This is the heart of meal planning.  In this stage you (1) take a look at your schedule and (2) select the meals you’ll be having.

  2. Making a Grocery List – Your list will contain everything you need to make all the meals in your plan.

  3. Getting the Ingredients – One of the best things about meal planning is that you’ll be going to the grocery store less often. And when you do go, it will take less time.  Of course, these days we have several options for getting the groceries we need, which can simplify your planning even more.
Meal Planning IS
Meal Planning IS NOT

Benefits of Meal Planning

The great benefits are really the reason why you want to try meal planning, right?!

Well, the truth is that it can indeed have dramatic affects on some pretty important areas.

❤ Save Time
❤ Save Money
❤ Eat Healthier
❤ Reduce Stress
❤ Waste Less Food
❤ Eat More Intentionally 

So you see, there’s a lot to gain from the small amount of time it will take you to create and follow a meal plan.  After some practice, it will become habit, and you’ll never want to give up the benefits.

Meal Planning Step-by-Step

You’ll see just how simple meal planning can be.  Follow along now as we go through the process with you step-by-step.  

Grab a copy of our FREE Printable Weekly Meal Planner
It’s designed to help you work through the steps below.  Click the button to get your copy emailed to you right away.

Step 1: Check Your Schedule

TO DO:  Make note of anything that will affect the meals you’ll need to provide and write these items on your meal plan calendar.

Take a quick look at your family’s schedule, because it will be the basis of your meal plan for the week. 

Are there any meals that you won’t have to make?

  • Events
  • Appointments
  • Activities
  • Planned take out

Are there any meals that you’ll have extra guests for?

Step 2: Choose Your Meals

TO DO:  Select your meals and write them on your meal planner sheet.  Every meal for the week should be accounted for.

This is the heart of meal planning, and the point where many people get tripped up.  Even though it’s not complicated, we have SO. MANY. CHOICES.  And that in itself can make deciding harder.

IF YOU”RE NEW TO MEAL PLANNING, I encourage you to keep things simple while you get comfortable with the process.  Give yourself and your family a chance to get used to it.  Here’s how:

  • Fill in every meal on your planner. 
    It’s not busy work.  You’ll know that you’ve got everything covered, and it will be helpful when you make your grocery list.
  • Make changes gradually. 
    If you’re moving away from processed foods, start with a couple items a week, or a couple meals a week.
  • Choose recipes that require only a handful of common ingredients. 
    This will save money by not buying unusual ingredients that may mostly go unused.
  • Make breakfasts and lunches basic.
    Use go-to foods that won’t require much preparation or thought.
  • Stick mostly with meals that you already know your family enjoys. 
    Avoid the temptation to try 3 or 4 new dishes in one week.
  • Always keep the ingredients for a go-to ‘quick fix’ meal in your pantry. 
    When you inevitably get off track for a day, you’ll have an easy dinner ready to go.

A MASTER FAMILY MEAL LIST is my favorite tool for meal planning.

This is simply an ongoing list of the dishes and meals that your family enjoys.  

Start with what you know. Write down all the meals in your regular rotation, for breakfast, lunch, dinner, and snacks. Make your first goal to come up with 20 weeknight dinner ideas.  If you don’t have that many at first, it’s okay.  You’ll be adding to the list from now on.

Just think, with only 20 meals on your list, you’d be able to schedule a month of weeknight dinners, that you know your family likes, without a repeat. 

Every week or two, try a new recipe.  Grow your list as you find recipes good enough to keep.

Keep your master list up to date and it will prove a big time-saver.


Meal ideas usually start with one dish, or ingredient, and build from there.

  • Keep your goal in mind. Is it sticking to your budget?  Or eating less processed foods?  Or spending less time in the kitchen?  Whatever your goal is, don’t get lured off track by tempting recipes that won’t help you get there.
  • What ingredients do you have on hand that need to be used soon before they expire?
  • Schedule an evening of planned leftovers.
  • Theme nights give you a jump start on dinner ideas.  It could be something like ‘Taco Tuesdays’.  Or maybe something like Monday – Beef, Tuesday – Pasta, Wednesday – Chicken, etc.
  • What’s on sale? Planning meals around  seasonal and sale items gives you variety and saves money.

If you’re looking for full menus already done for you, there are some great options, both free and paid.

Step 3: Make Your List

TO DO:  Create a grocery list of the items you need to buy to make all the meals on your menu plan.

A good grocery list will save you time, money, and aggravation.

So it’s well worth spending a few extra minutes when you’re putting the list together.


  1. Go through the meals listed on your planner for the week and jot down all the ingredients.
  2. Take that list to your kitchen and cross off the items that you already have.
  3. What’s left are the items you need to buy.

Be sure to also include:

  • Any staple items in your pantry that need to be replenished
  • Any miscellaneous items that you jotted down since your last shopping trip
  • Arrange your list by aisle of the supermarket you use.

Step 4: Get Your Groceries

TO DO:  Get all the items on your grocery list so there is little or no need to go to the store again.

I’ve had a love/hate relationship with grocery shopping.  How about you?

If you’ve done a good job of planning your meals and making a list, actually getting the groceries should be pretty simple.

Of course, you can always do the shopping yourself.  It’s the least expensive method and gives you more control over what you buy.

But if you don’t have the desire, or the time, check out these grocery shopping and delivery options.

Once you have your groceries, you’ve successfully planned your meals and have everything you need to make them!  Now just follow your plan.


I wanted to mention meal prep here, even though I’m not including it as part of ‘meal planning’.  Why?  Well, you can do meal planning without doing meal prep, and vice versa.

Meal prep is a great way to reduce kitchen work on your busiest days.  I highly recommend it.

It simply means doing some of the up-front preparations well before you cook the meal.

Cutting vegetables, portioning out meat, cooking grains, measuring dry ingredients, etc. are all examples of meal prep tasks.

Whatever you can do ahead of time will make things faster and easier when you’re cooking on a busy day.  There’s no one right way to do prep.  You’ll need to experiment and find what works best for you.  But here are a couple common suggestions:

  • Take an hour before the start of your week to prepare all the ingredients you can for the upcoming meals. Package them and keep in the fridge until they’re needed.
  • You can also do prep in the morning for that evening’s dinner.  Maybe get your recipe oven-ready so you only have to pop it in later in the day.

Meal Planning FAQ

There are so many great questions about meal planning.  Here are several especially geared toward beginners.  As you work through the meal planning steps I’ve outlined above, remember they are not strict rules that you have to follow.

What do I need to get started meal planning?
A small block of time, a piece of paper, and a pen are all you need to successfully do your first meal plan.  Our free meal planner printable will make it even easier.   Of course, if you want to use other tools, do what will work best for you.  The main thing is to get started!

How often should I create a meal plan?
This really depends on your situation.  I would dare to say that most people do a plan each week.  But for others, a 2-week plan is best.  And for some, even a monthly plan!  As a beginner, choose a reasonable time frame.  If a week feels overwhelming, then start with creating a plan for 3-4 days at a time.

How do I come up with meal ideas?
Ahhh, that’s a great question.  My first suggestion is to get started on your Master Family Meal List.  Over time it will become the backbone of your planning process.  For new recipes and meals, here are some easy places to find inspiration.  And there’s a wealth of meal planning tools to take advantage of.

I don’t like to cook.  Would meal planning still benefit me?
Yes! Especially if you don’t like to cook, but need to anyway.  Meal planning can help you minimize your time in the kitchen.  Plus, you’ll find you won’t have to think about meals nearly as much.  Meal planning isn’t just for home chefs.  Use it to help you reach your own personal goals in the kitchen.

What’s the most important suggestion for meal planning beginners?
That’s easy.  Start simple. Make your Master Family Meal List.  Add a new recipe or menu, but resist the temptation to make too many new dishes right away.  Aim for small successes and build on them each week. 

Meal Planning 101 Quick Start

Sometimes a quick visual overview helps us get a new idea even faster.  So we’ve created this quick start guide to get you going with a simple meal plan.

meal planning 101 quick start
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