clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

A not-intimidating guide to meal planning

Here’s one way to make feeding yourself a joy instead of a chore.

An illustration of hands stirring a pot on a stove. Getty Images
Nisha Chittal is the Chief of Staff at Vox.

Have you ever stared at the contents of your refrigerator at 7 pm, trying to figure out what you might be able to concoct with the random assortment of items you have on hand? Deciding what to cook for dinner every night, whether you’re feeding yourself, a partner, or an entire family, is a task that involves far more mental work than just cooking — it also takes planning, preparation, and organization. Without a plan, figuring out dinner might involve running out to the grocery store after work to buy ingredients for the recipe you’ve just decided to make and finally eating at 9, or it might end in giving up and ordering takeout once again because you just can’t figure out what to cook. And if you’re busy, or just overwhelmed by other parts of your life, figuring out how to feed yourself three times a day, every single day, becomes even more challenging.

But there is a way to make cooking dinner much simpler and far less anxiety-inducing: meal planning. For the past six years, I have been devoted to the strategy of planning out the meals I’ll cook each week. This organizational strategy has made my weeknight dinners easier and more efficient, saved me time and money, and kept my life organized. (During that time, I also became a parent, making time, energy, and money ever more finite resources in my household; meal planning has helped make things slightly more manageable.) I have a searchable database of more than 1,500 recipes that I’ve bookmarked over the years. It would not be an exaggeration to say that meal planning changed my life: I’ve become a better home cook since I started meal planning, becoming more confident in my cooking skills and more adventurous in the types of recipes I try out. And I’m almost never stressed about what to cook for dinner on any given night because I’ve already decided ahead of time — and I always have the exact ingredients I need for that recipe in my fridge.

Putting healthy and delicious meals on the table every day is about far more than just the actual act of cooking: There is a vast mental load that goes into cooking, from selecting recipes to making grocery lists to keeping tabs on what ingredients you have on hand and what needs to be used up, in addition to remembering family members’ varying likes and dislikes and dietary restrictions. Meal planning can help you manage that mental load so that cooking dinner feels less like a chore and begins to become something you actually enjoy.

If you want to start cooking more in 2023, starting to meal plan might be a great resolution for you. And you don’t have to be an organizational wizard to start doing it — you can build a system that works for your needs, lifestyle, and schedule. Here’s how to get started.

What’s meal planning, and what’s the difference between that and meal prepping?

Meal planning is the act of picking out the recipes you’ll cook each day of the week, like setting a menu for the week ahead. Meal planning is different from meal prepping. Meal prepping, which might make you think of rows of Pinterest-perfect pre-portioned Tupperware containers, is the habit of preparing batched meals ahead of time, often on Sundays, so that you don’t have to prepare meals during the week.

Which strategy is right for you? It depends on your needs and your schedule. Meal prepping can be better for those who can commit several hours to cooking on weekends but don’t have time to cook on weekdays, since meals are already prepared and portioned and you can simply grab them out of the fridge. If you like variety, though, or hate leftovers, meal prepping might not be for you, since it can often require eating the same meal multiple times in one week.

Meal planning allows for more variety, if you have the time to cook on weekdays — but it still saves you a lot of time by accomplishing most of the menu logistics and recipe selection in advance.

If you want to try meal planning, but it seems intimidating, start small with just one meal a day. “If you’re feeling overwhelmed by the idea of meal planning, start by just planning lunches or breakfasts for the week,” says Erica Adler, a personal chef, recipe developer, and co-author of the ebook Meal Prep Made Simple. “For whatever reason, I’ve always found them less intimidating than dinner. Or instead of planning for a full week in advance, start by just planning a couple of days in advance.” Over time, as you get more comfortable, you can scale up and start planning out two or three meals a day.

Start by creating a master list of your go-to recipes

The key to successful, easy meal planning starts with a list of go-to recipes that you know, love, and feel comfortable cooking. “Start a list in whatever notes app you prefer of meals you like,” says Abigail Koffler, a food writer, cooking instructor, and Adler’s co-author. “This could range from the simple (pasta with jarred marinara sauce and roasted broccoli with nutritional yeast is a staple in my home) to the more complex (sometimes you might be inspired to make flatbreads on a weeknight). You can link recipes from blogs or note their source — cookbook, newsletter, index card, TikTok — so they’re easy to reference and find while grocery shopping.”

There is an overwhelming number of recipes on the internet, and countless sources to choose from. If you’re not sure where to start, think about some of your favorite flavors or ingredients. “If you’re stuck for inspiration, pick one ingredient you love — or find in your pantry and want to use up — and find a few recipes that use it,” says Koffler. Search for recipes with those ingredients in food publications, like New York Times Cooking, Bon Appétit, Epicurious, or The Kitchn, or on food blogs such as Smitten Kitchen, What’s Gaby Cooking, or Half-Baked Harvest.

Every time you try a new recipe you like, add it to your list. While tracking your recipes might seem like an additional task on your to-do list, a small amount of effort to save and organize recipes upfront can help you save time in the long run. Over time, that recipe list will grow and evolve — and soon you’ll have a personal database of your favorites that you can always refer to.

To store and organize your recipes, choose a tool that you’ll use regularly — for some, that might be an iPhone note, as Koffler suggests; for others, it might be a spreadsheet. You can also use recipe storage apps such as Anylist or Paprika, which let you easily import recipes and organize them into categories, and then allow you to add ingredients from your stored recipes to your grocery list. I use Anylist for storing my recipes and managing my grocery list, and over six years, I’ve saved nearly 1,500 recipes in the app.

One bonus of using recipe manager apps is searchability and categorization. If you’re in the mood for, say, steak this week, you can search “steak” in your recipe app and pull up every steak recipe you’ve saved over the years and select one that sounds good. If you’re craving Mexican, you can look at the Mexican recipe category in your app and find one that satisfies.

Consult your calendar for the week and choose your recipes strategically

Each weekend, sit down and look at your calendar — or your household or family calendar — and consider which nights you’ll be home and you’ll need to cook meals.

Now that you have your master list of recipes, you can simply plug and play, says Koffler. Consult your recipe database and select a recipe for each night you’ll be home. Consider what will work best for your lifestyle and schedule — if Mondays are hectic because you work late or have to pick up the kids from soccer, perhaps it’s a good night for a slow cooker chili that will be ready to serve by the time you arrive home. If you know you’ll be short on time on Wednesday, it might be a good night for a sheet pan recipe that minimizes active cooking time.

Make sure to take stock of what’s in your pantry, fridge, and freezer beforehand, checking what produce or other ingredients you have left over from the previous week that you might want to use up. Factoring that into your recipe choices will help you save money — if you have salmon in the freezer, for instance, search for salmon in your recipe list and plug in a salmon recipe one night. If you have half a cabbage left over from the previous week, you might want to make a slaw that uses up some of it.

Koffler suggests choosing multiple recipes with the same ingredient, which helps maximize resources. “Maybe you buy two cans of coconut milk and use one in overnight oats and one in a soup. Or avoid food waste and split a bunch of herbs by using some in a grain salad and some in a dip.”

Once you’ve decided on a menu for the week, write it down and put it somewhere easily visible and accessible to all members of the household. I like to put them on a shared Google Calendar, since my husband and I both look at our Google Calendars daily. You might like a whiteboard on your fridge. Choose something that members of your household will look at regularly so no one ever has to ask you what’s for dinner tonight: They know where they can find the weekly menu.

Build a grocery list based on your meal plan and do one grocery shop a week

Now that you’ve selected meals, go through the ingredients list for each recipe in your meal plan and add those items to your shopping list. If you use a recipe manager app like Paprika or Anylist, these tools make this step extremely easy as they also have built-in grocery lists — you can click on ingredients in the recipes you’ve stored and add them to your list automatically. This can save a lot of time and mental work involved in manually cross-referencing every recipe’s ingredients list.

Then do one shopping trip for the week — or place a grocery delivery order — and get all the groceries you need for the recipes you’ve chosen. Doing so will help ensure that you already have all the ingredients that you’ll need to make each night’s dish — no more dashing out to the store because you realized you don’t have garlic on hand.

Shopping based on your meal plan will also help you save money on groceries, which are already more expensive than ever due to rising inflation. Shopping with a precise list based on the recipes you plan to make cuts down on food waste, since you only purchase exactly what you need, and minimizes extra shopping trips during the week — thus cutting down on impulse buys that might lead to increased spending over time.

Make weeknights less chaotic with some preparation on Sundays

Full-on meal prep — cooking all your meals for the week — can feel daunting, especially if it requires setting aside several hours on a day off to cook. But meal prep can be as simple as preparing a few items ahead that are “building blocks” — not full recipes but elements of recipes that can be used multiple ways, and will make getting dinner on the table on weeknights easier and faster.

For instance, taking 15 minutes to wash, peel, and chop produce can make it easier to make salads or roasted vegetables during the week. Cooking a big pot of grains such as rice or quinoa can make it faster to assemble grain bowls. Whisking together a dressing or sauce that can be used for multiple meals throughout the week can also save time and make meals feel fancier and more flavorful. Accomplishing just a couple of these tasks, which generally take no more than half an hour, can make busy weeknights after work a lot smoother by minimizing how much active cooking you need to do.

Don’t stress if it doesn’t all go according to plan

It’s okay to start small and take shortcuts — if you’re a novice cook, you don’t have to plan to make elaborate recipes every night. It’s fine to start with simple classics like pasta, tacos, chili, or whatever else feels accessible to you. And use prepared ingredients if they make your life easier: “I am such a fan of a semi-homemade dish,” says Adler. “You’ll often find me working a jarred sauce, precut veggie, or store-bought pesto into a recipe. There is absolutely no shame in a shortcut.”

If you feel stressed out by trying to stick to a plan, or just are too tired to cook one night, don’t beat yourself up. It’s okay to throw out the plan sometimes and do what feels best for you.

“The best-laid plans go awry, and meal planning should make your life easier, not harder,” Koffler says. “It’s okay to go off script if you’re not in the mood to make something, and you can always freeze things if you wind up going out to dinner unexpectedly.”

Even Better is here to offer deeply sourced, actionable advice for helping you live a better life. Do you have a question on money and work; friends, family, and community; or personal growth and health? Send us your question by filling out this form. We might turn it into a story.