Always have an answer to the question “what’s for dinner” with this beginner’s guide to meal planning. Our process is simple, and it can help you save both time and money. Here’s how to start meal planning like a pro.
Step 1: Determine a Timeframe
Before you start planning, figure out how many meals you need to account for. If your family eats cereal for breakfast every day, or if everyone is on their own for lunch, then there’s no need to include those meals in your plan. (Just make sure to add cereal to the grocery list!)
Step 2: Check Your Fridge
Do you have a carton of eggs that’s about to expire? Or is your pantry overflowing with canned black beans? Look for recipes that include those ingredients.
Step 3: Watch the Sales
Once you know which ingredients you already have, start planning for the ones you need. Check local grocery store flyers for any mega sales that can trim down your grocery bill. If you know you want tacos, for example, pick a protein based off what’s on sale.
Step 4: Be Realistic
For a meal plan to work, you need to manage your own expectations. If you know Tuesdays are hectic, don’t plan a complicated from-scratch meal for that night. There’s no shame in picking up pre-made staples, or better yet, reaching for one of our 15-minute dinner recipes. The most important part is sticking to your plan.
Step 5: Plan Your Menu
Here comes the fun part—actually plan your meals! Now that you know what ingredients you have to work with, search for recipes that complement those items.
Write the name of each dish in the designated spot of our meal plan template, then stick the finalized plan on the fridge. This easy-to-see spot will let the whole family know what to expect for dinner. Plus, it’s a gentle reminder to cook Pad Thai tonight instead of ordering a pizza. When your meal plan is complete, it’s time to shop! Finalize a grocery list, then hit the store.
Short on planning time this week? Check out some of our ready-made meal plans. Here are our favorites:
- The Meat-and-Potato Lover’s Meal Plan
- Low-Carb Meal Plan
- A Year’s Worth of School Night Dinners
- Vegetarian Dinners Meal Plan
- A Year’s Worth of After-Church Meals
If you need more inspiration, check out our meal planning hub to learn more about the process and get great recipe ideas.
Keep our top meal planning secrets in mind, too!
"This recipe is so quick and easy, and I always receive a ton of compliments. It quickly becomes a favorite of friends whenever I share the recipe. Modify the spiciness with the intensity of the salsa and the green chilis to suit your taste." -Kristi Black, Harrison Township, Michigan
"Facebook fans of my blog, Chef in Training, inspired me to make this creamy pasta casserole out of ingredients I had on hand. Success! I took the dish for another flavorful spin and added a bit of smoky bacon and toasted bread crumbs." -Nikki Barton, Providence, Utah
"This delicious twist on chicken divan came from an old boss, who gave the recipe to me when I got married. It's quick, satisfying comfort food." -Jennifer Schlachter, Big Rock, Illinois
"Here's a different take on traditional stuffed peppers. I substituted chicken for the beef and used Cubanelle peppers in place of the green peppers that are usually featured in such a dish." -Ron Burlingame of Canton, Ohio
"Chock-full of chicken, potatoes, peas and corn, this autumn favorite makes two golden pies, so you can serve one at supper and save the other for a busy night. These potpies are perfect for company or a potluck." -Karen Johnson, Bakersfield, California
Do you eat the recommended amount of seafood per week?
"No matter how you toss 'em up, shrimp and thyme play nicely with any spring-fresh vegetable." -Taste of Home Test Kitchen
"If you're looking for a great seafood recipe for your slow cooker, this classic fish stew is just the ticket. It's brimming with clams, crab, fish and shrimp, and is fancy enough to be an elegant meal." -Lisa Moriarty, Wilton, New Hampshire
"During chilly months, I fix this jambalaya at least once a month. It's so easy?just chop the vegetables, dump everything in the slow cooker and forget it! Even my sons, who are picky about spicy things, like this dish."-Cindi Coss, Coppell, Texas
"For a cool salad on a hot summer day, I combine shrimp, corn, tomatoes and nectarines with a drizzle of tarragon dressing. We love it chilled, but it's great warm, too." -Mary Ann Lee, Clifton Park, New York
"Tender, hearty and flavorful, this recipe is one of my favorites! Garlic and a splash of lemon add to the fresh taste and heart-healthy benefits of shrimp." -Sarah Hummel, Moon Township, Pennsylvania
"This is the best shepherd's pie I've ever tasted. It's very quick to make, and I usually have most-if not all-of the ingredients already on hand." -Tirzah Sandt, San Diego, California
"When I had hungry children in the kitchen and nothing but leftovers, I invented Pierogi Quesadillas. Now it's how we always use up our potatoes, meats and sometimes veggies." -Andrea Dibble, Solon, IA
"Instead of throwing out leftover mashed potatoes, use them to make croquettes. The little baked balls are yummy with ranch dressing, barbecue sauce or Dijon mayonnaise for dipping." -Pamela Shank, Parkersburg, West Virginia
"Guests always comment on the presentation and flavor of this delightfully different dish." -Julie Sterchi, Flora, Illinois
"I love this recipe because it is great to use up leftover mashed potatoes and vegetables, especially the day after a big meal. You can substitute sweet Italian sausage for the bacon if you want a heartier quiche." -Heather King, Frostburg, Maryland
"This is a different way to use up leftover mashed potatoes. It was an instant hit with our teenagers. Serve with steamed green beans, cauliflower or broccoli." -Brad Eichelberger, York, Pennsylvania
"I always keep meatballs and pizza crusts in the freezer to make this specialty at the spur of the moment. Add a tossed salad, and you have a delicious dinner." -Mary Humeniuk-Smith, Perry Hall, Maryland
"I use my slow cooker so much-unless my husband decides to grill for me-and these mouthwatering meatballs are just one reason why. They're a guaranteed crowd-pleaser when I serve them as party appetizers?or a yummy, filling sandwich spooned over crusty rolls and topped with cheese." -Peggy Rios, Mechanicsville, Virginia
"Frozen meatballs and a jar of sweet-and-sour sauce make this microwave meal a last-minute lifesaver when racing against the clock. The flavorful sauce is dressed up with a hint of garlic and nicely coats the colorful mixture of meatballs, carrots, green pepper and onion." -Ivy Eresmas, Dade City, Florida
"I put this recipe together one day when we had unexpected guests. It was an immediate hit and is now a family favorite. Get the kids involved when putting together this simple, savory dish." -Dolores Betchner, Cudahy, Wisconsin
"How do you make a dinner of turkey and vegetables really appealing to kids? You turn it into a pie, of course! My version tastes classic, but won't take any time at all." -Daniela Essman, Perham, Minnesota
"The blend of flavors and colors in this hearty soup will bring everyone at the table back for more." -Charlotte Welch, Utica, New York
"This recipe is definitely a must-try, and all you do is bundle up creamy turkey filling in crescent dough. I usually double the recipe so I have extra for lunch the next day." -Lydia Garrod, Tacoma, Washington
"This chunky stew makes a hearty supper, especially in the fall and winter. Plus, it's a great way to use extra turkey during the holidays." -Lori Schlecht, Wimbledon, North Dakota
"Your clan will love these wonderful, stick-to-the-ribs potpies featuring a unique flavor twist. I always use the leftovers from our big holiday turkey to prepare this recipe. I think my family enjoys the potpies more than the original feast!" -Marie Rizzio, Interlochen, Michigan
"While living away from Texas for awhile, my boyfriend and I grew homesick for the spicy flavors of home. We've made this recipe a few times now, and it goes really well with homemade flour tortillas. We love it over rice, too." -Kelly Evans, Denton, Texas
"At a truck stand in Hawaii, we tasted pork and pineapple tacos. My husband is a high school football referee and gives my version a thumb's up." -Lori McLain, Denton, Texas
"Pork slowly stews with jalapenos, onion, green enchilada sauce and spices in this flavor-packed Mexican dish. It's great on its own or stuffed in a warm tortilla with sour cream, grated cheese or olives on the side." -Kimberly Burke, Chico, California
"Here's an Asian-inspired stir-fry that pairs nicely with a cucumber salad in vinaigrette dressing." -Marlene Kroll, Chicago, Illinois