How to Meal Plan

The question I get asked more often than any other is about meal planning.  My normal routine is to plan 2 weeks worth of meals and then only shop once/pay period.  Because really, who wants to grocery shop more then they have to?  So today I am spilling it all for you, all my tricks and all the steps I take to plan two weeks worth of meals. Here are my instructions for how to meal plan, it’s actually really easy!
Step 1: Make your recipes easily accessible.  This is really important because if your favorite recipes are not easy to access then you won’t be motivated to pull them out.
You have to find a system that works for you.
Personally I’m not a very big fan of cookbooks.  I have a few that I love but I find it so hard to get motivated to look through pages and pages of recipes I don’t like to find 1 or 2 that I do like.  What I discovered works the best for me is cutting recipes I like out of magazines, cookbooks, etc. and taping them onto 4×6 cards.  I keep all of my favorite recipes in 2 recipe boxes that are categorized: Chicken, Beef, Turkey, Shrimp, Pasta, Breakfast, Desserts, etc.
How to meal plan - Ask Anna
I’ve also seen people make recipe binders, but like I said you have to find a system that works for you.
Step 2: Get a blank meal calendar.  This is what my calendar looks like and if you’d like one you can print it HERE.
How to meal plan - Ask Anna
I think it’s important to have a separate calendar for your meals so that you can write all over it, keep it with your recipes for that week(s) and then toss it when you are done.  I have 6 weeks listed on the calendar but I typically use mine for 2 pay periods (4 weeks) and then start a new one.
Step 3: Have a designated shopping list.  If you’d like to print your own click HERE.
How to meal plan - Ask Anna
I like to bargain shop so I actually shop at different stores for different things.  I personalized my shopping list and created categories for each of the different stores that I shop at.  I’m a total “list person” so having it separated like this makes it easier for my mind to keep it all straight. :)
Now that you have everything you will need, let’s get planning…
Step 4: Count out how many meals you will need for that pay period.  Look at an actual calendar and count each time because every pay period is a little different.  Sometimes I need 14 meals, sometimes only 12.
I think it’s important to give yourself at least 2 “lazy days”.  What I mean by that is give yourself 2 days that you don’t have to cook a big meal.  Have on hand a few quick and easy meals that you don’t have to put a lot of effort into.  If you give yourself a break once in a while you will enjoy cooking dinner on the other nights a lot more!  I always have on hand frozen tortellini, black beans and tortillas, and chicken quesadilla makings.  You never know when something is going to come up and you won’t have time to cook a big meal!
Step 5: Next look through your recipes and pull out the number of meals you will need.
I like to actually take the recipes out and put them in a separate pile, I even take the pages of the cookbook out and add them to my pile.  This way when you are getting ready to make dinner all of your recipes are together in one place and you’re not stuck looking through your recipe box or cookbook trying to find a recipe!  If you can’t take the page out of your cookbook then write the page number on the calendar so that you can find it easily.
Step 6: Once you have selected all of your recipes go through each one and add the ingredients that you don’t already have to your shopping list.
If you do this you will find that you save money at the grocery store because you are only buying what you need.  When I started doing this I noticed a HUGE difference in how much less I was spending at the grocery store.  Having a system like this takes all the guess work out of going to the grocery store which makes it much more enjoyable!
How to meal plan - Ask Anna
Step 7: Write all of the recipes you have selected, for that 2 week period, on your calendar.
Here’s my rule: write each recipe on any day you’d like, you are not restricted to making that recipe on that day.  If you want to be strict about it you are welcome to do that but I know for me sometimes I feel like making a certain thing and other times I don’t.  The calendar is important because it’s a visual tool of what you know you have on hand and what your options for dinner are but, for me, that’s about it.

Step 8: Keep it all together.  I like to keep the recipes I took out for the pay period right next to my meal calendar.  This makes it really easy for me: I can look at the calendar and then quickly grab the recipe I pick for that night.
How to meal plan - Ask Anna
Step 9: Relax.  After you have planned all your meals, made your grocery list and set your recipes aside now you can relax.  You no longer, at any point in the next 2 weeks, have to worry about what you are going to make for dinner!  Yippee!  The only time I ever stress about what I’m going to cook is after my recipes have run out, the pay period has come and gone, and I still haven’t had time to go to the store!
It’s so worth it to take 10 minutes and sit down to plan your meals for 2 weeks so that you can enjoy the freedom of not worrying about what you are going to cook for the rest of those 2 weeks!
After you get the hang of this system get the family involved.  I like to have my husband sit down with me and give me a few ideas of what he would like to eat in the next couple weeks.  He always says chicken quesadillas (they are one of his favs) which I like because that’s an easy one for me. :)  Let everyone pick a few meals out, the kids pick 3, your hubby picks 3 and then you pick the rest.  This will get them excited and looking forward to when you are going to make “their” meal. :)
Here’s my finished product: Meal calendar, stack of recipes, grocery list.
How to meal plan - Ask Anna
To read my post about organized grocery shopping, with 3 FREE printables, click HERE.
About the Author

"Hi I'm Anna! Welcome to Ask Anna where I love to answer your household questions! I have always loved to clean, organize and decorate and this blog is a fun way for me to help you love it too! I am a busy mom of a beautiful little girl and I'm married to the love of my life. Together we fill our days with projects , laughter and love. I serve an incredible God and overall I'd say I'm truly blessed!"

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  1. I love this – thank you. I have been trying to get the hang of planning my meals in advance but it never works out. I think I can do this.Danielle

  2. awesome, thanks Anna, im going to try this! :) First i need to get all my recipes organized into my binder i bought a year ago lol!

  3. Thanks for the great advice and the printable lists! I'm also a list maker(I think it's the Virgo in me) and I've been trying to get on this meal planning wagon for some time now…I get going with it for a few weeks and then fall off track. I think with this simple system it might be a little easier!

  4. Anna, you amaze me. =0)I love this. What do you do about your meats? Just freeze them? I'm always worried about my meats/veggies going bad within a week, let alone two weeks.

  5. Yes Brandi I freeze all my meats and then just take out what I need the morning of to defrost. I also buy fruits and veggies at Costco and for the most part they last the whole 2 weeks.

  6. I grew up with a Mom who just did this all the time…I actually thought that's what everyone did. So, when I got married and my girlfriends would come over and gawk at my dinner calendar, I didn't understand that they didn't do that. I just thought, "How do you know what to buy at the grocery store if you don't plan what's for dinner?" My Mom did a great job of teaching that to me! My kids LOVE going to the calendar and checking to see what's for dinner, too! Great job….well put together and thought through. EVERYONE should do this!Becky B.www.organizingmadefun.blogspot.comOrganizing Made Fun

  7. stopping by from anti procrastination! love your step by step picture tutotial. I will have to try this out. Thanks for posting!

  8. This has been my goal for this year and so far I haven't done it once! I'm downloading your calendar now and hopefully it will be a good kick in the butt for me! Thanks! And thanks also for the comment on my flip flops cake… so glad I came over and checked out your blog!

  9. So fun! Thanks for visiting my blog. I am extremely motivated to get my recipes organized! I'm going to add it to my list! Now, how about sharing some of those recipes, too! :)Smiles,Melanie

  10. I keep telling myself I'm going to do this and never do…or when I try, I end up getting way off course. You may motivate me to try again though! Thanks for linking up to Made From Scratch Tuesday!

  11. My husband loves the chicken quesadillas too. Love your system. I need to do more planning i just need to get motivated!

  12. I really enjoyed this post! Thanks for sharing!Deanna at

  13. Love this post! Going to share on my own blog!

  14. Thank you so much! I found you through "Don't Waste Your Homemaking" and this post alone is enough to want to join your blog!I use to meal plan, but after a while got into a rut and comfortable with what I was doing. Although a lot of it is in my head now, (it's not hard to plan for a meat and potatoes kind of guy!) I would really like to start get intentional again and bring some freshness to our meals!Thank you again! Hope you have a blessed week!

  15. this is great – I like planning the meals, but not sticking to the requirement of the evening – I always hated meal planning because I never want what I planned, so having a list to pick from but not a set night is GREAT – also two weeks give you more variety… I might try this!

  16. Hi Anna, I featured your blog today over on my blog and hope you can stop by again. Bye for now, Roz

  17. great tips! Thanks for sharing!

  18. Thanks for linking to We're Organized Wednesday. I'll be featuring this.

  19. Stopping by from We're Organized Wednesday… I love your site, I'm your newest follower. Check me out when you get a chance..www.homeroad.netHave a great day!Susan

  20. Anna! I'm going to give this a shot! I blogged about your idea, and I'm going to try to keep up with it for real this time (this won't be my first attempt at meal planning).Thanks so much!~Kristi

  21. I use a recipe binder and love it – it is the first system that has worked for me because of the 8 1/2 by 11 size. For recipes from cook books, I tape them to a piece of typing paper and stick them in that way. Quick and easy. I plan a weeks menu at a time and pull all of the recipes that I need for the week; those go in the very front of my binder in order of use. As I use them, I can than quickly file tham back into the rite section. You are right! It makes life so easy!

  22. O.K. I am inspired. I plan on getting my husband and kids in on the planning and cooking stages too!

  23. This is so helpful Anna!! I made a shopping list to match the path we take in Winco… and type out what we usually buy. That way when we run out I highlight it and I cross out whatever I know we DON'T need more of. I have a section on there for Costco and Wal-Mart since we go there for specifics. I do need to start planning ahead of time and use up what's in our pantry… and has been for a long time! Thanks again – I love your blog!

  24. I dont see the downloable PDF?? Would love to use it though.

    • I just added them to the bottom of the post. They must have not transferred when I switched over to WP. Thank you for letting me know! :)