Do you feel overwhelmed meal planning? I get it. There are so many meals, snacks, and mouths to feed! Especially if you’re eating according to a specific diet plan, it can feel super stressful to set up a meal plan. Let’s simplify meal planning so you can eat healthy, nourishing meals every day without feeling overwhelmed!
These are my absolute favorite meal planning tricks that we use to cook from scratch every day. Are we perfect? No. Do we dine out sometimes or order pizza? Yes. Do we still eat mostly from scratch every single day? Yes, and you can, too!
13 Tips to Simplify Meal Planning When You Feel Overwhelmed
1. Cut yourself some slack
First of all, I want you to know that this stress you’re feeling is totally normal. Meal planning is hard. It’s stressful, confusing, and the last thing you want to think about on top of everything else.
Maybe this doesn’t seem like a tip to you, but it really is. If you’re anything like me, you are likely blaming yourself for struggling with meal planning. You might even be thinking that you’re just not good enough or that you can’t do it.
From a self-care standpoint, it’s really important that you be a bit more gentle with yourself.
I blamed myself for years for being “bad at meal planning.” Then I started to really break it down.
Which tasks are part of meal planning?
- Finding recipes
- Planning meals 3 times a day, 7 days a week plus snacks!
- Keeping a well-stocked pantry
- Minimizing food waste in the fridge
- Actually cooking the food!
- Storing the food and managing leftovers
- Grocery shopping
- Doing dishes
From a psychological standpoint, meal planning requires a lot of executive function skills. Especially if you are neurodiverse or are living with a lot of stress, all of these pieces can feel absolutely overwhelming.
Sometimes I just tell myself “meal planning is a cognitively demanding task.” That helps me remember that there is a reason meal planning feels so hard – it is!
2. Use a meal planning template
Just like I would offer my students learning a new skill, I recommend using scaffolds or a tool to simplify meal planning like a meal planning template.
This allows you to break a challenging task into more manageable parts! Eventually, it becomes second nature.
Personally, I started using my own meal planning template after trying a meal planning service and realizing I needed something more personalized.
It’s very simple and I’ll walk you through how to use it.
how to use our printable meal planning template with snacks!
Basically, you’re looking at a blank table with room for you to write details for each meal for every day of the week.
After you add your dishes to the list, think through the recipes and add any ingredients you need to pick up to the grocery list.
21 options?! Plus more for snacks? Yes, I know that seems like a lot! I actually recommend keeping it as easy as possible by combining some of those together…
My meal planning template is included for free in The Well-Stocked Pantry. Get your own copy by signing up in the box below!
3. Batch cooking (aka leftovers for days)
This is my very favorite tip to simplify meal planning and if you aren’t a fan of leftovers, I’m sorry. It is an amazing way to fight food waste and to make meal planning easy.
We repeat meals for breakfast and lunch every day. This makes meal prepping much easier!
Here’s our favorite dinner routine. See if it might work for you!
weekly dinner Routine
Sunday: Make a huge pot of something delicious like a lemon chicken soup or a roast
Monday: Eat leftovers on the most exhausting night of the week
Tuesday: Stick food in the slow cooker before work or make a quick dinner after
Wednesday: Eat leftovers again! Prep a casserole or marinate meat for Thursday.
Thursday: Cook the dinner prepped on Wednesday, cook a quick dinner, or start a slow cooker recipe in the morning
Friday: Eat leftovers
Saturday: Eat any remaining leftovers, cook from scratch, go out to eat, or grab a pizza!
Since it’s just my husband and me in our house right now, that one huge pot of food from Sunday can stretch a couple of days. We like to save the second day’s leftovers for a night in the week when we’re *this* close to ordering take out.
4. Keep a well-stocked pantry
We’re big believers in keeping a fully stocked pantry around here. Even if you fall off the meal planning habit, a well-stocked pantry will help you have everything you need on hand to cook from scratch.
Since we are working on living a zero waste lifestyle, we try to keep an unprocessed pantry full of real food ingredients.
We don’t typically buy crackers, cookies, or chips. Instead, we buy flour, oats, and lentils.
To make this part as easy as possible, we actually have a pantry staples list we use to keep track of what we have and what we need.
There are several ways to use this list including as your weekly grocery list!
Personally, we like to keep it posted on the fridge. As I’m prepping my grocery list for the week, I take a quick scan of the pantry staples list to see if there are any essential items I forgot we ran out of.
Add them to your grocery list to be ready to cook from scratch every day!
5. Simplify your grocery list
Just like any new habit, you need to pick a routine and stick to it. It’s so easy to start keeping a grocery list on a notepad, then you write “eggs” on the back of an envelope, then you text yourself “flour,” etc.
Before you know it, you’re coming home from the store remembering you forgot something you need!
Pick a place to keep your list and don’t move it! Or if you do, always put it right back.
I bought a cast iron cookbook stand at a thrift store years ago and it is the perfect place for keeping my meal plan and shopping list: right next to the stove.
two ways to simplify your grocery list
- Use the pantry staples list as a weekly grocery list
- Track your groceries on the weekly meal planning template
We prefer to track our groceries on the weekly meal planning template, which we even take with us to the store! It makes it easy to have everything for the week in one place.
Read to see Our Secret to an Easy Real Food Pantry
6. Be boring
One thing that holds a lot of home cooks back is the desire to serve delicious and beautiful food.
I mean…is there anything wrong with that? Don’t you want to only eat delicious food?
But in reality, it takes time to learn how to be a great home cook. You’re going to have some flops and some boring dishes.
That is okay! That is normal!
What matters is food in the belly, not an Instagrammable pic. Some of the tastiest food looks like slop (I’m talking to you, casseroles and stews)!
Plus, you can make a pretty simple meal absolutely amazing with the addition of a sauce or two. We love to make a lemony gravy for chicken and cook pork with maple dijon.
If you have a mental picture of what a healthy meal looks like to you, simply fill in the parts. Don’t worry about being fancy.
Learn where to buy the best grass-fed beef for quick & easy proteins
7. Outline a mental plate
Especially if you are trying to eat a certain way like keto/low carb, paleo, Whole 30, etc., you likely have a way you need to eat for certain health goals.
Personally, I try to eat lower carb regularly to heal hormonal issues and insulin resistance.
I find I can eat this way much more easily when I meal plan and keep a mental picture of a healthy plate.
Sounds weird? Let’s talk it through.
For a lower carb dinner, we try to eat:
- 25% protein
- 25% starchy vegetable or grain
- 50% vegetables
That’s a lot of vegetables, isn’t it?! If I don’t meal plan, I’m lucky to find a single piece of broccoli in my food.
When I picture this ratio as a plate, it looks kind of like this:
So when I’m planning dinner, I’m really just trying to pick 1:
If I do this, every meal fits my eating preferences. Add a sauce or seasoning theme and it will all come together!
8. Brainstorm your favorite dinners
Start with what you know. Most of us have a few dishes we can make without a recipe or family favorites.
Grab a sheet of paper and jot down 5-10 classic dinner recipes you know you and your family will enjoy.
Again, it doesn’t need to be fancy. If you like Sloppy Joes, write that down!
Here are some of our favorite quick healthy dinners
- Our top 3 desperation dinners
- 30 Minute Chili
- Martha Stewart’s One Pan Pasta
- Melissa Clark’s Red Lentil Soup with Lemon
If you’re not a comfortable home cook yet, do some googling and find some casseroles or recipes you think your family would enjoy. Limit yourself to 5-10 instead of printing everything you like. This will make the process easier.
Then, when you meal plan your dinners, you can look over your shortlist of recipes to plug and go.
9. Find a canned or frozen vegetable you like
We really like to eat vegetables here, but it wasn’t always that way. The more we eat lots of vegetables, the easier it is to maintain. When we stop meal planning…picking a vegetable for dinner can feel like a chore.
Fortunately, we have one canned vegetable on hand at all times that we will devour: green beans.
I don’t know why, but I love the taste of canned green beans. I don’t like most canned vegetables at all, except I can eat an entire can of green beans in one sitting.
This helps so much on those nights when we’re struggling to get food on the table. When we’re really desperate, we’ll just eat some sort of meat and a can of green beans!
That doesn’t sound super exciting, but in the moment, it is such a relief to get dinner figured out fast.
10. Keep storage vegetables on hand
We love to garden and grow our own produce! We also like to visit local farm stands and I typically harvest on a farm every summer to go home with fresh produce.
Although we do enjoy all of the harvests of the season and we adapt our eating to the time of the year, we also tend to keep a handful of long-storing vegetables around at all times.
These vegetables ensure that we don’t have rotting produce in the fridge yet we have the ingredients for flavorful, healthy meals every day.
I’ve written about these vegetables to always keep on hand here and you can also learn more about them in my free ebook The Well-Stocked Pantry, which includes the pantry staples list and weekly meal planning printable!
11. Plan themed nights
Another strategy to simplify meal planning is to have a theme for each night. Some people actually follow the same recipes every week! That makes grocery shopping and meal prepping even easier.
- Leftover Monday
- Taco Tuesday
- Salad Wednesday
- Slow Cooker Thursday
- Pizza Friday
- Clear the Fridge Saturday
- Family Dinner Sunday
Think through how you like to eat, your favorite recipes, etc. Pick one themed night to simplify meal planning and see how that goes!
12. Set a deadline
One routine that changed the game for us was to set a meal planning deadline. At the time, we were ordering grocery pickup online. My husband would pick it up after work on Friday, so I *had* to have it in by Thursday night.
Unless I wanted to spend my Saturday morning grocery shopping, I needed to carve out the time to come up with my plan and order my groceries.
This helped us so much!
It makes perfect sense for me, too, because I typically need deadlines to achieve other things in my life, too. Why not try one for meal planning?
How could you set a deadline for your meal planning? Is there a day of the week you prefer to do your grocery shopping? Think through your weekly routines and try to set something up!
13. Print out a stack of meal planning templates
New habits fail when obstacles get in the way. If you expect yourself to print off a meal planning template every Saturday morning, you’re not going to do it. It’ll become a chore and you’ll put it off and before you know it, you lose momentum.
If you’re printing out one, print out 10! Keep them all in the same place: get a folder, binder, or clipboard. When you get down to the last one, make a copy or print another stack of 10.
What’s your favorite tip to simplify meal planning?
Whether you’re an experienced meal planner or a beginner, share your favorite tips to get home-cooked food on the table every night!
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