Want to start meal planning but not sure where to start? This simple step-by-step guide shows you how to create, shop from, and stick to a weekly meal plan. Download our FREE meal planning template guide!

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UPDATE: This article was originally posted in January 2019 and was updated in January 2021 with new photos and information.

Picture this: you get home from work at the end of a long day after spending $12 on a salad because you forgot to pack your lunch, and there's nothing in the refrigerator to eat. Again.

Sound familiar? My family lived this life for YEARS.

We grocery shopped sporadically, ate out more often than I'd like to admit, and wondered where all of our spending money went at the end of the month. In fact, one month we spent over $300 on work lunches alone (thanks to San Francisco cost of living…and poor meal planning skills).

👉 Does this sound like you?

  1. Going to the grocery store and buying what sounds good only to come home with five random things that do not equal a meal.
  2. Buying a week's worth of groceries only to end up eating out three times and never once bringing your lunch to work.
  3. Finding sad, rotten food in the back of your refrigerator because you forgot it was there (you never had a plan for when to eat it)

If this rings true to you, I'm here to tell you there's another way. You likely already know the benefits of adopting a meal planning habit (it's sustainable!) but you don't know where to start.

You CAN make, shop, and stick to a weekly meal plan with nothing more than pen and paper. Are you ready to learn?

✍️ 1. Create your weekly meal planning grid and fill out the days of the week

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The first step is to create your weekly meal planning grid. This is simply a calendar of the week with boxes for each meal occasion, like breakfast, lunch, snack, and dinner.

This can be done on the back of a spare piece of paper, or you can download my free How to Create a Weekly Meal Plan Guide for the exact template we use each and every week, plus a 12-page guide to how to get started.

We always shop on Friday evenings (yup, that's what we do on Friday nights) so our meal planning week runs Friday to the following Thursday. I highly suggest choosing a day to grocery shop every week, as then you'll know that day is your “grocery day” and you can plan around it.

However, do what works for you. If you know you'll be going to the store twice a week, then just plan for the days in between.

The point of the meal plan is to plan ahead until the next time you go to the store so you're not scrambling for dinner every night or panicking about what you'll bring for lunch at work the next day.

🤔 2. Fill in any days you'll eat away from home

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Now it's time to fill out your week. But first, take a look at your calendar and write down any meals you expect to have out so you can plan around them.

Have a lunch out with family or a work dinner planned? No big deal, just plug it in and plan around it. If you usually bring leftover dinner for lunch the next day, make sure to plan an easy lunches for the days after eating out.

🍲 3. Plug in meals for the week…and don't forget snacks!

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Now that you have an idea of what meals you'll be eating at home (hopefully most of them, that's the point of a meal plan!), you can begin planning what you will eat each day and the ingredients you will need to make each meal.

My general process is to fill out what we're having for each meal and then write down the ingredients needed. Then I cross off the ingredients I already have and take the list to the store and cross off the items as I put them in my basket.

💡 Tips for streamlining your meal plan

  1. Streamline breakfasts and snacks. Simplify by eating the same breakfasts or snacks a few times a week, so you don't need to buy something different for each day. I'm a big fan of oatmeal or some kind of fancy toast every morning, but maybe you like breakfast on the go so you'll plan for homemade smoothies on the run.
  2. Double up on recipes to extend the life of one meal. The key to streamlining your meal plan (and your grocery budget) is to condense as many meals as possible. We always make double the amount of dinner each night and then save leftovers for lunch the next day. Then we only have to cook one meal a day (besides breakfast).
  3. Think about which foods will stay fresh longer, and plan those meals for later in the week. For example, we often buy fresh leafy greens that we'll end up eating within 4-5 days of shopping so they don't go bad if it is in the refrigerator for too long (you can always freeze as well). Other meals that include pantry staples like beans and grains or frozen foods get pushed to the end of the meal plan.

As always, do what works for you. Create your meal plan, see what works for you and your schedule, learn from when you don't buy enough or maybe buy too much, and adjust in the future. It's all a learning experience!

Need meal plan recipe ideas? Head over to the Green Eating Recipe Index for simple meals for any season.

🧻 4. Write down any other household items needed

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We like to combine our food and household shopping into one big night (I told you we're exciting people) and most grocery stores these days have most household goods, so it's important to plan for those items as well.

After planning your meals, take inventory of your household items and add anything that you need from the store.

We always check our toothpaste, toilet paper, and cleaning supplies and add what we need for the house to our meal plan list as well.

🛒 5. Shop from your list and then post it in the kitchen to follow each day

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Next it's time to shop with your list! Take your list to the store and cross each item off while when you put it in your cart (don't forget your pen!).

If you shop at multiple stores (we always do a local organic grocery run and then stop at Costco for a few other items), we simply cross off the items at the first store and then take the list with us to the next.

When you return home from the store, post your list on the refrigerator. There's no point in creating a meal plan if you're not going to stick to it, so post it where it's visible every day to take the guesswork out of what's for dinner.

♻️ More sustainable meal planning tips

This is the exact way we meal plan each and every week, and I hope this step-by-step meal planning tutorial was helpful to you and supports you in making meal planning a habit.

👉 Make sure to check out our other meal planning resources:

Need help getting started? Subscribe below to download our FREE meal planning guide and template, as well as other green living tips and resources. Happy planning!