meal planning gives me hives.

summer pasta salad-1

In almost all aspects of life, I am a type-A, hyper-organized, call-me-Monica-Geller kind of girl. I say almost, because there is one area of daily routine where this attention to detail is severely lacking.

That’s right; I’m talking about meal planning.

Oy ve. In theory it sounds like such a simple task. Plan your meals, write them on a calendar, make your grocery list, blah blah blah. But in reality, every afternoon around 4:00pm I’m like OH CRAP, WHAT ARE WE GOING TO MAKE FOR DINNER?! So I hunt through the pantry and the fridge and peruse my Pinterest recipe board, but we’re missing five ingredients for every recipe and I don’t know what good substitutions would be so then I call Brett and whine about how we never have the food I need to make stuff and he’s like “I’m busy right now and don’t have time to listen to your pre-dinner meltdown” and I’m like “I will give you one hundred dollars if you pick up Chipotle on your way home” and he’s like “Fine, I’ll do that” and then we hang up and I feel better about dinner but feel worse about my domestic abilities so it’s not really a complete win.

And then the same thing happens the next day at 4:00pm and I tell Brett I will give him two hundred dollars if we can order pizza.

I don’t know what it is. I don’t know if I’m a bad cook or if I’m just too lazy to make good meals or if I’m too overwhelmed with 80 other things during the day that by the time 4:00pm rolls around I have no creative energy left to devote to the kitchen, but WHATEVER IT IS, meal planning is a struggle for me.

And then I read books like Bread & Wine and I’m like, yes! Yes, Shauna, yes! I want to create magic in my kitchen! I want to MAKE DINNER FOR MY FAMILY! So HOW? How do I do this without losing my sanity?! Why is it so hard?

I have no answers. I suspect being a good meal planner is really about putting in the work, just like anything else. I know that when I do take the time to cook or bake fancy things, I am usually pretty dang pleased with myself. And the food usually tastes pretty dang good, and Brett is usually pretty dang grateful.

If meal planning is about putting in the work, we can probably compare it to running a half marathon. (I can’t use full marathons even in metaphors because my brain simply cannot comprehend running 26 whole miles in one day.) So let’s say that meal planning is like running a half marathon, and that making lists, printing recipes, taking Everett grocery shopping (hold me), unloading the groceries, putting away the groceries, boiling the water, chopping the veggies, washing the fruit, dicing the chicken, splicing (is that a cooking term?) the onions, etc etc etc is THE TRAINING. Which would make the actual race and finish line: providing my tiny family of three with home cooked dinners for an entire week without anyone getting food poisoning.

It’s doable, right? I don’t think I could ever run 13 miles, but making dinner for a week should be an attainable goal, I think.

Are you a good meal planner? WHAT’S YOUR SECRET? Help me train. Please. I’m desperate.

p.s. I just signed up for a free trial of Plan To Eat – does anyone else use this?
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32 Responses to meal planning gives me hives.

  1. Jo says:

    I am a meal planner and believe in it with all my heart. ­čÖé It saves you time and money. I make our meal plan every Friday night or Saturday morning for one week. I actually love doing this. I check our fridge, freezer and cupboards to see what ingredients we have left and work out a meal plan for the coming week around those ingredients. I can’t commit to more than a week. I also don’t know how to do that without some foods going bad and such. Anyways, I think the trick is (at least for me) to do it on a set day. We go grocery shopping every Saturday (we only go grocery shopping once a week) and having that time set is a life saver. I also used to assign the meals to a certain day but that would never work out. Because sometimes you just want to have pizza in the spur of the moment or sometimes you want to eat what you planned for Day C instead of Day A. You have to be a bit flexible. So instead of assigning the meals to a day I just make a list of 7 or so dinners and a few lunches for when we’re not at work and each day I choose what we feel like eating the most. Making sense?

    I absolutely love meal planning and think once you get into a routine you’ll get hooked. I’m gone for work from 7 AM till 6 PM each day and my husband works in shifts so either he’s not home till 10.30 PM or he’s home but exhausted from getting up at 4 AM and in our current situation if we don’t plan our meals we end up eating chicken nuggets (true story)! ­čÖé

  2. Sophie says:

    I feel your pain. In theory, it sounds SO easy. But then all of a sudden it’s Sunday night and you haven’t planned your meals therefore there’s no way that you want to venture to the market. So then it’s Monday, and then it’s Tuesday, and then you tell yourself, “next week!” I’m trying to be better at meal planning because when I am, I eat better and save so much money, but it’s hard! Here’s my trick: a well stocked pantry. When you have most of the basics in your kitchen already, then it’s a lot easier. It doesn’t seem like a big pain in the butt to run to the market for that ONE thing you’re missing, rather than those SEVEN things… Here is a link to a pretty good pantry basics list: .

    You’d be surprised at what you can scrounge up when you have a few essentials!

  3. Caiti says:

    I’m a meal planning convert, and it’s totally doable! It really does take the daily stress out of the process. What helped me make it a habit was having a well-stocked pantry (so canned and dry goods and spices are always on hand to act as a base for meals), making a list of every favorite/easy meal to act as a menu to pick from, and sitting down for a half hour every week the day before I grocery shop to write up my meal plan. When I plan, I try to aim for 2-3 favorite/easy standbys, 2-3 new recipes, one soup/slow-cooker meal (because they’re easy), and one day to go out to eat. And I’ve saved my “menus” from each week of meal planning– they act as a great reference if I get stuck, and can be saved for the same season next year.

    I recently bought the Fresh20 cookbook, which is great! It’s basically Meal Planning 101, and has four weekly menus for each season with full grocery lists with a max of 20 items. I don’t have kids yet but the book seems geared towards family-friendly recipes that are quick, healthy, and seasonal. The cookbook has been great for the weeks I don’t want to think about meal planning. (I think they also offer subscription meal plan service on their website. I haven’t tried it, but I’ve heard positive things from other bloggers).

    PS- This is my first time commenting, I think, but I’ve been a reader for a long time. Hello! ­čÖé
    Caiti┬┤s last blog post ..Link Love : May // Taking a Summer Break

  4. Meal planning for us has gotten pretty easy, I think. Usually on Saturday or Sunday, Erik (and sometimes I) will go through our main cookbooks and pick out recipes that sound good for that week. We count up how many meals we need versus how many nights we’ll be eating out, so we don’t overbuy. Then Erik writes down a shopping list and goes to the grocery store and comes back with everything we need. Occasionally he has to go back out a second time if he couldn’t find something, but that doesn’t happen too often. We save a lot of money this way because we eat everything we buy. We rarely throw anything away. Like Jo, we don’t usually plan what we’ll have on each specific day, since some recipes take longer than others and something might come up. And meal planning becomes pretty easy once you get familiar with the recipes you have, or what you like to eat. If you don’t use recipes, you could just simply write out what you already know how to make. Good luck!
    Allison @ With Faith & Grace┬┤s last blog post ..Paleo & Me: Blueberry Lemon Muffins

  5. Caitlin says:

    Both my husband and I work, so by the time we both get home, no one really wants to cook. We have devised the cook-three-time-eat-six-times plan. Basically, you cook three meals (whichever days you choose) but you make enough so you can have leftovers three more times that week (so you eat each meal twice). We then make a fancier meal on Saturday or Sunday night. We make a pretty simple recipe on the days we cook, and it helps a lot to just know that you only have to buy the ingredients for three meals, but you can eat the rest of the week. My husband isn’t a huge fan of leftovers, so finding the right recipes has been challenging, but its totally worth it and it’s saved us a lot of money (not ordering pizza, eating out, or buying a bunch of ingredients that we end up not using). Some of the recipes are a little re-purposed, such as Day 1’s spaghetti and meatballs may be Day 4’s meatball sandwiches, but you get the idea. And prepping on one day (cutting fruit for my smoothies, making aforementioned meatballs, etc.) helps too. That way you only truly destroy the kitchen one day, and the rest of the week is manageable cleaning-wise. It’s not fancy, but it does the trick! Hope that helps – it’s been a life-saver for us!

  6. Christine says:

    Even though I’m just cooking for one–and, honestly, I think it’s even harder than cooking for two or three!–I do plan out my lunches and dinners in advance and do one big grocery shop a week. What I’ve found makes it easiest is to have a few staple meals that I can throw together in a flash. I like rice beans and salsa with shredded cheese–so I always have a can of black beans and a big bag of brown rice in the pantry. I like turkey chili, so I make one big batch and then separate it into four tupperwares as soon as I make it. I also make a big lasagne and then separate it off, and keep individual sections in ziplocs in the freezer. I find that if I do one big cook a week, then I have extras for later–and I don’t feel as guilty when I do eat out once or twice!
    Christine┬┤s last blog post ..The best of Iceland, via Instagram

  7. Rachael says:

    We’ve starting participating in a produce co-op, which means occasionally we get something flat out weird, and frequently get stuff we wouldn’t pick out ourselves, plus we’ve moved to eating vegetarian about 75% of the time, plus my husband is a student, works, and I work full time, so I’ve HAD to learn how to meal plan. It’s flexible, but it gives me a structure, especially for the more unusual stuff and keeps me from going “don’t know, so chicken it is!” every night. It’s just the two of us, though, so I’m sure it will get more complicated once we add kids to the mix.

    Here’s how I do it:
    When we receive our share on Saturday morning, I wash the produce and put it away, making a running list of what we’ve gotten. Then I take to the cookbooks and my pinterest to find recipes that use up the unusual stuff first (which generally uses up some of the normal stuff too), making a list of meals planned, and another of the things I need to flesh out the meals (we rarely get onions or garlic, and we usually need to restock rice or lentils or chicken breast). I only “plan” three to five meals a week, making us eat leftovers a day or two, and most weeks there’s a day when we get home from work and we’re both so tired that peanut butter sandwiches are the extent of our dinner prep abilities, even if there are leftovers in the fridge. I also plan a stir-fry or pasta for Friday night to use up all those odds and ends (I put almost in my spaghetti sauce, just cut it up tiny), and do at least one crock pot meal a week as well.

    The key for me is not to get too into huge elaborate recipes (I can only manage those on weekends), and to stay flexible. Sometimes what I’ve planned for, say, Tuesday night is too ambitious for our energy levels, so I’ll switch it with Thursday’s meal, or Wednesday night’s plan to eat leftovers, or go straight to pb&j. I’ve found that when I menu plan, our food budget goes a lot farther, and we eat out less and eat healthier in general. It’s part of our Saturday routine to get up early to get our produce (we have to pick it up by 7:30 am), and go straight to meal planning and from there to the grocery store for the filler items, and I have found that if I don’t make it to the grocery store before 10:00 am Saturday, I’m not going to, because after that it get’s crazy, and there’s no way on earth I’m grocery shopping when I get off work on a week day. 5:00 on a weekday with all the stressed out parents and screeching children and irritating college students? No way.

    And now that I’ve written an essay, I’m done. ­čÖé

  8. Amy says:

    I love meal planning. I do it weekly and make some foods for lunch every week (soups, salads, etc.) and roast a ton of veggies for dinner.

    A friend of mine uses this: and is obsessed with it.

  9. Torey says:

    I am ALWAYS trying to become better at meal planning… it’s especially hard in times of transition (i.e. your move!). One trick I fall back on is to have a few go-to dinners that take minimal time and ingredients at the ready. For us, that means tacos (I stock up on ground turkey and we almost always have tortillas, cheese and lettuce lying around somewhere) or sauteed veggies with fried eggs. I also like stocking up on proteins that are quick to defrost and cook, like frozen salmon or shrimp from Trader Joe’s!
    Torey┬┤s last blog post ..Wag Wednesday: Most Emotional Dog Food Ad Ever

  10. yes the age old question of what’s for dinner…x5 kids

    I do plan the food I am going to get for the week …But always stick to it. I allow for changes in schedule. I usually get a few prepared dinners and also have some mac and cheese because my kids love it. I also have to pack their lunches for school. So yes I make it easy for me, but I like to have some off days for pizza too.
    Julie@my5monkeys┬┤s last blog post ..Between the devil and the Deep Blue Sea

  11. Brynna says:

    I meal plan every week and have for a couple of years and I still HATE IT. Sorry. ­čÖé I do think it’s 100% necessary, though, because otherwise I’d be at the store every other day instead of once a week… and even that feels like too much. I’m thinking about trying out a monthly meal plan (with some repeats!) so I can buy all my dry goods at one time and then just pick up perishables once a week with a list that’s already put together. But I totally feel your pain. Looking forward to reading what other commenters write.

  12. Victoria B says:

    You know that saying “Failure to plan is planning to fail?” That is me to a T if I don’t plan out what I’m cooking when. My goal this year is to plan what we are eating each night of the week on Sunday and then go grocery shopping. Since I hate grocery shopping it is always a struggle. BUT I’d rather struggle on a Sunday for a couple hours than come home at 6pm five nights a week and not know what I’m cooking, not have anything defrosted or ready to cook, and being hungry. It takes a lot of practice but eventually you will get a routine down and have a few go-to recipes. I typically cook five nights a week, my husband cooks one night, and we do take-out or go out once a week. I am loving the ease of slow cookers lately and have been incorporating 1-2 of those meals a week. The tools that help me are a grocery list on the fridge so as things run out I add them to the list, a subscription to my favorite cooking magazine: Clean Eating, my recipe book that is slowly building up, having a few backup meals (aka having pizza crust frozen so I can quickly make my own pizza) if things get crazy, and being flexible with when I cook what. I love talking about this stuff so if you want more of my thoughts please don’t mind emailing me.

    A couple friends and I just started a Facebook group to post our successful recipes to so we can encourage each other and get new ideas. ­čÖé

  13. Megan Clark says:

    Lady, it’s like I KNEW this post was coming. Did you see our downloadable grocery list? Do it! Let me know if it helps. xoxo!

  14. Ana says:

    I don’t want to repeat a lot of things that the girls already say, but I think the key is have a set time to do so. We go grocery shopping every Sunday. We check what we already have in the fridge/pantry, then go to the store and see what’s on sale, good deals, etc. I also already go to the store with an idea of how much of everything I need (if we’ll have lunch at home, if we need to pack lunch, if we’ll go out to eat, etc etc). Then when we get at home, we brainstorm what we have and what we can make with that for the week. And prep! I’m still working on getting better at this, but whenever I have some extra time, I try to prep things in advance. I separate the chicken fillets in portions, wash the greens in advance, cut and wash strawberries… It gets a while to get used to it. But of course, I have no children, so it’s easier on my end. And of course there are some days when you just want to order pizza. That’s ok too. We all have those days.
    Ana┬┤s last blog post ..This week…

  15. Caroline says:

    Have you considered delivery groceries? Through Peapod or something similar? I don’t do it but my sister does and I think it’s pretty cost effective. Plus you wouldn’t have to add grocery store to the list on top of everything else you have to do! I don’t love meal planning, but it’s really necessary for my sanity — so I put the time in on Sunday afternoons (it definitely requires some commitment on my part). I’m always happy I did. I also eat a lot of the same things day after day, which makes it easier.
    Caroline┬┤s last blog post ..Fresh Salmon Salad

  16. kiki says:

    I’m not great at meal planning…But! when I do, I totally rely on my iPad. I subscribe to NextIssue, pursue the cooking magazines once a month, screen shot the best recipes, and put them up on Pinterest. I use Astrid (a sharable task list) to make a grocery list, and OFTEN enlist the hubbys help for grabbing groceries. We have a bit of a deal. If one of us shops alone, the other one puts the groceries away. That way, the task isn’t quite as insurmountable ­čÖé

  17. I’m not a big meal planner BUT I cook from scratch most of the time and we have a pretty small budget on groceries. I wrote a whole post on how I do it, but basically I have staples I buy every week/month, a formula for meals, and a regular arsenal of meals to cook. Then I decide each day, or couple of days, what to cook based on what I feel like or what needs to be used. I have never done well with PLANNING out for a whole month, or even week!, because I might change my mind. I’ve also tried doing a “Monday is Mexican, Tuesday is Pizza, etc” deal and that never worked. Apparently I like freedom and spontaneity!
    Ashley // Our Little Apartment┬┤s last blog post ..Day in the Life – Web Designer & Mama.

  18. brittany says:

    iiiiii relate to this WAY a lot. a-type in so many areas and conveniently not the kitchen! why why!!
    brittany┬┤s last blog post on mama time + my new hair friend

  19. Gina says:

    I just wrote a whole blog post on how to meal plan!
    Gina┬┤s last blog post ..How to Make a Weekly Meal Plan

  20. Kara says:

    I’m no expert, but I like to “collect” recipes from food blogs and Pinterest and import them to It looks like it’s really similar to Plan to Eat, but it’s totally free! You can manually put in recipes or import them from websites, create your own menus, make shopping lists, etc. For each recipe I put in, I tag it with a bunch of different categories–general things like “sides” or “main dishes,” and also most of the ingredients needed. Then I can search all of my recipes by category (say, “green peppers” or “milk”) and easily find recipes to use up things I have on hand. I throw out a lot less food this way!

  21. Lesley says:

    20 comments already! Clearly you’ve stumbled on something all of us either LOVE or HATE to do. ­čÖé I’m a big fan of meal planning, and have always done weekly meal plans but over the last few months I’ve actually been doing monthly meal plans which have gone a lot better than I expected. I just use my regular calendar and write-in a tentative plan for the month ahead. (Each week I’ll update here and there as our plans change.) Busy nights get penciled in first with words like, “Easy frozen TJ’s meal” or “Grab food out” or “Leftovers.” Then, I’ll look through the other days and see if I have morning or afternoon plans that would inhibit me from cooking a more extravagant/time consuming meal, and fill these days with easier ideas or crock pot. And then, finally, I’ll kind of mark the days where I know I’ll have time to cook. I have a long bank of meal ideas at this point, so I just look at my list and fill in the days with out favorites. (I am so type A that I actually have a list organized by how complicated/time consuming the prep is. ha.) I also try to hop on Pinterest and pick a few new meals to try each month. The hope of doing a monthly meal plan is so I can buy in bulk and avoid weekly trips to the store, but so far I’m still mostly going weekly. Arg. But, at least I’m not going to multiple stores in a week-which has been awesome.
    Lesley┬┤s last blog post ..Read this book: 101 Secrets for your 20s

  22. Sarabell says:

    I am definitely a big meal planner. I buy groceries Fridays so every Thursday I sit down and jot down a dinner for each night of the week. I always make sure at least five of those ideas are super quick and easy favorites. My husband makes my life way easier by loving leftovers for his lunches so then I pick out my lunches, also quick and easy items I can quickly throw together during naptime… and then I pick out breakfasts. I like to make a breakfast quiche at the start of the week now and we can have that for a few breakfasts with a few other breakfasts thrown in to keep things from feeling stagnant. Voila!
    I used to try and make a new Pinterest meal for every dinner and would burn out two or three days in. Now I do one time consuming meal a week (always on my husband’s day off so he can entertain the baby and I can focus on the meal prep) and everything else is fast. I always like to take one hour each week to do a lot of prep work, like chop my veggies and marinade meats and such, which makes my meal prep even quicker on the day of! =]
    Sarabell┬┤s last blog post ..Logan Anniversary Trip

  23. caprice says:

    This is a great post! I am sooo type B (is there any of us left anymore?) but desperately need type A planning to get things done in my life. With two kids (4 yr and 8 months), working my full time job part time, and long three day a week commutes has dinner and meals being a HUGE challenge for me. Big hugs to all that responded on how to make this work with meal planning! Our challenge is that my husband does the shopping (works near a wholepaycheck opps I mean wholefoods) and he is excellent at not overspending there. But he brings home interesting items that are not quick for me to serve up. He is an excellent cook and has no problem with making a meal out of what he buys but he gets home too late for my oldest to eat. We also like to serve non-processed food but I am challenged when I get home with the kids at 6pm and my baby wants to nurse and my 4 year old is beyond hungry and not at all intersted in me preparing a home-cooked meal. So that means, I need to plan things out (this is toxic for go-with-the-flow type B-ers) the night before or even the weekend ahead and of course nothing sounds appetizing (sp?) the weekend before. But I will try the above suggestions! Thank you ladies!

  24. Dani says:

    Oh my word… I did hate that about Bread & Wine about how simple it was to whip something together. If only I had that gifting as well!

    Dani //
    Dani┬┤s last blog post ..Online dating.

  25. Kat Gray says:

    I love plantoeat! It is amazingly easy to import recipes from around the web and handy to have my grocery list on my smart phone! I HATE grocery shopping. Seriously, like I hate it more than cleaning the bathrooms. Meal planning with a grocery app is the only thing that makes it manageable. Good luck!

  26. Jaclyn says:

    I use the site I love it! They give you a shopping list of only 20 ingredients (!!) for 5 meals. I do one big shop on sunday and take an hour or so to do what they have on the prep list. You do things like cut up veggies, precook rice and that kinda thing. Then I separate what I have diced up in tupperware labeled with the number of the meal on it so its ready to go. Its encouraged to use fresh organic food but I always just buy whats cheapest. It’s only $5 a month and totally worth it! Good luck! Hope you find something that works for you!
    Jaclyn┬┤s last blog post ..My 26th State: New Jersey!

  27. sarah says:

    thank you! i agree! i’d like to be better at this too. i think my issue (besides the usual excuses of busy, lazy, etc etc) is that you have to do it every. single. day. its fine to build up to a race (or in this case cook a meal) and feel all accomplished (or in this case full). and then maybe you dust off your hands and cross it off your bucket list and move on. or maybe you fall in love with it and start training for another one. but either way, you don’t do it again the very next day, and then the next day (actually potentially three TIMES every day haha). it just overwhelms me. didn’t i just do this, i say? i hope i’ll be a little more motivated when i have a husband and/or kids to feed. but while it’s just me, i’m woefully lax….

  28. I’ve never been a person that enjoys meal planning (if it wasn’t cost and time-prohibitive, I would prefer going to the store daily to get exactly what I wanted for that night), but my husband and I do it in some form nearly every week. We have tried many different weekly methods, but I’ve found that what works best is to plan in half-weeks. We usually go to the farmer’s market on Sunday mornings, and depending on what we get, I’ll plan out 2-3 VERY SIMPLE meals around those ingredients, maybe 1-2 of which will make leftovers for one night. In theory, this method gets us through about half the week with lunches and dinners, but inevitably, we end up eating out one night, or if we aren’t too hungry, having pb&j. So, best case scenario, your 2-3 recipes carry you through more of the week than you planned for, or worst case scenario, you use everything up by Wednesday or Thursday and can just make a small trip to the store to get you through the remainder of the week. I find that planning on a weekly basis if you have any kind of variability in your schedule, for me, always leads to (1) wasted food and (2) being anxious and guilty about said wasted food. Yeah, it’s annoying to go grocery shopping twice a week, but for me, I feel better about that second trip knowing that it means we ate everything we planned for and didn’t waste anything. good luck!

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  30. Molly says:

    I manage to pull it together every 2 weeks to plan out 2 weeks worth of dinners and let me tell you, it takes me *hours*. Between checking the sale ads, trying to coordinate dinners with our schedule (on days when Dada works a double, Mama makes frozen spinach ravioli!), doing my best not to bore my family with repeats, and checking my pantry for items I already have so I don’t over-buy, etc….it’s a TASK. But I do it because the 4pm dinner panic is the greater evil.

    On a different note, that pasta dish looks really yummy…

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