How to Meal Plan in 15 Minutes a Week

Three salmon filets on a baking sheet prepped for cooking

How to Meal Plan in 15 Minutes a Week

The only right way to meal plan is the way that works for you. If you’re looking for a method to try, here’s my strategy for meal planning in about 15 minutes a week.

I’ve always loved the idea of letting what’s available at the farmer’s market dictate what I cook. It sounds so relaxed and romantic, doesn’t it? And some weeks, especially in the summer, I’m more likely to wing it. But, I have learned that if I don’t have at least a vague plan in place–beyond just a random assortment of vegetables in the fridge–the odds of me coming home from work and actually cooking dinner are pretty darn slim. That plan may come together on the commute home as I mentally take stock of the food in my fridge, freezer, and pantry. But, even that is no guarantee that I will resist the siren song of Seamless.

The best way for me to achieve my goal of at least five home-cooked dinners a week is to make a general meal plan the week before. I used to just write this plan down on a piece of paper, but over the past few years I’ve developed a very basic system: I keep a Google Sheet open in my laptop browser called (in a stunning burst of originality) Food This Week. When I’m meal-planning the week before, usually Wednesday or Thursday, I type in what I plan to make each night for dinner, or if I’ll be out for a work event, or we’ll be going out as a family. On the same sheet, there are three columns where I make grocery lists: one for Fresh Direct (a food delivery service), one for the grocery store, and one for the Greenmarket. Visual example for your viewing pleasure:

Google sheet with a list of dinner and groceries

We go out to eat every Friday night, so I don’t need to plan for that. Instead, I start on Saturday, since that’s when I get groceries delivered and when I usually go to the Greenmarket. You’ll see on the sheet that I try to work in a night of leftovers, and “green salad” is a staple since it’s pretty much the easiest way to serve vegetables!

But, as I was thinking about this post, I realized there’s more to meal planning than just writing down what you’ll eat each night. Really, there are three steps:

Step One – Have Options

This might be as simple as a list tacked up on the fridge of meals that the whole family likes. Or maybe it’s a recipe board or two of meals you enjoy or want to try on Pinterest. Or perhaps you have a physical file of printouts and recipes ripped from magazines. I keep track of all the recipes I like or want to try on a recipe app called Paprika. You can import recipes from virtually any website, and the app syncs between my laptop and my phone. I’m also usually into one or two cookbooks (right now Six Seasons and the dinners from Baby-Led Feeding are in heavy rotation) at any given moment, so I’ll keep them close at hand when I’m figuring out the next week’s meals.

How do I decide what to cook from my admittedly voluminous recipe collection? I think about what’s in season, what I already have in my fridge and freezer, what my family likes to eat, how much time I’ll have to cook each night, and, really, which recipes look so delicious I can’t resist them. It sounds like a complicated calculus, but it only takes a few minutes.

Step Two – Write It Down

Just write down what you’re going to cook each night. Somewhere. Anywhere. It could be a Google sheet like me, a Note on your phone, or a dedicated meal planning notebook. Just don’t keep the plan in your head. Trust me.

Step Three – Make a Grocery List

Once you have your meal plan for the week, write down all of the ingredients you need for the recipes. Check to see what you already have and cross those off the list.

Then shop and cook!

Of course, there are many other meal planning methods. One of my favorites is to assign a theme to each night. Think Meatless Monday, Taco Tuesday, Italian Wednesday, etc. Even that rough structure can be useful when you’re thinking about what to cook. Or, simply make a plan for two weeks of dinners and put it on repeat! You can even keep a master grocery list.

Do you meal plan? If so, what works for you? For more meal planning tips, easy recipes, and family-feeding advice, subscribe to my newsletter. As a thank you, I’ll send you three healthy smoothie recipes…great for your breakfast planning!



Jenna Helwig