20-Minute Meal Planning for People Who Hate Meal Planning

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  • May 8, 2016
20 Minute Meal Planning

One beautiful Sunday morning this past fall I sat in the bleachers at a local park, watching my son’s baseball game. On my lap were two pieces of paper. One was blank, the other read “Sun., Mon., Tues., Wed., Thurs.” I took a deep breath and picked up my three-ring binder filled with recipes.

“What are you doing?” asked a woman sitting next to me, the mother of one of my son’s teammates.

“Oh, I’m planning the week’s meals,” I said. I paused.

“I hate it,” I added.

Not everything we do for our health and well-being is enjoyable. I love working out, I enjoy eating whole foods, and I even like meditating, but I don’t think I will ever get over my hatred for meal planning.

This doesn’t mean I’m going to stop.

Planning out the week’s meals is the foundation upon which our family’s healthy eating habits are built. Although I dislike it, I understand planning dinners is most important twenty minutes of my week.

My System for Easy Meal Planning

I’ve been meal planning consistently for about fifteen years. Over the years I’ve winnowed down the process to the essentials.

First, I take two pieces of paper from the pile of scrap paper next to my computer. On the first piece of paper I write the days of the week. This is where I’ll write each of the night’s dinners, and it goes on the fridge for the week. Posting the week’s menu also helps avoid repeated “What’s for dinner?” questions from my kids. Something about that question, especially when it’s asked at 3:00pm, sets my teeth on edge, so the list of the week’s meals avoids the entire unpleasant exchange.

The second piece of paper is my shopping list. Before I think of any meals, I visit the website of our CSA (community supported agriculture) to see what’s in our weekly box of organic, locally-grown produce. I pick up the box on Monday, but I do the grocery shopping on Sunday, so it’s important for me to know what I’m getting ahead of time. I try, as much as possible, to build my week’s meals around the CSA veggies.

20 Minute Meal Planning

We’ve been a member of our CSA for more than six years and it is the number one reason my kids, ages seven and ten, eat a wide variety of vegetables. I’ve put vegetables in front of them I’d never expect they’d eat, and slowly, over time, they’ve discovered they like bok choy, roasted cauliflower, baked beet chips, and cabbage. Many parents are afraid to try new vegetables with their kids, convinced they won’t eat them. And sure, at first, my kids gave many of these exotic vegetables the side-eye, but repeated exposure has worn down their resistance. There are still things they won’t eat, like sautéed Swiss chard and collard greens, but I don’t expect perfection.

Next, I look at the week’s schedule. If I see we’ll be home late because of one of the kid’s activities, I’ll start looking for slow cooker recipes, like this Slow-Cooker Chicken Tikka Masala from Real Simple (note: this recipe includes cream, so it will only work for those on the Kick Start level). Many slow cooker recipes can be assembled in twenty minutes or less, and result in a delicious, warm, ready-to-eat meal by the end of the day. All it takes is advance planning, which is where weekly meal planning enters the picture.

With one or two recipes in place, I start to build the week. If we’re having meat on Monday, I’ll plan fish on Tuesday. Many times what I write down isn’t even a recipe at all. It could be “salmon and broccoli,” which means I’ll grill salmon with some lemon and olive oil and roast broccoli with olive oil, salt, and pepper.

I’m also not afraid of repeating meals or recipes week after week. Things naturally shift as the seasons change, so if we have the same slow cooker pot roast recipe three weeks in a row in winter, I know I’ll move to the grill as the weather gets warmer. We are all eating a home-cooked meal Sunday through Thursday, and that in itself is a such a victory. That’s as high as the bar needs to go for me.

While I often take out a pile of cookbooks to flip through for ideas, my number one source for recipes is my three-ring binder filled with pages from magazines and websites. It’s an archaic system, but I haven’t yet found an online solution or an app that works for me. If you have a meal-planning app or site you love, please let me know in the comments!

20 Minute Meal Planning

How to Prepare Your Shopping List

The hardest part about meal planning, for me, is deciding what to eat each night. There are infinite possibilities, and studies show too many choices can be paralyzing and cause anxiety. For me, the CSA and my weekly schedule create a welcome structure and limit my choices. Often I’ll Google the vegetables on the CSA list, especially if it’s something unusual like broccoli romanesco or rutabagas, and get ideas for recipes online.

After I write down each meal, I write down the ingredients I need on the second piece of paper. This is the time to check if I have the spices I need, or to make sure I’m not almost out of olive oil. This gets trickier if I’m writing my list at a baseball game, but in that case I’ll write a question mark next to the item I’m not sure about, and hope I remember to check when I get home.

Next, I write down all the weekly essentials for the family’s breakfasts and lunches. These items repeat each week, so they are easy to remember. Finally, once the list is made, I move on to my second-most-hated task of the week: grocery shopping. I alternate between getting it done as soon as possible Sunday morning, or doing something fun in the morning, putting it off until the late afternoon, and then grumbling to myself as I wait in a checkout line ten people deep at Trader Joe’s.

Why This Is the Most Important 20 Minutes of Your Week

If I hate doing these tasks so much, why do I continue?

I continue because as much as I hate meal planning and grocery shopping, I love having a week’s worth of meals planned out in advance. I love that on Wednesday at 5:00pm, instead of thinking with dread, “What am I going to make for dinner?” I consult my list and pull out the ingredients. I love the discipline the list inspires, which leads to a week’s worth of healthy eating for the entire family, every week.

20 Minute Meal Planning

My reward for a week’s worth of planning and cooking comes on Friday. Usually, at that point, I will have accumulated a hodge-podge of leftovers. Unless we have plans, Friday night dinner is either leftovers or, if no leftovers are to be found, eggs and any vegetables I can find hanging around. Saturday night the kitchen is closed, unless we’re having a dinner party.

If dinners are a nightly source of stress for you, get out a piece of paper, a few cookbooks, and start meal planning!

Want to learn more about making healthy choices in a way that doesn’t add stress to your life? Join us for the next Whole Life Challenge. Participating in the Challenge will improve your mind, your body, and your daily habits, leaving you happier, healthier, and in control of your lifestyle. If you’re ready for a change, this is your opportunity. Click below to learn more:

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Hilary Achauer
A San Diego-based writer and editor with more than fifteen years' experience, Hilary writes for San Diego Magazine, the CrossFit Journal, covers the CrossFit Games, and has written content for UCSD Health Services, the Rady School of Management, National University, the Moores Cancer Center, and Dr. Oz’s Transformation Nation.

Her writing has been featured in an online parenting magazine as well as a number of travel and lifestyle publications. She has written for universities, start-ups, entrepreneurs, executive coaches, and management consultants. A former children's books editor at Harcourt, Hilary once competed as an amateur boxer, but traded her gloves for barbells and now trains at San Diego Athletics. Read more at Hilary Achauer.
  • Carole M.

    I love this! Thanks for articulating the disdain I feel for shopping and organizing. I too struggle with planning ahead, yet need it so much. I appreciate your simple system for planning out the week’s meals. It gives me a feeling of excitement to get started. Thanks so much!

  • Christine Gammons

    Can you scan your binder contents and post for us? I am a planner so I like the planning part, it is selecting the right meal that is a challenge for me…What should take me only 20 minutes, takes forever because I cannot decide what to make!! Help.

  • Tegan Engler

    Great article thank you. I meal prep for a little while but then get lazy. I always wondered if people stick to it and you’ve just given me that answer so, thanks I’ll give meal planning/prepping another whirl.

  • Megan Ferguson James

    Love this! I think I need to go back to pencil and paper. I have a subscription to Plan to Eat, which I really like, but I get overwhelmed with it. Back to basics! So, your article was motivating! <3

  • Hilary Achauer

    I’m so glad the article is helpful! My binder has more than 100 recipes, so I can’t scan it, sorry! I will say my number one source of easy, healthy, interesting recipes is Real Simple. They do an amazing job. Most of them are online, too, so you don’t need a subscription, but I really enjoy the magazine. Epicurious is also a great website — it culls recipes from Gourmet and Bon Appetit, as well as other sources. Hope that helps!

  • Renee Brosten Gaugler

    I do this exact same thing every week, and I swear it’s the ONLY reason that we eat healthy & that I maintain my sanity regarding meals throughout the week. I use Pinterest for recipes. I have a private board called ‘meals this week’, and I just pin the recipes I want to it. If it turns out yummy, I save it to a board called ‘tried & true’, so that becomes a great resource for me to go back to when I need an idea. Thanks!

  • Andrea Evans

    To keep track of old recipes I’ve made before, I have a Google Drive sheet called “Food worth eating again.” If it was an online recipe, I will save the name and the link. I subscribe to Cooking Light Magazine so if I want to remember a recipe from a past issue, I will note the recipe name, issue and page number. It’s not perfect but it helps! I will also put notes in there about any tweaks I made (less salt, more spice, etc.)

    What CSA do you belong to? I’m in San Diego too and didn’t know you could get a heads up on what was coming up for the next CSA box.

    Great article, thanks for sharing!

    • Hilary Achauer


      The CSA I belong to is BeWise Ranch. I love it! The Google drive link is a great idea!


  • Mistii Comeau

    This is a great article. I am not a mom but I am a flight attendant & I have carried my food with me for over 25 yrs. Planning my meals for up to 4 days in advance & then packing all of it for my work trip is something I have chosen to do & I have always despised it too ! It is so incredibly time consuming but I am SO happy having my food with me on the plane & on my layovers. The reward is not grabbing air plane nor airport food just because I don’t have a choice. We do have a choice it does take work. I always tell myself it also takes work to be over weight & have health issues due to poor nutrition. Telling myself this daily reminds me to keep making & packing my meals. I would like to organize myself better so I will try your tips ! Thank you for all of your comments. I will look online & may order a magazine or two as well !

  • Kjpeacock7@yahoo.com

    I use the Cozi family app. You can input recipes, it has a meal planner where you can input your meal plan right along side your calendar then add the ingredients directly to your shopping list. I like this better than the paper version because it’s on my phone, and therefore, always with me, my family can view the recipe and even start it if I’m running late, and the grocery list has check boxes so I can mark items off as I fill the cart. Meal planning is the key to healthy meals in my house!

  • Beth

    spoonacular has a free meal planning app that I recommend: http://mealplanningapp.co/

    I particularly like that it calculates the nutritional information for you, so you can see what you’re getting enough protein, fiber, whatever. And that it makes the shopping list for you :)

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  • http://www.biohackingentrepreneur.com/ Biohackingentrepreneur

    I really like how you pick your meals for the week. For the most part I eat the same meals everyday but I think I’ll start using that method to switch things up. Meal planning for me has changed my life so much in last few years. Aside from the obvious health benefits, meal planning has allowed have much more time to focus on other tasks during the week. I don’t have to stop every few hours to cook something up.

    P.S- That Slow-Cooker Chicken Tikka Masala recipe looks amazing. I will try it out this weekend.

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  • Allie

    i use pepperplate.com for recipe storage instead of a 3 ring binder. i enter a new recipe from my book as i cook in and eventually they are all in there. their app is also easy to use.

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