Meal Planning for Dummies:  Tips for the First-Timer

Meal Planning for the First-Timer | Twin Cities Moms Blog

I like to make dinner fresh, as in just cooked.  I also love using real food as much as possible, not a lot of processed ingredients, so as much as I’ve always thought a day of freezer meals sounded like something that could make life so easy, plenty of the lists that I’d seen didn’t really seem to match up with how I like to cook.  The thing is that because of that criteria and being a busy mom, often I run short on time and just don’t make dinner at all.  We regularly piece something together, often eggs.  We eat a LOT of eggs, which is fine and you can make a ton of different egg dishes, but that gets old after a while too.

In the past, I had made meager “attempts” at planning for a day of freezer meal prep, but gave up before I even got out of the planning stage.  It had felt so overwhelming to find list after list that didn’t really fit with the kinds of food we like, or recipes that would have my girls turning their noses up.

But, with two active kiddos and a baby on the way, I figured “easy” was exactly what we needed for a little while, so with ten days before delivery, I decided to give it a real try – no giving up.  I sat down, searched Pinterest and after about 20 minutes, my shoulders were tense and my eyes were full of tears.  Honestly, there was almost too much information, too many ways to go about it, lists of meals full of recipes that we’d never eat anyway.

Meal Planning for the First-Timer | Twin Cities Moms Blog

My husband must have seen the desperation in my eyes, because he suddenly packed up our girls and took them out for a while so I could try to focus.  I quickly realized I was letting myself feel unnecessarily pigeon-holed into systems that worked well for others, but not for me and I needed to make it work for me.  So, here you are – a few how-to tips for my non-system system for meal planning.Meal Planning for Dummies | Twin Cities Moms Blog

  1. Find your recipes.  I stuck to Pinterest, even searching other meal planning sites, but instead of looking for a specific system, first look for recipes that you know will work for you and your family.  I went ahead and printed them (I’m SO visual, I knew I’d need to hold them and be able to pour over them).  I also started a new Pinterest board just for Meal Planning so I could keep track of the recipes and go back to them if we ended up falling in love with them.
  2. I realized I was trying to Meal Plan for a month on my first experience, and I was almost literally biting off more than I could chew.  Instead, I collected eight new recipes that would obviously yield leftovers or that I could double easily.  I also decided that for this first experience, I was going straight-up crock pot meals.  My goal was to load my freezer with bagged meals that I could just pour into the crock pot in the morning and present as an amazing home-cooked meal at night.
  3. Once I had my recipes in front of me, I started a rough version of this printable (clickable below) to start to tally up all I’d need for my grocery run.  After I’d tallied it all up, I crossed off the things I knew we already had enough of.
  4. Next, I started a simple list for each store – I knew I’d be going to Costco and Super Target, so one side for each. I planned to purchase nearly all of my meat at Costco, along with a few extras, and the rest at Target. Be sure to add large Ziploc freezer bags to your list.

Ready, set, shop!  I definitely left my kids at home.  I wanted to be as productive as possible, and I don’t know about your grocery trips, but when I go alone, I swear it cuts the time in half.  I think it took 20 minutes just to bring in all of the food from the car.

Prepping the Meals
A few things that I found made the prep process easier:

  1. “Make” your meal in the bag.  I only used one bowl throughout the process. Choose a recipe and label a large freezer bag. All ingredients were measured right into the bag. On the label, I also included anything I’d need to add the day of cooking.
  2. Pampered chef food chopper.  Do you have one of these, or something similar?  For the most part, I only had to chop garlic, onions and carrots for the recipes I’d chosen, but I saved a TON of time chopping the garlic with this thing, rather than mincing with a knife.  I’m sure I could probably use pre-minced garlic in a jar, I simply prefer fresh cloves.Meal Planning for the First-Timer | Twin Cities Moms Blog
  3. Use and re-use your measuring cups. Again, it just minimizes your clean-up at the end of all of this, but I used the same set of measuring cups throughout, only rinsing them if needed.
  4. Just like the process, don’t be afraid to veer from the recipe a bit.  Unlike baking, cooking allows for interpretation. I added extra meat to a few of the meals, extra cumin or garlic whenever I felt like it (LOVE those flavors!) or cut down a spice that might not be our favorite.  When it suggested taco seasoning, I just threw in my favorite taco spices instead, for canned vegetables, I used fresh or frozen.  You get the idea.

Honestly, I’m not a huge fan of crock-pot meals – I just prefer actively making meals because I think it’s much more enjoyable, but my favorite part ended up being that almost every meal I prepped is a crock-pot meal, because it cut down the prep time in a big way.  Sometimes, you just have to accept that you are where you are and for me, easy is what I need right now.  I had no need to cut meat into pieces – the crock pot will do the work for me and all of it will pretty much fall apart.

Meal Planning for the First-Timer | Twin Cities Moms Blog

After just a couple hours, we had 11 meals, all of which will also produce a couple of days of leftovers, plus hamburgers and a few bags of cooked chicken for salad lunches.  By the end of the night, I’d also made a couple loaves of our favorite pumpkin bread and my husband had made a batch of his new lunch-time favorite – black bean soup.  Possible the most productive Sunday I’ve ever had.  I also already know that this saved a ton of money.  I didn’t spend nearly as much as I thought I’d need to and for the number of dinners that this will cover, especially with leftovers, this was a great economical decision.  I highly recommend the Costco meat section if you have a membership – the prices were fantastic and you get a large amount of meat for the prices.

While I’m sure this would work well anytime, I’m saving these for the first few weeks after baby when my husband goes back to work so we can all happily eat a variety of meals at the end of the day, rather than a variety of our frequent egg dinners.  Most of the recipes I used are below and were so easy to prep.  And, not that you need to follow my process, as it’s simply what worked for me, but that printable is below if it might work for you.

And as for you veteran meal-planners, I’d love to hear what tips YOU have for making this process easier!


Hawaiian Chicken in Marinade

Bourbon Chicken

Chicken Taco Meat

BBQ Pulled Pork X2

Chicken Tortilla Soup

Beef Stew X2

Honey Sesame Chicken

Vegetable Beef Soup


Printable Worksheet – click HERE to print

Meal Planning for the First-Timer | Twin Cities Moms Blog


  1. Thank you for this, I have thought about meal planning and after writing done everything I became so overwhelmed. In the end I only got as far as cooking a ton of ground beef and used that as the base of each meal. I got sick of ground beef for a while. I like that you picked meals that would have leftovers, gives you more time in the end! Thank you for sharing your recipes, I excited to try out your tips.

  2. Bless your heart, Beth! I was reading through this and stressing right along with you. You are SO right that different systems work for different people. I am the worst meal planner ever — and I wrote meal plan posts for a whole year. Love the way you laid this out. Thank you so much for including my Chicken Tortilla Soup — it’s a recipe we love — hope you will, too!

  3. Great article, Beth! I’m just like you- I tend to prefer “fresh” cooking, but in this stage of life every extra minute counts. Thanks for the tips. You’ve just convinced me to try it one more time! 🙂

  4. Oh, thank you, thank you, THANK YOU. I needed this so bad. I absolutely love to cook and bake, being in the kitchen is therapeutic to me, but the thought of meal planning and making lists and being so methodical sounds so daunting. I’ve also made a goal for 2015 to use the Crock Pot for more than just an occasional roast beef or pinto beans. I love this simple approach, less is so much more, and I’m definitely more confident (less intimidated and overwhelmed) by the abundance of recipes. I love Pinterest, but it can make the easiest task more daunting real quick! Thanks again for sharing your tips and tricks, I’m definitely a newbie.


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