how to make a meal plan and a grocery list in less than 30 minutes

Meal planning can be a real bitch.

Yeah, it all looks like fun and games when people post their perfectly curated prepped and planned meals on social media.

But when it comes down to it?

You’re way too busy for that. You get freaked out just thinking about planning. You do way too much of that at work. It’s just another task. You have no idea how to make a week’s worth of meals without spending a shit ton of money or wasting a shit ton of food. You wander aimlessly up and down the aisles with an empty grocery cart wondering what the hell to buy.

Go ahead and stop yourself right there. Because I bet we can find 30 minutes in your jam-packed schedule to make a meal plan, which is going to save you WAY more than 30 minutes during the week.

Yeah, you heard me. 30 minutes. I *believe* this is where I’d insert a #micdrop.

I see the eye rolling. The scoffing. The complete and utter disbelief. 

But I also see you. Not like in a creeper sort of way, but like an I *know* you and totally understand you kind of way.

You’re tired of spending hours poring over food blogs, cookbooks, Pinterest, and Instagram looking for something you think you might feel like eating next Wednesday.

You’ve gotten a little too cozy with easy. And by easy I mean drive throughs, take out, and delivery. You’ve spent more nights on the couch with three boxes of fast food French fries than you’d care to admit.

You feel stressed out trying to piece together meals from totally random and totally unplanned ingredients in your fridge.

So you dismiss this whole eating clean thing as too time consuming and too expensive.

But what if there was an easier way?

Presenting my as-yet-unpatented-but-totally-should-be-but-it’s-almost-too-simple-to-be-patented 30-minute meal plan approach.

Let’s dive in.

Step One: Take note of what’s on sale.

Bust out that grocery store ad (or circular or flyer or whatever you call it in your neck of the woods) and your shopping list because first thing’s first: We’re gonna see what’s on sale, what’s in season, and what looks good.

But what we’re not gonna do is go through that ad with a fine-tooth comb. No, this is not a leisurely meal planning session. This is a gotta-get-it-done-now session. So we’re only going to look at stuff we know we might want to buy.

For example, I usually give only a passing glance to the meat and seafood section, the deli section, the bakery section, the dairy section, and the personal care section. I’ll take a quick peek at the pictures to see what’s on offer, but I’m not spending time here. Instead, I’m diving in to the produce section and perusing the packaged and frozen foods sections.

Once you know what sections you really need to look at, then you can give them a little more attention. 

And by that, I mean, look at the fine print. There’s only so much room in that ad, and they can’t put pictures of EVERYTHING. So sometimes you’ve gotta do a little reading.

A lot of deals will be under other deals. Like, right now, I noticed that veggie burgers are BOGO (love a BOGO), but if I look a little closer, under the picture of those veggie burgers and that BOGO logo, I see that some guac is ALSO BOGO. You might not see that if you’re treating the ad like a picture book.

You’re probably thinking this sounds like it takes MORE time. But I promise once you are disciplined and have a trained eye, you can get through your weekly ad browsing in five minutes or less.

Okay, so once you’ve written down all the stuff that’s on sale that you might be interested in buying, it’s on to step two.

Step Two: Consider those sale items.

Now you’ve got a list of sale items – so what, right?

Think about any meals or recipes that use those sale items. Going back to those veggie burgers and guac, I might make that a lunch one day…a nice veggie burger with a healthy dose of guac and some sliced up tomatoes on top. 

If any meals immediately come to mind, go ahead and write those down on your meal plan. 

For me, I know that I’d get eight veggie burgers (BOGO y’all), but I’d probably get tired of eating veggie burgers EVERY. SINGLE. DAY. so I’d plan on having them only four days and save the other burgers for another week. (Check me out, saving money.)

Only spend a couple minutes here. Your favorite meals and any sparks of inspiration should be pretty instantaneous after wading through the ad.

If nothing comes up, that’s cool because we’re off to step three!

Step Three: Start picking your meals.

At this point, you’ve got a list of sale items and maybe the makings of a couple meals. Now we’re going to round out those meals.

First, you’ve gotta know how many meals you’re aiming for. I usually plan for four or five meals a day – breakfast, morning snack (or second breakfast…or early lunch), lunch, afternoon snack (or second lunch…or, I guess, early dinner), and dinner. I don’t always eat all five meals, but, for me, I’d rather be over-prepared.

So, let’s say you’re planning to have breakfast and you know you need seven days of breakfasts. Here’s what you’re gonna do: Pick two breakfasts and rotate them throughout the week.

I like to have smoothies and overnight oats, so I know that I’ll need one recipe for overnight oats and one recipe for a smoothie. If I think back to what was on sale, maybe I remember that it’s strawberry season. And I remember a recipe for a strawberry banana smoothie, so I go ahead and pencil those two meals in as my breakfasts for the week.

If you want to take your lunch to work but know that you’re going to be away from your desk a couple days, you might only plan for four or five lunches. (Don’t forget the weekends! Classic rookie meal planning mistake. And, uh, one I still make to this day, not gonna lie…) That means you’re also gonna pick two lunches and switch between them. Maybe it’s a salad for a few days and leftovers for a few days. Or maybe it’s a sandwich and soup. Whatever sounds good and doable. 

Dinner is where a lot of people get lost. I know I always used to struggle here because I wanted to make dinner, but I didn’t always want to cook when I got home and I didn’t necessarily want to be making something new every night. So I would stick to three different meals here. That way, I’m getting some variety, not having to cook every night if I don’t want to, leaving myself some flexibility for dinner out if I want, and using up some leftovers as lunches, too.

Okay, to recap this step: Decide how many breakfasts, lunches, snacks, and dinners you need to plan for. Then, start penciling the meals in to your plan.

Stuck? Not sure what meals you want to make? Not sure what sounds good?

A couple of quick tips here:

  • Have some go-tos at the ready. These would be meals that you know are winners, that always work, and that are practically no-brainers.
  • Don’t go for elaborate meals. We’re trying to do this quickly, and thinking through 17 different components does not lend itself to speed.
  • Don’t get caught up thinking you have to make something new every day. There’s always another week!
  • Don’t overthink it. Got a protein, carb, and vegetable, along with some fat? You’ve got a meal, my friend. 
  • Save your recipes. This one is a little more organizational, but I like to save the recipes I want to make for the week to my reading list in my browser so I don’t have to look them up every time. Which is also gonna save you time on step four…

Step Four: Make your list.

The hard work is over. This step should be relatively painless, I promise.

Peek back at your meal plan and any recipes you earmarked and start writing down what you need to buy.

I like to go through all my breakfasts first, then my morning snacks, then lunch, then afternoon snacks, and finally dinner. As I go through each meal and recipe, I write down the ingredients I need and how much.

It’s super important here to take stock of what you’ve already got on hand. Sure, sure, you can always freeze any extra bananas and pantry staples aren’t going to go bad anytime soon, but it’s a money saver, you know? 

(But, if you’re just in this to save time and don’t care about doubling up or being overstocked, just keep on building that list, my friend.)

Okay, to sum up: Look at all your meals and recipes. Write down all the ingredients (and the amounts!) you need. Double check to see what you’ve already got on hand so you’re not doubling up. And you’re done.

Step Five: Feel accomplished (but not for too long because you’ve still gotta go grocery shopping and that’s a whole other thing).

There’s really no instructions for this one…I know you know how to feel proud of yourself. Go ahead and pat yourself on the back. Job well done.

But, honestly, taking the time to make a meal plan (and a grocery list) and doing it in under 30 minutes is something to be proud of. And, the more you do it, the faster you’ll get. You’ll be an ad-scanning pro. A meal plan master. A list-making fool. 

One final note: Just because it’s on your meal plan doesn’t mean you HAVE to eat it. Think of your meal plan as a guide, not a to-do list.

A lot of people get tripped up because they’re super rigid about their plan. That’s not really the point here. The point is to be prepared and have an idea of what you’re going to eat. If something else comes up, if you decide to have lunch with your coworkers, if Thursday night turns in to Date Night, no biggie. Just know you’ve always got a meal plan to fall back on.

Okay, you knew this was coming, but I’m going to say it anyway: Now it’s time to make your plan and list. You’ve got guidelines, you know what you’re doing, now get out there and do it.

Make me proud.

If you’re still tossing and turning, monstrous meal plans taunting you and jeering at you in your sleep, have no fear. I can help you tackle meal planning by working with you 1:1 to give you some accountability, even more tips and resources (like a snazzy meal plan template that I use each and every week), and whole helluva lot of woohooing. If meal planning is something you’ve always wanted to try but you’ve been a little intimidated even though it sounds like something that might make your life easier, step right up and let’s simplify meal planning. I'll see you on the inside.