How to do Meal Planning Painlessly in 3 Easy Steps

Alright, this post has been a long time coming. I think I promised it “next week” about four weeks ago. I actually started writing it a year ago.  Meal planning has really improved the way I eat and manage my time (and sanity) during evening chaos, but the actual act of sitting down and planning can be SUCH a pain. For years, I’d resolve to do it, then last only a week before going back to my old ways of buying half the market and then coming home and ordering sushi because I couldn’t decide what to cook. Since I’ve found a strategy that is manageable and sustainable for me, I really wanted to share it with you.

Having a meal plan means:

– You’ll save money (lots of it) from not buying things you don’t need and not resorting to takeout on the reg.

– You’ll waste much less. The average North American household wastes close to 500 lbs of food every year. It’s sickening, but we all do it. I know I’m guilty of buying more than I need if I don’t have a list. I just threw away some lovely local, organic strawberries that went mouldy and wanted to punch myself in the face.

-You’ll eat healthier. Because without a plan at 6:30 pm, chicken fingers it is, amirite?

– Don’t most of us have only six go-to recipes we default to when we have no plan? This way, you’ll actually cook from your cookbooks/blogs/magazines, finding new favourites and learning new skills. So fun!

All that said, planning what to eat is overwhelming and not fun for most people. Even avid cooks. It’s easy to sit down with all your cookbooks, sink 3 hours into reading them all, and still walk away having no idea what to make that week. We’re majorly overstimulated with food choices – a “champagne problem” of the very fortunate – but lots of choices do make it hard to commit to anything.

So here’s my 3-step strategy. It’s worked for me now for years, and I used to really hate planning. Whenever I fall off the wagon for a week or two, I just jump back on again.


1. Re-think the concept.

Start by planning to plan just three dinners. Yes, THREE. I realize there are several more days in the week than that, but this is a magic number for sustainable meal planning without waste or throwing in the towel after one round.

See, when you shop for 7 meals in one go, you inevitably have an evening when you either don’t want to cook, change your plans, or simply don’t want what was on the menu. Besides, what are you going to do with all the odds and ends from these seven meals (a few stalks of celery, half-empty whipping cream, leftover rice?).

Moreover, sitting down and finding seven recipes you want to cook and building a grocery list is a major task. Three is totally manageable for planning (you can set a timer for 10 minutes to make decisions if you’re susceptible to the cookbook/pinterest rabbit hole).

After you’ve made your three planned meals, you can freestyle with the bits and pieces leftover from your menus, incorporating pantry staples to make flexible dinners like fried rice, frittatas, soups, thai curries, etc. Or you can include straggling ingredients strategically into another 3-day meal plan and start over.

Bonus points: DOUBLE IT. I plan for leftovers of virtually every single meal I make, doubling or even tripling recipes. If I’m cooking anyway, it’s no extra work to make more, and then we have food ready for lunch the next day, or dinner again (we only planned three, so we can totally eat the same thing twice! That’s another flaw with meticulous seven-day planning – what happens to leftovers?)

2. Choose your recipes.

Start by looking in your freezer, fridge and pantry to see what you already have. Use these ingredients as a jumping-off point to narrow down your options.

You can casually browse or search by ingredient through your collection in Pinterest and/or your favourite cookbooks, or use the tool I told you all about recently, in my organize all your print and digital recipes in one spot article.

The most important thing in this step is to pick three, any three that appeal in the moment, and COMMIT. Pull the trigger. It doesn’t have to take hours to decide, we aren’t making a marriage commitment, we’re talking a dinner date. Now is not the time to start reading every word of Bon Appetit. If you feel yourself drifting into food media abyss, reel yourself back in.

If you read that post I linked above, and would like to continue in Wunderlist, just star your chosen recipes in the app by clicking on the icon at the far right of any line.


Then they’ll appear in a new list called “starred”, at the tippy top of the right-hand sidebar, super easy to access during the week. You can even take it one step further and double click individual recipes to add “due dates” which means it’ll show up in your sidebar “week” list and in your Google calendar, too (here are the instructions for the quick and easy set-up). Helpful if you share your calendar with other family members.


3. Plan your shopping.

The cheater’s shortcut is to simply screenshot or snap a picture of the three recipes you’re going to use and head right out.  You’ll have everything you need right on your phone.

I prefer to make my life easier when shopping, and make an organized list of everything to buy (rather than juggling opening up multiple recipes and risking forgetting something).

Using my (awesome!) recipe organization system, open up Wunderlist to access your three recipes, each in separate windows so you can see them, and make a new list of all the ingredients you need. This can be your finished list, or you can separate it out by store and/or department so you can move quickly shop and not miss any ingredients at any specific stop.


Now you have the food you need to make three lovely dinners.  You’ll feel accomplished and organized, eat deliciously, and be in flexible control (the best kind).

Keep a thoughtfully-stocked pantry, fridge and freezer for breakfasts and non-leftover lunches, and dinner for the no-plan nights.  I’ll write another post soon with all my pantry staples for whipping up something from nothing. Hope you find these tips helpful! Here’s a link to a bunch of free printable planning/shopping lists if you prefer print.


Last Updated on September 23, 2022 by Jennifer Pallian BSc, RD

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5 years ago

Just wanted to tell you that I stumbled upon your page and I’m so glad I did! This article has been LIFE-CHANGING. I had dowloaded Wunderlist and didn’t know a good way to use it…did a quick internet search and found your article. It’s really helped me set up systems for organization of recipes and other things that makes me more efficient and productive. Love it. Thank you for spending the time sharing how you use Wunderlist! 🙂

6 years ago

Amazing tips, Thanks for sharing

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