From the List to the Table: My Meal Planning Process


One of my favorite parts of the week is grocery shopping! Do you like shopping for meals, too? It’s such a good feeling to have a well-stocked refrigerator ready to go for the week, isn’t it? 🙂 But having a full fridge and meals for the week doesn’t start and end there with a big grocery trip. A good amount of planning and thought goes into the process, to make sure we’re doing it wisely!

I was determined to get into meal planning at the start of this year. Although I’ve definitely mapped out our meals (with varying degrees of success) quite a bit over the past 4 years of marriage, I knew this time around that I had to be especially intentional in creating a truly workable system for us.

Why Meal Plan?

Why did we need this kind of structure?

First of all, I knew I needed to meal plan more consistently because I would be home during the day with Sophie this school year. When Bjorn and I were both teaching full-time, I would purchase hot lunch (whatever the kids were having) during the day. I’ve never been much of an “apple and carrots for lunch” kind of person – I prefer something hearty and filling! And Bjorn often just plays dodgeball with his 7th graders during his lunch hour. So we never had to plan out lunches before. But now that I’m home during the day, and I desperately need calories come lunchtime (or I completely wilt!), I’ve had to look at planning enough food for not only suppertime, but lunchtime as well!

We waste less food this way. I think that everyone has the tendency while at the grocery store to grab an additional jar of salsa or another gallon of milk if we just can’t quite remember what we already have at home. For me, it tends to be silly things like buying sour cream or cans of black beans because I can’t recall if we’re out or not. And then, before you know it, you have quite the stash at home of repeat items! But the real problem lies in purchasing produce or perishable items and ending up with too much to use, with no real plan or purpose for the perishable items you already have at home. Then it’s like the fresh foods keep compounding in the fridge and if you’re not careful about going through it methodically, then things start to go bad.

We eat more healthily this way! I don’t like the idea of defaulting to pasta and bread-heavy meals every night (even if they are yummy and often simple!), and even though there is a great Chinese restaurant 15 minutes away, takeout is kind of an unrealistic option where we live – plus it’s expensive to eat out compared to making your own meals! Planning your own meals allows you to eat healthier because you’re not selecting items that you’re craving in the moment at the store.

Along the same line of thought, when we’re not just grabbing random things for random meal ideas at the store, we’re better able to stick within our budget! (When I say budget, I don’t mean just generally choosing cheaper items; we actually have a monthly grocery budget that I work to follow.) Of course, there are incidentals, and we do like to purchase extra ingredients for fun meals when we have friends and family visiting, so that can change things. For the purposes of today’s post, though, I’m talking about groceries and meal planning for just Bjorn and me.

My Meal Planning Process:

Here are the main steps I take each week, to make sure we know what we’re having each day! I’ll be explaining each step in detail.

1 // Brainstorming and mapping out the week. Sunday or Monday: This is when I sketch out what we’ll eat this week. I take into consideration any family meal gatherings we’ll be at, community events where there’s a meal provided, or if we’ll be out of town for Bjorn’s army drill and I won’t need to cook.

I brainstorm recipes on Pinterest like many people do, but I mostly like to refer to our collection of printed recipes in my recipe binder. (I’ve printed out what we’ve deemed to be our “Tried and True” favorites.) I create a plan for the week by using several of our favorite go-to meals and incorporating a new recipe or two into the mix. I really do love to try new meal ideas and new recipes, but I also know myself, and it would get more overwhelming than it needs to be if I were to plan only all-new, ambitious recipes all week long. Tried and true is underrated! It’s wonderful to have classics to lean on.

For this step of mapping out the week, I fill out my little meal template in Evernote. If you don’t use Evernote, I highly, highly recommend it!! It’s a handy note-taking site that syncs your lists and notes between devices, so you can access them on your phone or computer. I have a free account and it works really well for me. So, one of my notes in Evernote is called “This week’s meal plan,” and that’s where I make my list of what we’ll eat all week long. See the screenshot below:

^^ You’ll notice that the meal plan for this week starts on Tuesday. That’s because we got home from 5 days out of town on Sunday night and we reheated leftovers on Monday, so I didn’t worry about Monday meals. ^^

On my Evernote document, if it’s a new recipe that I don’t have printed out yet, I’ll also include the website link to the recipe so I can easily access it later.

I generally plan one specific, set recipe per day. The set recipe is usually for supper, as I typically eat leftovers for my lunches. Breakfasts are a more general category, so I just make sure we have those foods available but I don’t plan out a special breakfast for each day.

Sometimes I spread this step of the meal planning process out over two days – for instance, I may start to choose recipes for the week or start the grocery list late on Sunday evening after Sophie has gone to bed…and then on Monday, I’ll wrap up the meal ideas, make the list, and go grocery shopping. Other times, if I have the chance over the weekend, I’ll meal plan on Sunday afternoon and Bjorn will watch Sophie so I can go to the store alone on Sunday evening.

** Something I keep in mind when deciding which recipe to have on which day is what fresh produce or perishables are involved. I want to have meals with more perishable items earlier on in the week, so that those ingredients aren’t just sitting in the fridge for days on end. Remember, we want to avoid waste! 🙂 So, as you can see in the Evernote screenshot above, I chose meals like Tacos, Quinoa Bowls, and Quesadillas later in the week because their ingredients don’t need to be used up as quickly as the other recipes. It’s not to say that we’re not having fresh foods later in the week, since these recipes still have produce in them…but certain produce items go bad sooner than others do, and I want to be mindful of that.

2 // Writing the shopping list. 

After I have the outline of the meals we’ll eat this week, it’s a fairly simple matter of walking through each recipe and making notes of what ingredients to get.

Although I do love my online lists, I’m a paper person at heart, so I actually write out my grocery lists on paper. I write my shopping list in order of the store, to save time and avoid frustration (really important things, made even more crucial by the fact that I have a baby with me!). When I have a list, it directs my steps in the store so that I don’t meander around and start picking up treats that look yummy, haha. Since I’m following my list, when I go down the baking goods aisle, I actually don’t even glance at the crackers & cookies on the other side! And I hardly ever slow down and stare at ice cream flavors, because they’re just not on my list! 🙂

When I’m writing down my shopping list and referring to my recipes, if I’m not totally sure if we have an ingredient or not, I write a quick note on the side that I should check for those ingredients first, before writing them on the shopping list. So, for example, I may have a quick “Check” list that says to check if we have 1 lb. ground hamburger in the freezer, if we have a can of black beans, and how much shredded cheese we have. Then before my shopping list is complete, I get up from planning (usually in the dining room) and head to the kitchen to check for all those items on my “Check” list.

** I want to say that I do have an additional note on my Evernote account, that I’ve titled “Buy.” It’s an ongoing shopping list where I record things like laundry detergent or paper towels, but if I do notice throughout the week that we’re super low on something like minced garlic or brown sugar, I’ll add that to my “Buy” list, too. So then when I’m making the overall shopping list, I’ll quickly look over my “Buy” list on Evernote for any grocery-related items.

Anyway, once I write down the necessary ingredients in order of the grocery store’s layout, then I’m ready to go shop!

3 // Making the meal plan visible for everyone. Like I said, I’m a paper person, so once the meals are decided on, I write out the meal plan on paper that we then keep in the kitchen all week. I like having it on the kitchen counter, because then I can refer to it and remind myself what’s for supper tonight, even if I’m away from my phone or computer. Additionally, it allows Bjorn to see what the meal plan is for the week, without him having to log into my Evernote account.

4 // Getting recipes ready to go. Early on in the week, I gather all of the recipes we’ll be making (whether from my recipe collection or freshly printed off the Internet) and I keep them on the kitchen counter next to our meal plan. This is so that I don’t have to dig for a recipe later – I can just grab the recipe we need for that day, and dive in! It really helps.

5 // Grocery shopping! That’s the self-explanatory part! I won’t expand on that here. 🙂

^^ Headed back out to the truck with my favorite little shopping buddy! ^^

6 // Once I’m home from the store…

Obviously, I unload all of the groceries. 🙂 This restocks the fridge, and it ensures that everything is accessible for the week. If I bought meat that won’t be used for a recipe until later in the week, then I throw that in our chest freezer so it can stay extra safe for a few days.

And that’s how we do meal planning in the Olson home! Although I explained everything in a lot of detail here, the process itself is quite streamlined and easy! All of these steps, like writing the list in order of the store and so on, have become second nature for me.

I’m grateful to have this routine in place. Intentional routines are a beautiful comfort, especially when they help us make efficient use of our time! It opens us up to enjoy family time better, and it sets the stage for healthier food choices!

Do you meal plan in your household? How do you go about choosing the meals, making the list, and streamlining your process? 

PS — if you liked today’s post, you may be interested in reading about our daily schedule with a 6 month old, or subscribing to the email list and receiving a housecleaning and bathroom cleaning checklist!

PPS — I’ve been receiving a lot of requests not only about my meal planning process, but also about our favorite go-to meal ideas and recipes! Keep your eyes peeled for an upcoming blog post where I will be sharing those! 🙂