How to Meal Plan Without Hating Your Life and Your Self

There is nothing in the world I love more than feeding myself and my loved ones food that makes us feel good. The kitchen is my happy place; years ago, a friend described me as a Kitchen Witch and I was like oh my goddess, I Am Seen.

But there’s a difference between preparing a meal in the kitchen because you want to, and the lightly daunting task of feeding yourself every day because you have to. I know you know what I mean — one feeling is like, Ohhh I found a new recipe for Turkish Eggs, I cannot wait to try this out on Saturday morning and the other feeling is like, Oh my fucking god what do you mean I have to think of something to eat for lunch again? And I have to do this tomorrow, too?! This is a racket!

In the face of adulthood, the pandemic, and various health issues, I have come to rely on meal planning as the thing that makes me not feel dread and despair every time breakfast, lunch, and dinner roll around again. (Every day! They really happen every day! What the heck!) I think meal planning as a concept has gotten kind of a sketchy reputation because so much of what is presented online is through the lens of a Perfect Instagram Influencer Mom Or Single Person who has like, matching Pyrex containers and a perfect manicure and thousands of dollars to dedicate to fresh produce, or through a Diet Culture Mindset, or as something you can only do if you’re Very Organized and Very Put Together.

I’m here to say fuck that, and to teach you how I meal plan.

1. Start With What You Have

Like anything you haven’t done before, I think it sometimes feels daunting to Start Meal Planning. That’s why I always tell friends it doesn’t have to be a big deal — you can literally start with what you have.

Think about the upcoming meals you want to plan for. I usually stick with dinners, but sometimes I plan for lunch and breakfast too. If you’re just starting, I’d say pick one genre of meal you want to plan for, and plan no more than a week out. You can grab a piece of scrap paper or simply open the notes app on your phone. Write the dates you’re covering at the top, then make a heading for each meal.

Now, go through your kitchen/pantry/storage space and see what you’ve got going on. A bag of carrots that came in your CSA and you’ve been unable to work your way through? Cool! Crackers you forgot about at the back of your pantry that are lightly stale? Okay! Your favorite salad dressing that you always have on hand? Excellent! I don’t always actually write a list of all these things anymore because I am comfortable doing a visual inventory, but if it’s helpful to you, write this all down. The point is you want to see what you have so you know what you’re working with.

Now is the fun part: start concocting meals you can make with what you’ve got in your house! You can look up recipes either online or in a cookbook, you can rely on staple favorites you love, you can ask housemates or friends or lovers or parents or whoever for their favorite meals with the ingredients you’ve got — the point is just to build a meal plan around what you’ve mostly already got on hand.

Once you’ve got your meals figured out, you can then go through each of them and see if you need to go to the store to fill in the gaps. For example, if you’ve got frozen chicken, carrots, peas, and chicken stock, and you decide to make a soup with these items, you may want to add fresh herbs and onion to the mix. Stick those items on your shopping list. Go through each meal on your page and figure out what you’ll need to supplement what you already have, then take that master list to the store. This way you’re only grocery shopping as much as you have to, and you’ll have every single ingredient necessary when it comes to prepping food for your whole week.

2. Use This Opportunity to Explore

Some people hate cooking and meal prepping, and if that’s you, this step is not for you. Figuring out some basic meals that you can employ to feed yourself and anyone else you’re responsible for feeding, and sticking with those for forever, is absolutely fine and encouraged! Frozen chicken fingers served with frozen broccoli is an absolutely reasonable (and delicious!) item to stick on a meal planning schedule.

However! If you’re someone who finds joy in the kitchen (like me), meal planning can be a tool that lets you explore new recipes, new styles of cooking, and new delicious meals that might become staples.

This meal planning technique is the exact opposite of our first one. Instead of starting with what you have, you get to start with your dreams. Have you been dying to make the latest TikTok trend butter board? HOT. Do you want to do a cute DIY sushi night with friends? HELL YEAH. Did you receive a wok as a gift last Christmas but haven’t actually used it yet? NOW IS THE TIME. Pull out your cookbooks, text your foodie-est friends, go through the Autostraddle food archives, and dream up some exciting new meals to try! Then, once you have your meal plan set for the week, make your grocery shopping list.

Full disclosure: I do not have the energy or the budget to entirely comprise a meal plan like this, even though I’d like to — but I love cooking so much that I usually let myself plan 1-2 meals like this, and use staples we keep in our home to fill in the rest. Mix and match is a great way to meal plan and to decide what might be best for you.

3. Bulk Is Cool, But Not a Necessity

We’ve all seen those Instagram reels of a woman making a ton of protein, veggies, and grains, and then packaging each little group into 5+ containers and proudly signing off with something like “FOOD FOR THE WEEK, COMPLETE!” Mazel tov to that women, but sometimes you don’t want to eat the same thing 5-7 days in a row.

I have a disordered eating past and I have a host of current health issues that make feeding myself challenging. Sometimes, it really is easiest for me to just make a giant batch of something and eat it for 5-7 days in a row. And if this is you too, that rules. I think cooking in bulk can be useful, efficient, and cost effective. I also highly recommend making bulk quantities of food and then freezing it in plastic take out containers if you have the freezer space, because it’s so nice to have a fully stocked freezer of home cooked single serving meals and it also solves the problem of feeling tied to eating the same meal a million times in a row just because you made a bulk size of it.

However! I feel like a lot of meal prep literature focuses only on bulk prep, and I just want to firmly say it is NOT a necessity. The point of this magic is to make a plan so you feel prepared and empowered every day when meal time comes along. If your plan is cooking all your food on Sunday and portioning it out for the week and that works for you, I salute you. But if your plan is essentially a menu list for the week that you plan to prep individually each day between the hours of 5pm and 9pm (listen, sometimes in my house we eat dinner at 9:30pm, it’s not my fault my freelancer schedule and Capricorn work ethic keep me in my office until 8pm some evenings!), I really think that’s great too. Part of demystifying “meal prep” is making it work for lots of different lifestyles and preferences.

In short: you don’t have to commit to cooking in bulk to have a successful meal planning strategy.

4. Keep It Simple

Meal prep does not have to be an elaborate situation. I’m obsessed with those moms who make epic bento boxes for their kids’ lunches, and I’m also realistic enough to know that when I’m a mom one day, I will not be using cookie cutters to make decoratively shaped sandwiches for Vanessa Jr. We want meal planning to be realistic and useful, not aspirational and Instagram-photo-worthy.

If you have easy meals you enjoy, stick those into your meal plan regularly. If it brings you joy to make a huge pot of something and then stick it in matching Tupperware containers labeled both with the date you made the meal and the date you plan to eat it, hot! I empower you to continue that vibe! If you just want a gentle guide for what you’ll be making each night at dinner time because you actually love unwinding in the kitchen and don’t mind making a new meal each night, you just want to know what that meal will be and that you have all the ingredients to make it on hand, that’s a perfect meal planning strategy, too! The goal is to make your life easier however that looks, not by giving prescriptive advice about how you must do this task, you know?

5. Make It Fun

If I’m being honest, I got into meal planning because of a woman I used to nanny for who kept a weekly dinner menu in her kitchen. It was a small blackboard with the seven days of the week printed on it, and each Monday when I arrived to care for her tiny child there was a new menu written on the wall in careful white chalk print. She included things like “leftovers!” and “date night at a restaurant!” along with things like “salmon and rice with simple salad” and “grill night!!! veggie-focused, meat-optional” along with things like “mom out with friends, dad & baby on their own” and “whatever’s in the freezer.” It was the most organized and chilled out method to meal planning I’d ever seen, and I wanted to emulate it.

That was seven years ago (what is time!) and I literally realized my own chalkboard-in-the-kitchen dream JUST THIS WEEK. What took me so long, I do not know. But listen, dreams come true! And now I have a chalkboard, chalkboard markers (actual chalk and all the mess that comes with it is not my dream), and a weekly dinner menu in my kitchen, too. But! For the past seven years where I was weirdly denying myself this incredibly easy to accomplish dream, I kept my dinner menus elsewhere: on my phone, on scraps of paper, in my head… and I learned along the way that there are lots of ways to make meal prep fun.

a chalkboard broken up into days of the week with a meal for each day sits on a porch, with small pumpkins on either side and an adirondack chair in the background. pinned to the chalkboard is a pink-tinted photo of two people kissing, with "femme" written across the top in neon letters.

Like I said earlier, I’m someone with a disordered eating past, and so I initially felt afraid that meal planning might shove me back into an unhealthy mentality about my food. But I’ve been able to do the exact opposite by keeping the activity fun. I focus on food I want to eat, and the things that nourish me and make my body feel good. I explore new recipes. I’m honest with myself — in grad school, a lot of my meal plans were simply “frozen food 1,” “frozen food 2,” “takeout,” “frozen food 3,” “free food at grad event,” etc. That’s fine! It was still a plan, and it still helped me feel organized and grounded and not worried that I would be hungry at 10pm and panicked because I had nothing in my apartment that really worked as a meal.

These days, I collaborate with my girlfriend on our weekly dinner menus, and brainstorming with the person I love about what our week looks like is super fun. We include date nights and specify when she’s cooking or I’m cooking so we have things to look forward to all week. If splurging on cute containers or setting aside $30 each week for a lavish takeout situation makes meal planning more fun for you, do it. If buying a cute kitchen chalkboard makes it more fun, do that too. Don’t wait seven years like I did — do it today.

Do you have a particular way you approach meal planning that I didn’t get into? I’d love to hear about it in the comments.


Practical Magic is a new column that curates how-to articles for living your best queer life, edited by Meg Jones Wall.


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Vanessa

Vanessa is a writer, a teacher, and the community editor at Autostraddle. She used to be hot and fun but now she’s mostly hot and sad. Find her on twitter and instagram.

Vanessa has written 384 articles for us.

24 Comments

  1. i have a list on my fridge of backup dinners: if i don’t have any other ideas, i have one meal per night (plus 2 just in case meals) that are preparable, within less than 20 minutes (mostly within less than 10), with frozen or shelf-stable foods i almost always have around, with a relatively ok-to-me protein/veg quantity.

    i don’t eat these meals constantly, but it’s nice that if it’s monday and making a decision feels impossible, that i can do lentil pasta and veg-filled sauce with parm and not have to think about anything.

    i make and freeze breakfasts for 2 weeks at a time (usually high-protein banana or zucchini bread), eat the same morning snack every day (string cheese and fruit), and mostly do leftovers or weird mess combos for lunch.

    classic meal prepping, even like in the article, feels hard to me, but this feels totally doable and stress-reducing.

  2. I’ve been doing some pretty simple meal planning for years now. It’s a system I developed for myself that works for single people (like the eternally single sadsack that I am), and people on a tight budget (like college students). The recipes are generally healthy, cheap to make, and tasty.

    Without further ado:
    I have a curated list of recipes that I enjoy eating, all of which make 4 servings, and I need two of them. One of them is provided for me by the previous menu, so I just have to choose a new one. Current menu as of time of writing: Pasta (second time) and Green Goddess Soup (first time). On the first day of the menu, I make the new recipe. Then I make the old recipe on the second day.

    From there, I alternate between the leftovers until I’m out. That way I’m not having the same thing night after night and getting sick of it. Once both sets of leftovers are exhausted, it’s time to go grocery shopping for a new menu. So I choose a new recipe that I haven’t had in a while, and go grocery shopping (on the day I go grocery shopping, I treat myself to a pizza; usually store bought, but on very rare occasions bought from a pizza place in town).

    Breakfast and lunch aren’t planned under this scheme, but I keep them pretty simple.

  3. one of the first homework assignments my favorite therapist ever gave me (mary i miss you every day hope you’re well) was to write out a list of meals i liked and usually had the ingredients for on hand and then rank them by prep time/energy level because at the end of a long work day, my spoons were so far gone that even deciding what to decide on was exhausting. so now i keep a list on my fridge to jog my tired brain cells. sometimes it’s a full meal with multiple steps and ingredients! sometimes it’s cereal and a premade smoothie with hidden veggies! fed is best

  4. I loooove meal prepping! It’s the only thing that keeps me sane during the week. I take the opposite approach and plan out my breakfasts and lunches for the week, and don’t really worry about dinners so much (cereal for dinner is a favorite) since I’m usually much hungrier during the day. The biggest thing that made it feel doable for me is to buy a set of 5 small containers that are perfect for overnight oats or some other oatmeal situation for breakfast, and a set of 5 bigger containers that are perfect for lunch. The lunch ones are nice glass containers from Ikea and they were only $3 each. Dealing with mismatched Tupperware lids that got melted in the dishwasher was stressing me out too much!

    Budget Bytes is my go-to recipe website. On the weekends when I’m planning out my grocery list, I look at what I have already and what’s on sale/in season and then browse Budget Bytes for recipes that match up with that.

  5. I love print cookbooks and having them set up in my cookbook stand. Online recipes just do not do it for me and get me sucked into my phone when I want to be taking a break from screen time. But, cookbooks are expensive, so lately i have been taking out new cookbooks from the library every month or so. I’m excited about cooking and mean planning if I’ve got a new book full of new ideas!

  6. We had a sort of semi planned meal roster for the week when I was growing up – mum would plan her grocery shopping around the meals but there was no set days for where things were made, which is a nice compromise for people who don’t enjoy routine. Plus at the end of the week we’d have “whatever night”, which is where you could eat whatever was still in the fridge or make something yourself.

    I “cook in bulk” in that I live alone and most recipes make 2-4 meals. If I’m feeling particularly into cooking I’ll freeze half and alternate between various dishes but mostly I just eat them all in a row because it’s easy.

  7. I’m here for this, Vanessa! I also love cooking so much, but meal planning is what keeps me loving cooking.

    I’m also going to take this opportunity to plug my favorite app: paprika. It costs money, but is SO worth it in my book because it a) can pull ingredients and directions from any website into the app b) has a really functional recipe to grocery list feature and c) lets you sort grocery store aisles according to your local store(s).

  8. I have two tips to add, in the vein of meal prepping does not have to mean batch cooking and eating the same meal for 4-5 days.

    1 –
    When I am pressed for time, or tired, I find the prep part of cooking so arduous. The actual cooking, I still enjoy. To get around this, I’ll prep whatever I can on Sunday, so that after work, I don’t need to do much, if any, prep.

    An example would be stir fry. On the weekend I would chop carrots, bell peppers etc, mix up my sauce and store all this in airtight containers in my fridge. Deli containers are really good for this. Then when I’m ready to cook, all that’s left to do is prep my protein.

    Makes cooking after work much more manageable, at least for me.

    2 –
    Batch cook ingredients that can turn into a variety of meals, or can be used as a side to top up your choice of protein.

    My favourite example is to make a big tray of roasted veggies. Generally I will roast them with just salt, pepper and olive oil, so they can really go any way later in the week. Use as a side to protein, as a flavourful and hearty base for a salad, add heft to a burrito bowl, blitz up and add to pasta sauce etc.

  9. I really like this approach to meal prep and it not being the Instagrammy unrealistic for most people kind. I like cooking but long covid makes both cooking and eating a chore and I had a bit of a breakdown a couple of weekends ago about being completely fed up of planning, prepping, cooking, eating and cleaning so thank you for the first part of this piece.

    I always plan dinners for the week and used to struggle with ideas for what to cook so I made a big chart of single portion meals, two portion meals for two days and four portion meals for two days plus freezing. It’s made the decision-making so much easier. After a week of minimal prep stuff to give myself a break I’m now aiming for cooking one of those options each week, with fresh or frozen leftovers the rest of the time.

    • Oh man, I’m right there with you with long covid making meal prep and cooking way harder. I really like eating well, and rewarding myself by cooking a nice meal for me and my girlfriend often motivated me to do other tasks first.

      Now I have to be way more careful with managing my energy, and I haven’t quite found the right balance yet.

      • I think part of the difficulty is that you don’t have to find that balance just once, you have to deal with it repeatedly changing depending on what else is going on and it can be really hard to adjust. And pacing can help but adds its own challenges.

        • Yep, that’s true. I’m trying to not be super negative on your very constructive comment, but it sure can be very frustrating when energy levels fluctuate from week to week! 😅 What do you find challenging about pacing?

          I think the two things that helped me the most is to accept that some things just won’t get done – especially when it comes to chores. And that I should still use my limited energy budget to do things that bring me joy.

          • Pacing generally is a challenge because it’s not a natural way of being for me (or anyone really) but for cooking specifically it’s hard because if I want to cook a meal in the evening I need to do the chopping and general prep by mid-afternoon. That’s fine sometimes but other times it’s annoying to have to fit that in with the other things I need or want to do that day. It’s great that it means I can cook a lot more often than if I didn’t pace but it would be nice to not have the prep spread across so much of my day. Plus sometimes I have to accept that I won’t be able to fully clean up afterwards but it means that takes energy from the next day.

            And yes, using energy for joy is so important!

  10. Great article gal.I have been meal planning for yeas now. I take an hour (usually Sunday) to meal prep for the week. I keep a little binder with recipes printed out and also a list of meals I know my boyfriend enjoys so he can pick a couple for the week.
    I only have to shop once a week this way, and the money and time saved is a tremendous amount!I used to meander around the store filling the cart with EVERYTHING that looked good as a potential dinner. There was a ton of food waste doing that.Now I always have a little something leftover to take to work (bye bye expensive takeout lunches) and no spoilage in the fridge.
    My friends proclaim they don’t have time to meal plan,but the truth is we don’t have time not too. The simple, helpful content of your article makes this idea so shareable and DOABLE. I will pass this along.

  11. My mom was a person who would eat to live, not live to eat. So every Monday night it was a certain meal, and every Tuesday night a different meal, etc. They all took 30 minutes or less to make, and we had homemade family meals most nights of the week.

    I believe in homemade family meals, but I’m not as organized as my mom. I have several go to, kid friendly recipes- lazy lasagna, tacos, grilled cheese and tomato soup, homemade tortilla pizzas, oven baked chicken with rice and broccoli. And then we have leftovers sometimes. It just depends on how many appointments and visits my kids have and the timing of when I can cook or pop something into the oven.

    One of my older kids who graduated and moved out came by for dinner yesterday. She said she had missed my lazy lasagna, which warmed my heart. I was happy to send her home with leftovers.

  12. I subscribe to Cooksmarts which sends me a meal plan every Thursday – I can modify # servings, dietary prefs, and add/delete meals – and then it makes a grocery list, to which I can add my list of “weekly staples.” Then I order them online for pickup. Then all that’s left is the part I actually like! Cooking! Its $90/year and I save that much many times over by getting less takeout. I hope it’s not spammy to put my referral link with my info here – it’s the meals I’ve made from this service and I’ve never thought anything was bad!

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