How to Meal Plan When You Don’t Have Time

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I love this simple strategy for meal planning! This is more my pace.

This post is part of the Crafting a Healthy Kitchen series hosted by Jaimie Ramsey, Richly Rooted, and Young Wife’s Guide! Follow along on our blogs as we share practical tips for creating a healthy, real food kitchen, and pick up a copy of our cookbook!

Three years ago, I jumped into a real food diet with both feet. It wasn’t a hard transition, really–it was fun and exciting! My mom had fed us a healthy diet growing up, so a lot of the things I was learning simply built on the foundations she’d taught me. I had picked up some unhealthy eating habits in college, though, and I knew I needed to get back on track.

As I cut out processed foods and ate more fresh fruit and vegetables, I also began to make my own yogurt in the crock pot, cook whole chickens, and drink raw milk. I did many of the things on this list, and poured over real food blogs and my brand-new copy of Nourishing Traditions.

Many of the blogs I read recommended meal planning as part of a healthy, real food kitchen. Meal planning was something we usually only did when we had guests over for an extended stay, so this was a new habit I had to form.

The benefits of menu planning made sense. You can steward your food budget better and know exactly what’s going in your body. Plus, having a predetermined menu makes grocery shopping easier.

I meal planned faithfully for a couple of years, but then, in the last few months, I fizzled out.

Has that happened to you?

Maybe you agree with me that meal planning is a good idea, but you too have hit a busy season and you’re just not sure you can add one more thing to your To Do list.

Maybe you can’t see what each day will hold, so making any kind of “plan” is out of the question.

Maybe you don’t have time to sit down with your cookbooks or Pinterest to browse for ideas.

Or maybe you lost steam, and meal planning just isn’t fun for you anymore.

Instead of creating a traditional meal plan, with each day and dish listed out in chronological order, try “menu mapping.” Menu mapping is the most flexible, simple, stripped-down way to meal plan. It’s for the busy seasons in life, and it’s what I’m doing now!

Although menu mapping is unstructured and forgiving, it still retains many of the benefits of more intentional meal planning. You’ll be able to keep your budget in check and avoid the afternoon scramble to come up with a dinner plan each night.

Here’s how it works…

Meal Planning for Busy Seasons -

Pull out a piece of paper and jot down all of the supper entrees you’d like to make during that grocery shopping cycle. Keep these simple, using familiar standbys or classic recipes that require minimal steps to prepare.

DON’T write items in the order you’ll consume them, or match dishes to days. DO break up chronological, top-to-bottom thinking and scatter your meal ideas all over the page.

DON’T include side dishes, but DO include one special dessert or snack to enjoy that week.

DON’T make all of the recipes complicated, but DO include just one or two “fun” recipes you want to try, or that will expand your cooking repertoire.

If your budget allows, plan to have one restaurant or take-out meal, and write that down, too. We’ve found that if we plan a meal out, we can look forward to using it on a night we need it most (and we don’t cave in and get take-out on more nights than we meant to!).

Keep breakfast, lunch, and snacks ideas on a separate piece of paper (or in your head) and just reuse them every week.

Weekday breakfast examples:

  • Eggs (scrambled, fried, or boiled)*
  • Grits and sardines
  • Yogurt*
  • Oatmeal*

Weekend breakfast examples:

  • Breakfast burritos
  • Bacon or sausage
  • Pancakes*
  • Baked goods like muffins* or scones*
  • Sausage biscuits and gravy*

Lunches are the most “boring” meals around here, but they’re all tasty! We rotate through these options:

  • Leftovers
  • Sandwiches*
  • Quesadillas
  • Wraps

We add one of these snack ideas to our lunches, or eat these between meals:

  • Almonds
  • Orange slices
  • Homemade applesauce*
  • Carrots
  • Bananas
  • Peanut butter
  • Stove top popcorn
  • Boiled eggs

* Indicates a recipe included in Real Food for the Real Homemaker.

After you make your menu map, flip the paper over and create a shopping list using the ingredients you’ll need for those recipes. I like to divide my shopping list into four simple categories: Cold, Dry, Produce, and Miscellaneous. I explained how to organize a grocery shopping trip in more detail HERE.

If you’re using our cookbook for meal inspiration, you can take advantage of the shopping list generator that comes with the book.

Add some fruits and veggies to your shopping list that you can mix and match with meals to create quick side dishes, and any healthy snack supplies you need, like almonds or popcorn kernels.

After your shopping trip, stick the menu map to your fridge or bulletin board. Each night before bed, glance at your menu map and decide what you’ll make the next day. Pull any items out of the freezer that need to be refrigerated and defrosted overnight.

When you make each meal, cross it off the map until all the ideas are used up!


  1. says

    Happy Wellness Wednesday! Did you know that regardless of sex, age, BMI, and how much you exercise, sitting increases your risk of chronic disease and premature death!? The longer you sit the greater your risks become. Stand Up, Sit Less, Move More! Thanks for hosting!

  2. says

    This is a really interesting method! I like the way you explain how to think through it at every stage. Learning habits like this really saves time.

    We have an unusual situation: I plan the meals even though my partner does all the weeknight cooking because I am a better planner and the primary grocery shopper, but I work outside the home and get home at dinnertime. It’s been working well for us for several years now.
    Becca @ The Earthlings Handbook recently posted…One Brave GirlMy Profile

    • says

      Thank you! It sounds like you have a nice system going! My husband and I also like to split up the work–he usually does the grocery shopping for us and also cooks some of the meals, while I meal plan/write the list and cook the rest!

  3. says

    This has been my general method for a long time, with the exception of a couple of years when I was a 40something college student, my husband was also in college and working full-time, and our teenage son and his girlfriend were in high school and working part-time jobs and sharing the cooking pretty equally.

    What I do now is use the Yumprint web app to collect recipes. I do use the meal planning function (which involves dragging a recipe card onto a calendar day on a strip at the top of the screen) and generate a shopping list from that, but dragging recipes from one day to another in the app is a breeze, so I don’t feel at all bound by the days. But that comes after years of just making a list of 7 dinners and keeping it on the fridge to choose from.

    During those couple of years when my life was just too crazy busy, I actually made 8 one-week menus and the shopping lists to go with each week’s menu. The meals were planned together, with everybody having some say-so on what they had the time and skills to cook, etc. and with everybody’s school and work schedules in mind. The kids ended up cooking two nights each week, my husband cooked two nights each week, and I cooked the other three nights, although often one of my nights was either leftovers or date night or that wild hair “Let’s have breakfast for dinner” night that just happens here every so often. 😉 I plugged the menus into a Google Calendar that was shared with everybody and kept the shopping lists and recipes in an Evernote notebook that was shared with everybody. It rolled along pretty smoothly for a long time!
    Maka recently posted…Swedish MeatballsMy Profile

    • says

      It does help! There’s method enough to keep me frugal with groceries, but it’s also loose to fit our schedule! By the way, your GLAMPS menu planner looks very interesting!

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