How to Meal Plan When You Don’t Have Time

Are you in a busy season of life and simply don’t have time to meal plan? Here is a new, simple strategy for menu planning when you’re short on time! This is the easiest meal planning method that will save your sanity without adding another thing to your to-do list.

Don't have time to meal plan? Try this new, simple strategy for menu planning when you're short on time! This is the easiest meal planning method that will save your sanity without adding another thing to your to-do list. #MealPlanning

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 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?

Why meal planning isn’t working for 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…

Here's how to plan healthy meals even when you don't have time! This menu planning system is the easiest way to eat healthy without spending a lot of time.

Menu Mapping – The Easy Alternative to Traditional Meal Planning Methods

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 (like the ones in my cookbook) 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 a running list of breakfast, lunch, and snacks ideas on a separate piece of paper and just reuse them every week. (Put the list inside your recipe binder for future reference.)

Easy Meal Ideas

Here’s a sample 1-week meal plan you can use. For more simple meal ideas to add to your menu maps, see below.

Easy supper examples:

Weekday breakfast examples:

Weekend breakfast examples:

Easy lunch ideas:

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

Healthy snack ideas:

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
  • Cucumber slices

For more healthy snack options, check out this list of 21 healthy snack ideas.

Creating Your Shopping List

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. This system will save you time from trying to categorize everything you need! I explained how to organize a grocery shopping trip in more detail HERE.

If you’re using my 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. For the most budget-friendly options, look for produce that is in season. (Here are printable produce guides for spring, summer, and fall.) Lastly, add any healthy snack supplies you need, like almonds or popcorn kernels.

Using Your Menu Map

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! At the end of the week, think about which meals were easiest to make and were most popular with your family. Write these meals ideas down on a piece of paper and keep it inside your recipe binder. Add to it each week, and pretty soon you’ll have a whole database of inspiration for future menu mapping!

Frugal Real Food Meal Plans (ready made!)

If you want to take all of the hands-on work out of meal planning, you can always sign up for a meal planning service! There are lots of meal plan options out there, but not all of them are created equal. My recommendation is the Frugal Real Food Meals Plans from Don’t Waste the Crumbs.

These monthly meal plans will help you eat healthy food on a budget. You’ll get prep lists, shopping guides, money-saving strategies, and resources for freezer cooking and crock pot meals, too! You can see everything that’s included in Frugal Real Food Meal Plans HERE, plus get a free 2-week sample.


    1. 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!

  1. 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!

  2. I like the idea of not assigning the items to any particular day. The success of meal planning depends a lot on discipline and good habits… something I need to work on!!

    1. 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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