Easy 4-Step Meal Planning that Reduces Wasted Food

Several years ago, I walked into my therapist’s office, sat down and said, “Before C leaves for college at age 18, I have 4,372 more dinners to cook.”

If you feel overwhelmed by the thought of cooking dinner every night, I suggest you avoid making a similar calculation. Instead, I urge you give meal planning a try.

Benefits of meal planning

Reduces food waste. You don’t buy more food than you need. That is, unless you plan on cooking seven-course meals every night. If you plan elaborate meals—or even not-so-elaborate meals—every day you’ll wind up with little bits and pieces of ingredients you won’t use and you’ll have more food on hand than you can possibly eat.

Saves money. See above.

Saves time. “I think I’ll make              but I’m out of            .” Sound familiar? By planning your meals ahead of time, you’ll shop more efficiently and eliminate those last-minute trips to the grocery store during peak hours.

Reduces stress. So I’m no therapist but I do know that when I feel overwhelmed, making a to-do list calms me down. (Sometimes a to-not-do list induces a similar calming effect. “Do not check email after 7pm” for example.) A meal plan is basically a to-do list in to-cook list form.

Improves your diet. Unless you plan on eating homemade fudge for dinner topped with bacon, you’ll eat healthier food when you follow a meal plan. With a meal plan in place, at the end of a long hard day, famished and tired, you’ll be less likely to reach for a bag of potato chips for your meal. You may have already prepped something or you may have leftovers on hand that you can simply heat up.

Improves taste. Similar to the previous point, when you eat on impulse, you likely won’t eat the most delicious food—you may simply scarf down whatever you can get your hands on. Taking the time to think ahead, you’ll plan for tastier meals.

Meal planning light

I have never been very strict about meal planning. On the weekend, I’ll look at what food I have on hand and then think of a couple of meals I can make out of it during the week. I then buy any ingredients I need for those dishes. I’ll cook one meal the first night, eat leftovers the next night, then make a different meal the night after that. The next night we might eat more leftovers or something new made from all the leftovers—the person who does the cooking generally appreciates leftovers more than anyone else in the family.

Four easy steps to better meal planning

I’ve never been a super organized cook, more like a semi-organized one. Then recently, for a project I’m working on, I drew up a weekly meal planner. Filling it out and seeing our meals on paper, I realized that I don’t need to cook all that much. I felt relieved. Here are the steps I followed:

1. Look through the panty and refrigerator and jot down what’s on hand.

2. Plan meals based on number 1.

3. Fill in the rest of the menu planner with other favorite dishes.

4. Make a shopping list of missing ingredients.

Below is a screenshot of my meal plan for the week.

Download a blank PDF of my fillable menu planner here.

Following this menu, I’ll have to make the following to feed us for one week:

I feel this to-cook list is pretty manageable. I can make the granola, hummus and crackers on the weekend. Everything else I’ll make during the week. I’ll cook vats of the chana masala and the minestrone soup so we have enough of both for a few meals. When I make soup, I almost always freeze some so I have a meal squirreled away we can eat in a pinch. A follower on Instagram told me she follows my chana masala recipe and freezes that successfully.

I’ll have a few other things to prep—steel-cut oats (I quickly start them the night before and heat them in the morning), salads, hard-boiled eggs, an omelette, pancakes. These all take little time. I have kimchi—or krautchi, a cross between kimchi and sauerkraut—on hand at all times. I make several jars of it every few months. I try to eat at least one fermented (i.e., probiotic-rich) food every day. My gut loves me for it.

Our diet isn’t perfect but I do try to incorporate lots of vegetables and fruit into it. As Michael Pollan says, “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” You’ll notice I don’t make anything very elaborate. You may want to cook more gourmet fare than I do. If so, please invite me over for dinner 😉 

Only change is constant

If you don’t usually meal plan and want to give it a try, I’d keep one or two slots blank in your plan for the unexpected—a work lunch, a dinner invitation to a friend’s, a night out. Things can come up and throw off your plans. Try not to stress about it.

The best laid schemes o’ Mice an’ Men,

Gang aft agley,

An’ lea’e us nought but grief an’ pain,

For promis’d joy!

— Robbie Burns, “To a Mouse”

13 Replies to “Easy 4-Step Meal Planning that Reduces Wasted Food”

  1. I always say I’m never able to meal plan past the next three days. So after doing my weekly shopping at the farmer’s market, I come home and make a plan for three nights. After that, I find there are usually enough leftovers to be reinterpreted that we’re good for the next three. And if that plan falls through, there’s always something in the freezer I can grab.

  2. I do exactly the same (no food waste in my house!) but wouldn’t have been able to articulate it so usefully. Cheers! I’m preparing a post on avoiding food waste and will send people to your link for meal planning.

    1. The Zero-Waste Chef says: Reply

      Thanks so much for reading and for the mention in your upcoming post 🙂

  3. Ages later, I thought you might like to see the post, to which I’m still adding as we speak (your mention is under “cooking wisely” near the end): https://forloveoftheearth.com/zerowaste/food/

  4. […] Zero Waste Chef has a downloadable menu planning template and some great advice, or there’s plenty of websites […]

  5. […] Zero Waste Chef has a downloadable menu planning template and some great advice, or there’s plenty of websites […]

  6. I think your blog is great. I have a large family and meal times can be a very stressful affair, especially with kids with fussy eating habits.
    My wife and I often talk about meal planning but don’t seem to be very good at it! You have some sound advice and I’m certainly going to download your meal planner. Thanks.
    I look forward to reading your other posts.

    1. The Zero-Waste Chef says: Reply

      Hi Adam. I find that even just a bit of meal planning can help with the stress. I’ll eat anything but I too have a somewhat picky eater so I have to think ahead. I hope the planner I made helps. Thanks for reading 🙂 ~ Anne Marie

  7. I stumbled across your site today, and I like it!

    We have been consistently planning our meals for three years now. The one thing that has made this miles easier for us is using the website plantoeat.com. It is a paid site, and takes a bit of work to import your recipes in the beginning, but the amount of time it saves me in meal planning/list making/grocery shopping/cooking is worth the cost and effort ten fold.

    I used reusable shopping bags and produce bags long before this. Meal planning is the icing on the cake. It has so significantly reduced our food waste. I found your blog looking for ways to take the next steps in our journey (bringing reusable containers to the meat counter and deli, and buying more dry goods from the bulk section in reusable bags.)

    Hopefully someone else sees this post and benefits from the wonderful program plantoeat.com has created! (I am not affiliated or compensated, just a big fan.)

  8. You are amazing and an inspiration, is there any chance you could suggest some recipes for those with small people.. i cant get my toddler to eat curry, but would love some recipe suggestions/meal plan for family meals. Thankyou for your continued inspiration!

  9. This is great 🙂 Meal planning is such a stress reliever

    1. Thank you! I’m glad you find it helpful 🙂

  10. I just found your website and had to comment here — I had tried meal planning in the past and could do it for about a week before I lost momentum. Then…a pandemic! Trying to limit my grocery trips to once a week while feeding four kids, a husband, and two grandparents (who will take over the kitchen at any opening), meal planning turned into a necessity. If only to keep everyone from asking “What are we having for lunch/dinner?” all the time. It turns out with the right motivation and a good dry erase board, even I could make the meal planning happen!

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