The Secret to Simple Meal Planning

Want to know the secret to simple meal planning?
Learn this time-saving trick and get your very own FREE minimalist meal planning guide and printable below!

modern minimalist meal planner pages with cookbook and plant on a wood table

Want to know the secret to simple meal planning? Well, you’re in the right spot because meal planning is now one of my superpowers. 

But it hasn’t always been…

When I first started meal planning after having kids, I made three huge mistakes: 

  • I went from planning zero meals to all the meals — and snacks, too!
  • I filled my plans with a new lineup of Pinterest-worthy recipes every week
  • And probably the worst, I never reused any of the plans or grocery lists I had worked so hard to create

Not surprisingly, I became overwhelmed and burnt out after just a few weeks. I decided meal planning “just wasn’t for me.” 

Sound familiar?

I tried to quit, but the truth of the matter was my family still needed to eat. And as a dietitian who is passionate about eating well, meal planning was something I was passionate to figure out — not just for our family but so I could help other families as well. 

The second time around, I coached myself to meal plan like a minimalist. After all, simplifying my wardrobe, the toys, our kitchen stuff, and the kids’ clothes had drastically improved our lives. I hoped a more simplistic approach to meal planning would achieve similar results. 

In doing this, I quickly realized the source of nearly all of my meal planning struggles. I was spending all my time and energy curating and learning to cook new recipes each week.

person writing on meal planner pages with cookbook and plant on a wood table

The Secret to Simple Meal Planning: A Master Meal List

New recipes have a steep learning curve and can easily take triple the amount of time to plan and prepare compared to a meal you’re already familiar with. Once I figured this out, I realized the secret to simple meal planning is sticking with what you know — and the easiest way to stick with what you know is with a master meal list. 

What is a master meal list? 

A master meal list is simply a list of recipes and meal ideas you and your family already know and love —  the ones you can lean on even during the busiest of weeks.

A master meal list makes meal planning easier by limiting your meal options. It minimizes decision fatigue and eliminates the mental load of constantly searching for and learning new recipes. 

With a master meal list you can build a meal plan in a matter of minutes and cook with confidence because you already know exactly what you need to do to get dinner on the table each night.

Creating a master meal list is the secret sauce of simplified meal planning. Not only that, I’ve found kids enjoy the repetition and predictability of this simplified approach, so it’s a win-win for everyone!

How to Create a Master Meal List

Brainstorm your favorite meals and recipes.

To create a master list, you’ll need to first brainstorm a list of meals and recipes you and your family already enjoy. 

Grab a piece of paper or my free guide and master meal list printable, set a 5-minute timer, and write down all of your go-to meals: 

the ones you can think of off the top of your head, know how to make, and are well-liked by the entire family. 

Aim for at least 10-20 dinner options. If you’ve got more, great! It doesn’t matter how healthy they are. You can work on healthy modifications and substitutions later.

If you want to include breakfast and lunch ideas on this list, go for it! It won’t hurt to have a running list of favorites for these categories. Just know you don’t have to plan every meal, every day of the week.

If you’re new to meal planning I recommend starting just with dinners so you don’t get overwhelmed like I did at first. Our family rotates through a handful of breakfast and lunches — whole grain bagels and cream cheese, eggs and frozen hash browns, avocado toast and eggs, cinnamon oatmeal made with milk, leftover whole grain pancakes or waffles.

Master Meal List Ideas

I know how hard it can be to come up with meal ideas on the spot. Here are some thought starters to help you create your first master meal list: 

  • What are your all time favorite meals? 
  • Favorite pastas?
  • Favorite soups? 
  • Favorite casseroles?
  • Favorite sauces? (i.e. marinara, bolognese, pesto etc.)
  • Favorite slow cooker and/or Instant Pot recipes?
  • Favorite “bowls”? (i.e. burrito bowls, roasted veggie grain bowls, etc.)
  • Favorite cuisines to cook at home? 
  • Favorite breakfast-for-dinner meals?
  • Favorite foods to grill? 
  • Favorite recipes from a family member?  
  • What meals don’t you need recipes for? (i.e. nachos, quesadillas, homemade pizza, toast, pasta with sauce and sauteed veggies, grilled chicken or burgers, grilled cheese and tomato soup, a charcuterie board, etc.)

Put together a polished list

Now turn your rough draft into a more polished list that you can use regularly to build a meal plan. 

Grab my free guide, Meal Plan Like a Minimalist, and print off your own Favorite Meals list. 

If you don’t like the idea of a paper list, save your list as a note on your phone or create a Google spreadsheet or document to save on your computer. The goal is creating a list that you can reference repeatedly, update, and adapt over time. One upside of a digital list is you can link to your favorite online recipes right from your list! 

If you have a lot of favorite meals, divide them into seasonal lists, one with fall/winter recipes and another for spring/summer. 

Add new recipe inspiration

Use the space at the bottom to jot down new recipes you want to try. 

When you feel the need to spice things up, take a look at this list and add a new recipe to your meal plan on a week or night you have the time and energy to do so. Weekends are a great time to make new and/or more complicated recipes.

If you try a new recipe and your family loves it, add it to your Favorite Meals.

This is your master meal list that you will use to build your first minimalist meal plan!

Now that you have a master meal list, it’s time to put that list to use to quickly create meal plans you love and want to reuse. Just a few weekly plans can get you through an entire month, season, or more without having to meal plan every week!

To get your own free master meal list printable and my 5-step meal planning process, sign up below and I’ll send you my free guide, Meal Plan Like a Minimalist. 

overhead photo of meal planner master meal list with a pen cookbook and plant on a wood table

Now that you’ve got your free printable master meal list…

Start filling out your Favorite Meals list and grab your favorite minimalist meal planner printable from my Etsy shop! When you’re ready for new recipe inspiration, check out some of our favorite minimalist meals on the blog. And don’t forget to come hang out with me on Pinterest and Instagram!

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Author: Elle Penner M.P.H., R.D.

I'm Elle, Registered Dietitian and minimalism-obsessed mama with a thing for simplifying, particularly when it comes to clutter, calendars, and family meals. Favorite things include carbs, cooking, kid-free workouts, and high-waisted yoga pants.

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