The Insanely Easy Way to Simplify Meal Planning

Want to know the easiest way to simplify meal planning? Learn this time-saving trick and get your very own FREE minimalist meal planning guide and printable meal planner templates below!

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

Meal planning is one of the most useful skills I’ve mastered since becoming a mama — and it’s one of the most important routines you can add to your life if you want to eat better and simplify family meals. 

It wasn’t always that way, though. Early on, I made some big mistakes, like going from planning zero meals to all the meals (and snacks, too!), filling my plans with a new lineup of Pinterest-worthy recipes every week, and never reusing any of the plans or grocery lists I had spent hours creating. 

I was told meal planning was easy, so after reaching burnout just a few weeks in, I decided it “just wasn’t for me.” 

And this is how so many of you feel.

I tried to quit, but the truth of the matter was my family still needed to eat. And as a dietitian, it’s 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, so I hoped a more simplistic approach to meal planning would achieve similar results. 

In doing this, I quickly realized the source of all my meal planning struggles the first time around — curating and cooking a lineup of new recipes each week.

New recipes have a steep learning curve and can easily take triple the amount of time to plan and prepare compared to meals you already know. When I simplified my meal options, I found meal planning got a whole lot easier.  

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

The Easiest Way to Simplify Meal Planning

If you want to simplify meal planning, create a master meal list. 

A master meal list, which I also refer to as “Favorite Meals” in my free planner, is a list of recipes and meal ideas you and your family already know and love. 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. 

Recipes on your Favorite Meals List are recipes you can lean on even during the busiest of weeks. 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 minimalist meal planning. Not only that, the kids enjoy the repetition and predictability of this simplified approach, so it’s a win-win for everyone! 

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

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 scrap piece of paper, 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 modifications and ingredient upgrades with me later!

Master Meal List Ideas

Here are a few ideas to help you build your list:

  • What are your favorite pasta dishes? 
  • 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 sautéed veggies, grilled chicken or burgers, grilled cheese and tomato soup, a charcuterie board, etc.)

What about breakfast and lunch?

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. In fact, if you’re new to meal planning I recommend starting just with dinners so you don’t get overwhelmed. Our family rotates through a handful of breakfast and eats practically the same lunch every day.

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. 

Print off your Favorite Meals list from our free guide, Meal Plan Like a Minimalist. Sign up here to get it!

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 these printables and my 5-step meal planning process, sign up below and I’ll send you my free guide, Meal Plan Like a Minimalist

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

Now that you’ve got your free meal planner printables…

Start filling out your Favorite Meals list! When you’re ready for new recipe inspiration, check out some of our favorite minimalist meals on the blog. And don’t forget to follow us on Pinterest and Instagram!

Pin the Planner

how to simplify meal planning modern minimalist meal planner pages with cookbook and plant on a wood table with title text overlay

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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