How to Set Up a Chaos-Proof Meal Planning System

It’s January, which means most people have more time than they did last month (projecting) and more energy for self-care, including planning and trying new recipes (also projecting). If that’s you too, how about using some of that extra headspace to set up a life-proof system for meal planning, so that you can enjoy the benefits all year long?

If you’re like many people I work with, you plan and shop for healthy meals when you can, but when life throws curveballs at you (and life always throws curveballs) it’s drive-thrus, delivery, or helpful-but-pricey meal kits.

Here are six aspects of your meal-planning system that you can streamline to make this a habit you stick with even when you have to work late, care for a sick relative, or attend a weekend-long hockey tournament.

1. Create a “go-to” meal and snack list

This is a list of five to ten (or twenty) meals and snacks that you really enjoy and can make almost on auto-pilot.

  • Don’t have any of those yet? Then start building up to it! Practice some basics like bean burritos or pan-fried salmon with a green salad. If you need a hand with cooking the basics, Mark Bittman’s How to Cook Everything* has been my trusty sidekick for nearly 20 years.
  • In a rut? Take my free “Go-To List Challenge.” You’ll receive an email a day for six days, each with a small step you can take towards building your go-to list. It includes a sample go-to list and recipe ideas.
  • Have them in your head? Write them down! (Unless you’re one of the blessed superhumans who can conjure up a meal from random ingredients, in which case you don’t need me and I need you! Please move in next door.)
  • Make sure the list includes a couple of “pantry meals” that you can make even when you haven’t been to the store in a while and keep the ingredients on hand always. (Here are some of our favourite pantry meals.)

Reach for your go-to list when you need a plan and time is tight. Browsing through cookbooks or Pinterest is fun but you should be able to put together a quick plan without doing it if necessary. Save it for Friday night and a cup of tea.

Stock photo. If your tea-drinking and reading night actually looks like this please call me. I need your help!

Subscribers to my tip-of-the-week emails get access to my go-to meal and snack list, so join us if you’d like to use that as a starting point. You can always unsubscribe when you’ve had enough heart-healthy eating ideas and inspiration.

2. Finesse your grocery list system

A “system” sounds like overkill here, but unless you live alone, you need one, or you’ll go to make your trusty black bean quesadillas and someone (not naming names) will have used the last of the tortillas and not told you. There’s a children’s book called “Put It On The List* where the mom loses it after family members use up one critical item after another and don’t put them on the shopping list. We still quote that book in our family.

Make it easy for everyone in your household to put items on the list. The best system is whatever people will actually use:

  • A paper list on the fridge – low-tech and simple, although you have to be in the kitchen to add to it, and you have to remember to bring it to the store. If you like, download my pre-printed grocery list, which is organized by aisle in the store.
  • A smart home device – In the last year we’ve moved away from a pre-printed list to Alexa. I’ve trained the family to just say “Alexa, add xxx to the shopping list,” and it usually gets done, although sometimes with some strange results, if she misunderstands. (See the first item on that list, and let me know if you can figure out what that’s supposed to be!)
    Sleep mouse?? Hmm

    Still, I’ve found this works better than the paper list; It’s easier for family members than finding a pen and finding the list and writing an item, and everything ends up on my phone where I can check things off as I put them in the cart.

  • A shared document or app – If your family is tech-savvy you can add list items to something like a Google doc or Evernote note from your phone or tablet. Again, then it’s all on your phone when you need to do the shopping. Or you could use a purpose-built tool like  OurGroceries, Cozi, or Out of Milk.

Lots of options here, so think about what would work best for you. That way you’ll keep everyone fed while going to the store just once (fantasy) or twice (reality) a week.

3. Invest in a good collection of individual meal-sized storage containers

This is a nice to have, but if you really want to optimize things, it helps to transfer leftovers into convenient single-serving containers. Usually we use them for lunches, but the occasional evening I send everyone down to the freezer to pick something and we start microwaving.

Bonus points if they match, but that’s really more for home organization than meal planning. When every second counts you don’t want to be hunting high and low for matching lids. And stackable means they all fit in the freezer. (We have a stand-up freezer, which also makes it easy to find things.)

Matchy matchy saves time, saves headaches.
Painters masking tape comes off easily, stays on in the freezer
Peanut butter pasta for everyone!


4. Get an online grocery shopping account

Some people really prefer to pick out their own groceries, but for those times when speed trumps perfection (hi working mamas), online grocery shopping is a lifesaver, but only if you’ve set it up when you have a time to figure out the system!

We click and collect (pick up) from PC Express at Real Canadian Superstore. Now that my account is set up, I can order groceries for a week in 10-15 minutes. I even have it bookmarked.

When I get to the store I also have PC Express on my phone favourites list so I can call them with one touch to let them know I’m there. I’m all about streamlining. Better yet, my husband will happily do this errand, while he loathes actual shopping.

Their service definitely isn’t perfect: There is almost always at least one item they substitute in a way that doesn’t work for me, but it’s still better than spending an hour traipsing through the store and let me tell you, it’s a godsend in mid-December when I’m on my way home from working and have exactly 27 minutes to pick up food and get home so we can go to the kids’ holiday show.

Bonus: When it’s -20C and snowing, you’ll have someone to help load the groceries into the trunk.

Just for the record, I have no relationship with Superstore (or parent company Loblaws) – I’m sure similar services work reasonably well too. If you’ve tried other services, I’d love to hear about it. Better yet, share on Facebook!

5. Recruit and train helpers

Can other family members help with meal prep or cooking? I hope so! Like everything else on this list, it takes time to get them up to speed, but it will save you time in the long run.

Also for kids, cooking is a critical and slowly disappearing life skill. For goodness sakes, please send them into the world able to fend for themselves without calling Uber Eats.

Clearly there’s no “one size fits all” approach for this, but one thing for sure, there should be more than one person in your house who can make a meal! That way when mom (it’s usually mom) gets sick, travels, or has to work late, the family has more options than pizza or frozen leftovers.

6. Develop a meal-planning checklist

Maybe it’s just me and my foggy mid-life brain, but I honestly use a short checklist for meal planning, even though I do it just about every week. The less I have to think about the better!

This is at the top of my meal planning note in Evernote. I just check off each item as I go. (Don’t you love checking things off a list?)

If you’re doing your meal plan on the piece of a scrap paper (which is fine!) this won’t work, but if you print out a blank meal plan every week, this can be at the top.

Or if your brain is more functional you can skip it. Lucky you.

If you want to download my blank meal plan with checklist, grab it here. You can choose a Word document or PDF, so you can personalize it if you like. Add or delete steps and really make it yours.

Let’s do this!

How can you take your meal-planning routine to the next level? Is there something you can set up now that will save you time when you need it most? Let me know! Always happy to hear from you on Facebook or by email.

* The Amazon links are affiliate links, which means that if you click through and buy the item (or anything really), I receive a small commission and you get to support this little blog at no extra cost. Yay! Thank you!

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