Meal Planning Basics: Setting Up Your Meal Planner

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To learn more about the benefits of meal planning, check out the post Discover Meal Planning.
You're excited about meal planning, and you've started gathering your recipe resources and jotting down ideas. You're ready to get started -- but how should you do it? Here are a few possible tools for organizing your weekly meal plans.  

Spreadsheet. Use Microsoft Excel, Apple Numbers, or whatever program you already have on your computer. Create a layout like a calendar, with rows set aside for your main dishes and sides. As the illustration above shows, I set up my spreadsheet with rows for the date, the main dish, the side dish, the salad, bread, and the meal status. The rows remind me to aim for well-rounded meals, though I don't always need to fill in each one (for example, if I'm making pasta with chicken and veggies mixed in, I don't need an extra side). Use a new worksheet or table for each month but don't delete old planners as they're a great reference for future planning. I like the flexibility of being able to see and plan up to a month at a time combined with the row structure. I can add future meal ideas as I think of them, then move them around as necessary later. Spreadsheets are my preferred planning tools, but home-oriented database program, such as FileMaker Bento, also allow you to create a custom structure for planning your meals while keeping a running record of what hits the table.  

Calendar. You could use either a paper calendar or planner, or you could use a digital calendar program such as Microsoft Outlook or Apple iCal. Make an entry each day for your planned meal. Paper works well, but I find that calendar programs don't offer a lot of flexibility for entering data -- meals aren't appointments, and calendar programs are designed for entering appointments.  

Meal-planning software and web sites. Search the web and you'll find plenty of options, including free web-based planners like I only have experience with MacGourmet Deluxe (or regular MacGourmet with the Mealplan plugin). Meal planning is a new feature in my favorite recipe storage program, and in my testing I've found it's not as smooth and flexible as I'd like. There's a lot of menus and clicking involved, especially when you want to make a text entry in your plan, and you are limited to a one-week view. On the plus side, you can drag and drop recipes from your database right into your planner, press a link in the planner to bring the recipe back up on screen, and export your plans to Apple iCal. MacGourmet Deluxe also can print fancy menus if you're a budding Martha Stewart.  

Text document. The simplest method. I used to plan meals this way in college. I created a text document on my laptop, listed the days of the week, and wrote what I planned to cook under each day. When the week was over, I'd erase those meals and insert new ones. I wouldn't recommend erasing old meals now, as I find it useful to be able to look back on what I've cooked recently for inspiration or to avoid ruts. A note-taking program that lets you create separate pages within the same document might accommodate archiving better. Similar alternatives include a plain old paper notebook or a personal-information manager (I like Yojimbo). Plain text allows lots of flexibility but lacks the structure of a customized spreadsheet or meal-planning program.  

Worksheets. Or templates, if you're a teacher or student who can't think of worksheets without thinking of lessons. The web offers a variety of structured meal-planning worksheets for you to print out and fill in, perhaps as you're perusing the weekly grocery ad and making the shopping list. You might find some tucked into your word-processing program's templates collection, too. Or, look around at a kitchen store: I found a retro-looking meal-planning pad in a discount bin once. I wish I had used it more often! I will create and post some meal-planning templates, including one based on that notepad, soon. For more inspiration, check out some web sites that post meal plans weekly. CityMama usually posts her weekly plan on Mondays, and Epicurious and Every Day with Rachael Ray post weekly menus as well.   

Edit: I've posted several templates for meal planning you can download! Visit these pages for more info: Templates for Meal Planning Numbers Template for Meal Planning Excel Template for Meal Planning Know of any more resources? Please share them in the comments!

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  2. You should check out plan to eat if you are looking for an easy to use meal planning website. Oh, and it's free.