A handwritten one-week meal plan chart.

Have you ever stared longingly at your co-worker’s impressive homemade lunch while you had to make do with the stale granola bar in your drawer? Or are you finding that your busy family is growing increasingly dependent on takeout or delivery services just to get a hot meal on the table? It’s time to embrace the growing movement of preparing your meals ahead of time with an easy weekly meal plan.

If that task sounds daunting, you’ll be surprised to learn just how quickly you can batch cook and whip up a week’s worth of dishes — say, on a single Sunday afternoon — as long as you plan ahead. The key is creating an easy family weekly meal plan that works for you.

Benefits of meal planning

Meal planning saves time in the long run: Instead of cooking and cleaning up 21 separate times throughout the week, you’ll get everything done in one fell swoop. Meal planning can also help you boost your nutrition by encouraging you to take stock of your ingredients and portions. Finally, your wallet will also reap the rewards.

According to registered dietitian Bonnie Taub-Dix, MA, RDN, CDN, a busy parent who relies on easy family weekly meal planning tricks to ensure her three kids are fed and her budget is met, the savings comes from more than just avoiding restaurants or delivery fees. “By making use of the food you already have on hand, you can cut back on food waste,” she said.

Emptying out your cupboards and fridge can sometimes produce enough ingredients for full meals — cutting out a trip to the store and a trip to the dumpster.

Building an easy weekly meal plan

Meal planning can take several forms. You can choose to knock out all the week’s meals at once, or simply focus on dinners if breakfast and lunch are easy enough to manage (thanks to cereal and sandwiches).

No matter which route you take, you’ll breathe a sigh of relief when mealtime rolls around and there are no decisions to make or extra work to complete.

1. Find recipes

Some meals lend themselves better to batch cooking and leftovers than others (think: pasta, chicken, stews and soups), so start your search there. Try adding the word “healthy” (or “keto” or “low sugar” or whatever your goal is) into the search bar along with the name of the dish to reveal some healthier twists.

2. Look for ways to round out the meal

Some dishes may be a one-pot wonder (like a veggie-forward chili), while others need a few more elements to ensure all the food groups end up on your plate. Making an enormous salad to divide up is an easy way to get more greens. Sautéing your favorite squashes or root vegetables works as a simple side dish.

3. Make a grocery list

Once you’ve zeroed in on all your dishes, make a list of everything you’ll need to buy and use it as your guide in the grocery store. Plan your shopping trip for the day before you plan to cook so your ingredients will be fresh when you use them.

4. Keep an eye out for savings opportunities

As you put your shopping list together, look for available coupons and cash back offers that match those ingredients. Other ways to save money while preparing for your easy family weekly meal plan include buying nonperishables in bulk when they’re on sale (and then looking for recipes using those ingredients) and shopping for in-season items.

5. Schedule a time to cook

For some, Sundays are the ideal day to tackle batch cooking because of fewer commitments and distractions. But any day (or evening) that’s convenient to you is the best time — this should be a helpful experience, not a burden.

6. Store everything safely

Whether you choose to store items in individual containers for each day or pop an entire tray of lasagna in the fridge, make sure everything is sealed up airtight to avoid spills and premature spoilage.

Adjust it until you love it

Once you’ve tried out meal planning and prepping for one week, modify as needed before beginning week two. Perhaps you need to adjust quantities or find recipes with fewer steps. Or maybe you learned that some recipes just don’t reheat well. Once you’re feeling comfortable with the process, try rotating your recipes for a little variety.

Soon, this process will become second nature to you — something you can’t live without — and you can throw away those takeout menus for good.