Why Meal Planners On the Internet Suck

It’s late at night. You’re drained from work, and it’s dinner time. Now you have to work even harder to put a meal on the table.

You’re not alone.

This is our reality, every weekday.

Our solution is our meal planning system, and it doesn’t involve batch cooking. Thank goodness.

So, how do you plan meals with this system?

First, why meal planners on the Internet suck.

I started with meal planners from the Internet.

They’re a free 1-page document. You print it out and write down your shopping list. Or meal plan.

Meal Planner printables illustration with question mark asking "how useful?"Pin

They were a good start. But I soon outgrew them.


They either focused on only shopping lists or only meal plans. What we discovered is that cooking is a multi-part “holistic” system.

What do you cook?

What do you already have?

What will you eat?

What do you actually need?

It’s really 4 printables.

One shopping list isn’t enough. You also need a

  • food inventory,
  • a recipe formula, and
  • a meal plan.

Why the other extreme — paid meal plans — don’t work.

A paid, subscription meal plan gives you recipes and the shopping lists every week. These services are a dime a dozen (of course, they cost more than a dime).

Yes, they work as advertised. You will save money. You will not get bored. You will have an organized plan.

Meal Planner subscriptions with different food plans and options.Pin

But, you’ll also BURN OUT after a few months, if not weeks.

Switching to a new recipe is stressful.

It requires relearning how to cook if the recipe calls for a new technique.

Or it forces you to change your shopping routine and even go to a new store to pick up an ingredient you normally don’t use.

You never get efficient because things aren’t repeated enough. And that’s our goal, efficiency.

If you look at what you eat, I bet you repeat a lot more foods than you think.

Let’s use that to your advantage!!!

More importantly, your planning system has to evolve with your needs.

Finally, here’s what worked for us.

Develop your own system.

That’s the not-secret, not-satisfying, yet-you-know-it-to-be-true answer.

Because it is tailored to you.

Here’s the 4-part system you actually need

  1. Food Inventory
  2. Meal Planner
  3. Recipe Formula
  4. Shopping List

How to do the planning?

We started using paper.

The generic printables online make everything even because it looks prettier from a graphic design perspective.

But I don’t buy as many meats and proteins as I do vegetables. And I definitely do not try not to buy bread.

So, the freebies other people made didn’t work.

As a result, we started planning in a notebook.

Meal Planning system, iteration 1 on this notebook with messy writing and smudges.Pin
Planning in a notebook was ugly and messy. But it got the job done. No reason to let technology slow you down.

Then I made my own printables, adding extra room for vegetables and flavors. Ahhh, the flavor section!

Meal Planning system, iteration 2 printables, with meal planner, shopping list, and recipe formulae grids. Pin
Making my own printables cemented the idea that a meal system has 3 parts. It is a holistic system.

Until we outgrew paper and moved into spreadsheets.

Now we’re using spreadsheets.

Spreadsheets do the same thing as paper except reduce the manual work of copying and pasting. It also allows me to link to a recipe online. And carry it on my smartphone.

Meal Planning system, iteration 3, spreadsheet on cell phone using 4 tabs.Pin
Spreadsheets cut down our meal planning time by half because we can copy and paste from last week. Plus it helped us develop the fourth prong in our system: Food Inventory.

Can we get some tech help?

My next goal is to find apps and technology to help us.

A voice-driven app for food inventory would be great.

A recipe planner optimized for steps based on efficiency rather than food group would be fantastic.

A shopping list optimized by grocery store layout (omg!) would be mind-blowingly useful.

Use our experience to inspire your meal planning.

Take action this weekend to start your meal planning system. Don’t make it perfect. Just start.

Download our printables and spreadsheets if you need inspiration!

Leave a comment below if you want a copy of the printables and spreadsheet. Or send me an email at anna@garlicdelight.com.

Anna looking down chopping vegetables
About Anna Rider

Hi! I'm Anna, a food writer who documents kitchen experiments on GarlicDelight.com with the help of my physicist and taste-testing husband, Alex. I have an insatiable appetite for noodles 🍜 and believe in "improv cooking".

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