If we earned grades for our performance of adult responsibilities, I’d have a low B in cooking.

If you’re a teenager or college student about to brave the world of independent living, allow me offer some advice I wish I would have taken 3-5 years ago.

Of all the things you’ll learn to juggle, basic meal planning is tempting to leave by the wayside. Don’t. Your health is your most precious resources. You have to eat three times a day, every day. You may as well come up with a plan.

Meal planning is just deciding in advance what you will eat on what days. Some people plan for one week. Some people plan for a month. If you’re a single person with a small freezer, one month is probably not good for you. Try a week.

Here’s how I do it:

Option A: Hunt down specific recipes as you need them.

I use All Recipes. They are the best. Make an account! Don’t re-search the same recipe over and over like me.

Option B: Round up some cook books and find five or six recipes you like.

Go to your local library. Find the cookbooks yourself, or ask a reference librarian to show you the 641 area of adult nonfiction.

(Seriously. Ask the reference librarian. They desperately want something to do.)

There will probably be books for every cooking appliance, diet trend, season, and skill level. Don’t let the options overwhelm you. Browse for something that looks tasty, achievable, and most importantly, not filled with random exotic ingredients. (Why cookbooks? Why?!?)

At this stage in the process, you want to err on the side of getting too many books rather than not enough. This is the inspiration step. Not application. Go nuts.

Next step: Process the cookbooks at home.

Get a stack of sticky notes. Put on a movie. Go through your cookbooks.

They will be divided into sections. Look for things that sound yummy, are made with ingredients you recognize, and require cooking equipment you already have. Tag the ones you like with sticky notes.

Be realistic about how much work you’re willing to put into cooking. If something has 15 steps, it’s a hard pass for me.

Capture the recipes.

I use Scanner Pro (works on Android and Apple). Take an image of the recipes you want. Scanner Pro turns them into PDFs for me, which is what you need for the next step. The full app costs money, but you can use basic functions for free. (The price is totally worth it, in my opinion).

Organize your recipe in a 3-ring binder.

I don’t like recipe card sleeves because you have to worry about size and fit. And also, hand writing recipes? Who has time for that?

Basic printer paper + hole punch + 3-ring binder = hassle free. 

If your recipe collection is very basic, you can sort alphabetically. This will not work well after your library grows, but for beginners it’s great!

If you want to sort by category for easy searching, use binder dividers or colored card stock to visually separate the sections. I organize using the following structure:

  • Breakfast
  • Salad
  • Soup
    • Beef
      • Chili
    • Chicken
    • Veggie, Potato, or Cheese
  • Main Course
    • Beef
    • Chicken
    • Fish
    • Sandwich/Pasta/Pizza
  • Sides
    • Potato Based
      • Mashed Potatoes
      • Sweet Potatoes
    • Veggie Based
    • Appetizers
    • Breads
    • Sauce
  • Dessert
    • Cake & Brownies
    • Cookies
    • Chocolate & Candy
    • Ice Cream & Pie
  • Beverages

I’m obsessed with subfolders. (Just ask my dad). Your organization scheme may be less anal than mine. Let your eating preferences guide the categories. If you eat a lot of something, it may warrant its own subsection. This system adapts to you.

Final Step: Schedule your food.

Create a blank schedule for your chosen time period. One week? Two weeks? One month? Do a google search for a week calendar or just scratch days and meals on a piece of paper. Fill in each day with your main dish and fruits/veggies. Once a week, shop according to your ingredient needs.

Secret tip? Don’t start by planning 7 meals a day. I found 3-4 meals a week was a less intimidating goal.

After I collect recipes following the above steps, I use them for several months. Once I get bored, I repeat the process to find something new.

But before I round up another collection of cookbooks, I look through my binder. Did I try a recipe I didn’t like? Did I pick something so complicated I never even tried? Yank it out! It’s important to keep your binder lean. If you let it become inflated with crap, you won’t trust it as your source of easy mealtime inspiration.

My biggest obstacle to cooking success was lack of planning. No one wants to stare into the fridge after a long work day with no clue what to eat. If you feel the same, give this a try. Maybe it will help you as much as me.