the simplest method for meal planning

buttery zucchini with ground beef-2

Is menu planning something you struggle with?

Have you ever taken the time, written a plan, done the shopping and then had to force yourself to eat things that you didn’t really feel like at the time?

I have.

When it comes to menu planning, I’ve gone from one extreme to the other over the course of my life. When I was first getting into cooking I would pour through my favourite cookbooks and magazines and write my detailed shopping list every week. Mostly we’d end up changing the plan and eating different things, or going out at the last minute. As you can imagine, my veggies, like my menu plan would quietly waste away in the fridge.

At the other extreme, when I was living in the beautiful Barossa Valley, I used to just wake up and head to the farmers markets each Saturday morning and buy whatever looked enticing. This approach was much more fun, encouraging me to try new things when I got home. Took less time and generally had less waste. Win win.

But it takes a certain level of confidence in the kitchen (and a well stocked pantry) to work the ‘wing-it’ menu plan. So I wanted to come up with an alternative. And here it is…

the simplest menu plan

Take 10 ingredients, a few pantry staples and five different 5 ingredients recipes. Menu. Planning. Done.

Feel free to play around with this to add variety. Any canned beans could be used in place of the white beans. Salmon or sardines would be lovely in place of the tuna. Even smoked mussels or oysters would work. And the beef could be replaces with lamb, pork or chicken. Endless possibilities.

the 10 ingredients shopping list

  • canned tuna
  • canned white beans
  • canned lentils
  • canned tomatoes
  • fresh baby spinach or frozen spinach
  • zucchini
  • ground beef
  • lemons
  • smoked paprika
  • chilli

the pantry checklist

  • soy sauce or tamari
  • olive oil
  • salt
  • pepper

5 days of 5 ingredients dinner recipes

  • smoky tomato & lentil soup
  • ground beef with buttery zucchini
  • tuna & white bean salad
  • vegetable & white bean stew
  • simple burgers with quick tomato sauce
smoky tomato & lentil soup
smoky tomato & lentil soup
buttery zucchini with ground beef
buttery zucchini with ground beef
tuna & white bean salad
tuna & white bean salad
tuna & white bean salad
vegetable & white bean stew

Like to try an even easier Meal Planning method?

2MMP 3D Cover

I’m super excited to announce that the 2-Minute Meal Plan System is now ready.

To pick up a copy today, go to:

With love,
Jules x

See also: 16 Tasty Ideas for Zucchini.


  • I used to do menu planning by going to the farmer’s market (on Sunday!) and counting servings of vegetables – minimum of 3 a day per person (plus guests! minus meals out) for the week. I wasn’t entirely sure what the menu would look like but we had to eat all the vegetables by the end of the week. (And I started cooking by which vegi’s were most fragile.)

    It was a lot of work ;)

  • Great post! It has taken me a few years to get my menu planning to the stage it’s at now, which I’d say is fairly flexible. For seven days I will write down five meals, to leave room for the nights we may want to go out. Then I write down a shopping list for those meals. When I shop, I look out for specials and seasonal stuff and might change my menu accordingly, eg if pork mince is on special instead of beef I’ll substitute, or if eggplant is super expensive but pumpkin is cheap I’ll come up with a new recipe that has pumpkin instead of eggplant. I try and buy less than I think I need because I have a history of buying too much, and always keep a well-stocked pantry.

  • Menu planning and i have had a love hate relationship over the years…probably because I’m more of a wing it girl.
    But this is sensational. So easy, so simple, good for you and oh so delish!
    I know I can stick to this menu plan now you’ve put it into such simple & cost effective terms.
    Thank you so much for this post Jules. Loving your recipes – they rock!

  • Good idea to have a basic but not overwhelming plan. I’ve tried 30 days at a time and liked it but my family didn’t. Right now I do whatever my husband wants at every meal time as what he “feels like” changes by the hour and being retired, he’s home for all meals. Maybe for myself, I can try your idea.

    Tell me, when you say 1 tsp. chilli, just what do you mean? Here in the states we have chili powder which is a combo of chilis, oregano and cumin. We also have chile powder which is straight, ground, hot chilis and we have crushed chilis which are small flakes (and sometimes called chili flakes). Are you talking the chili seasoning mixture or plain chile powder? The lentil soup sounds really good and I have the smoked paprika and all three kinds of chili concoctions but don’t know which ones to use.

  • I am apparently a control freak and do the very systematic planning, shoppinig, eating. But, I think this is key: plan nights for takeout, plan nights for leftovers, plan nights that you scrounge up an omlet or a can of tuna for dinner because you don’t feel like cooking anything else. I usually only plan 4 or 5 diners for the whole week knowing I’ll deviate a bit.

    I love all these recipes because I just started the Slow Carb diet. I hope that you’ll keep posting recipes that fulfill the Slow Carb requirements!

  • What an amazing post!!! Such a classic. Just loving these ideas and going straight to the tuna and beans salad for lunch, none of this waiting for dinner business.

  • For those out there with an ipod touch or iphone, I have been using an app (not sure if it’s ok to mention names or not – Jules let me know & I’ll update it). It’s brilliant! Saves me heaps of time & I can plan our menu on the way to the farm (if my husband is driving of course). I don’t want to sound like I’m selling (I haven’t got any connections to whoever makes it), but here’s a few things it does:
    – enter in your recipes in categories that you create (like ‘5 ingredients’ or ‘breakfast’) recipes can be in multiple categories. Time consuming to set up, but after that you’re laughing.
    – plan for the week by adding meals to the menu
    – hit shopping list button & it’s done for you!
    I’ve even set it up to show the shopping list in order of Farm produce & then the aisles of my local shopping centre. Saves heaps of time not tracking back & forth with a cranky one yr old!

  • Perfect timing, Jules. I am moving on Saturday and the meal plan works out perfectly. I already had much of the shopping list on hand and picked up ground turkey, spinach and zucchini. Tonight, I halved the recipe for the zucchini and ground meat. It came out great! I cooked it down until it began to stick the bottom of the pan, plated the meat and zucchini, used the lemon juice to deglaze the pan, and pour it over the top.

  • sarah
    love your balance of planning for things to go unplanned! great

    please tell us the name of your app – sounds interesting.
    I’d love to do a stonesoup app but need to find a pot of gold first!

  • This is brilliant and has come at just the right moment for me. I’m out of inspiration, due to so many things happening in other areas of my life, all at the same time. To have the guesswork taken out of both ingredient shopping and meal planning for 5 whole days, i.e. one ENORMOUS thing less to have to think about, has gone a long way to saving my sanity.

  • Thank you so much! My daughter and I are doing slow carb and I was just about to sit down and find a whole bunch of recipes that fit the plan- and you’ve done it for me!
    Maybe a regular weekly feature? ebook?

  • The app is called ‘Mealboard’. I think it’s $2.50, can’t quite remember. I forgot to say if you have a budget, you can enter your local shopping centre prices & it’ll add it up for you. You can also save a number of weekly menu templates too. I usually make a few for each season.

    Enjoy! Saves me so much time & keeps me organised.

  • I love this posting as it fits what I already do and now gives me some fresh ideas and recipies. I too, go to the farmer’s market each weekend and buy the weeks supply of fresh fruits and veggies. I keep many meats the freezer, beans and other out of season canned goods in the pantry. As long as I have veggies to choose from, it’s a quick stir-fry or soup and dinner is on the table in less than 1/2 hour (I often use more than 5 ingredients, when I feel like it).
    Thanks Jules, for your fresh ideas so I don’t get in a rut!

  • I’ve been trying for years to come up with (& stick to!) a menu plan that is interesting, healthy, easy and inexpensive. This fits the bill exactly. I’m going to try it out immediately. Thanks muchly, Jules!

    Also, I second the commenter above who asked for this to be a regular feature of the stonesoup blog…

  • thanks for the feedback guys. was planning on doing another version, possibly vegetarian in a month or so – watch this space!

    • Hi Jules,
      I’ve followed and adored your Stonesoup blog for years now, and have always appreciated the vegetarian suggestions for the alternative method ideas that you provide.
      I noticed above that you mentioned you may do a vegetarian version of this meal planning idea but couldn’t see one anywhere, so just wanted to find out if this ever was brought to fruition? Thanks for the wonderful meals inspirations! :)

        • Thanks for getting back to my query. If you ever do do a vegetarian option of a meal plan please let me know. I would love to have some ideas from you regarding this and from reading through the other comments it seems there’d be other readers who would enjoy this also.
          Was curious too if you’d ever done the LBTL challenge again after that time that you supplied recipes such as the buttered pasta, your lovely bread with homemade peanut butter and above all one of my favourite regular meals now, the Hearty Red Lentil Stew? I found the recipes that you supplied whilst doing this challenge extremely useful and insightful, so if you have any more like them please direct me to the best place to find them on your blog! :)
          Thanks so much,

  • Thanks for this post! I have soooo much trouble with meal planning.. and often toss out unused ingredients or extra big portions. Will definitely try out this meal plan soon! :)

  • This is awesome!! And again another vote for this as a regular feature – well worth a separate subscription. Thanks so much!!

  • !!! Hey Jules another great post with the bonus of 5 recipes instead of 1!!! I read through some of the reader comments and saw that there seems to be a recurring theme of peopel tossing out stuff they haven’t used. Maybe you could do a posting on using the ‘bits and pieces’ people get stuck with and aren’t comfortable combining? Maybe one night of the week designated to the weird things lurking in fridges and the backs of cupboards that aren’t used so often. Seems a waste to toss it….

    I noticed my husband struggling this week on his 2 dinner nights (we haven’t been to the shops yet and will go tomorrow…long story..) to cobble something together that tasted good and didn’t leave him hungry out of random parts of vegetables, no meat and only brown rice and NOT A CANNED TOMATO OR BEAN IN THE HOUSE!!!!

  • Simple and quick, while being varied and healthy. That’s my kind of menu, however you plan it. And I agree with you about smoked paprika. It’s lovely. I only wish I’d discovered it sooner.

  • just discovered your blog — i love it! this is the way i live and cook!

    my boyfriend and i eat a similar version of the tuna & white bean salad, usually with a dollop of dijon stirred in. so italian and so simple!

  • I made the zucchini and ground beef last night. I improvised a LOT, mostly because I didn’t want to go find my computer (I had been at the gym for almost two hours before I got home). I broke the ground beef up smaller than your picture (again, no computer for reference) and since the only two ingredients I remembered off-hand were the zucchini and ground beef, I added Italian seasoning and used garlic olive oil to fry the beef.

    Essentially: Delicious. So simple.

    My cousin and her roommate were studying at my place while I was at the gym and when I came back they set off to PICK UP a pizza they’d ordered. I was done cooking and was chowing down when they returned.

  • This is just brilliant. So simple, looks so delicious! It’s Monday, so after work I’m going to stop by Kroger and pick everything up for the week. Can’t wait to try everything.

    You mentioned in the comments section above that you might do another of these meal-planning posts again. Please do! Love your creativity.

  • First attempt on a rainy Easter Saturday with Smoky Tomato and Lentil Soup. What a delight it was!! Amazing to find how good the canned lentils were. And so easy peasy to prepare and serve. Thanks for the steady stream of super ideas!!

  • katherine
    thanks for the feedback!
    am definitely planning another menu planning post in the next few months

    yay for canned lentils – so glad you enjoyed them!

  • Hi,
    2 questions:
    1. Can I get Smoked paprika in Coles or Woolies? If yes, which section?
    2. You use a lot of canned food. Here in Australia I havent seen any cans that say BPA free. Do you know whether this will have long term health effects?

    (tried the tomato-lentil soup without the paprika, and it was great!)

  • I’m a little late to the party, but I just stumbled on this blog today while looking for something to cook tonight. Love this plan. I will take my little girl to Whole Foods today to pick up the ingredients on this list that we don’t already have, and I plan to do some number crunching to see what the cost per meal comes to. My initial guess is that, even with buying mostly organic, this will be a really cheap five days worth of eating.

  • Didn’t have much of this stuff on hand; somehow we were even out of soy sauce. Two zucchini’s and some frozen spinach (which I’ll use for the soup but not the salads) were all I had. The entire bill from WF was $31 for the ingredients listed, and I also bought a loaf of sourdough bread, bringing the total to about $35. Only bought one pound of ground beef though, but since we eat little meat that’s easy to stretch out over two meals. We should be able to have one slice of toast a piece (family of three) with each of these meals for the next five days.

    I let me four-year old girl pick out which of the pictures from your blog she wanted to cook first. No surprise that she picked the ground beef and zucchini. It was good! Love this blog.

  • We did the burgers using the cooking on salt method, and it really works nicely. I did wilt the spinach in the pan after finishing the burgers, so along with help from my four year old, I layered sourdough bread, burger, wilted spinach, and then the tomatoes. The girl really like seeing the colors contrasted, and she ate every bit of the vegetables (without being prodded) along with the meat and bread.

  • i’m a big fan of your recipes but i made buttery zucchini with ground beef last night and it just wasn’t great. i didn’t think the beef and zucchini flavors melded well together, even though i enjoy them both separately. oh well, can’t win them all!

  • I’m a vegetarian and one of the best things, for me, about your site is the variations to all your recipes. I love the idea of this post, but would much appreciate some veg options as I don’t eat tuna or ground beef.

  • Just had the beef and what I call courgettes – great! I added a few things I happened to have around (cannelini beans instead of some of the beef, mixed herbs, onion and garlic) and I’m having the same thing tomorrow night! I look forward to trying more of your recipes – particularly grateful for the low-carb/slow-carb lunch ideas, I needed some inspiration.

  • This is an amazing article. This is the first actually minimalist meal planning article I have found.

    If I’m honest, this blew my mind a little. Thank you so much for putting this out in the world.

  • I notice you use a lot of bags of Baby Spinach leaves. Why not grow some Warrigal Greens? A Native plant that you can just pick the leave from when you need them – they freeze well after you blanche them too see

    • I used to grow Warrigal Greens in my last house Janet but to be honest I didn’t like the flavour…. But you’re right they can easily be substituted for baby spinach

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