How to Start Meal Planning and Tips to Make it Easier

By Jen Rawson, RD

Many people have the goal to eat healthier but few people put together a plan to meet that goal. And as the saying goes, “a goal without a plan is just a wish.” To put the goal into action, meal planning is crucial. But the phrase ‘meal plan’ makes people cringe thinking about being forced to eat fish every Friday, feeling completely overwhelmed trying to follow and create a plan, or exhausted spending hours cooking on a Sunday. But don’t fret! Meal planning just means putting some sort of plan on paper, or your phone if you’re more inclined, and is a lot more flexible than you might think.

To start, put your preconceived notions of meal planning away and pick which type of meal planning will work for you:

Fully scheduled - Every night (or just weeknights) has dinner scheduled and some people take it further and plan each of their weekday lunches. This is the most involved type of meal planning but you don’t have to make complicated meals each night. Planning quick meals and doing prep work ahead of time will make this schedule easier to manage.

Flexible - Picking two or three nights in a week to schedule a meal. These might be recipes you haven’t tried before, meals that require items from the grocery store that you don’t regularly have on hand, or simply your typical meals but written down to remove the guesswork of what to eat each night. Fill the rest of the week with staple meals that you have ingredients for and know how to make. This type of meal planning can break up monotony if you’re feeling bored with your current eating patterns.

Theme meals - Sometimes the biggest challenge of meal planning is coming up with ideas. By picking theme days such as “Meatless Monday”, “Taco Tuesday” or “Italian Thursday” for example, gives structure to picking meals and reduces decision fatigue. Get creative within those categories to reduce boredom.  For example, on taco Tuesday there are a variety of options including beef tacos, fajitas, fish tacos or taco salad.

Reverse planning - This meal planning occurs by taking stock of what you have to use up in your fridge, pantry, and freezer and buying foods that are on sale to save money. Then based on your ingredients, create a meal plan that uses up the ingredients throughout the week. This type of meal planning is great for saving money and reducing food waste but works best for someone skilled at being able to create meals without a recipe. 

Now that you’ve decided what type of planning you might undertake, you need to decide what method will work best for you. There are all sorts of ways to organize; ranging from printed out templates, paper agendas, excel spreadsheets or phone apps. Choose the medium that works for you and some time in your schedule that you can commit to planning.

Next, regardless of what type or method of planning you’re doing consider using some of these meal planning tips to work smarter, not harder:

Assess your Week

Look at your schedule and take note of days that you have evening activities planned where you might need a quick dinner or when you have more time to prep. There is no sense planning a full week only to recognize you are out two nights that week and having food spoil in the fridge.

Cook Once and Re-purpose

If you want to minimize the amount of time spent in the kitchen while still eating healthy don’t think about one meal at a time. Instead, re-purpose ingredients from one meal to another. For example, if you are barbecuing chicken one night, cook extra breasts to slice on salads for lunch or make into chicken fajitas for a quick weeknight meal.

Batch Cook and Freeze

Some foods require a lot of prep work, like veggie-filled spaghetti sauces, lasagna, soups, and stews. When making these dishes it takes limited effort to cook in larger quantities. So batch cook and freeze leftovers into smaller portions to reheat and use on nights when you don’t have time to cook.

Multitask

Everyone knows that eating more vegetables is healthy but it’s often the work of washing, chopping, and prepping vegetables that gets in the way of eating them. So while prepping vegetables for one meal, chop extra for other meals throughout the week. When writing out your week, plan meals using the same vegetables. This will save on prep time and save food waste.

Keep Staples on Hand

Healthy eating doesn’t have to mean gourmet cooking. Keeping your fridge, pantry, and freezer stocked with staple items allows you to put together a quick meal. Consider the balanced plate model of ½ plate vegetables, ¼ plate whole grains & ¼ plate protein when creating a meal. A quick meal could consist of a grilled tuna salad sandwich on whole-grain bread and a side salad or stir-fry made from parboiled brown rice, frozen vegetables, and chicken.

Meal planning has multiple benefits including making it easier to eat healthy, saving money, reducing food waste, and cutting back on stress worrying about what to make for dinner. But it is a skill. That means it won’t come natural or easy for everyone to start. Start small, planning just 1-3 dinners in a week. As you build the skills and get more comfortable add more dinners or lunches to the plan.

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