Meal Planning 101
Get the 101 on Meal Planning below. Learn what benefits to expect from meal planning, as well as the best ways to get started!
Are you looking for more time to spend with your family, while also enjoying delicious and nutritious meals?
Meal planning can make our lives less stressful while making mealtimes healthier and more enjoyable.
It can also save you time and money! Read to learn the 101 on meal planning.
Why Do We Meal Plan?
Between work, family, and life, planning a healthy meal often falls at the end of the to-do list. Near the end of the day, there’s that panicked thought about what to make and whether you have the right ingredients to prepare it.
Before I started planning my meals out a week in advance, this used to be my normal, too.
My husband and I kept a frozen pizza, deemed our “emergency pizza” in the freezer in case we arrived home to find that we really couldn’t craft anything out of the food we had in the house.
Certainly, one night of frozen pizza or take-out wouldn’t significantly impact our health (or yours). But as someone who was interested in a healthier self, weekly frozen pizza was not a recipe for success.
It’s not a time saver, either, as frozen pizzas can take up to 45 minutes to cook in the oven!
Health negatives aside, no one enjoys that stressful feeling of wondering what to make for dinner after a long day.
What is meal planning?
Meal planning simply means planning your meals ahead of time. For most people, this means planning one week in advance but some people plan out a whole month.
Why should meal plan?
Planning your meals ahead of time can help you feel less stressed about what’s for dinner, or running out the door with no time for breakfast in the morning.
Between work, life, family, school, social activities, and obligations, figuring out what to eat can fall to the bottom of the list.
If you come home to an empty fridge or no plan, it’s all too easy to waste money (and health) on take-out or processed freezer meals.
Ideally, mealtime should be a relaxing break to the hustle and bustle of life. A meal plan makes it possible to have a relaxing, nourishing meal to end your day.
Benefits of Meal Planning:
The benefits you receive through meal planning are numerous:
- Save money by avoiding impulse purchases, planning around seasonal items and coupons, and using all the food you buy (no more food waste!)
- Improve your health by ordering less take out; ensure that your week is nutritionally balanced
- Save time because you can condense the number of trips you make to the grocery store; you can also prep meal
- Less headaches because you aren’t having to stress about what to make at the end of a long day
- Reduce anxiety over whether your family will eat it; if they have been part of the planning process, they are far more likely to eat it later
- You can plan healthier dinners and ensure that your whole week leads to a healthy balance of nutrition. For example, you can see whether you have too many days of pasta, or that you are lacking on fish dinners throughout the week. You can plan rationally for what you want to serve your family. (Getting them to eat it is of course an entirely separate matter, ha!)
- Making dinner with a plan is a much less stressed, more enjoyable affair. You won’t have the anxiety creep up about what to make that evening while on your drive home from work. You won’t be concerned about whether you have enough beans or peppers to make the taco Tuesday dinner you thought up as you approached your home.
- You can let your kids be a part of the planning process around food, which leads to improved acceptance by your kids when it comes to dinnertime. This makes for much easier mealtimes because your kids aren’t surprised by what’s on their plate!
- Meal planning can save you money! Taking a grocery list to the store means no more impulse purchases. Later, it means no more rotting vegetables in the fridge that you forgot to use. Take out is no longer an expensive necessity. Also, you can plan meals around what you have left in your food budget. Budget tight towards the end of the month? You can plan more vegetarian meals and save recipes that call for fresh fish and meats for the next month.
- Meal planning can save you time (my personal favorite). What parent doesn't need extra time in their lives?! Customers who meal plan reports saving 2 hours per week, in the form of extra trips to the store, frantic pantry searches, and unnecessarily making the same thing twice (it saves time to make one big batch of rice on Monday than cook up half that much two times).
How to Get Started with Meal Planning
- Print out a fun weekly calendar, or use a reusable one to keep track.
- Pencil in evening activities including kids’ sports, music, or art lessons, work deadlines, or other days when you might benefit from leftovers or quick and easy meal to prepare.
- Include any holidays or nights when you may want to plan something special.
- Take inventory of the foods you currently have in your home and start your meal ideas using the ingredients that you already have on hand.
- Start adding meals to all the open spaces! The fool-proof way to ensure well-balanced nutrition and zero stress is to plan out all three meals (and potentially snacks). If you are just getting started, planning main meals like dinner and school lunches is a good place to start.
- Put together your grocery list and head to the store. Most families find that allotting time for meal planning, grocery shopping, and meal prepping all in one day works best for them, while others like to break it up by meal planning one day, grocery shop the following day, and meal prep the next - choose what works best for you and your family’s schedule, there is no one right or wrong way!
Things to Keep in Mind:
- Create a balance between your meals. Aim to consume a variety of fruits and vegetables throughout the week, and incorporate whole grains, legumes, meats, and fish as protein sources.
- Vary how much work and preparation are involved. Cooking a gourmet meal every night is not a viable idea for most families. Keep things as simple as possible, especially in the beginning.
- Make leftovers work for you! If you cook in double batches, you can enjoy a meal on another night and not have to cook at all. Or you can eat leftovers at lunchtime, saving you money and time. Plan this into your week.
- Think about the meals that you and your family enjoy, but don’t forget to also explore new foods too! Take your kids grocery shopping with you and have them pick out one new vegetable to explore that week. Research shows that eating a wide variety of produce is the healthiest choice, so be conscious about choosing a variety.
Other Ways to Make Meal Planning Easier:If you are just starting out with meal planning, it may be challenging to chose from all the millions of recipes and types of food in the world. Many families find that have a weekly schedule around type of food, cuisine, or style of protein can help make the decision process much more manageable. Here are three ways to give it a try.
- Create a weekly schedule based around type of food. Pick a type of food that you plan to eat each day of the week. This could look like soup on Monday, salad on Tuesday, worldwide cuisine on Wednesday, grilled food on Thursday, sandwiches on Friday. Each day, you know what kind of food you plan to make. Then you just need to find a recipe that fits that category. Soup day, for example, could be lentil soup, chicken tortilla soup, veggie soup, chili, etc. You have enough variety to avoid boredom but you don't have to pick from all the meals in the world.
- Create your schedule based on worldwide cuisine. In much the same way, create an outline based on the type of cuisine. Monday could be Thai food, Tuesday Indian, Wednesday Italian, Thursday Mexican (or Tex-Mex), and Friday American. (As a reminder, the Mediterranean Diet does not mean Mediterranean spices and cuisines. It means a set of health-promoting principles that you follow. You can eat all different kinds of cuisines and foods, using these principles.) This is a great way to get your family exposed to different types of cuisines. An added bonus is certain types of cuisines, like Indian and Thai, lend themselves well to vegetarian dishes so it's a great way to get in those important beans and legumes! One drawback is that you will likely need a wider array of spices and herbs to accommodate the different regional preferences.
- Create your schedule based on type of protein. The Mediterranean Diet (and health experts everywhere) recommend varying your protein sources. Eat fish or seafood at least twice per week, and beans, legumes, and whole grains frequently. Your weekly menu might look like fish on Monday, beans on Tuesday, chicken on Wednesday, other seafood on Thursday, whole wheat pasta on Friday, and beans/ legumes on Saturday. Instead of choosing from the vast array of food in the world, every Monday, you can find a new recipe for fish. Every Tuesday, enjoy something with beans (chili, soup, black bean burgers, bean tacos, etc). You get the idea!
Once you have your calendar filled out, it’s time to get your grocery list together. Make sure you look at all the ingredients in each meal to ensure that you have everything you need.
Don’t forget to take inventory of the foods you already have at home too. This can be the most tedious part of meal planning, but also the most important, so give yourself some time to get the list together.
Having a grocery list will make shopping a breeze, as well as cut down on impulse spending. In the end, it’s all about saving time and money (all eating delicious and nutritious meals)!
Don't forget to organize your grocery list in terms of where things are in the store.
If you have 50 items on a list, you don't want to be running back and forth all over the grocery store because milk is item number one on your list and cheese (often located next to milk) is item 10 and then yogurt is number 25.
How We Can Help:
If you love the idea of meal planning but just don't have the time in your life, or you want to be assured that your nutritional needs are optimized for you and your family, let us take the guess-work out of your meal planning experience!
Check out our Mediterranean Meal Plans, created by our Dietitian Nutritionist Jamie with you and your family in mind.
While incorporating the Mediterranean Diet Principles throughout each week to provide a well-balanced diet, the meals are kid-friendly, super delicious, and super done-for-you!
Each meal plans comes complete with an organized grocery list to save you time. Upload the list to a grocery app and get your items delivered right to your door to save even more time.
Do you or a family member have specific dietary restrictions?