Figuring out what to eat every day can be stressful, especially when already juggling a busy schedule that includes work, family, and social obligations. Often, people end up scraping together last-minute meals or throwing in the hat and ordering food delivery. Rest assured there’s a better way to feed yourself and your family: meal planning. This approach ensures that you’re never left wondering what’s for dinner.
What Is Meal Planning? Meal planning is the process of building a weekly menu to best suit your nutritional needs. It can take the guess work out of what to eat for dinner.
Common Questions & Answers What are the basic steps of meal planning? Select the meals and snacks you plan to eat for the following week and put them into your calendar. You can use a meal-planning app or a calendar that hangs on your fridge. Create a grocery list that includes any ingredients you need to buy, snacks, and convenience items (for example, instant oatmeal or salad kits). Once you have everything you need, set aside a few hours each week (aim for sticking to the same day each week) to chop up fruit and vegetables, and cook grains and meat (or meat alternatives). You may decide to cook meals in batches in advance, or you can cook each meal fresh, knowing the prep work is already done. Keep your food organized by storing everything in clear containers labeled with the food item's name and the date it was purchased. How do I plan a menu for a week? Repetition is key. Pick two or three breakfast options and two or three lunch options for the week (at most), and add variety through dinner and snacks. Consider what meals you and your family enjoy eating, any food allergies or dietary needs, and how much time you have to prepare food. Then find recipes that fit your schedule and preferences. It may take some experimenting to settle on recipes that work for you, so do the best you can. What is the importance of meal planning? Planning your meals can save time and money, make it easier to eat healthy foods, and help you manage health conditions like diabetes and heart disease. Is it safe to meal prep for five days? How long food lasts in the refrigerator varies depending on what it is. Soups, stews, and salads can last for three to four days, whereas chicken or turkey only have one to two days, according to FoodSafety.gov (check for details on specific food items). When in doubt, toss items in the freezer.
Why Meal Plan? There are many reasons to plan your meals in advance.
It takes a little effort at the outset to think through what you’re going to eat the following week but having a plan in place takes away the stress of planning and cooking meals every day. This may be especially helpful for people who work long hours, manage a health condition like diabetes, or have a family to feed. You don’t even have to stick to your meal plan to the letter — simply having a rough guide can be enough to take some of the stress out of grocery shopping and preparing meals every week.
Meal planning can also help you follow a healthy eating pattern. If you don’t have a plan in place, you may be more inclined to order a pizza on a busy evening, even if it’s not something you’re going to truly enjoy, But if you know you have a healthy and delicious meal waiting for you at home, that pizza or trip to the drive-thru may sound less appealing.
Eating healthier is beneficial for everyone, but it’s especially helpful for people who need to pay close attention to the foods they eat, like those with type 2 diabetes or heart disease. Having a meal plan can make healthy eating less overwhelming for these people. You’re not stressing about what foods go with what, and you know ahead of time that these foods have been cleared by your doctor or dietitian to help manage your condition.
You may even save money by meal planning, not only by eating fewer meals out but by cutting down on food waste. The average family of four spends $1,500 a year on food that goes uneaten, and food accounts for the largest proportion of refuse in landfills, with more than 20 tons of food waste in a given year.
Meal Planning Considerations Repetition is key. You don’t have to eat the same thing every day, but cutting down on the number of different meals you have during the week will make things easier. Pick two or three breakfast options and two or three lunch options for the week (at most) and adding variety through dinner and snacks. You can even repeat those meals for a few weeks before switching things up. Having a few staple meals every week can help keep you from feeling overwhelmed while ensuring there’s enough variety. For example, have fish for one dinner every week, tacos for another dinner, and burgers for another. You can change the recipe by trying different fish dishes, taco fillings, and burger meats, including vegetarian options. Set aside a few hours on a day that isn’t very busy to batch cook any meals that repeat, so you’re all set for the week.
Tools for Meal Planning You don’t need to overhaul your entire kitchen to begin meal planning. All you need are a few tools to help you stay organized:
Food Storage Containers Get a variety of sizes, so you can store individual portions and large batches of food. Find containers that are freezer- and microwave-friendly to make storing and heating your meals even easier.
A Lunch Box If you plan on transporting your meals, a lunch box is a must-have.
A Meal-Planning App There are tons of free and paid mobile apps that you can use to keep track of your meal plan. Paprika Recipe Manager, for example, allows you to make meal plans, organize your recipes, and create grocery lists. The app will even sort the items in your grocery list according to which section in the store you can find them. When it’s time to cook, you can track your progress in the app by crossing off ingredients when you’re done with them and scale ingredients to your desired serving size.
Meal-Planning Journal If you prefer pen and paper, use a meal-planning journal. Bloom offers different options, including a pad to keep on your fridge. Fill in which meals you have planned for each day of the week and then write out what items you need in the shopping list section. The shopping list is perforated so you can tear it off and bring it with you to the grocery store. Email me for free meal planning templates.
To make it easier to keep track of your meals in the fridge and freezer. Labeling your food containers is especially helpful if you plan on freezing a lot of items. This way, if things pile up in your freezer, you won’t have to waste time guessing what’s in each container. Basic labels will work just fine, but you can also find meal-prep labels online.
Grocery Shopping Tips for Meal Preppers Once you have your meal plan in place, your next step is to hit the grocery store. Use these tips to make shopping easier.
Make a list. You’ll inevitably forget one or two items if you try to remember everything off the top of your head. So be sure to make a list. Review your meal plan for the coming week and write down which food items you need. Cross out the items you already have so you don’t buy more than necessary. Email me for a free grocery shopping template.
Hit the frozen food section. The freezer section has come a long way over the years. For instance, you can often find grain and vegetable blends you can simply pop in the microwave or cook on the stove (Green Giant offers tons of options). The frozen food section is also a good place to stock up on prepared burgers and meatballs (you can often find beef, turkey, and plant-based options), shrimp and seafood, and any fruits or veggies you didn’t buy fresh. Stick with foods that don’t have added sauces or sugar.
Go for canned foods. Canned salmon, tuna, chicken and beans are all good choices for quick protein options. Just be sure to give the beans a good rinse under the faucet to get rid of excess sodium before cooking with them.
Splurge on convenience items. Preparing food takes time, so if saving time is at the top of your list, consider spending a little extra to get convenience items, such as salad kits, containers of chopped fruit and veggies, instant oatmeal, cooked rotisserie chicken, and pre-cooked noodles and rice (Minute Rice offers ready-to-serve rice cups that cook in the microwave in one minute). Be sure to watch the sodium levels in these items. Email me with any questions.
Prep Ahead You may be able to put together meals faster during the week by doing some of the work in advance. How long you spend doing prep work is up to you and your schedule, but here are a few food items you can start with.
Fruits and Vegetables Prep produce as soon as you get home from the grocery store. Wash it, cut it, and put it in containers so it’s ready to go. That way, when the week gets crazy, it’s one less thing you have to do. Chopped fruits and vegetables are great for adding to salads, stir fries, and fajitas, or on their own as a quick snack, with or without condiments and dips.
Meat and Meat Alternatives. Cooking meat and meat alternatives (like tofu or bean burgers) can be time-consuming. So save this task for a day when you don’t have a crammed schedule. Cook large batches so you have enough for multiple meals; freeze anything you won’t eat that week.
Meal Planning Recipes
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Summary Meal planning involves creating a weekly menu. It can reduce stress and save time during the week by getting rid of the decision-making around food. Planning your meals in advance can also help you stick to a healthy diet, since you may be less tempted to hit the drive-thru or order pizza at the end of a busy day. Set aside a few hours during the week to select your meals, buy the ingredients you need, and prep a few food items. Stay organized by logging your meals and recipes in an app or writing them down with pen and paper. Keep your meals organized by storing them in clear containers labeled with the food item's name and the date it was made or purchased.
This is especially helpful during the busy holiday season. Email me for free templates and to join our free Healthy-Holiday-Habits Program, to help you navigate the busy holiday season. Happy Meal Planning
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