It’s Tuesday night. You just got off work and haven’t eaten all day. Now it’s time to decide what’s for dinner. You do not want to go out for takeout – it is expensive and fattening – but do you have something healthy at home? You open the fridge to find last week’s leftovers and a few eggs. Looks you are stuck with fast food again.
If this is a pattern that seems all too familiar, then it may be time to time to try a new strategy – meal planning!
Meal planning 101
Meal planning is more than just a food trend. It is a strategy to ensure you are properly nourished and able to sustain your energy levels to perform optimally in daily life. For beginners, this can seem daunting, but with proper guidance and forethought, meal planning can become a simple and easy task that benefits your health, enjoyment, and pocketbook.
Planning meals in advance can help you:
- Save Time. Thinking ahead helps avoid unnecessary trips to the store and allows you to plan meals around your schedule. On busy days, it ensures you have the right ingredients on hand for a quick and nutritious breakfast, lunch, or dinner.
- Save Money. Eating in reduces your reliance on fast food and takeout. It also cuts down on impulse shopping, which had been shown to increase spending by an average of $450 a month.
- Lower Stress. 30 minutes of planning can save you hours of worry. An organized meal plan eliminates the anxiety of last-minute planning, freeing your mind for more important matters.
- Improve Your Health. When people shop last minute, they are more likely to choose foods high in calories, fat, salt, and sugar. Deciding what you will be eating ahead of time helps prevent you falling into this trap. It is easy to enjoy a balanced diet when you know there is a healthy, delicious meal waiting at home.
- Avoid Waste. Creating a plan makes sure that when you go to the store, you only buy what you need.
With more time, money, and energy to invest elsewhere, meal planning is a valuable tool to help meet your goals. A win-win!
Meal planning for beginners
When it comes to meal planning, there is no one-size-fits-all approach, which is one of the reasons why it often seems so challenging for beginners. They stick too close to what has worked for someone else, but find it does not fit their individual lifestyle.
The key to success is developing a plan that’s right for you. Use others for inspiration, but don’t waste time trying to follow their plan if it does not match your way of living.
Here are 7 steps to help personalize your meal plan and develop a strategy you can stick to.
Step 1: Choose a day to plan your meals
The first step is to choose a day you can spend planning for the upcoming week. For this step, you will want to grab a pen and paper to write down the days of the week or simply use a ready-made meal planning sheet like this one:
Step 2: Take a kitchen inventory
Start meal planning by taking a look at what you have in your refrigerator, freezer, and pantry. Maybe there is a can of beans at the back of the cupboard, some frozen turkey you bought to save money, or vegetables you forgot about in the bottom tray.
Assessing the food you have is a great place to start and will save you from purchasing ingredients you already own.
Step 3: Review your schedule & designate a specific time to meal prep
It’s time to look at your weekly schedule and see what is coming up – social events, work meetings, family dinners, etc. It may be the case that you don’t have to create a breakfast, lunch, or dinner every day of the week.
Once you have determined how many meals you need, schedule an appointment with yourself in your calendar. It is important to designate a day and time to prep your ingredients and plan out your meals to avoid the trap of “I didn’t have time.”
I recommend designating 1-2 days out of the week to plan, shop, prepare, and cook your meals.
Remember, meal planning will look different for everyone. For you, it may be as simple as going to the store and chopping ingredients so they are ready-to-cook, while for someone else it may be cooking and pre-portioning their food for a grab-and-go meal on their way out the door.
One of the greatest features about meal planning is that it is completely customizable to you and your lifestyle.
Step 4: Choose a meal planning strategy
Strategy #1: Choose Meal Themes
When meal planning for beginners, creating a meal template is a great way to give your diet a little structure. For example:
- Monday: Meatless Monday Night
- Tuesday: Taco Night
- Wednesday: Salad Night
- Thursday: Slow Cooker Night
- Friday: Pizza Night
- Saturday: BBQ Night
- Sunday: Leftovers Night
You can use this template for a week or a month and then rotate in new foods as desired.
Strategy #2: Choose Specific Foods
Need something even more basic? Simply choose your favorite foods from each of the categories below to create nutritious, balanced meals.
- Proteins: Chicken, Fish, Ground Turkey, Ground Beef, Beans, Lentils…
- Carbohydrates: Brown Rice, Pasta, Quinoa, Sweet Potato, Corn Tortillas, Oats…
- Vegetables: Asparagus, Zucchini, Brussel Sprouts, Cauliflower, Kale, Mushrooms, Broccoli, Bell Peppers…
- Fats: Avocado, Almonds, Olive Oil, Tahini, Nut Butters, Pumpkin Seeds, Chia Seeds, Flax Seeds…
Step 5: Choose your recipes
One of the biggest challenges when it comes to meal planning is having ingredients, but not knowing what to do with them. Thankfully, there are resources – cookbooks, magazines, websites, and social media platforms such as Pinterest and Instagram – that can give us ideas as well as recipes!
The two considerations I have when choosing a recipe are:
- Time: How long do I want to spend making a recipe?
- Ingredients: What foods do I want to use? Do I want to use what I already own or is there something new I’d like to try?
RD Tip: If your kitchen is already fully stocked, take a moment to check out SuperCook. This is a unique website that generates recipes based on the ingredients you have or want to use.
Stumped on meal and recipe ideas? Here are great suggestions to get you started:
- Overnight Oats
- Healthy Egg Muffins
- Whole Grain Toast Topped with Greek Yogurt, Avocado, and Smoked Salmon
- Southwest Scrambled Eggs
- Protein Pancakes
- Roasted Chickpea Curry Bowl
- Greek Meatball Mezze Bowl
- Spaghetti Squash & Chicken with Avocado Pesto
- Superfood Chopped Salad with Salmon & Creamy Garlic Dressing
- Chopped Veggies + Hummus
- Boiled Eggs + Cherry Tomatoes and Cucumber
- Non-Fat Greek Yogurt + Berries
- Canned Tuna + 1 Tbsp Non-fat Greek Yogurt + 1 Tbsp. Avocado
- Fresh or Dried Edamame
- Apple + 1 Tbsp. Nut Butter (i.e. Peanut, Almond, Cashew)
BONUS: Here are my top 5 go-to websites when I’m looking for new and healthy recipes:
- Forks Over Knives
- Oh She Glows
- Nutrition Stripped
- The Minimalist Baker
- T. Collin Campbell; Center for Nutrition Studies
Step 6: Make your grocery list & shop
Now that you have chosen your recipes, it is time to create a grocery list and go shopping! Creating a shopping list in advance saves time and money, helps you know what items to purchase in large quantities, and prevents impulse buying.
Don’t have time to make it to the store? Try using grocery delivery services, like Instacart, Shipt, or Amazon Fresh.
Step 7: Prep & cook your meals
It’s time to roll up your sleeves, throw on that apron, and get to chopping, slicing, prepping, and cooking for the week ahead! You can even pre-portion herbs, spices, dressings, and sauces in advance for the recipes you plan to make.
Once you have completed your meals, be sure to store them properly. Proper food storage maintains the freshness and quality of your food. Click here for some of the top storage containers for your meal prep. You can also store foods in Ziplock bags in the fridge or freezer to save room.
The benefits of meal planning
- Healthful and balanced eating
- Time to spend on yourself, your hobbies, and with loved ones
- Money saved
- Portion control
- Stress and anxiety around food
- Food wasted
- Unhealthy eating
Jasmine El Nabli MS, RDN
Creating healthy eating habits without the right tools, skills, and knowledge is often seen as a daunting task, but that’s where I come in. I am here to show you that becoming the happiest and healthiest version of yourself can be done!
Through the combination of a whole-body approach and scientific research, I empower and educate individuals on how to implement small changes into their daily life that in turn lead to sustainable and lifelong healthy habits.