Meal Planning Strategies

Seeley St. John, Take Control Dietetics Intern

When you’re trying to eat healthy, meal planning is probably one of the most important things you can do to achieve success. Planning may seem bothersome or overwhelming. When you’re busy with work, family, and other obligations it seems there is no time to do one more thing. It’s like packing for a trip – how will you know what you will want to wear? With meals, how will you know what you will feel like eating on Wednesday? Planning is an activity that is hard to get started, but after you’re done, it feels great. Just like accomplishing any goal – when you set your mind on success, the tedious steps to get there can be enjoyable.

Getting started is always the hardest part, so these meal planning strategies are designed to get you going. These 7 strategies can save you time, money, and ensure you’re successful with healthy eating!

Strategy 1: Give Each Day a Category

Using categories is a great way to start meal planning, because it builds a routine or gives it structure. Assign a category to each day of the week. The categories can be types of food, types of cooking styles, or anything you can think of. This is where terms such as “Meatless Mondays” and “Taco Tuesdays” come from. Some categories we’ve used include: soup/salad, ethnic, pasta, one-pot meals, quick & easy, meatless, grilling, crock-pot, family favorite, stir-fry, or roasting.

Strategy 2: Keep a Running Grocery List

Keep a notepad on your refrigerator, use the notes app on your smartphone, write on a post-it note, or use any method to keep a list of the groceries that you use on a daily basis. Keeping it close by ensures that when you notice something is running out you can add it to the list. When you choose recipes, add those ingredients to the list so you don't forget things when you go to the store. Having a list makes grocery shopping easier, faster, and helps prevent buying impulse items that may not fit your health goals.

Strategy 3: Choose Recipes for the Week

If you followed Strategy 1 and used categories for each day of the week, you’ve got a head start for choosing recipes. Cooking doesn’t have to be complicated or time-consuming. If your category is crock-pot, think of a favorite crock-pot recipe or look one up online or in a cookbook. Personally, when I am choosing recipes, I first choose a protein that sounds good. I think of chicken, tofu, tempeh, black beans, chickpeas, salmon, etc. I write down the name of the recipe for that day. Some recipes include or suggest the side dishes, but if they don’t then I choose a carbohydrate and vegetable to go with the protein. Carbohydrates include sweet potatoes, potatoes, peas, corn, brown rice, whole grain pasta, or whole-grain toast. I then choose non-starchy vegetables such as broccoli, asparagus, carrots, spinach, green beans, beets, celery or Brussels sprouts. Buying packages of frozen vegetables is a great way to always have vegetables on hand, and they are nutritious, fast, and easy. Choose one recipe for each night of the week, or if you make recipes with a large number of servings you can eat leftovers some nights as well.

Strategy 4: Choose a Day for Grocery Shopping

Decide what day you will buy groceries. Weekends or days off are preferred by many people. But if you followed Strategy 2 and have a shopping list, it can be done quickly. You can break up tasks by shopping one day and preparing food for cooking another day. I prefer to do my grocery shopping and cooking on the same day. This way, I kill two birds with one stone. If I shop and cook separately, I quickly forget what meals I had in mind to prepare. With that being said, it may be useful to pick a day each week that works best to dedicate a few hours to grocery shopping and cooking. This, in the end, will save you a lot of time during your busy week.

Strategy 5: Batch Cook

Batch cooking is the process of preparing large portions of several meals at once and storing them for future meals. It saves you multiple trips to the grocery store, cuts down on hours spent cooking, and removes the question of what to cook for your next meal. When you go to the grocery store you can buy ingredients in bulk, cook in bulk, then divide the dish and store leftovers in the freezer. This allows you to keep 2-3 meals in the refrigerator, so you always have healthy meals on hand when life gets in the way.

Strategy 6: Keep a List of Favorite Meals

Whether a longtime family favorite, or a new recipe you tried and loved, be sure to write it down and keep a list of the meals that were simple, tasty, and quick to prepare. This strategy is KEY to making meal planning EASY. Over time you’ll have a great list to choose from when quickly planning your meals for the week.

Strategy 7: Use Leftovers for Lunches

When you’re choosing recipes, look at the number of servings the recipe makes and plan to make extra servings for leftovers. This gives you an easy lunch for the next day. If you make all your meals this way, you will never have to do meal planning for lunches – you’ll only have to plan dinners and it makes meal planning even easier.

If you can incorporate some of these strategies into your week, then soon you’ll be ready for Meal Prep for Beginners – with meal prep, you’ll be prepping meals and ingredients for the week ahead.