If you want to get on track with your eating habits this year, consider the everyday art of meal planning. Planning out your meals can make healthy eating easier and more affordable. But if getting started seems like a big job at first, just take it step by step. Once you get in the swing of things, it will be easier to put more nutritious food on your plate more often.
Reasons to Do Meal Planning
The first step to being successful with meal planning is to understand why it’s worth the effort. When you start with the goal in mind, you’ll be more determined to stick with it. The benefits of meal planning include cost savings, more free time and healthier eating.
- Cost savings. When you plan ahead, you can pick out meals that use shared ingredients. Items often cost less per ounce when you buy them in larger containers. Plus, you might find yourself with less food waste at the end of the week.
- More free time. Home cooks can waste time staring at the fridge for dinner ideas each day. They also use up valuable time making daily grocery runs. Planning your meals ahead in advance helps to consolidate your efforts and give yourself more breathing room in your schedule.
- Healthier eating. Last-minute dinner scrambles often send families to the convenience aisle or the drive-thru. By planning ahead, you’ll reduce the temptation to eat chicken nuggets for supper once again. Instead, you can have your cabinets and refrigerator stocked with healthy vegetables, grains and proteins that will quickly come together into well-balanced meals.
Meal Planning vs. Meal Prep
While they often go hand in hand, meal planning and meal prep aren’t the same things.
Meal planning involves drafting a list of meal ideas so that you know in advance what you’re going to eat. There are several approaches you can use:
- Planning three meals a day or just dinners
- Deciding on a week’s worth of meals or a full month’s worth
- Assigning each meal to a specific day or coming up with a list of ideas that you can draw from throughout the week
Meal prep, on the other hand, goes beyond making the plans. When you meal prep, you take your plans to the next level by cooking the food in large batches. You can place the dishes in your refrigerator to eat over the next few days or stash them in your freezer so that they’ll last longer.
Prepping meals like this works well for people with busier schedules. If you prepare a week’s worth of lunches on Sunday, for example, then you can just grab and go in the morning on your way to work each weekday.
Of course, there are simpler ways to approach meal prep, too. For instance, you could spend an hour on the weekends chopping fruits and vegetables. Throughout the week, they’ll be easy to pull out of the fridge for healthy snacks or side dishes.
There’s no right or wrong here.
You can do meal planning without doing meal prep. Some people like the time savings involved in doing the cooking ahead of time, but others prefer to start their cooking fresh each day.
How to Start Meal Planning
If you’re ready to give meal planning a try, this step-by-step guide can help you tackle the process.
- Look around your kitchen. Make sure that it’s well stocked with refrigerator basics and pantry essentials. ToTaste provides a free pantry, fridge and freezer checklist that can help. If there are items you need to invest in, make a list and head to the grocery store.
- Set a day for meal planning. This might take a few hours, especially the first time, so make sure to block out a portion of your day.
- Get situated. When it’s time to begin, gather your favorite cookbooks or pull up a few recipe websites. Have a way to record your ideas, too, whether on a sheet of paper or in a digital app.
- Begin the search. Keeping your schedule in mind, pick out the meals you’re going to serve. Save the easier dishes for your busier days. Also, consider looking for meals that use shared ingredients, such as serving pot roast one night and using the leftover meat in quesadillas a few days later. Use your app or planner to write down each meal you choose.
- Make a grocery list. Save yourself time by creating your grocery list as you pick out meals. If you need a certain size or quantity of an item, be sure to note that on your list.
- Stay organized. Consider compiling each recipe you use into one handy reference. You could use a digital format or a paper one. Either way, you’ll have a go-to guide where you can quickly find family favorites in the future.
- Go shopping. To break up your efforts, you might want to do the planning and shopping on separate days. When you do go, take your grocery list (paper or digital, your choice). As you shop, check the dates on items to make sure they’ll last until the day you plan to use them.
- Put away your groceries. While it’s not essential, you might find it handy to organize your fridge and pantry according to your meal plan. If you group the ingredients for a dish together, it’ll be easy to grab what you need when it comes time to cook the food.
- Cook. If “What’s for dinner?” is your least favorite part of the day, you’re going to love this. When it’s time to cook, all you have to do is consult your meal plan, and you’ll know exactly what you’re going to make. Just head to the kitchen and get to it.
Handy Meal Planning Tools
When you’re starting something new, it’s always nice to have a helping hand on your side. Investing in some meal planning tools will provide the support you need for success.
If tech is how you stay on top of your life, then you’ll want a digital option for keeping track of your meal plans.
MealBoard has a calendar where you can record your upcoming meal ideas, and it also offers a place to store your recipes. The app will even help you assemble a shopping list for your chosen dishes. MealBoard is available only for iOS.
BigOven is an alternative that Android users can use. You can use the provided recipe ideas or import your favorites from various websites.
These are just a couple of examples (and we’re not affiliated with either one). Browse meal planning apps on your phone’s app store – or find the desktop versions if you’re more of a computer planner – and look for ones with good ratings, the features you actually need and will use, and a cost that makes sense with your budget.
Not everyone prefers technology-based approaches to meal planning. If paper is more your thing, a wall calendar or a purse-sized planner could do the trick.
Amy Knapp’s Family Organizer (not affiliated) and Big Grid Wall Calendars include spaces for writing out your meal ideas.
Meal Planning Services
Perhaps you like the thought of having your meals planned out but not the idea of doing the legwork. There are services designed just for people like you! Meal planning companies will send you a pre-planned menu for each week. You may even receive a corresponding grocery list.
PlateJoy is one such popular meal planning company. When you subscribe, you’ll receive customized ideas for each day’s breakfast, lunch, dinner and snack. The service will tailor its suggestions to your preferences and your dietary needs, such as Mediterranean, paleo or vegan eating. PlateJoy also tells you what groceries to buy. (We’re not affiliated with PlateJoy, either.)
Meal planning doesn’t have to be stressful. In fact, it may even help cut down on some stress. If you’re trying to eat better in 2023 and need a way to get started, try planning out your meals ahead of time. With these ideas and tools, you’ll soon be a planning pro.