6 Steps for Simple Meal Planning
Planning ahead will allow you to reap the benefits of healthier and less expensive home-cooked meals.
By Heidi Reichenberger McIndoo, MS, RD, LDN
If you are scrambling to get dinner on the table every night, you’re likely making less-than-ideal choices when it comes to nutrition and cost. Ready to make a change that will benefit your health and your wallet? Consider planning your weekly meals.
While creating several days’ or weeks’ worth of meals may seem overwhelming, when you break it down it can be quite simple. And if you plan well, you’ll save time and money.
If you find yourself heading to the grocery store at least a few nights a week, that’s a lot of time spent in the aisles. So, while sitting down to plan meals ahead may seem daunting, it will likely take less time—as little as half an hour or so (once you’re in the swing)—to plan a week of meals.
In addition to the time saved, planning meals ahead can cut costs. When you end up at the grocery store multiple times per week, you’re more likely to buy things you don’t need: it has been reported that you make one to three impulse buys every time you go to the store. That’s no big deal if you shop once a week, but if you’re at the market three or four times in a week, you’re potentially buying up to 12 unnecessary items and therefore spending more money. And those little extras tend not to be healthy; they’re more likely to be chips, candy, cookies, and the like.
Finally, if you’re not shopping for dinner multiple times a week, you may be eating out or ordering take-out—both of which are far more expensive than cooking at home and usually higher in fat, sodium, and calories.
The bottom line: planning meals saves time and money while offering the healthiest options. Ready to sit down and make a plan? Read on for tips and strategies.
Cooking for One? Planning Is Still Important
Cooking for one is sometimes challenging. It is important to eat nutritiously, but you don’t always feel like cooking a big meal for just yourself and then eating the leftovers every day for a week.
To make getting a healthy, individual meal on the table easier, try this: Make two or three nights a week “cook nights.” Using the meal-planning strategies in the main article, plan for two or three meals. On those nights make enough to freeze two or three meals’ worth of leftovers. You can use zip-top freezer bags, freezer-safe containers, or vacuum-sealed bags. On the nights of the week you didn’t plan to cook, simply choose from your selection of homemade frozen meals. Casseroles, soups, stews, and chili lend themselves well to freezing. Now you can enjoy a different home-cooked meal every night of the week. The first week or two you may want to make and freeze more than two or three meals so that you can build up your freezer stock and have a good variety of meals from which to choose.
Step 1: Get Organized
Before you start planning, it’s a good idea to have a system in place to keep track of shopping lists and recipe ideas. This can be as simple or as high tech as you choose to make it. For low tech, a spiral notebook works well, as does a whiteboard calendar. For techies, a note-keeping app on your smartphone or tablet is a good method—or create a separate calendar on your device’s calendar app. You can also search meal planning online, where you’ll find an infinite source of ideas.
Step 2: Look Ahead
Once you’ve decided on your method for keeping a meal calendar, it’s time to start planning. Start out slowly if you’ve never done this before; you don’t need to plan seven meals on the first go. Aim to plan three to four meals per week for the first few weeks. Begin by looking at the upcoming week on your calendar. Are there nights you have plans that will affect the time you’ll have to prepare a meal? Make note of those activities and for those evenings consider simple, quick meals or slow-cooker meals that can be eaten when you’re ready.
Step 3: Research Recipes
These days sources for meal ideas are virtually unlimited. A great place to start is by thinking about your family’s favorite foods. List all of your classic go-to meal ideas, along with the ingredients that each requires (and there’s no need to include staple ingredients you always have on hand like oil, spices, and seasonings). Simply jot down the ingredients you’ll need to buy to make these family favorites. (These mini ingredients lists will come in handy later.)
Next, branch out from your standard list and get inspired. Consider some of these sources:
Cookbooks. Your own shelves are a great foundation, but you can also check the local library’s cookbook section and ask friends what their favorite, most-used cookbooks are.
Popular collection apps and websites. Pinterest and Facebook are replete with images of delicious foods with links to their recipes.
Recipe websites. There are too many to count, but a few good ones are allrecipes.com, tasteofhome. com, and cookinglight.com. And the boom in food blogging means there are endless personal sites devoted to meals.
Food companies. Most food companies publish recipes that feature their products. Check the labels or websites of some of your favorite brands for their recipes.
Step 4: Jump In
You have a system; you have recipe ideas. Next step: create your first weekly meal calendar. Start by deciding on the entrées—the main part of the meal. Ask yourself: How many days do I want chicken, seafood, or beef? Do you want a simple sandwich night or some meatless meals? Once you decide that, you’ll know what types of recipes to search for.
Next, start filling in your calendar with the meals you’ve selected. If the recipes are casseroles or one-pot dinners that include protein (meat or plant-based), starch (pasta, rice, and other grains), and vegetables, you’re done. For dinners that are simple proteins (a chicken breast or a piece of fish, for example), you’ll need to choose a starch and some vegetables to round out the meal.
A good tip is to combine easy and complex recipes in a single meal. You don’t want each component of the meal to take an hour or more and use three different pots. Pair simple grilled chicken or broiled fish with a slightly more complicated pasta salad, or have roasted broccoli as your vegetable on nights you’re cutting, seasoning, and sautéing a more complicated entrée.
Step 5: Make Your Grocery List
Once you’ve chosen your meals or as you’re filling the calendar, make your grocery list. Write down all the ingredients you’ll need. Just like you did for the family favorites, include only items you need to buy.
Now you’re almost ready to shop. The final step is to go through your pantry, refrigerator, and cupboards, with your ingredient list as a reference, to confirm what you have on hand. Add to the shopping list whatever staple items you’re running low on and you’re ready to go. You’ve compiled an ingredients list of everything you need to make a week’s worth of healthy and delicious meals, instead of just a random list of foods you and your family like that may or may not go together to form a meal.
Step 6: Get the Goods
Well-armed with your carefully considered list, you’re ready to hit the store (or farmer’s market for seasonal goods, if that’s an option). Stick to your plan and you’ll arrive home with all you need—no more getting home from the market only to find you have nothing to make for dinner.
Consider organizing your grocery list to coordinate with the store’s aisles: Aisle 1 at top of the list, aisle 2 next, and so on. This will help you shop more smoothly and efficiently.
Need inspiration? Here are two great recipes to add to a weekly meal planner.
Spinach and Orzo Salad
This delicious side dish is ideal to pair with grilled chicken or fish.
8 ounces uncooked orzo pasta
2 to 3 tablespoons minced red onion
3 to 6 ounces finely chopped baby spinach leaves
¼ pound crumbled feta cheese
⅓ cup slivered almonds
¼ cup dried cranberries
½ cup balsamic vinaigrette
Bring a large pot of lightly salted water to a boil. Add orzo and cook for 8 to 10 minutes or until al dente; drain and rinse with cold water. While pasta is cooking, place red onion in a bowl of cold water and let sit (this will help mellow some of the raw onion flavor). Transfer orzo to a large bowl and stir in spinach, feta, cranberries, and almonds. Drain onion and stir into mixture. Toss with vinaigrette. Serve immediately or refrigerate and serve cold.
Yield: 8 side servings
Prep time: 5 minutes
Cooking time: 20 minutes
One-Pot Mexican Skillet Pasta
This pasta dish is a great one-pan meal for a quick dinner.
1 pound lean ground beef or ground turkey
2 cups uncooked elbow pasta
2 cups salsa
1½ cups low-sodium chicken stock
1 (15-ounce) can tomato sauce
1 Roma tomato, diced
1 cup corn kernels, frozen, canned, or fresh
1 cup canned black beans, rinsed
½ cup shredded cheddar cheese
1 avocado, halved, seeded, peeled, and diced (optional)
Place ground meat in a large skillet and cook until browned, about 3 to 5 minutes, making sure to crumble the meat as it cooks; drain excess fat.
Stir in pasta, salsa, stock, and tomato sauce. Bring to a boil; cover, reduce heat, and simmer until pasta is cooked through, about 13 to 16 minutes.
Stir in tomato, corn, and beans and gently toss to combine. Stir in cheese until melted through, about 1 to 2 minutes.
Serve immediately, topped with avocado.
Yield: 6 servings
Prep time: 5 minutes
Cooking time: 25 minutes