One of the best ways to start eating healthier is to start meal planning. That way you’re not having to choose meals last minute, on the fly. But, for most beginners, meal planning can feel a little overwhelming.
So, today, I’m going to give you 15 tips to make meal planning feel less daunting.
And in case you’re still on the fence, trying to decide if meal planning is worth the extra effort, we’ll quickly review some benefits of planning meals ahead of time. But, if you’re already sold on the benefits of meal planning, skip ahead to the 15 Meal Planning Tips found below in this article.
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What are the Benefits of Planning Your Meals Ahead of Time?
It’s hard to take action unless you first understand the benefits. For instance, I wouldn’t buy a car unless I first understood what the benefits of owning that car were. Otherwise, what’s the point? Why spend the extra money and effort to buy a new car?
This is no different with meal planning. So, here are a few of the benefits you can look forward to when you start planning your meals ahead of time.
Planning Leads to Success
It’s easiest to hit a goal when you have a plan in place, right? A football team doesn’t hit the field without some sort of plan or strategy for how they’re going to win the game. Neither should you.
Having a meal plan is part of creating a winning strategy to successfully eat healthier meals. Each meal is like a play, that will help you stay on track to hitting your goals.
By planning your meals ahead of time, you reduce your risk for meal uncertainty, and unhealthy choices. When you’re hungry and you don’t have a plan, you’re more likely to choose unhealthy options that are quick or convenient.
Meal Planning Can Save Time
At first, meal planning may seem like an extra hassle you have to spend time on. But, it can actually help save you time, by reducing the number of grocery store trips during your week.
Rather than asking “what should we eat tonight?”, and rushing to the store, or turning to fast food, you can relax, and stick to your meal plan.
It Can Also Save Money
Fewer trips to the grocery store means saved gas, and fewer impulse purchases. And, if you’re able to eat more meals at home, you’ll drastically reduce your food bill. Plus, many of your dinner’s can be eaten as leftovers for lunch, so that’s like two meals for the price of one.
15 Easy to Follow Meal Planning Tips for Beginners
Okay, so clearly, there are several benefits to planning your weekly meals. But, isn’t meal planning difficult? Where do you even start?
Don’t worry. And, don’t get overwhelmed.
Instead, take it one step at a time. With practice and repetition, meal planning will become easier as you go.
But for now, start with the following meal planning tips for beginners.
1) Put Aside Perfection
First and foremost, put aside perfection. This applies to learning any new skill. And the sooner you can let go of perfection, the less overwhelmed you’ll feel, and the more you’ll learn.
When you first start meal planning, the goal is not to create the perfect weekly meal plan. You don’t need to plan every single meal of the week. Instead, you just need to get used to the process of planning your meals, and to get into a rhythm that you can repeat. Then with repetition, the process will get easier and easier.
2) Start Simple with 2-3 Meals Per Week.
If you try to plan every meal of the day, every day of the week, you won’t succeed. Instead, I recommend meal planning for only 2-3 dinners per week.
You can do more if you want. But, for most people, planning for 2-3 dinners per week is totally doable. Then as you become more comfortable with cooking and the process of meal planning, you can plan more each week.
If all of your meals are currently eaten at restaurants, planning just 2-3 meals per week is a drastic improvement.
3) Allow for Meal Plan Flexibility
Personally, I don’t like my meal plan to be too rigid. I like some versatility and ability to choose what I want to eat on a daily basis. So, for this reason, I don’t recommend assigning your meals to specific days.
In our household we simply keep a list of the week’s meal plan on our fridge. We then refer to the when choosing what we want each day. This allows for daily taste preferences and prevents you from feeling locked in. Some days you might not want any of the meals you planned, or maybe you don’t feel like cooking. It’s okay to be flexible. That’s why I recommend starting by only planning for 2-3 meals per week.
4) Start with Several Trusted Cookbooks
Meal planning is easiest when you have several cookbooks that you like and trust. The internet is great because there’s an endless supply of recipes, but that’s often too overwhelming and time consuming.
I’ve found that meal planning is easiest when you have a library of cookbooks that you can regularly refer to.
If you’re looking for recommendations, here are three of my personal favorite cook books:
- Love, Lemon and Olive Oil by Mina Stone
- The Weeknight Mediterranean Kitchen by Samantha Ferraro
- The New Mediterranean Diet Cookbook by Nancy Harmon Jenkins
Each of these are full of delicious recipes that are fairly easy for most beginners.
5) Choose Recipes that are Simple and Easy to Understand
When you’re cooking meals during the week, you don’t want to waste time trying to make sense of your recipes. The goal is to eat a delicious, nutritious meal, without spending hours in the kitchen.
So, when you’re planning, choose simple meals that are easy to understand and quick to prepare. One pan recipes can be great for this. And, the recipe books included above each tend to have a number of recipes that fit this criteria.
6) Envision the Plate Method to Help Balance Your Meals
If you’re trying to eat healthier, I recommend envisioning the plate method when you plan your meals.
Based on the meal planning method:
- ½ of your plate should be a non-starchy vegetable
- ¼ of your plate should be protein
- ¼ of your plate should be a starch or whole grain
As you plan your meals, assess how each meal fits this criteria. Does each meal include a protein, starch/whole grain, and a non-starchy vegetable? If not, how can you add one?
7) Incorporate Unused Food You Already Have
This can help you reduce food waste, but it’s also helpful if you’re lost for ideas. For example, if you have extra kale in your fridge, you can use that as a starting place by looking up recipes that include kale.
Or, let’s say you have some frozen salmon in the freezer. You can incorporate the salmon into your meal plan, and then balance it out with some brussel sprouts and farro to create a simple full meal using the plate method outlined above.
8) Repeat and Reuse Your Favorite Recipes
As you gather more cookbooks, and test new recipes you’ll begin to identify your favorites. As this happens, meal planning becomes easier and easier because you have got-to recipes that don’t require much thought to plan for.
As you develop favorites, you can easily add them into your weekly rotation, and increase your meal planning from 2-3 meals per week to 3-4 meals per week.
9) Make Meal Planning a Team Effort
There’s no reason that one person needs to do all of the meal planning. By including your spouse or children, meal planning will happen more quickly, and it’ll ensure that everyone gets a meal they want.
The more people in the house you have, the more days you can easily plan for by making each person pick a meal they want. You can even flip through the cookbooks together as a family.
10) Choose Recipes that Won’t Create Kitchen Clutter
When choosing your meals, it’s helpful to pick a balance of recipes that won’t create too much clutter in your kitchen or compete for the same tools. For example, you don’t want to pick three meal items that require the oven to cook each item, or you’ll spend your entire night cooking. This becomes easier to recognize with practice.
11) Stick to a Weekly Planning and Shopping Schedule
With weekly meal planning it’s helpful to get into a repeatable rhythm that works with your schedule. Plan on doing your meal planning and shopping the same day each week, that way it becomes a habit that’s easy to plan around.
For example, in my house we often write our meal plan on Thursday, and then shop for groceries on Friday night when the grocery stores are the least busy, yet fully stocked.
12) Organize Your Shopping List
I recommend creating a shopping list at the same time that you’re making your meal plan. As you choose each recipe, review the ingredients and add anything you need to your shopping list.
To help save time when you’re shopping, I recommend organizing your list according to where you’ll find the items in the grocery store, as follows:
- Frozen food
- Canned and Dry Goods
Next, cross-check your list with the current inventory in your fridge and pantry to eliminate anything you already have.
13 ) Go Shopping When it’s the Least Busy
I don’t like going to the store when it’s busy. It gives me anxiety, and it can actually take longer. So, I recommend going shopping during the off hours.
Typically grocery stores are the busiest midday on the weekend, or during the immediate post-work hours between 4-6 pm. For stress free, crowdless shopping I recommend shopping first thing in the morning, or right before closing. Personally, I’ve found Friday nights are great for shopping.
14) Hang Your Weekly Meal Plan on the Fridge
When all the shopping is done, you can use a magnet to attach your weekly meal plan to your fridge, for easy reference. Then when anyone asks, “what’s for dinner?”, you can simply point them to the options.
15) Save Your Meal Plans for Future Reference
As you try different recipes, you’ll find some you love, and some that fall flat. By saving your meal plans, you can refer back to them and recall what you’ve tried in the past. This helps make the planning process easier, because you can even reuse previous meal plans, or create new ones by mixing and matching your favorite recipes.
Practice Makes Perfect
If you’re trying to get started with meal planning, I hope the tips above will help you take the first steps. Remember that you don’t need to be perfect, you just need to get started. Then as meal planning becomes a part of your weekly routine, you’ll naturally perfect this new skill.
For more tips, checkout my other article, Meal Planning Made Easy.