While many people aspire to create a healthy meal plan each week, few are successful at doing so, citing a lack of time, not knowing where to start, and confusion over what constitutes a healthy meal. Additionally, many people believe that meal planning requires hours of work, extensive nutrition knowledge, and elaborate cooking skills. In reality, meal planning is a tool that anyone with rudimentary cooking skills and a basic understanding of nutrition can access. And not only can meal planning save you time and money, it can also help you lose weight, eat better, and teach your kids how to plan, shop, and cook for themselves.
What follows in this, another guest post by me, Susan MacFarlane, is the straight-forward and practical approach I use for meal planning with my clients and in my own home.
Step 1- Get Organized
The secret to any successful meal plan is organization. Before you get started, gather the tools you need to create your meal plan, including:
- Meal planning template– You can use pen and paper, Excel, or an app. Personally, I like to use Cronometer since you can pre-record your meals and snacks for the week, adding notes and adjusting your portions as you go. Whatever tool you decide to use, print a copy and leave it on your fridge as a reminder. (In Cronometer, you can do this by printing your “Daily Diary”, without calories, nutrients, or balances.)
- Recipes – Look through cookbooks, blogs, magazines, or websites and start creating a master list of recipes. Cronometer’s recipe box allows you to store all your recipes in one location, along with notes on where to find the recipe, how many servings the recipe makes, and how long it takes to cook.
- “Quick Lists” – To save time, it’s helpful to have a list of 5-10 easy breakfast, lunch, supper, and snack ideas that can be made in 10-15 minutes. These lists are incredibly helpful when it comes to meal planning and are a lifesaver when you are short on time.
Once you have gathered your resources, decide which days of the week you will plan, shop, and meal prep/cook. It’s important to write these tasks in your calendar or agenda and treat them like any other important commitment.
Step 2 – Involve the Family
If you have kids in the home, it’s essential to involve them (and any other family member) in the meal planning process. Allow each family member to choose one supper per week and decide who will be responsible for cooking (and cleaning up) each meal. Involving kids in the meal planning process not only teaches valuable cooking skills to kids, but also increases the likelihood that they learn to accept a variety of different foods.
Step 3 – Create Your Meal Plan
Make this experience something to look forward to each week by popping a bowl of popcorn, listening to music, lighting candles, or sipping your favourite beverage.
- Start by writing down any planned meals out, as well the nights where a quick meal is needed. (Use the “Add Note” feature in Cronometer if you are meal planning electronically.)
- Next, focus on suppers, determining which nights you will cook and how many leftovers you will have. Use these leftovers either for lunches or supper.
- Using your “Quick Lists”, fill in the gaps for breakfasts, snacks, lunches, and suppers. (Note that you don’t have to meal plan for breakfast, snacks, or lunches if you eat the same thing every day. Remember, it’s your meal plan; make it your own!)
- Lastly, ensure that each meal is balanced using the following checklist:
- A source of protein is included with each meal and snack*
- Fruit is included 2-3 x per day
- Vegetables are included at both lunch and supper
- Grains are unprocessed and whole
- Calcium-rich foods are included at least 2 x per day
- Any indulgences you plan to mindfully enjoy are included
* In general, I aim for ~15 g of protein in the morning, 20-30 g at lunch and supper, and between 5-15 g at snacks.
Step 4 – Create your Grocery List
It’s ideal to make your grocery list at the same time that you create your meal plan. I make mine by writing down all the ingredients I need for the week, then crossing out anything that we already have. To keep things neat and organized, you may want to use a template, such as the one pictured below. I also make a little note of anything that I need from a store other than where I get the bulk of my groceries.
Step 5 – Meal Prep
To save yourself time during the week, set aside one hour to prep over the weekend (or whenever you have a day off). Wash and chop vegetables and fruit, cook a large pot of rice or quinoa, measure out spices, pack snacks, and prepare a few simple bulk recipes, such as oatmeal, soup, and chili.
As a final note, remember that there is no right or wrong way to meal plan. After a few weeks, you will find your rhythm and learn what works and what doesn’t. Most importantly, remember to keep it simple. If creating an entire meal plan seems daunting, focus on just planning suppers or lunches for the week.