The easiest and fastest way to sabotage your health goals is by not planning. For real people! I can’t emphasize the importance of knowing how to meal plan enough and knowing how to do it for your specific situation (working out of the house, from home, kids, cooking experience), especially in those early days of changing your eating habits. Now more than ever, with so many things out of our control, planning relieves unnecessary stress. When done right, a meal plan will make you feel lighter going into your week. More positive and hopeful.
And if you just don’t know where to start in a healthy lifestyle, I would say, this should be your very first step.
Through years of experience in eating well for my body while juggling kids, husband, sports, and now a business, I’ve found that meal planning is my key to success. Otherwise, I’m eating foods that make me feel tired, bloated, give me headaches, and make me feel like crap. It’s easy to fall into a cycle of not so good for my body convenience foods, even being gluten-free.
Setting expectations for the week helps you succeed in your wellness goals, and with just a few minutes of planning, will eliminate that hair-pulling moment when everyone’s in the kitchen asking, “What’s for Dinner?”
There’s a simple process on how to meal plan that I faithfully follow each week.
On Sunday mornings, I lay out my entire calendar from start to finish, Sunday through Saturday, followed by a quick inventory of my fridge and pantry, and then add dinners. In most weeks, it takes about 30 minutes of planning. If I’m feeling lazy (like this week), I enter things into my Instacart and Amazon Prime for grocery delivery, never leaving my couch.
Today, I’m giving you a sneak peek into my planning process.
Not only that, but I created a super cute chalkboard style printable Meal Planner so the whole family knows what’s happening at dinner!
How to Meal Plan in 5 Easy Steps
1. Use a Planner
Whether it’s a paper planner or your phone, choose the best method for you. The goal is to figure out how much time you have each day for meal prep. I use a paper planner to separate my day into morning, afternoon, and evening. (Anyone who knows me knows, a new planner makes me giddy like a kid on Christmas morning!) On planning day, I write my entire week, all the places I need to be, things I need to do, and what time. After I’ve done the steps below, I add my meals. If you’re using your phone, set a different calendar color for dinners so you can quickly glance at them each day. If you’re writing them down, write them on a separate line.
Another option is to write it in a visible space for the entire family to see!
Click here to download a free printable Meal Planner. Save it, then print it each week as a fun, free planning tool.
2. Keep a Running List
I keep a running list on my phone of things I need to restock using the Paperless app (any list app will do) and have labels like “Groceries,” “Target,” “Costco.” Then when we’re out of ketchup, I add it to a list, so I don’t forget in my next grocery run. It’s like my mini-brain to store seemingly useless information (which is not useless when the kids are searching for the ketchup you forgot.) Remember, the goal is to take the stress away from your life, give you more time to address health goals, and create more space in your brain for the bazillion other things you need to remember!
3. Take a Weekly Inventory
To not waste food, I started doing this a few months ago. I used to buy everything I needed for every meal weekly and never check what I already had. That was silly. I’d end up with freezer-burned meat and a ridiculous number of canned beans. These days I make a conscious effort to use what I have (although I somehow just ended up with four cartons of chicken broth in my fridge by not following my own process.) Something in the freezer that needs defrosting? I take it out and add it as a dinner option. A bunch of canned of tomatoes in the pantry? Look for recipes with that ingredient.
I’m not asking you to keep the pantry empty – absolutely keep some basics ready, especially the things you frequently use (for me, it’s chicken and beef broth, white/brown/wild rice, canned tomatoes, and beans). But use your current stock as a way to guide you in your meals for the week.
4. Time to Plan
At this point, I know exactly how much time I have each day, and what I already have on hand. It’s time to figure out what the heck’s for dinner. The important thing here to think about is the method of cooking and being realistic.
Slow cooker meals are great for busy nights, but it can make mornings a little more hectic. You aren’t pigeonholed to only slow cooker recipes if you’re busy working outside the house! Search by the amount of time you have. “30-minute meals” will yield endless dinner recipes. I love “sheet pan recipes” because it’s one pan (win!) and usually minimal prep. You pop it in the oven and forget it. I also love meals that use ground beef, chicken, or turkey on super busy nights, creating bowl meals.
I use Pinterest specifically for saving recipes. I have a 30 Minute Meal board, a Slow Cooker board, and then a variety of ingredient-driven collections.
If you’re a beginner cook, this is the perfect opportunity for you to start building a shortlist of go-to meals. Use searches like “5 ingredient dinners” or “quick and easy weeknight dinner.”
Your only job is to be realistic. Most times, when I get frustrated by dinner, it’s because I became overly ambitious. If you’ve only got 20 or 30 minutes, you’ve only got 20 or 30 minutes. Go with it. Save your new recipes and longer cooking times for weekend family meals or days when you have more time.
If you’ve followed the above steps to know exactly how much time you’ve got to work with, what ingredients you have, and need, it will be simple to plan out your weeknight dinners.
5. Finally, Give Yourself Permission
Most importantly, this is the ultimate, if you take nothing away from this blog right now, remember this step: Permit yourself NOT to cook!
What if you don’t even have 20 or 30 minutes? And you’ve got like 5?
Just don’t cook. It’s that easy. And schedule it. Write it on your calendar or planner (or your family meal plan on the fridge!) “Ordering Out.” “Pizza Night.” “Chipotle Night.” “Wawa Night.”
This is the moment you’ve been preparing for. If most of your meals a sustainable protein, lots of veggies, whole form carbs, then that slice of pizza is just that, a slice of pizza. It’s not a derailment. It’s not a failure. It’s probably really freaking good! Just do it and move on.
Let go of the guilt, it’s all about progress, not perfection. Don’t wait until next week to start.
You can make changes to your health today, with just a little planning!