The Beginners’ Guide to Healthy Meal Planning
No matter how dedicated to clean eating we all are, some days it’s just harder than others to put healthy yummy plates on the table, day in, day out, for a whole year.
This Beginner’s Guide to Healthy Meal Planning is one of the essential tools to help you with this. It might seem daunting at first. Vivid pictures of neatly stacked boxes of meals for the whole week might start appearing in front of your eyes… (damn you, Pinterest!)
You might think that you’ll have to give your Sunday up to industrial-style prepping or cooking. (sigh)
But fear not, this is simply about How to Create a Healthy Meal Plan.
What is a Healthy Meal Plan?
Basically, meal planning is planning ahead of time what you and your family will be eating over the next few days.
Whether you go all out and plan for the whole month, or just a few days in advance, or only for the weekend, it’s up to you. Your Healthy Meal Plan will be as individual as you are and as your lifestyle is.
The whole point, however, is to save time, energy and money (and sanity). How come, I hear you ask?
A Healthy Meal Plan is your new BFF
Healthy Meal Planning is to your mealtimes what Marie Kondo is to your house. It makes (almost) everything fall in place. Effortlessly. Let me show you.
Picture this: you come home after a day’s work, everybody’s back in the house, each with their stories to tell, homework to do, activities to get on with. Dinner time is approaching and you find yourself scrambling through flagging vegetables, frozen uncooked meat and random tins of food, trying to come up with a recipe that:
- Will be ready in less than 30 minutes
- Can be made using whatever ingredients you have at hand
- Will be tasty and filling
Now, we’ve all been in that situation. The outcome is fairly unsavory and is usually one of those:
- a late dinner as we had to defrost/prep/cook something (all the quick-sticks options having been used the nights before)
- a random dish that doesn’t quite meet everybody’s approval around the table (you know what your lunch will be the next day… and maybe
also the day after!)
- a takeaway (which doesn’t do your wallet or your healthy eating resolutions any good)
You have prepared a Meal Plan last week, shopped for the ingredients on your list of recipes, and maybe prepped some ingredients upfront.
You come home, check quickly what’s on your menu for tonight. No time for *that* particular recipe? No worries, check which other recipe of the week takes less time and go for it.
The ingredients you need are fresh and ready to cook or need very little prep, you have a recipe to follow and you know how long until dinner is ready. Dinner time is relaxed, enjoyable and your sanity, intact (priceless).
So, before we get to your Steps to the Perfect Meal Plan, let me explain why you really need a meal plan to start with.
A Healthy Meal Plan will save you Time
- You choose ahead of time which recipes you will use, how long they will take, what you need and where they come from. No more scratching around for potential recipe -> ingredient check -> potential recipe -> ingredient check and so on, at the last minute.
- You will have shopped for all the ingredients needed for that recipe. And if need be, you would have prepared them ahead of time (like peeled, cube, blanched and frozen a pumpkin).
- You would have checked today’s recipe yesterday and would have taken out of the freezer anything that needed to defrost.
- You know where the recipe comes from and you can find easily. Pinterest makes it super easy to find yummy-looking recipes, but it’s an equally dark deep abyss if you happen not to have pinned that recipe… so I’ve found out.
- You know when to start preparing the recipe, and how long it will cook for, so you can plan the rest of your evening accordingly.
- You’ve involved the rest of the household when picking the recipes, thus sparing yourself many complaints later on when your dinner choice doesn’t meet everybody’s approval.
A Healthy Meal Plan will save you Money
- You’ll have made a shopping list and will have bought all your ingredients upfront. No more additional trips to the shops at the last minute to get butter, eggs or fresh vegetables.
- You’ve also selected recipes where most ingredients can be bought from the same shop/area, saving you time- and money-consuming trips to various remote shops.
- You’ll have selected recipes based on what’s currently in your fridge/pantry/freezer, so anything that was running out of date is being used before it has to be thrown away.
- You will have checked what’s in season and have tried to combine several recipes around a cheaper seasonal product.
- You have planned early in the week the recipes using your perishables. So you don’t come across wilting or browning vegetables at the back of your fridge days later.
- If you prepared a few meals ahead of time to freeze them, you will have saved on electricity by batch-cooking some ingredients or baking a few dishes back-to-back in a hot oven.
- You’re avoiding last-minute takeaways. Even if they don’t feel that expensive on the spot, they will quickly add up. Especially if you had perfectly fine ingredients in the fridge that could have been eaten instead.
Meal Planning will help you with Clean Eating
- You will have selected clean eating recipes to start with. Or swapped the ingredients of a specific recipe for cleaner ones.
- You will have shopped for those clean ingredients and won’t be tempted to use more processed ones instead.
- You can decide to pick a wholefood store or farmers market to do all your shopping, rather than the little supermarket down the road several times a week. Even if it’s a little bit further away, buying better-quality food in bulk for the week makes it worth it. So you avoid the temptation of processed food and other shortcuts.
- You can actually cook from scratch and know absolutely-exactly-completely what you are putting on your plate. Every day.
- You can decide to steam your vegetables, for example, and have allowed for the extra time to do so. No more cramming veggies in the microwave to save time at the last minute.
- Healthy meal planning will help remove some of the stress in the evening. And also remove the cravings for junk food that come with stress.
- If you’re handling the main dish like a pro, it’s much easier to find the time to add a salad, a juice or a healthy soup on the side.
My Healthy Meal Plan
I will admit, my meal planning routine isn’t fancy. We use an A4 magnet that stays on the fridge and on Friday we just write recipes ahead of time for the weekly dinners.
We go to the Farmers’ Market on Saturday morning (we’re so lucky to have a large one just 5 minutes away…) and get our fresh produce, meat, honey, spices etc. from there. I also usually fit in a monthly shop to a supermarket to get the free-from stuff (flours, vegetal milks, etc.), frozen fish and things like tins and toiletries.
We don’t have a big freezer so there’s only so much we can prepare in advance, but we’ll buy pumpkins and other bulk vegetables, and prep those ahead of time.
For the kids’ lunchboxes, we try to be organized enough so they always have healthy stuff in there. So I try to make some egg or grain-free muffins, boil some eggs or make cookies ahead of time. The girls can then grab what they need when they prepare their lunchboxes in the evening.
How to get started with Healthy Meal Planning?
1. Decide on your Why
Your Why is important. This is what is going to make healthy meal planning a habit that sticks or not. It can be:
- saving money,
- eating clean,
- freeing up time in the evening,
- eating better lunches,
- reducing food waste,
- more variety in your plate,
- preserving what is left of your sanity (my personal Why).
2. Count how many meals you need to cater for
You’ll need to know which meals you’re planning for: just dinners, or breakfast and lunches too? Every day, or just a few days of the week? How many people for?
Think also about any changes in your schedule:
- more or less guests than usual,
- special occasions,
- dietary requirements,
- your budget for the week,
- seasonal changes (soups or salads?)
Basically, anything that can impact your choice of recipe and the quantities you need.
3. Write your recipe list
It’s a good idea to get the family involved here. Less head-scratching for recipes, fewer grumbles during the week. Win-win.
Start with your usual favorites, those recipes you know and love. It saves time as you know what’s needed and how long they take to prepare. Don’t forget to check your fridge, freezer, and pantry for products you already have.
You can gradually add new ingredients or recipes as you get more comfortable with meal planning.
If you feel uninspired, the Healthy Meal Planning Bundle can help. With over 1000 recipes, ready-made meal plans, and other cooking tips, it makes my healthy meal planning a doddle.
4. Create your Meal Planner
Choose your format:
A physical meal planner can be a simple sheet of paper. Of course, you can find very aesthetically-pleasing ones to print out on Pinterest… Just saying… It can also be a board of sorts (black or whiteboard). Anything will work as long as it’s in full view!
A digital meal planner could be a Meal Calendar created on your phone and shared with the whole family, for example.
Meal planning apps are also an option, although most of them come with a subscription. But it might just be what you need to stick with meal planning and eat healthy all the time!
5. Create your Master Ingredient List (optional)
This is useful if you’re planning ahead for a lot of meals. Maybe not so much when you’re just planning for 2 or 3 meals.
It’s the list of all ingredients you need based on your recipes, together with the quantities. Remember to cross out anything that you already have at hand.
6. Write your Shopping List
If you’ve written down a Master Ingredient List (see Step 5 above), your Shopping List everything not crossed. Plus any stock items.
You can write on a piece of paper or on your phone, whatever is easiest. I personally use the AnyDo app on my phone and my shopping list is shared with my husband. Works for us as small bits of papers do tend to get buried (or upcycled as origami) in our house…
7. Shop for your ingredients
Now head to the shops! Ideally, you’ll have picked ingredients that can be bought from the same shop, to save time and petrol.
We do our shopping in 2 steps though, once a week at the farmers’ market, and about once a month in a supermarket. Works for us as I still get all the fresh food I need weekly.
My Clean Eating Shopping Guide can help you navigate a typical supermarket for clean food, reduce your shopping time, and save you money in the process.
8. Sunday prep (optional)
Prepping your meals is essential if you want your dinners pretty much on auto-pilot the rest of the week. Whether it happens on a Sunday is up to you, but bear in mind that it might take a few hours.
9. Enjoy your delicious, stress-free meals…
Check your Meal Planner daily so you know what’s cooking tomorrow. Then you can defrost if need be, swap meals if life happens, etc.
What do you need to get started
Because meal planning can range widely between a large monthly cook-off and just organizing a few meals in advance, I can’t give you a definitive list of stuff you’ll need. But the list below should set you well on your way.
- A meal planner of sorts – whether this a physical meal planner or a digital one, do make sure it is in plain view and you can check it every day!
- Recipes – mix up recipe books, online recipes, own recipes: the process is more fun if your meals are varied. Don’t forget, if you find recipes online, to bookmark them, pin them or save them!
- Freezer containers – if you want to prepare meals in advance. How many you need is up to you and your freezer space. Plastics are best avoided here, even the BPA-free ones. All plastic containers release estrogenic chemicals and are potentially unsafe. Your safest options are stainless steel and glass containers.
- Kitchen utensils – check you have everything at hand before embarking on an epic prepping session! In particular, if you are new to clean eating, equip yourself with a kitchen scale, measuring cups and spoons, enough mixing bowls. Oh, and pots and pans of appropriate size. It may sound silly, but I have found myself many a time having to divide a large batch of food among several baking dishes, as none of them was big enough… Thus negating any energy-saving, as I had to cook 2 batches of food instead of one…
- A kitchen processor – this can come in handy to take care of chopping, grating, slicing or blending large quantities of food.
- Positive energy and good spirit – healthy meal planning is a very helpful tool but might need a bit of adjusting at the beginning. So breathe in and focus on how much easier your week or month ahead will be!
The Last Thing You Need to Know about your Healthy Meal Plan
Meal Planning is a wonderful tool. It can literally turn rushed, frustrating evening routines into a more controlled and enjoyable experience. Trust me on that one!
But there are no hard and fast rules here. The Ultimate Meal Plan is the one you’re going to create for you and your family. So keep an open mind, try a few new things, ditch what doesn’t work for you and stick with what works well!
In the process, please help your fellow family chefs out there. Share your Best Tips for Meal Planning/Prepping below.
I have collated all the ones received from my faithful readers, friends, family, right here! You’re bound to find some that will simply just work for you!
You can also follow my Clean Eating Recipes board on Pinterest for heaps of yummy ideas.