Everybody wants to make their life easier. And healthier. And save time. And money. Well, believe it or not, here’s one single habit that can actually help you with all this: Meal Planning. Read on to get started on your very own Healthy Meal Planning, in 9 easy steps.
You’re here reading this because, like a lot of folks out there, you would like to eat healthier, cleaner food and be more in control of what you put in your plate.
Related – Clean Eating for Beginners in 6 steps
And like most people, you’re probably finding out that getting clean, healthy food on the table isn’t quite as quick and straightforward as grabbing a takeaway or convenience food on your way home.
I hear you. But while clean eating can seem to be a lot more time-consuming and expensive than processed food, it doesn’t have to. You just need a little bit more planning!
And this doesn’t have to be a full weekend affair either. You Meal Planning can be as involved or simple as you want it to be. If you only want to plan ahead for a couple of dinners of week, it’s fine. It means that, for those few nights, your mealtime prep and cooking will be that much easier. And that’s great!
Want to plan ahead for the whole month so most of your meals are on auto-pilot? Very ambitious, but completely feasible. Although I would suggest to get started with a few meals, and build on from there. You might find that your own sweet spot is somewhere in between…
So let’s get started…
1. Decide on your Why
I know I keep badgering you about Your Why, but this is super important. First, because it will determine how in-depth your meal planning will be. If you really need to save time in the evenings, bulk-prepping might be your best option. But it might involve bulk-buying if saving money is your main motivation.
Second, it will help you stick with it. Habits do take time to set in. And there will be evenings when there is no time for cooking, the cook of the house is unwell or some other micro-crisis.
Remembering Why you are doing this will help you go back on track that much quicker and easier.
Your Why can be:
- saving money,
- eating clean,
- freeing time in the evening,
- eating better breakfasts/lunches/dinners,
- reducing food waste,
- adding variety in your plate,
- preserving what is left of your sanity (my personal Why).
2. Decide how many meals you need to cater for
Will you plan for breakfast, lunch, and dinners, or just dinners? Check the week ahead: any busy or pushed-for-time evenings, any evening out, guests?
Tally up the number of people to feed and number of meals.
At this stage, check also whether the season or weather calls more for salads or soup? What’s your budget for the week? How is your shopping routine shaping up for that particular week (i.e. if you’re away that weekend, when will you shop)?
3. Draw your Recipe List
I would strongly suggest involving the other members of the family at this stage. You will get more ideas (and variety) and hopefully fewer grumbles later on. It also means that your other half is more attuned to what food needs to be bought, in case they do the shopping.
Start with recipes that everybody likes, using seasonal products and stuff that you already have in your pantry/fridge/freezer. It’s easier to shop for them, store them and prep them.
Add maybe one new recipe or ingredient per week. To try something new, or for a special occasion. Don’t get too excited about all those Pinterest fancy recipes! To start with, stick with your old favorites while the routine sets in. There’ll be time for fancy later on.
If you need inspiration at that stage, the Healthy Meal Planning Bundle is a goldmine of recipes (over 1000), meal plans (all 38 of them), and other cooking tips. It even comes with pretty printables for meal planning.
4. Create a Meal Planner
And make sure it is visible.
Whether it’s just a sheet of paper, a magnet or board, place it on the fridge or in the kitchen, in full view. If you prefer a digital meal plan, create a Meal Calendar on your favorite calendar tool (Gmail, Outlook, Evernote, etc.) and share it with everybody in the family.
It doesn’t have to be fancy. This is what ours look like. We got loads of cheap red and yellow peppers recently, so most recipes will include some of them.
You can make it more detailed if it will help you later on. So you can add which fruits & vegetables are used, where the recipe comes from, how long it will take (I find a star system works well, 1 star for quick and easy, 3 stars for difficult/time-consuming), the number of guests at the table and so on.
There are also a whole host of meal planning apps out there. Look out for (in random order):
- their price tag (if any),
- the option for uploading of your own recipes,
- if they cater for dietary preferences,
- if they let you sync with your calendar,
- whether they will generate a shopping list generated,
- if they give you the nutritional information for your meals,
- any other preference of yours (online shopping etc.)
The Healthy Meal Planning Bundle come with a 1-month free subscription to Real Plans, by the way, so it gives you plenty of time to try this one out.
5. Create your Master Ingredient List (optional)
This is the list of all the ingredients you’ll need for all your meals. I’ve marked it as optional because if, say, you only decided to plan for 3 of next week’s dinners, you can probably just skip to the next step (Shopping list).
But this step might come in handy, for example, if your meal plan covers a whole week or more. Or if you’re new to clean eating and cooking from scratch. Or if there are quite a few new recipes involved (for a birthday or family meal, for example).
So this is how you create it: you just go through your recipes and write down all the ingredients needed, together with the quantities, making one list for pantry items and another one for perishables.
Then you check what’s in your pantry/fridge/freezer/fruit basket and cross those out.
What’s left is basically your Shopping List.
6. Write your Shopping List
If you’ve made a Master Ingredient List (see Step 5 above), then your Shopping List is what is still not crossed out.
If not, go through your recipes and write down all the ingredients (and quantities) that you don’t have at hand.
Then add stock items that you might need later on and will be used in your recipes.
Related – How keep your fresh produce for longer?
My tip – I usually do 1 list per shop, so we’ll have one list for the farmers’ market, and another one for the supermarket.
My other tip – On your list, group the ingredients based on their location in the shop. So all the fresh vegetables together, then the fruits, then the meat, the fish, the bakery items, the grocery items…
It saves time in the shop as you can quickly go through each aisle, pick up everything you need there (and only what you need) and be out in a flash.
I also find it saves money, as I don’t have to go through the candy or snack aisles with the kids… if you see what I mean.
Another random and useful tip – At this stage, just make sure that you have enough space to store all the ingredients you’ll be buying. I still vividly remember that time when I put “cabbage” on the shopping list, needing some for a stir-fry, and my better half walked in with 4 whole cabbage heads. Apparently, they were on BOGOF…
So we had to chop and cook them all up, stinking up the place for days, fill the freezer and the fridge up to the brim with cabbage… and eat cabbage. a lot of cabbage. every day. for what seemed like forever.
7. Shop for your ingredients
You can find more useful tips on shopping for clean food in this Clean Eating Shopping Guide. So you’re prepared for everything the shop will throw in your way to distract you from the clean food you need!
But basically, since you’re buying for more than just the day, follow your list. to. the. letter.
That’s my kids’ job. They enjoy reading the list, locating the product, checking it’s a good fit, crossing it off afterward. Keeps them busy, keeps the shopping trip quick and to the point, keeps me sane. Win-win.
8. Sunday prep (optional)
What about prepping? Meaning preparing and cooking your meals ahead of time and freezing them?
A lot of folks swear by their Sunday prep, which makes dinners (and lunches) a breeze. Simply take your meal out, thaw it, warm it up, and ta-dah!
While I can see the benefits in terms of time and money (as you can buy in bulk and cook in bulk), there are downsides too. So let’s go through the Pros and Cons of Meal Prepping…
Pros of Sunday prepping
- Less time spent cooking during the week.
- More variety, as you can swap one frozen meal for another easily.
- Saves money: you can cook a large batch of one recipe and freeze it into several meals. So it’s the same cooking time for more meals.
- You also save money by buying perishable products in bulk, like meat, vegetables, or fruits.
- More flexibility: if you end up not eating much at home that week, you just don’t take any meal out of the freezer. So there’s no perishables wasted. You also can eat as early or as late as you want to.
- You can turn it into a family activity on Sundays.
Cons of Sunday prepping
- Everything is cooked, so a fair amount of nutrients are lost. To make it into a nutrient-rich meal, you need to add a fresh salad, a raw soup like gazpacho or some other crudites. Thus adding back perishables and prepping time.
- It takes time on a Sunday, even with everybody’s help.
- You need a large freezer. That’s an important one as you must have the money and space for it.
- You need a lot of suitably-sized freezer containers.
So whether you decide to do a large meal prepping session ahead of time or carry on cooking every night is entirely up to you. It doesn’t have to be an all-or-nothing event either. It can be a weekly prepping session or a monthly one.
In our household, we don’t really prepare meals in advance (no large freezer and I like my food nutrient-rich), but we do buy in bulk whenever we can (freezer space permitting) and prepare in bulk there and then. Not necessarily on a Sunday, it could be an evening activity for just the two of us.
9. On the day, cook, relax, and enjoy
Don’t forget to refer to your meal plan regularly during the week, so you know when to take frozen stuff out to thaw. Or to check whether a specific meal needs to be swapped or prepped in advance as life happens.
So what’s your Healthy Meal Plan going to look like?
Now you’ve got all the *ingredients* (see what I did there…) required to get started with Healthy Meal Planning in 9 steps. One step at a time.
I’m pretty sure you already have some of those steps in place or some other tips and hacks that you use all the time. If they save you time and/or money, we’d love to know about them!
Send me your Best Meal Planning or Meal Prepping Tip/Hack through the little form below, and I’ll publish it in my next post!
And don’t forget to follow me on Pinterest for more clean eating tips and recipes!