In my last blog post, I wrote about 17 simple habits that will help you get healthy and lean in 2017. If you’re trying to lose weight and get healthy for your wedding, I would start with habit # 1 — planning your meals.
Eating a clean and healthy diet will have a greater impact on your weight, health, and energy than pretty much anything else you can do, and planning your meals is the best way I know to make sure you eat this way consistently.
If you’re a planning geek like me, you’re gonna love this. If you’re someone who rebels against structure and plans, then you might not be too excited about this one (I’ve got a friend just like you…Carmen, if you’re reading this, you know I speak the truth!).
But it doesn’t have to feel restrictive or be overly complicated. And the more you do it the easier it gets.
That said, I won’t lie and say it’s a breeze — meal planning takes effort and time (even more so in the beginning when you’re new to it). But, I PROMISE you it will pay off.
And to tell you the truth, there are weeks that I don’t get my meals planned and I’m just flying by the seat of my pants every day. It happens.
But I’m here to tell you — those weeks are always more stressful, I don’t eat as well as I normally would, and I always regret that I didn’t plan my meals.
So how about it . . . are you willing to give it a try?
There are a variety of methods you can use:
- Good ol’ pen and paper
- Using your digital calendar or a note-taking app
- Programs/apps designed specifically for meal-planning, like Plan to Eat
I know it can be a little overwhelming if you’re new to it, so I want to make it as easy as possible for you to get started.
Since pen and paper is the simplest, I’ll use this method and walk you through the 6 simple steps I use to plan my meals.
How-To Guide for Weekly Meal Planning
Below I’ll show you how I plan my meals each week, breaking it down into 6 simple steps. Then I’ll give you some extra tips for saving time in the kitchen.
Before we start, I want to say that meal planning doesn’t have to seem like such a chore. It can actually be kind of fun (even if you’re not a planning geek like me), but only if you set aside time to do it and aren’t having to rush through it (then it is definitely no fun).
Decide what day and time you’ll do your meal planning each week. A lot of people like to do their planning on Sundays. I like doing mine on Friday or Saturday because it gives me more time to shop and prep before the workweek begins (more on that coming up!).
Put on some good music, make yourself a good cup of coffee or tea (or a glass of wine) and enjoy the process!
Step 1: Take a look at the week ahead.
Look at your calendar and determine if there are any meals you need to eat out (like date nights, lunch meetings, etc.), then figure out the number of breakfasts, lunches, and dinners you’ll need for the week.
For any meals you’ll be eating out, cross out the corresponding space on your meal planner.
For example, if you’re having lunch out with a friend on Wednesday, cross out the space for Wednesday’s lunch on your planner because you won’t need to fix a lunch for that day. Date night dinner on Friday? Cross out Friday’s dinner on your calendar.
If you know you’re gonna have an extra long day with limited time to cook, write a Q (for QUICK!) on your meal planning worksheet for that dinner so you’ll remember you need a quick meal that night (leftovers are a great option for this!).
Tip: If you’re new to this and it seems overwhelming, you can always start small — maybe just plan to cook 2 or 3 meals this first week, or only plan your breakfasts or lunches.
Step 2: Determine the number of breakfasts, lunches, and dinners you’ll need.
Tally up the number of breakfasts, lunches, and dinners you’ll need for the week.
You also need to decide if you want to plan your meals for every day of the week, or be more flexible on certain days.
We tend to eat out a lot on the weekends, so I plan my meals for Monday breakfast through Friday lunch, and leave the weekend open.
It’s your plan and you have total flexibility to do whatever works best for you.
Tip: A couple of ways you can make meal planning and cooking easier are: (a) eat the same thing for breakfast all week (I usually do this, and some of my faves are make-ahead steel-cut oatmeal, smoothies, or chia seed puddings like this grab-and-go mango chia seed pudding, and (b) eat leftovers for lunch, which means fewer meals you have to prepare.
Step 3: Do a quick fridge clean-out and check for perishables that need to be used this week.
Few things make me feel guiltier than throwing away food because I was a slacker and let it go bad. It happens, but really there’s no excuse for this and I’m making it a personal mission to never let food go to waste in our house.
Check your fridge for any perishable food you have left over from the week before (like fresh produce) — you’ll look for recipes that you can use these in so that they don’t go to waste. Jot these down so you can refer back while choosing your recipes.
Tip: If you have leftovers that you’re tired of eating, pack them in individual serving size containers and freeze them for a grab-and-go lunch or a quick dinner.
Step 4: Pick your recipes
This is my favorite part because I loooove recipes, and I love trying new ones. Because of this, I sometimes lose touch with reality in terms of how much cooking I’ll actually be willing to do during the workweek.
So just try to keep it real when you’re picking recipes for your meals, and don’t forget to refer back to your planner for nights you need to have something quick.
If you have a collection of favorite healthy recipes, this can be a good place to start. From personal experience, I don’t recommend trying new recipes for every meal of the week. Have a few go-to staples, and add in one or two new ones each week.
In terms of nutrition, everyone’s needs are different, but aim for having 5 servings of veggies each day, and center your meals around whole foods, healthy fats, and clean proteins (more on that here).
I like to start with the easiest part first. Since I eat the same thing for breakfast all week, I fill in my breakfast slots first. Then I write the ingredients I’ll need on my shopping list (for smoothies, I’ll usually need greens, avocados, and frozen fruit if I’m running low).
I like to eat leftovers for lunch as much as possible, so I skip the lunch section for now and fill in my dinners.
Fill in your dinners (main + side dishes). If you’re following a recipe, be sure to note on your meal planner where to find it (cookbook name + page, online recipe site where you found it, or print the recipe so you have a hard copy to follow, etc.).
Next, I check the serving amounts to see which recipes will leave me with leftovers, and then plug those in for my quick dinners or lunches. If I don’t have enough leftovers for all my lunches, then I decide what to make for lunch.
I like to keep lunch really easy, so I usually make some type of salad I can get a couple of meals out of, or have something like veggies and hummus.
And look at you — you’ve just planned your meals for the week! Great job! Next, you’ll get all your ingredients so you’re ready to go.
Tip: Make it easier to find your recipes by collecting them in a designated place. For online recipes, you can save them in a note-taking app on your phone (my favorite is Trello–I basically organize my whole life there), make a Pinterest board for them, or use a program specifically designed for this (right now I’m using Plan to Eat). If you like to print your recipes, put them in a binder and organize them by category. Be sure to note your favorites so you can start building your collection of go-to recipes.
Tip 2: If it’s a new recipe, really read through it and make sure it’s realistic for your skill level and the amount of time you have (I’m notorious for not doing this, then getting into the middle of a recipe and realizing it’s way more complicated/time-consuming/above-my-skill-level than I thought).
Step 5: Make your shopping list
Start by listing all the ingredients for each meal on your shopping list , leaving off anything you know you have on hand. (You can also fill out your shopping list as you go — filling in the ingredients from each recipe as you decide on it.)
Then check your fridge and pantry to see if there are any other ingredients you already have — cross those off the list.
Tip: When listing your ingredients, think about how you can repurpose extras. For instance, if you’re making cole slaw one night and it calls for half a head of cabbage, plan to use the rest of the cabbage by making something like roasted cabbage (one of our faves!) as a side dish another night.
Step 6: Do your shopping
This one is pretty self-explanatory, but I’ll give you a few tips for efficient grocery shopping.
First, using a pre-made shopping list organized by category is a big time-saver. It’ll keep you from doing a lot of backtracking in the store.
Or, if you really want to take it up a notch, create your own shopping list template based on the store you shop at most frequently and organize it by aisle. I’ve actually done this for my local Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods, and OMG it makes things so much easier. Store layouts can be different from one location to the next (every Whole Foods in Dallas seems to have a different layout).
Next, have a set time to go to the store each week if you can, and choose a time when the stores aren’t crazy busy. Definitely avoid grocery shopping on weekdays after work and Sunday afternoons. Late evenings (after dinner) or early weekend mornings are usually less crowded.
Or you can do what I’ve started doing and order your groceries online through Amazon Fresh (or another grocery delivery service) and have them delivered right to your door! This literally saves me hours every week. I haven’t tried any other delivery services but I’ve been loving Amazon Fresh.
And that’s it — you’ve just set yourself up for a very healthy + successful week!
If you really want to get a jumpstart on your week, you can do some of the prep work or even some of the cooking ahead of time.
Some options for this are:
- Wash your veggies and fruits as you put them away
- Do your chopping, grating, and slicing ahead of time, storing your pre-measured amounts in individual storage containers (labeling the containers with a sticky note saying which recipe it’s for is a good idea)
- Put frozen meat in the refrigerator to thaw (just don’t do it too far in advance)
- Saute ingredients for soups and other dishes ahead of time so they’re ready to go when it’s time to put the dish together
- Assemble casseroles or packets ahead of time so you can just pop them in the oven when it’s time to cook
- Cook entire dishes ahead of time and just heat them up when it’s time to eat
More tips for efficient + easier meal planning and meal prep:
- Save all your meal plans so you can refer back to them — eventually, you’ll have enough that you can just rotate through them on a regular basis. But leave space to try a new recipe too so that you’re keeping it fresh. (If you plan to use this strategy, be sure to record where to find the recipe–what cookbook it’s from and page #, which recipe site it’s from, whether it’s saved in your recipe binder, etc.)
- Have themes for each day of the week — for example, meatless Monday, soup on Tuesday, fish on Wednesday, etc.
- Follow a formula — for example, every week plan on 3 vegetarian dinners + 2 meat dinners (you can mix that up or make whatever formula makes sense for you)
- To save time in the kitchen, use your slow cooker or Instant pot, cook full meals in parchment or foil packets, or make one-dish meals
- Invest in a really good chef’s knife to make chopping and slicing more efficient, or try some of my other favorite time-saving kitchen tools
- Buy pre-chopped veggies from the store
- Use a Rotisserie chicken for recipes that call for cooked chicken
- Prep for tomorrow’s meals the night before
I know it sounds like a lot, but it’s honestly not bad at all once you get the hang of it. And it will make your life so much easier during the work week and make a huge difference in how you eat (and in your weight loss, if that’s one of your goals).
Also, if you’re going to be doing prepping or cooking ahead of time, you’ll want to be sure you have plenty of storage containers on hand. I highly recommend glass containers to avoid potential toxins in plastic — I use Mason jars and these airtight glass storage containers.
So there you have it — my ultimate how-to guide for healthy meal planning.
PS — You can find recipes for healthy dinners, healthy breakfasts, healthy lunches, and even healthy(er) desserts on my Pinterest board, along with healthy eating tips and pre-made clean eating plans.