Meal planning is a time saver for even the busiest people, meaning healthier eating with fewer trips to the drive thru and more meals at home. Taking time to learn how to plan meals will save you time—and help you eat healthier for long-term weight management. By learning how to plan weekly meals and eating meals at home, you can control your portions and avoid eating hidden calories. In addition, eating meals at home tend to be less expensive and higher in nutrients.
How to Plan Meals—Step by Step
- Get Ideas: When your family members are involved in the planning process, they’ll be more likely to eat what is prepared. It will also be easier to get help with the meal preparation and cleanup process if their food preferences are considered. Search for delicious recipes to get more ideas.
- Consider Shortcuts: Ask yourself these questions: 1.) Could you combine fresh and convenient foods to make the meal faster? 2.) Would using frozen and canned foods such as frozen broccoli or canned tomatoes or beans, make the meal easier to prepare? 3.) Do you need a simpler recipe for tuna casserole or a quicker way to make chili? Search for quick meals.
- Buy Meal Staples: Adding meal staples to your shopping list makes it easier to create quick meals—low fat dairy, lean meats, canned meats and beans, cheese, tomatoes, garlic, onions, spices, canned/frozen vegetables, etc. Remember, the food you have on hand will determine how healthfully you eat, so choose wisely.
- Use a Meal Planner: Make a list of all the main dishes you normally fix, as well as foods that you would like to serve but often don’t due to time constraints or missing ingredients. From this list, plan and organize your daily meals for the week. This planner will save you time and help you balance your health choices over the course of each week.
- Make Your List: Create your healthy shopping list to make your next grocery store trip more efficient. A healthy shopping list saves you time and helps limit impulse buys and overspending on extras. List the ingredients that you will need to prepare three meals on your meal planner.
- Last Step: Finally, check your pantry and refrigerator to see what you may already have on hand, make adjustments to your list and take your list to the store.
Tips for How to Plan Meals: Here are some other tips that can help make your life simpler:
- Look ahead for extra-busy days and plan something quick for those days.
- During the week, plan simpler meals: one-pot meals, broiled or roasted meats, steamed vegetables, salads, fresh fruit desserts. Save sauces and multi-step meals for weekends.
- For double-duty meals try these tips:
- Brown extra ground beef for dinner to use in another dish, like tacos, later in the week.
- Cook two more chicken breasts and then cut some up for another meal, like stir-fry with vegetables and brown rice.
- Chop a whole onion, even if you only need part of it right now. Store the rest for another meal.
- Grate extra cheese and store it in a zippered plastic bag in the freezer.
Save Time and Money at the Grocery Store
There is more variety on today’s grocery store shelves than ever before. With so many choices, it is easy to get overwhelmed.
Make shopping easier by following these guidelines:
- Don’t shop when you’re hungry. You’re more likely to make impulse purchases on less nutritious items that cost more.
- Make and stick to a shopping list. If you keep a running list at home of items that need to be replaced, you won’t have to worry about forgetting anything.
- Organize your list into sections according to the layout of the supermarket.
- Check for supermarket specials printed in the newspaper or online and plan your shopping trip around what is on sale.
If you are a single-person household, maximize your food dollars at the grocery store:
- Buy frozen vegetables and fruit in bags so you can take out what you need and freeze the rest.
- Look for foods sold in single servings such as juice, yogurt, frozen meals, soup and pudding.
- Shop from bulk bins so you can buy smaller amounts.
- Ask the butcher or produce manager for a smaller amount of prepackaged items.
- Buy produce that keeps longer in the refrigerator such as broccoli, brussel sprouts, cabbage and carrots.
Become a Savvy Farmer’s Market Shopper
Farmer’s markets are becoming more common in neighborhoods around the country, and with this increase in popularity have come an increase in vendors and consumer choice. When it comes to buying vegetables, start small: Buy salad ingredients to have at dinner each night. Purchase vegetables you know how to prepare. Once you gain confidence, add new items. Also, search for staples you’d normally buy at the supermarket like eggs, flour, bread, coffee, fish, nuts, seeds, honey and even soap.
Since items at a farmer’s market change often, bring a general shopping list rather than a specific one for the whole week: ingredients for salads, produce for side dishes that go well with planned dinner of fish, chicken or meat entrees. To prevent rotting fruit in the fridge, estimate how many pieces of fruit you’ll need for your lunches all week. Here are more ideas on how to maximize your trip to the farmer’s market:
- Don’t be shy. The people selling products want to answer your questions, go ahead, ask them what sun chokes are.
- Learn the lingo. Not all farmers can afford the organic certification, so ask them the difference between “greenhouse grown” and “grown or raised without hormones.” You’ll become a savvier shopper at any store after learning from the experts.
- Do your homework. Find a market that’s in a convenient location and with hours that fit your schedules so you can easily add a shopping trip into your weekly routine. Visit localharvest.org for markets in your area.
- Time your outing. If you can only go on weekends, get there early. Otherwise, go on a weekday in the middle of the day. The less traffic in the market, the more opportunities you’ll have to get the best products and chat with vendors. If you’re shopping on a budget, going at the end of the market day will usually enable you to get some great deals and negotiate prices with the vendors.
- Bring cash and reusable bags. Small bills will make transactions easy and you’ll need a sturdy, eco-friendly bag to carry your purchases home.
- Become a gourmet. Ask the vendors for cooking suggestions; sometimes they provide recipes. Or enter your new vegetable in the search box at https://www.epicurious.com/ to discover recipe ideas.
- Be flexible. Accept that produce will not look perfect. But it has been grown naturally and picked recently, which means it’s packed with flavor and nutrients.