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6 Steps to Healthy Meal Planning

Updated August 27, 2017

Whether you’re following a specific diet, working around dietary restrictions, wanting to lose weight or just want to eat better (and save a little bit of money doing it), one of the keys to success is to plan, plan, PLAN! During nutrition counselling sessions, I will sometimes have my clients plan their meals for the week with me and they’re often surprised that it’s not as torturous of a process as they think. However, staring at all those blank squares in a meal planning template can feel like staring down some sort of black hole.

Heeeelllllppppp....

Heeeelllllppppp…. 😱😱😱

Here is a sneak peek into my meal planning process to help those who are new to this get started, or spark some inspiration for those who are feeling like planning is a chore.

1. You don’t have to fill out all the squares.

Simply search “meal plan” on the internet, and you will be instantly inundated with 7-day, 21-day, 30-day (you name it!) menus that promise to help you trim belly fat, save money and keep your kids happy too. I’m sure a lot of work goes into creating those menus, but they often mean a lot of work for you too! Does anyone really have the time, energy and/or resources to make and eat something different for breakfast, lunch and dinner for a week (or month) straight? No wonder people get scared when they’re handed a blank template and asked to make one on their own!

Start small.

Most people just focus on planning dinners because that is when they have the time to cook and get creative. Others focus on planning their lunches ahead because that is what they grab-and-go, whereas they have more time to improvise for dinner. Some people advise to start by planning for just a day or two at a time, but I like to tie in meal planning with grocery shopping, and not everyone has the luxury of going shopping every one or two days.

#MealPlanning Secret: You don't need to make something different for every meal! Click To Tweet

I personally just plan my dinners because I usually eat one of two meals for breakfast. This:

Or this:

#goodmorning #vscocam

A photo posted by Vincci T (@vincci_t) on

Lunch is usually leftovers.

2. Look at your calendar.

I can’t help but cringe when my husband opens up the meal planner and the first thing he asks is, “What do I feel like eating?” In my opinion, the first question you should ask yourself is not about food, but rather, about time. Take a look at your upcoming schedule over the next week. Are there some days where you have made plans to go out so you don’t have to/get to cook? (Yay! or Boo!, depending on your preference) Are there some days where you don’t get home till late and all you’ll probably want to do is heat up some leftovers? Are there other days where you have more time to experiment with a new recipe or do some extra meal prep for those later nights?

In my personal experience, on the days that I am working from home, I might throw something in the slow cooker during the day, or cook a more involved recipe in the evening. On the days where B. gets home before me, I try to make sure there are leftovers, or at least plan a recipe that he can actually make 😉

#MealPlanning Tip: Don't ask, 'What do I feel like eating?', instead ask 'What do I have time to make?' Click To Tweet

3. Choose your recipes.

Now comes the hard but fun part! Deciding what to make! Here’s how I stay inspired without overwhelming myself:

  • Check out your fridge, pantry and freezer. Look at the ingredients you already have to see what needs to be used up – produce that’s on it’s last legs, the last dregs of a bottle of sauce… dishes like fried rice, stir-fries or frittatas are a great way to use up random ingredients.
  • Look on Pinterest, blogs and cookbooks, but limit yourself to 1-2 new recipes per week. It’s so easy to get sucked into all those gorgeous photos and delicious looking dishes, but trying a bunch of new things often leads to spending lots of money on random ingredients that you might not use again, or spending lots of time making something that ends up being a #PinterestFail. Pick one or two days where you have more time to try new recipes, and you’ll know which ones are the keepers!
  • Keep old meal plans and/or a list of standbys. B. and I do our weekly menu planning on a spreadsheet in Google Drive, which allows you to see the revision history of your documents. One afternoon B. went through all the revisions and categorized all the recipes we ever made (i.e. soups, salads, sides, vegetarian dishes, etc.) and ideally, every time we add new recipes we add it to its respective category. (In real life I always forget to do this.) This allows us to go back and revisit recipes we haven’t made in a while. We also have a Pinterest board of some of our favourites.
  • Have theme nights. Admittedly this is not something I do myself, but some of my clients find it helpful to designate themes to each night. For example, Meatless Monday, Fish Friday, slow cooker night, Mexican night, pasta night, etc. If you’re someone who tends to get overwhelmed by all the recipes that are out there, this might help to create some boundaries around the choices available.
#MealPlanning Tip: Limit yourself to 1-2 new recipes per week to avoid overwhelm. Click To Tweet

4. Does my meal plan align with my goals?

It’s one thing to meal plan, but it’s another to create a plan to eat healthier. Consider your health and fitness goals and how your meal plan/eating habits will help you get there. If your goal is to cook more at home, make sure there are more days where you’re eating at home vs. eating out. If you are trying to eat more vegetables, plan for meals and snacks that feature them prominently. If you are counting calories, choose recipes that you know the nutrition information for, or even enter it into the app you’re using to track calories – not only are you meal planning, you’re also doing the tracking! All you have to do now is edit your journal on the day of based on what you actually eat.

With my own meal planning, I like to focus on my 4 Foundations of Healthy Eating. Planning to cook my own meals means I choose minimally processed foods more often, I try to make sure I eat every 3-5 hours (for me, this means an afternoon snack most weekdays), I include at least 3 of 4 food groups, including 1 vegetable or fruit per meal. I don’t plan my hydration, but it is something that I struggle with, so perhaps that’s an area that I can pay a little more attention to.

Planning to eat healthier? Make sure your #MealPlan aligns with your goals. Click To Tweet

5. Write your grocery list, shop and cook!

Once you’ve decided on your recipes (and all the other foods that you will eat throughout the week), write your list! I usually have a good idea of what staples I have at home, so will often just write down new ingredients, while others prefer to write everything, then “shop” their kitchen and cross items off their list before heading to the store.

Once you’ve got all your ingredients, make prepping a part of your grocery trip instead of just shoving everything into your fridge! Chop up some vegetables and fruit, marinate your meats and pre-package your snacks to give your future self a bit of a head start for the meals ahead.

Make prepping a part of your grocery trip to save time when it's time to cook! Click To Tweet

6. Have a backup plan.

Life happens. You might come home later than you expect one night, your teenage son might have a bigger appetite than you thought, or your milk might go sour before the expiry date! Keeping a well-stocked pantry means that you can at least whip something up when things don’t necessarily go according to plan. For me, this means people know I don’t have any leftovers when I’m packing a sandwich to work or having a tuna melt for dinner!

#MealPlanning Tip: Life happens! Keep pantry staples on hand in case you need a backup. Click To Tweet
Do you plan your meals ahead? What is your meal planning process like? How do you get your recipe inspiration?

6 Comments

  • Beth on Aug 15, 2015 Reply

    Great tips! Especially the part about repeating meal plans. Really, if you have a small rotation of meal plans you can just swap in something new 1-2 times a week so you don’t get sick of anything. I actually use spoonacular for meal planning because you can save all your meal plans digitally 🙂 http://spoonacular.com/meal-planner

    • Vincci Tsui on Aug 15, 2015 Reply

      Thanks for sharing Spoonacular with me, Beth! The calorie and cost calculators in there look interesting!

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