For a long time, I knew a meal plan could save my family money, but it just seemed like too much work. One more thing to do every week, and another schedule I needed to follow? No thanks!
When I actually tried it, I was quickly discouraged by including too many complicated recipes, which made it much harder than it needed to be. There is nothing worse than spending a ton of time planning and shopping, only to end up throwing out food at the end of the week, because you didn’t have time to cook it all!
But meal planning does not have to be complicated, and it can actually make your life easier. Here are a few tips for healthy meal planning to get you going (and with a little practice, you can save yourself loads of money and time).
9 Tips for Healthy Meal Planning
- Start simple!
- This one is so, so, so important. Start by planning a few dinners a week that you already know how to make, and don’t require tons of ingredients. If you can come up with three meals that you and your family love, that are healthy and easy to prepare, you can build your plan around making each of these every week or two. Then add in more variety later if you choose, after you get into the swing of things. Keeping meals simple will make it so much easier to grocery shop, and to stick to your plan of cooking at home!
- Write it out
- Write down the meals you are planning to make. If your week goes well, use this schedule again every week or two! You don’t have to reinvent the wheel each time. If it didn’t go well, you can look back and see what went wrong and tweak as needed.
- Keep it flexible!
- I actually don’t assign days of the week to each meal. I just write out the 3-4 dinners I am planning to cook, and the ingredients for each, so I can make my grocery list. Then I post the list of meals where I can see it in the evenings when I am getting ready for the next day. I pick one based on our schedule (which changes frequently) and what I am in the mood to make. This way, I don’t feel stressed out when we get “off schedule.”
- Double up.
- Your family will be fine if you eat every meal on your meal plan twice (or more)! If you plan three dinners, you can make double the amount and have six nights covered. If you REALLY can’t stand the thought of having a meal twice in one week, make double anyway and save half in the freezer. You just saved yourself a night of cooking later! I almost always make enough for two or three meals, every time I cook. It saves SO much time.
- Keep a few staples on hand and prepped.
- You could keep ingredients for sandwiches, PBJ, simple wraps or tacos, salad, or whatever your family likes. I cook up a batch of chicken thighs or split chicken breasts and some sweet potato fries at the beginning of every week, so we always have those on hand. (This is SUPER easy, because they go in the oven together for about the same amount of time – see the post here). We use the chicken for nachos, salad, or wraps for a quick lunch or dinner when there is no time to cook.
- Keep lunch simple.
- Simple does not have to mean unhealthy! We throw together leftovers, wraps, salad, or “roll-ups” (natural lunch meat wrapped around lettuce, veggies, and/or cheese) most days. I try to serve the main dish with at least one veggie and another side. Some ideas are carrots and celery with peanut butter, crackers or veggies with hummus, fruit, yogurt with berries, blue corn chips, or string cheese. Less cooking and clean-up at lunch usually leaves more time later to cook a healthy dinner.
- Have a plan for breakfast.
- Breakfast can be as simple or complex as you want it to be. Pick a few favorites, and have a plan based on how much time you have each day. We usually have oatmeal and fruit during the week, sprouted french toast with strawberries and whipped cream on Saturdays, and bacon and eggs on Sunday. The weekend meals break up the monotony of the same old thing, but oatmeal on the weekdays is SO quick and easy.
- Keep perishables in the freezer when possible.
- As soon as I get home from the grocery store, all the meat and cheese, except what I will cook in the first 2-3 days, go into the freezer. I also prep smoothie bags with fruit, spinach/greens, flax meal, chia seeds, and protein powder, and those go into the freezer too. Now I don’t have to worry if I get a little behind on my cooking – I know the meat, cheese, and some of my fruit and spinach are going to stay fresh. This also lets me stock up a little when there is a really great sale price on meat!
- Take a little time when you are making dinner to pull out whatever you will need for the next day or two, and put it in the fridge so it can thaw.
- Occasionally, I forget to thaw meat ahead, and we just make something simple (like the staples mentioned above), or I put a frozen roast or chicken in the crockpot if I remember in the morning. This gives it enough time to thaw out and cook!
- Stock up on non-perishables
- Keep some favorites on hand, and buy extras when they are on sale. I try to buy enough to last until they are on sale again. Some favorites at our house are blue corn chips; beans (I buy canned and dry, and we use the canned ones if we forget to soak beans ahead); gluten free flour, coconut palm sugar, and real maple syrup for baking; and peanut or almond butter.
- If you don’t have a large pantry, designate another place in your house to keep backups. We have a set of shelves in our basement that acts as our pantry. In the past, we used a shelf in the top of our bedroom closet when we lived in a house without a basement!
Meals do not have to be stressful, and I hope these tips for healthy meal planning help! I would love to hear your favorite meal planning tips or recipes as well.