Food is life—we eat to survive and nourish our bodies. We also eat for enjoyment, socialization, and to celebrate special occasions. Eating healthy, however, can be pretty challenging for many today. That’s because, when faced with child-rearing, work, and/or other responsibilities, planning meals can become tedious and overwhelming. The solution – ready-to-go meals, take-out and dining out. Although convenient, these alternatives may not be the healthiest choice for you or your family. The good news is that you can take control of your food choices and still have adequate time left by making meal planning a priority. Not sure what meal planning is, whether it’s beneficial for you, or how to start? Here’s a detailed look at meal planning—from its definitions and benefits, to key principles and steps for effective meal plans.
What Do You Mean By Meal Planning?
Meal planning is the process of creating an outline or plan for the types of meals you will eat, and when.
Meal planning can be as simple or detailed as you want—from jotting down a few ideas for the week, to creating a monthly meal plan complete with grocery shopping lists and recipes.
While there are no hard-and-fast rules for meal planning, there are certain principles you can use to help you create a healthy and balanced diet.
These principles (which we’ll highlight shortly) can help you make smart and nutritious food choices—ones that will benefit your health, wellbeing, and pocketbook.
It’s worth noting that, when it comes to meal planning, one size does not fit all. The meals you eat should be based on your specific nutritional needs (e.g., age, gender, activity level), food preferences, budget, and lifestyle.
Furthermore, meal planning does not necessarily mean cooking every meal from scratch. It is about finding smart and creative ways to make sure you are eating nourishing meals that suit your individual needs.
This may sound daunting, but by the end of this article, you’ll have all the information and tips on how to make meal planning work for you.
What Are The Benefits Of Meal Planning?
Planning, in general, yields a plethora of benefits, and meal planning is no different. Here are 8 great reasons to plan your meals:
Pay More Attention To The Quality Of Your Meals
Did you know that the trusted family recipe passed down through generations might not be the healthiest option? Unfortunately, poor quality meals are more common than you think. Not only that, but many of these meals are filled with unhealthy fats, added sugars, and preservatives.
And it’s not just family recipes; even store-bought pre-packaged foods can be surprisingly unhealthy. If you often get home famished and reach for the first thing you find, it’s likely that you’re not eating balanced meals.
Meal planning allows you to make deliberate and informed decisions about the quality of your meals.
You get to review and tailor recipes to make sure they include the right balance of nutrients, while still being enjoyable. It also helps you make informed food choices, stick to your dietary goals, and prepare tasty and nutrient-dense meals.
Eating nutrient dense meals is essential for overall health and wellbeing (1). Nutrient-dense meals contain the vitamins, minerals, fiber, and other nutrients your body needs to function optimally.
Pay More Attention To The Quantity Of Your Meals
Unfortunately, it’s a skill that most of us are yet to master. Partly because it can be hard to gauge an appropriate portion size in the spur of the moment (think of that delicious plate of pasta at a restaurant—which is on the larger size!).
A few reasons why you might struggle with portion control are:
- You’re eating mindlessly (e.g., in front of the TV)
- You’re feeling stressed or emotional, and are “numbing” your feelings with food
- You’re worried about wasting food
- You’re eating with others who have larger portions
- You’re eating out a lot (because portion sizes are typically bigger than what you would serve yourself at home)
- Your plates are too big
Meal planning helps you become more aware of what and how much you’re eating. When meal planning, you can:
- Adjust recipes to include appropriate portion sizes
- Portion out meals ahead of time
- Pay attention to the calorie and nutrition content
- Choose recipes that are specifically designed for portion control.
- Reuse leftovers
- Choose smaller plates
These strategies lower the chances of eating too much—or not enough. And, as a result, you’ll have more control over your nutritional goals.
Make Your Grocery Shopping Easier And More Affordable
Your pantry, fridge, and freezer are common sources of meal inspiration. But don’t forget the other side of the equation: Shopping for groceries. Meal planning can make your grocery shopping easier and more affordable.
For instance, when you plan ahead, you can make a shopping list that includes all the things you need for the meals you have planned. The result, you’ll be less likely to forget something or buy unnecessary items.
You can also make the most of the groceries you already have on hand. You can plan meals that use items from your pantry or leftovers from previous meals. This will help you save money, prevent food waste, and help you create delicious meals with minimal effort.
Better Weight Management
You’ve probably heard the saying, “abs are made in the kitchen.” This is true! Even if you’re not looking for a six-pack, the type of food you eat plays a huge role in weight management.
Meal planning helps you become more aware of what you’re eating.
For instance, you can choose recipes that fit your dietary goals (e.g., low-carb, high-protein, plant-based). You can also meal plan snacks to fit your goals. That way, if you’re ever feeling a bit hungry in between meals, you can reach for a healthy snack.
In addition, planning your meals will help you avoid unhealthy and processed foods. You’ll be more likely to make nutrient-dense meals that support your weight management goals.
Lastly, meal planning helps you practice portion control, which is critical for creating a calorie deficit. Eat less, move more, and you’ll be on your way to better weight management.
Better Time Management
Meal planning can also help you become more organized and efficient. When you have a plan in place, it’s easier to make time for grocery shopping, cooking, and other meal prep tasks.
You can plan your meals around the days you’ll be busy so you can spend less time in the kitchen on those days. You can make large batches of meals ahead of time, so you don’t need to spend a lot of time cooking on weekdays.
Plus, when you’re organized, you’ll be less likely to eat out—which can help you save money.
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What Are The Key Principles Of Meal Planning?
Meal planning is more than just creating a plan for what you’ll eat. It’s also important to consider some key principles in order to create a healthy, balanced meal plan. The five key principles of meal planning are:
Food is fuel. Make sure you’re eating enough of the right kinds of foods to meet your energy, nutritional, and hydration needs. For example, if you’re a highly active person, you’ll likely need to include more carbohydrates in your diet.
Strive for a balance of carbohydrate, protein, and fat in each meal. Even though the exact ratios depend on your individual needs, these macronutrients are all essential for growth, development, and energy (2).
Vary your foods to get a variety of vitamins, minerals, and other essential nutrients. Eating the same meals day after day can quickly lead to boredom which can lead to unhealthy eating habits.
This refers to eating the right amounts of different types of food without overeating. Learning satiety signals and determining when you’ve had enough to eat is an important part of moderating your food intake.
Food is fuel for your soul, just as much as it’s fuel for your body. Enjoying the process of creating and eating meals can be just as important as the nutritional value. Allow yourself to enjoy a treat occasionally and indulge in your favorite recipes.
What Are The Key Steps For Effective Meal Planning?
Now that you know the principles of meal planning, it’s time to create your plan. Here are the key steps for effective meal planning:
Step 1 – Take Stock Of What You Have In Your Pantry & Refrigerator
Before you decide what to make, it’s important to take stock of the ingredients that you already have in your pantry or refrigerator. This serves three purposes:
- You save money by avoiding buying duplicate ingredients.
- You avoid wasting food by making sure you use what you have on hand.
- You do a pantry sweep to make sure you’re not stocking unhealthy processed foods.
Simplify the stock-taking process by making a list of all the food items in your pantry and refrigerator.
Categorize them into the major food groups: proteins, carbs, fats, and vegetables.
Reading labels on packaged foods can be helpful too. Check out the nutrition facts panel to ensure you’re choosing healthy options.
Step 2 – Map Out Your Meals
Once you’ve taken stock of what you already have, it’s time to map out your meals for the week.
First, decide what diet type you prefer. Are you looking to follow a plant-based, keto, or Mediterranean diet? Which one you choose will depend largely on your individual health, goals, and preferences.
Then, create a meal plan that includes all of your meals, snacks, and beverages for the week.
Different people need different amounts of food depending on their body composition, activity level, and energy needs. Be sure to focus on your own needs instead of following someone else’s meal plan.
When you’re mapping out your meals, consider the following:
- Make sure you’re getting enough of each macronutrient in the right ratio.
- Include a variety of different foods to get enough vitamins, minerals, and other essential nutrients.
- Plan for snacks and beverages that fit within your dietary guidelines. These are often overlooked but are still important for energy, hydration, and nourishment.
- Make healthy swap outs where you can, such as substituting low-fat dairy for full-fat dairy, or swapping out white rice for brown.
- Check for any dietary restrictions such as allergies or intolerances.
- Pick several healthy, simple recipes that you can make on days when you don’t have as much time.
- Labor and time-saving strategies that you can use on busy days.
Step 3 – Shop Wisely
Now that you have a meal plan, it’s time to shop for all of the ingredients. Strategic shopping will save you time and money:
- Make a shopping list that’s organized by food groups to make sure you don’t forget anything.
- Use coupons and discount codes to get the best deals on healthy food items.
- Check out your local farmers’ market for seasonal produce. Seasonal produce is usually fresher and more affordable than what you find in the grocery store.
- Check the expiration dates on all of your grocery items and avoid buying food that is close to its expiration date.
- Purchase frozen fruits and vegetables for convenience.
Step 4 – Invest In High-Quality Tupperware And/Or Glassware
You’ll need an assortment of containers to store leftovers and to-go meals. Invest in high-quality, BPA-free tupperware or glassware to keep your food fresh. Make sure you have lids that fit snugly so that you can store and reheat your meals with ease.
Step 5 – Set Aside A Day & Time To Meal Prepare
Once you have all of your ingredients, set aside a day and time to prepare. This could be a few hours on the weekend or one hour after work each evening.
Pick a time that works best for you and your schedule. Let family members know when you’ll be in the kitchen so they won’t disturb your meal prepping.
Step 6 – Love Your Leftovers
Leftovers may not be the most exciting meals, but they can be lifesavers on busy days. And some meals actually taste better as leftovers than when they’re first cooked.
If a recipe calls for too much food, make a few extra servings and store them in the fridge or freezer. Leftovers can save you time and money on busy days. So don’t throw away your leftovers – refrigerate, freeze, or reheat them for future meals!
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Common Meal Planning Challenges And Solutions
Meal planning can be a challenge for many households. From the struggle to find healthy, affordable dishes that the whole family will enjoy to having to make time for grocery shopping and cooking, it can be difficult to find a balance that works.
Here are some of the most common meal planning challenges along with some solutions to help make meal planning easier and more enjoyable.
Challenge: Finding Time For Shopping
Solution: Consider bulk shopping, either online or in person. This way you can do one large shop and have enough food for several meals. Additionally, you could use a grocery delivery service for extra convenience.
Challenge: Planning Balanced Meals
Solution: Utilize an app or website that allows you to create weekly meal plans. This way, you can easily see which foods to buy so you can make sure each meal is nutritionally balanced.
Challenge: Sticking To A Budget
Solution: Take advantage of sales and promotions at your local grocery store. Also, consider seasonal or frozen produce which tends to be less expensive than fresh. Try creating meals around these foods, or use them as side dishes to round out the meal.
Challenge: Keeping It Interesting
Solution: Dare to try something new! Look up recipes from other cultures and experiment with different flavors. You can also explore vegan, vegetarian, or gluten-free options to mix things up.
The Bottom Line
Meal planning can be a challenging but rewarding experience. With the right tools and strategies, you can easily create nutritious and delicious meals that your whole family will enjoy. Put these solutions into practice to make meal planning simpler and more enjoyable!
This article is intended for general informational purposes only and does not address individual circumstances. It is not a substitute for professional advice or help and should not be relied on to make decisions of any kind. Any action you take upon the information presented in this article is strictly at your own risk and responsibility!
- How Can I Eat More Nutrient-Dense Foods? (n.d., heart.org)
- The macronutrients, appetite and energy intake (2016, nih.gov)
- What is the role of portion control in weight management? (2014, nih.gov)