Meal Planning

Do you often find yourself in the kitchen at 5 p.m. wondering what to make for dinner? If so, it might be time to get serious about meal planning. It’s the process of planning and prepping meals in advance, and for many people, it’s life-changing.

Keep reading learn how to start meal planning. These tips will have you planning meals like a pro in no time.

The Benefits of Meal Planning

With meal planning, you plan out what you want to eat for the week and shop for everything at once. Then you organize ingredients and prep some of them ahead of time for each meal.

You may worry it takes too much time or that you’ll spend more on groceries. But meal planning offers these and other benefits:

  • You’ll save money because you’ll order less takeout — and you’ll be less likely to waste the food you buy at the grocery store.
  • You’ll have more time, not less, because you’ll make fewer trips to the grocery store, and your cooking time will be well-organized.
  • You’ll have more control over the types of food you eat, so it’ll be easier to meet your health goals.

Meal planning takes some time and practice, but once you master it, it will become second nature. The key is to find a system that works best for you.

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How Do I Start a Meal Plan?

You may feel overwhelmed. But don’t worry. Getting started is easier than you think — and all you really need are a notepad and your favorite recipes.

Sit down once a week and write down what you want to eat throughout the week. You can start with just three or four dinners or plan a week’s worth of breakfast, lunch, dinner, and snacks. Meal plans should accommodate your goals, like saving money or eating healthier — but allow for some flexibility too.

After you decide on meals, list out the ingredients needed for each meal. Try to do this in the kitchen, so you can check your refrigerator and pantry. That ensures you only buy what you need.

With your grocery list in place, head to the store and stock up. When you get back home, try to prep as much as possible in advance for each meal. For example:

  • Chop onions, garlic, and other vegetables for your recipes and keep them in containers.
  • Wash lettuce or other greens and roll them in paper towels before refrigerating them.
  • Measure out any spices or make marinades or dressings ahead of time.
  • Cook whole grains like brown rice or quinoa ahead of time and refrigerate or freeze them.

When it’s time to eat, check your meal plan to see what’s on the menu. Then pull out your prepped ingredients, assemble, heat, and serve.

How to Start Meal Planning for a Family

Meal planning is ideal for a family because you can do most of the work on the weekend. That frees up time on busy weeknights. Meal planning also helps engage picky eaters and lets them have a say in what’s on the menu. Cara Stewart, Registered Dietitian Nutritionist at UPMC, says “Carving out dedicated time for meal planning and prep makes the week less stressful. Keeping my family involved in the process creates a sense of teamwork and excitement about the upcoming meals.”

When planning dinners for a family, try to plan meals with leftovers in mind. Soups, stews, or casseroles are great options for when time is short, and you just want to heat and eat.

Besides dinner, consider planning breakfast, lunch (if you pack one for school), and snacks. Having these prepared and portioned encourages children to make healthier choices. Try these ideas:

  • Prep several jars of overnight oats. Add one scoop of oats to each small jar, pour milk over it, and have your child add their favorite toppings. Good options include fruit, nuts, coconut, or chia seeds. Cover the jars and keep them in the refrigerator.
  • Instead of sandwiches, try a Bento box — a lunchbox with small compartments. Prep foods like hard-boiled eggs, colorful raw vegetables, cheese cubes, and pasta salad for the week. Let your child choose what goes into their Bento box each night for lunch the next day.
  • Cut up an assortment of fruits and vegetables for after-school snacks. Store them in clear containers in the refrigerator so your children can help themselves to a healthy snack.

How to Start Meal Prepping for Weight Management

Planning and prepping meals is especially helpful for weight management. It helps you manage food choices and portions and avoid temptation. To be successful with weight management, try these tips:

  • Change your eating habits by trying new, healthier recipes from cookbooks, magazines, and online recipe sites. Choose those that feature lean proteins like chicken, fish, beans or tofu — and lots of vegetables.
  • Clean, cut, and prep fruits and vegetables ahead of time. Having them readily available makes it easier to eat them.
  • Prep healthy breakfasts, lunches, and snacks to bring to work so you’re not starving later in the day.
  • Tenderize lean cuts of meat by marinating them ahead of time. Add spice mixes or marinades to a freezer bag, add the meat, and refrigerate or freeze until you’re ready to cook.

Once you get into the habit of meal planning and prepping, it will become a regular part of your week. Whether you want to save time or have more control over what you eat, meal planning makes it happen.

About UPMC Nutrition Services

Nutrition is vital for maintaining your overall health. UPMC Nutrition Services offers comprehensive diet and nutrition counseling on a variety of topics, including eating disorders, weight management, and heart disease. Our team provides medical nutrition therapy for chronic conditions such as celiac disease, cancer, and diabetes. UPMC’s network of registered dietitians is available to help guide all patients toward a healthier life.