If you’re looking to add more healthy, fresh meals to your menu, then you must give meal planning a try.
Fans of meal planning love the convenience of preparing their ingredients and meals in advance. This allows them to focus on other priorities, instead of having to stop and cook every single meal throughout the day or figure out where they'll get to-go food from (and how much that will cost).
But it can be overwhelming trying to cook a week’s worth of meals, if you've never done it before. And the misconception that you'll be eating the same bowl of soup every night for the rest of the week can be less than thrilling.
But like with any new habit or routine, the key to making meal planning work for you is to start slowly and set up realistic expectations.
And by developing a simple meal planning routine, you’ll have an easier time trying to incorporate healthy fresh meals throughout the week, without getting bored or exhausted by meal prep.
So whether you’re looking to save money on groceries or streamline your cooking routine or be more mindful about your ingredients, here are some meal planning tips to help you kickstart your new meal planning routine.
The benefits of planning healthy fresh meals
Meal planning has been popularized by lifestyle blogs and Pinterest pages, but unlike other lifestyle fads and hacks, meal planning, when done effectively, can be become a healthy habit for life that is easy to maintain. Here are some of its well-known benefits:
Save time. Instead of doing every single meal over the course of a week one-at-a-time, you can make multiple meals in one fell swoop by shopping smartly and combining tasks/ingredients, saving you tons of time in the long run.
Waste less money. When you’re hungry and tired, the last thing you want to do is take the time to cook an entire meal. And while you can’t beat the convenience of delivery, the expenses add up quickly. By cooking more often, you can be more thoughtful about your purchases and find ways to stretch out your ingredients and your money.
Save your precious energy. If you’ve ever had the “What should we have for dinner?” conversation with a roommate or loved one, then you know how easy it is to suffer from decision fatigue. Sometimes, you just want to revert back to your school cafeteria days, when all your meals were planned out and ready for you. It may seem like such a simple thing, but there’s something so nostalgic and comforting about having your meals ready to go. Meal planning takes the pain out of having to make yet another decision during the day, allowing you to just heat something up and relax.
Improve your health. By cooking your meals at home, you’ll be more conscious of what’s going into your meals. You can manage portion sizes, cut back on unhealthy fats and sodium, and bulk up on healthier, fresher ingredients.
Goal-setting techniques for your healthy meal plan
If you’re meal planning for the first time, use a goal-setting approach to help you develop this new routine.
A key mistake that people make when meal planning is trying to overhaul their entire menu and diet. They cook an entire month's worth of meals but grow tired of it by the first week. They stock up on vegetables that end up withering in the fridge. They buy ingredients for one particular recipe that can’t be incorporated into other meals.
All this work can quickly lead to the meal planning version of burnout. And let’s be real, that pot of chili that you were excited about making on Sunday can start to look a lot less appetizing by Thursday.
So save yourself the headache and all the potential food waste, and work towards a meal planning goal, little by little. Don't change your life all at once. Instead, build a foundation of basics that work for you - then get creative later!
Is planning a week's worth of meals overwhelming? Try just planning breakfasts, or planning out 3 full days of meals instead of 7. Feeling stressed about how to make ingredients work over multiple meals? Pick just one ingredient to stretch across your meals, and research recipes that incorporate it.
Instead of forcing yourself to be an executive chef, here are some other ways that you can create a realistic meal plan that fits your schedule, energy levels, and skills.
Assess your schedule. Identify spots in your schedule where you would like to save time and energy. For example, are you busiest during the morning? Then it might make sense to do a breakfast meal plan so that you can maximize your morning routine. So if you’d love to spend your mornings writing in your journal or going for a run, then set a goal to prepare all your breakfasts in advance. This exercise is about taking stock of your energy levels and being realistic about where this effort will make the most improvement in your life. The goal isn't to be a perfect meal planning robot; it's to make your life feel happier and easier.
Make a specific goal. Think about what you want to get out of meal planning. Do you want to include more veggies in every meal? Streamline your dinner routine? When you have a clear target in mind, you’ll have an easier time sticking to this routine.
Here are some simple goals you can start with:
- I want to make healthy breakfasts for the week.
- I want to have cut up vegetables on hand for snacks.
- I want to include a side of vegetables for lunch and dinner.
- I want to prep my dinners in advance so all I have to do it put them in the over after work.
Brainstorm ideas for healthy meals
You can use our new Meal Planning Pad to help you create a healthy, delicious meal plan and stick with it. There’s a section where you can brainstorm ideas for recipes. This is a great way to identify overlapping ingredients, or figure out how to make multiple meals out of a particular protein or vegetable. And if you notice that only one dish calls for a specific ingredient, you can see if there's a way to substitute it with something you already have on hand. This way, you’re not stuck with unused chicken or buying a bunch of herbs for just one dish.
To help you stick with your meal plan, make a list of healthy foods and vegetables you truly enjoy eating. If you don’t particularly like the taste of sweet potatoes or overnight oats, don’t design a menu around these foods. So if you love Mediterranean foods, research easy recipes you can make.
If you need some inspiration for delicious, healthy recipe ideas, here are some great food blogs and sites to read:
Make a meal planning to-do list
At Ink+Volt, we love a good to-do list to get things done.You can make your meal planning more effective and organized by creating a master list of tasks that you need to do. Here are some sample tasks you can include:
- Research recipes
- Make a list of ingredients you need
- Assess pantry and fridge and see what ingredients need to be replaced
- Go grocery shopping
- Prep vegetables for the week
- Cook rice to supplement meals
- Wash containers to place meals in
You can also use our Meal Planning Pad to write down your shopping list. This way, you can save money by avoiding any unnecessary impulse purchases and save time and energy so that you’re not making multiple trips to the store.
Put your meal plan on your calendar
Now that you have your recipes and tasks on hand, it’s time to schedule your meal plan. Putting it on a schedule may not seem like a big deal, but it’s a small but impactful way to commit to your plan.
Our Meal Planning Pad has a weekly schedule where you can write down your menu for the week. Stick it to your fridge so you always know what’s on the menu. Plus, you’ll have a visual reminder of what ingredients you might need to replenish.
If you’d like to make scheduling more fun, try creating theme nights around your meals. You can have Meatless Mondays or Veggie Taco Tuesdays or French Fridays. And after a long and busy week, sometimes a theme night and a home cooked meal can be just the thing you need to put you at ease.