Master the Art of Meal Planning: 3 Simple Steps

Mixed salad with fresh vegetables.

Megan Meyer, PhD, IFIC

Meal planning is an art, not a science. There is no perfect method or formula and it involves some creativity. It takes practice and some trial and error to find out what works best for your individual lifestyle. Most importantly, the goal is not perfection but rather that you are taking steps and actions toward better health. So don’t be intimidated if you are new to meal planning! Once the art of meal planning is mastered, it can save you time, money and a whole lot of frustration. The bonus is that proper meal planning can also help you eat a healthy and balanced diet. Read on for simple steps to get you started:

Step 1: Plan

Make Good Food Choices
When deciding which recipes to try or food items to buy, focus on whole grains, protein, healthy fats and fruits and vegetables. Let’s break it down: a stir-fry made with brown rice, broccoli and chicken and cooked in olive oil incorporates a lean protein, a whole grain, and a healthy fat and vegetable, making it a balanced, nutritious dinner.

Lentil salad in a white bowl.

Keep It Simple
Successful meal prep does not mean that everything you eat has to be made from scratch; packaged foods provide a nutritious and convenient option. Stock your pantry and fridge with packaged foods such as plain yogurt, frozen vegetables, canned legumes and other foods that require less than 15 minutes of prep time.  

Write a Shopping List
Every successful project starts with a list (at least in my opinion). Once you’ve decided what you will be eating, write out all the food you will need. It will save you from wasting time aimlessly walking around the grocery store. Making a shopping list will help you stick to your food budget because you will have a ballpark estimate of what you will be spending before checkout and you can make adjustments if necessary.

Woman preparing a fresh green salad.

Step 2: Prepare

Cook Ahead
Making a big batch of a recipe to eat over the course of a few days will save a lot of time and brainpower. If you’re like me and get tired of eating the same thing every day, you can make a batch of a staple and incorporate it in different combinations. Try making grilled chicken for the week and pack it for lunch in salads and sandwiches. Or try a delicious chili recipe that can be stored and frozen for a meal later on.

Freeze It and Reheat It
Every time you make a meal, try freezing an individual portion from the leftovers. This way you will have plenty of homemade frozen meals at your fingertips. Keeping frozen packaged foods that are easily prepared and have a long shelf life will help you always be prepared to whip something up in a jiff. Keep your freezer stocked with easy staples like frozen vegetables, fruits, and meats — all you have to do is heat up and serve.

Salted mixed nuts with a cashew nut on the fron

Step 3: Pack

Great Things Come in Small Packages
After assembling a meal, use small containers to store it in the fridge or freezer. This will help you grab-and-go more easily and control your portion sizes. The same rationale applies to snacks: portion out popcorn, dried fruits or nuts and split them in small snack-sized bags. This way you won’t be tempted to eat the whole bag at once.

The average person has to make many meal decisions throughout the day; meal planning puts you in control of these choices. When you take time to plan ahead, you can be sure that you have healthy options easily accessible. This can lead to improved health outcomes including prevention or better management of chronic diseases. Also, once you start meal planning, you may find yourself with some extra time and money to spend (not a bad problem to have)!

You can use the above steps as a jumping off point, but there is no one right answer. Mastering the art of meal planning can take on many definitions. What are some of your meal planning tips and tricks?     

About Megan:

Megan Meyer

Megan Meyer, PhD is the Program Manager of Health and Wellness Communications at the International Food Information Council (IFIC). At IFIC, she is committed to communicating science-based information to media, health professionals, outside organizations, and consumers on topics related to nutrition and health.

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