Written By: Elizabeth Fay, MS, RD, CNSC, LD, CSPCC
Registered Dietitian, Certified Nutrition Support Clinician, Certified Specialist in Pediatric Critical Care Nutrition
Meal planning is a key tool that can help save you time, maintain a steady budget, and keep you on track for your nutrition and wellness goals. Meal planning is a great way to have your meals laid out for the week or month, like a roadmap for you to follow. This instrument helps to relieve the stress of last-minute meal planning. By having a schedule already laid out, we can reduce barriers in our progress by having a meal already decided for us. If your weekly schedule doesn’t go as planned, it’s nice to have your meal plan there as a steady, reliable blueprint. So, if your Tuesday evening appointment runs late, you’ll have your planned meal already in place or you can easily swap it for a planned meal that is less time-consuming to make or one that you already prepared.
When beginning your meal plan, first start by looking at your schedule. How long will you meal plan for? Will you meal plan for three meals each day? Some people like to meal plan for a few days at a time or a full week, while others prefer to plan for a few weeks or an entire month. There is no right or wrong way to meal plan, so pick the duration that best suits your needs. Everyone’s meal plans will look different as some people are planning for themselves, while others will plan meals that include their families, roommates, friends, etc. Look at your calendar and take into consideration the schedules of other people you may be meal planning for. Does your calendar appear to be very busy? Some days you may need to plan quick and easy meals, while other days may permit more time for meal preparation. Do you have a meal prep day that you can take some time and prepare items ahead of time? Take this into consideration if you are preparing new recipes or recipes that take longer to make. Some days you may be short on time to prepare such a recipe. While looking at your schedule, will you eat your meals at home? Some days may require meals that are transportable if you will be at work or out of the home and running between events or appointments.
Once you have an idea of your schedule, take a look in your kitchen at the items you already have on hand. A great way to save time and money is to use up items that you already have in the refrigerator and pantry. Next, when we look at planning our meals, we’ll take these items into consideration. For example, if you have quite a few cans of crushed tomatoes in the pantry, you may plan a pasta vegetable dish with tomato sauce, or if you have a couple of avocados that are about to spoil, you may plan a Latin dish with chopped or sliced avocados.
Next, it’s time to plan your meals! Use a printed calendar, your phone, or a note page, to lay out which days you will be meal planning and how many meals need to be planned each day. If you have tried-and-true recipes that you use, feel free to plan those throughout the week! If those recipes require minimal preparation, plan them for nights when you may be short on time. For your go-to recipes that require more preparation, you may either plan to meal prep ahead of time or save them for days when you anticipate having more time to cook. Pick recipes and assign them to your days and meals based on your schedule. If you are trying out new recipes, its generally recommended to start with 1-3 new recipes for each meal plan cycle, depending on your availability. If you are meal planning for longer periods of time (such as a month), you may incorporate more new recipes to try. If you are meal planning for shorter periods of time, you may only try one or two new recipes. When choosing recipes, a great time and money saving tip is to choose recipes with overlapping ingredients. For example, if you plan to make hummus tofu wraps, you may choose another recipe such as hummus falafel salads. This way, you can use the hummus and mixed greens in both recipes! Another time and money saving tip is to plan for leftovers. If you meal plan to make a stew for a weeknight dinner, see if you can plan to have stew leftovers for another meal. If you are meal planning for more than one week, leftovers can be frozen and defrosted later. Keep in mind your availability to grocery shop as well. Consolidating grocery stores and trips will help to save you time, so if you can get all of your items at one store instead of having to visit multiple stores, you will have more time in your schedule.
As you choose your recipes, run through the ingredient lists and double check your kitchen for items you already have on hand. Keep a running list on the side and take note of any new items you’ll need to purchase at the grocery store. This list will then turn into your grocery list! If you find that your grocery list is growing a bit too long for your preference or budget, revisit your planned meals and see if you can make any recipe substitutions.
Once you have your meal plan complete, take the time to feel accomplished that you have worked to reduce last-minute meal planning stress and saved yourself both time and money. This is your meal plan, so feel free to tailor it to meet your nutrition and wellness needs as well as your taste preferences, budget, and schedule! If you have any meal planning questions, touch base with your Registered Dietitian at Nuleeu Nutrition and Wellness. We have a large database of recipes and resource tools to assist you with meal planning. Your Registered Dietitian can also work to choose recipes and meal plans that support your individual nutrition and wellness goals.