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When learning how to meal plan it’s easy to end up with more questions than answers. There’s a wealth of information out there, and it can be difficult trying to wade through it all while still being able to make sense of it. That’s why we decided to create our ultimate guide on how to meal plan for you. Everything you’ll need to know on how to be a successful meal planner can be found here.
Before the fun begins there are a few things you need to establish. There is so much more to learning how to meal plan than figuring out what to eat and when to eat it. Because it’s personalized to meet your needs and lifestyle, there are other things you need to take into consideration first.
Having a clear goal in mind makes it easier to get started, and to stick with it. Do you have special dietary restrictions or needs and don’t want to keep eating the same foods everyday? Are you trying to lose weight but still want to satisfy your sweet tooth? Do you want to start a new diet, like paleo or keto? Maybe you just want to eat a little healthier? Do you suffer from a chronic illness, such as migraines, and want to create a diet that cuts out trigger foods?
There’s also the financial incentive- learning how to meal plan will help you save time and money in the long run. Perhaps it’s not the food itself, but rather your unhealthy spending habits? You don’t need to create a vision board or write down a vision statement, but having an honest conversation with yourself about what you intend to get out of this is very important.
Having a regular ‘cheat meal’ or entire ‘cheat day’ can lead to multiple days, then a week, and then you’re back to the beginning. Instead of allowing yourself the occasional indulgence (which, let’s be honest, always becomes an overindulgence) in a restricted food, find something similar in taste and texture. ‘Dessert’ and ‘healthy’ don’t have to be mutually exclusive.
Meal planning is often associated with working parents who have to balance family, school, and extracurriculars. They barely have any time to cook a healthy meal every evening and are quick to reach for a take out menu. And while it’s certainly useful to big families it can also be a solo endeavor. But if there are other people involved they might want different things out of it than you do. Perhaps someone in your household has dietary needs that you’ll have to accommodate for, or has strong aversions to certain foods. Maybe they have a health goal in mind. If you’re not the only person who’s going to be eating the food, you will need input from the rest of your household.
This serves a secondary purpose of knowing how to scale proportions and serving sizes during the prepping and cooking itself. Speaking of which…
This doesn’t mean the food itself, recipes, planners, etc. Take a look around your kitchen. Even if you aren’t sure what you’ll be making yet it’s always a good idea to have an adequate number of measuring cups and measuring spoons, a mixing bowl or two, good knives, a cutting board, and tupperware of various sizes. If your knives are dull either have them safely sharpened or replace them. Don’t splurge on fancy gadgets because you think you might need them, because there’s a chance you’ll never touch it, but it wouldn’t hurt to start comparing prices on a food processor. They are very useful to have in any kitchen.
Having these kitchen staples handy will be invaluable to you when you start looking at recipes. About that…
This is probably the most exciting part. Finding new recipes can be a lot of fun, especially with recipe generators and social media platforms dedicated to showcasing some of the tastiest and most aesthetically pleasing dishes out there. Before you fall down that rabbit hole though, you’ll want to establish a consistent source for your recipes. The fewers books, notebooks, and sites you have to use then the less clutter (physically and mentally) you’ll have. Whether it’s a personalized recipe finder or a special cookbook, try to keep all of your recipes together while occupying as little space as possible. Remember that meal planning and prepping is supposed to result in organization, time management, and saving money. Even if those aren’t the goals you identified they’re still things to strive for. Not doing so will sabotage your efforts at meal planning.
Have a few recipes in mind before you get started. Think of things you’ve always wanted to try and dishes you already have ingredients for. Looking for recipes should never be a hassle, nor should it be left to the last minute.
Once you’ve gotten a better idea of what your personal motivations are for meal planning you can take that first step forward. But don’t get carried away right at the start or you’ll burn yourself out. Meal planning can be a fun and exciting thing when you’re beginning, but it’s important to pace yourself. Look at the ‘logistics’ if you will, to make this transition into becoming a meal planner as seamless as it should be.
Earlier it was said that you should consider dishes you already have ingredients for. Go around your kitchen and take inventory. Is there anything expiring soon? Something you have just enough of left to make a side dish? Again, less clutter is supposed to be a natural result of meal planning. This means clearing up room in the fridge and pantry before buying new groceries. The real question you should be asking isn’t what to make first but ‘What can I make with what I already have?’. If you’re not sure there are recipe generators you can use that will find something for you based on what ingredients you have at home.
You may not find enough in your kitchen to pad out the entire week so you can reverse engineer the process. Find a few recipes you want to start with and make a list of everything you’ll need. Go around your kitchen to see what you already have (and how much), and cross it off. When you’re done you’ll have a grocery list.
The short answer isn’t Sunday, but it also isn’t not Sunday. The long answer? Many people mistakenly believe that doing prep work ‘the right way’ means having it all done at the beginning of the week on Sunday. But that’s not a reasonable expectation for preppers worldwide to meet. For example if someone’s work week isn’t a typical Monday-Friday but rather a Tuesday-Saturday, then Sunday is the beginning of their weekend. No one wants to use their first day off doing more work unless absolutely necessary. In that case it’s perfectly reasonable for someone to do their prepping on Monday instead. Having all of the prepping done at the beginning of the week isn’t always possible either. Sometimes prep work is done the night before or the morning of. You can experiment a little to find the rhythm that’s right for you.
More than anything else this is going to depend on the dishes you have planned out, but all ‘prep work’ really means is being one step ahead in making your meals. Having vegetables chopped, liquids measured, and meat thawed are all types of prep work. But it can also mean going a little further and doing some of the actual cooking ahead of time. This means things like making soups or stews and freezing them, or cooking meat to refrigerate and reheat later on.
Prep work is a large part of meal planning, and the main reason it’s hailed as a time saver. Having meals picked ahead of time removes those half-hour deliberations of what to make for dinner every night, but even when you finally settle on something (that isn’t delivery) there’s still the time you need to cook it. Even if you have the ingredients and everyone in your household is in agreement they might not be willing to wait. You might not have the energy to make it either. Prep work rids you of that added frustration of having to cook which inevitably comes along with making those decisions last minute.
By now you’re probably very eager to grab the rest of your ingredients and go to town. And who could blame you? Deciding to start meal planning is a big step towards living a healthier lifestyle, and changes like that can be really exciting. But before diving in too deep there are a few things to keep in mind on your meal planning journey.
No one gets it right the first time. The point of having a personalized meal planner is to find things that work best for you and suit your needs, but no one knows ahead of time what that looks like. This can be stressful or discouraging, which is why it’s so important to have highlighted your goals before starting. Reminding yourself of why you started and what you plan to gain from this will keep you motivated and inspired to keep trying.
To prevent this you can start by only planning a few meals each week. Follow this up by a few days. Then the entire week. But set a schedule for yourself of when to start doing more, don’t wait until you feel like you might be ready to take on more. Sticking to a schedule will keep you more organized with your prep work and grocery shopping, and that sense of urgency it creates will give you a stronger feeling of satisfaction for being able to meet that deadline.
You will benefit greatly by shifting your perspective here. Don’t think of them as mistakes, they’re learning opportunities, and you’re going to learn a lot by meal planning. Why?
We’ve all heard that expression ‘you learn something new every day’. Even the planning and prepping pros will affirm that you will continue to learn new things in your meal planning journey. Aside from the obvious of new recipes or ingredients you’ve never heard of, there are plenty of tips and tricks for navigating around the kitchen you will uncover. You might also learn creative ways to repurpose old containers, alternative uses for food waste (lemon peels are a goldmine for additional health benefits!), and new ways to stay organized.
You might find yourself inspired to adopt other healthy lifestyle changes too. A new workout routine, morning meditation, skincare regimens, and gratitude journals are all excellent ways to promote wellness and introduce some more positivity into your life.
Dietary restrictions means much more than allergies or intolerance. For example there are many prescription medications, from blood pressure to psychiatric, which have a negative interaction with grapefruit. Chia seeds can significantly lower blood pressure. Yet both of these foods have a plethora of potential health benefits. A sudden increase in fiber intake can result in the opposite of what fiber is supposed to help with.
Meal planning and prepping is supposed to help someone’s overall well-being, but adopting a healthier lifestyle doesn’t mean you’re suddenly imbued with excess levels of energy. Everyone has their own limits, and honoring them isn’t the same as being lazy or giving up. Not everyone has the physical or mental energy to do it all in one day, and that’s okay. If chronic illness makes it harder for you to do it all in one sitting then don’t push yourself to the point of exhaustion. Prioritize your health as a whole, not just healthy eating.
Meal planning is a long term commitment, not just a decision you make. But it’s also an investment in yourself, and a promise. It’s a promise to give your body the care and nutrients it deserves. It’s a promise to practice mindful spending and better budgeting habits. Above all it’s a promise to be more proactive in creating a healthy lifestyle that allows you to enjoy your life to the fullest.