21 Tips To Kick-Start Your Meal Planning Strategy
Meal planning can go a long way to help you stay healthy and organized, but it's easier said than done, so we put together 21 tips to kick-start your meal planning strategy.
Some people seem to glide through life as meal planning ninjas — always a step ahead of those of us who jump frazzled from meal to meal. But take heart. All that separates those experts from the rest of us is a few good meal planning tips and a solid strategy. Can you make healthy meals and curb food waste without spending a ton of time or money? Absolutely.
At its heart, successful meal planning is an investment in your future self. While it takes a bit of planning and thinking, consider the time and money you’d otherwise spend flailing and fumbling around for meals at the last minute — that has a price, too, whether it’s the mental toll of panic or the tip money for the delivery person.
1. Find Purpose In The Process
Maybe it’s a goal of building pizza into every week’s menu. Or a personal challenge to spend less money on groceries or to eat more vegetables. Whatever the key is, if you regard the meal planning process as more than just another task to check off your to-do list, your enjoyment will increase and your sense of purpose will help you follow through.
2. Pick A Day
Pick a shopping day and a meal plan day. Maybe that means planning on Friday or Saturday before grocery shopping on one of these days in order to be set for the whole week by Sunday night. With the schedule in mind, draw up a weekly menu using some of these tips.
3. Write It Down
Whether it’s on a kitchen chalkboard with the days of the week, in an app on your phone, or on a piece of paper, we’re big fans of writing down your menu planning. Why? It’s simple: Writing it down just makes it more likely to happen. This applies not just to the master list of meals, but to the shopping list too. That way you never find yourself at the grocery store with that annoying “What should I get?” refrain ringing in your head. Just consult the grocery list.
4. Use The Sale Circular As Your Guide
This one is both a planning tip and a money-saving tip: Pay attention to what’s on sale and then buy in bulk when your favorite meats or pantry staples are cheaper. Once home, dry rub meal-size portions of the meat with various spice mixes and then freeze them in zip-top bags. From there, you’re one step away from quick pasta, tacos or sandwiches. Many supermarkets will email you their circular. Sign up and let those sale ads in your inbox inspire your planning for the week's meals.
5. Know Your Week
Are Wednesdays typically filled with practices and rehearsals? Maybe that’s an automatic leftover night. Is Friday a bit more relaxed? Think about making that the day you introduce new recipes into the rotation. Find your rhythm; it’ll help you draw up and stick to a meal plan.
6. Never Cook For Just One Meal
It’s all about making a big batch of something. Double the recipe for Taco Tuesday and freeze half to save it for next week. Make a huge slow cooker stew and stash part of it in the freezer for another day. Batch cooking doesn’t have to just be about dedicating a single day to cook for a whole week — though that’s certainly one method. However you choose to do batch cooking, the principle is a big time saver: Reduce the number of times you need to cook.
7. Know Thy Freezer
So you’ve stashed some leftovers for later. Great, but it doesn’t stop there. Part of relying on your freezer for meals is having it organized and labeled. That stew you put in the zip-top bag without labeling because you’ll “remember what it is?” Spoiler alert: You won’t remember. Label the bag before you put the leftovers into it. It’ll be easier to write on (you won’t be trying to scribble on top of cubes of beef and lumps of potatoes) and you won’t be able to get away with putting the bag in the freezer sans label.
8. Keep A Stocked Pantry
Cans of beans, blocks of tofu, boxes of pasta — these are ways of making sure that you’re never too far away from good food. Part of having a stocked pantry means keeping it stocked. Don’t let yourself get caught empty-handed next time you reach for the olive oil. If you run out of something, make sure it goes on the list for the next shopping trip. Note that a well-stocked pantry may not happen overnight. Sometimes it’s a question of buying a few things a week (check the store’s sale circular!) that can live in your pantry and swoop in to save a future mealtime.
9. Don’t Be Afraid To Go Cold
A hot meal is not the only kind of satisfying and healthy food. A sandwich on bread made with whole grains plus carrots and hummus is a complete meal. Ditto for some sliced carrots, celery, and cucumber served with a dip or cottage cheese.
10. Pre-Chop Your Vegetables
Just brought a bag of carrots home from the market? Peel them and slice them up for later in the week. Celery in your grocery bag? Make chopping it up part of the purchase process. Dedicating that extra time to prepping vegetables at the beginning of the week means getting a leg up on the rest of the week and thanking yourself later.
11. Stir Fry And Pizza Are Your Friends
Once every week or two, make it a “clean out the fridge and freezer” night. Then, make stir fry or pizza with what you’ve rescued. Store-bought pizza dough can be stashed in the freezer for the occasion and stir fry sauce can live in the fridge for eons. And when it comes to pizza, don’t fall into the “cheese and red sauce” trap. Expand your pizza horizons and know it’s all fair game: Turkey with stuffing, chicken with vegetables, beef with squash — all potential pizza toppings. Have a pizza crust at the ready and everything starts looking like a potential pizza.
12. Keep A Meal In Reserve
You’ve made a list. You’ve done the shopping. But things happen, so always have a ready-to-go meal waiting in the wings. Maybe it’s a pasta dish as simple as fusilli with frozen peas and canned tuna, or an emergency frozen casserole. (Either way, make a note to replace the meal once it’s eaten. Future You says thank you.)
13. Talk About It With Friends
Anybody who cooks has probably dealt with meal planning. So pick your friends’ brains for their strategies. If your friends are nearby, you could even start up a meal prep club and share responsibility for stocking one another’s freezers. If nothing else, you might be able to swap a few weekly menus and inspiration.
14. Breakfast For Dinner
Break free from the idea that every dinner has to feature three hot components in a perfectly orchestrated symphony of flavor. In fact, break free from the idea that dinner has to be dinner at all. Dinner can be breakfast — well, “brinner.” Somehow, knowing that can take a weight off the planning process. Pencil in a brinner every once in a while, whether it’s scrambling some eggs and toasting some English muffins, or folding some leftover vegetables into an omelet with cheese.
15. Keep It Real
Sometimes being realistic means scheduling a day that says “restaurant delivery.” Sometimes it means buying pre-chopped vegetables instead of chopping them yourself. Some people will make pizza dough from scratch and some will pick it up at the store. Overall, the point is to be honest with yourself about your time and budget. If your plan and goals are exaggerated, you’re setting yourself up for failure. It’s okay to be flexible with the plan once it’s in place, but the plan should be workable and realistic — even if that means penciling in delivery sometimes.
16. Get Others Involved
If you live with others, ask them what they want for dinner next week. (Maybe set some boundaries so you don’t end up on the hook for a surf and turf extravaganza.) If you’re lucky, you can even get them to pitch in some prep.
17. Ordering Out? Make It Fit Into Your Plan
Ordering Chinese food for delivery? Ordering an extra dish can mean the beginnings of another meal tomorrow. Important: Put the extra food straight in the refrigerator so it doesn’t get gobbled up right away. Whether it’s a main course that just needs a vegetable side or some fried rice to serve with a salad, that extra order will give you a leg up on the next day. (Yes, it’s possible that this will scrap the plan already written for the next day, but remember the plan isn’t the Constitution; it can be amended by your decree.)
18. Go Thematic And Try A Meatless Meal Once A Week
Doing theme nights can help provide some recurring structure in your meal planning. And if tacos are for Tuesday, then let meatless meals claim Monday. Break away from chicken, pork, and beef by incorporating beans, eggs, tofu, peanut butter, and canned tuna or salmon into your meals. Alternative proteins are a good way to expand your repertoire and stretch your food budget.
19. Reuse Meal Plans
Hey, if it was good enough for one week, it’s good enough for another. There’s no need to start from scratch every single time. If a meal plan worked out well, bring it back for an encore. (For the sake of variety, you might want to leave a few weeks in between repeats.) Just remember that repeating menus from different seasons may end up costing more, since produce that’s out of season tends to be more expensive.
20. Think Soup And Salad
When hot weather hits, a salad can be a refreshing main course. Pack it with legumes (canned chickpeas, say) and maybe a little cheese for some protein and heft. (And don’t be shy about tossing in vegetable leftovers or odds-and-ends from the fridge.) In cold weather, make soup a go-to. Whether homemade or store-bought, a bowl of soup can often accommodate a few extra ingredients from the freezer or fridge. Whether soup or salad, serve it with a baguette to round out the meal.
21. Don’t Get Derailed
If you fall down on the meal plan, pick yourself up and get right back at it. There are no meal-plan enforcers; there’s just you. If you decide to deviate, that’s your prerogative. Just don’t let one day’s deviation throw the whole week off track.