Meal Prep Like a Pro: Master Meal Planning Simple Step-By-Step Guide

Meal Planning 101: Craft a weekly plan for a better diet, less stress & weight loss. Get tips for prepping all meals. It boosts health. And save money.

Introduction

Meal planning is the process of deciding on meals ahead of time and mapping out the eating schedule for the week. It involves making a plan for breakfast, lunch, dinner, and snacks each day. The benefits of meal planning include eating healthier, saving money on groceries, reducing food waste, and saving time.

Meal planning leads to more thoughtful eating habits. Research has proven that when you plan your meals in advance, you can intentionally incorporate variety into your diet with different foods, nutrients, flavours, and cuisines. Thoughtful meal planning also allows you to accommodate dietary needs and restrictions without blandness. If you or someone in your family follows a special diet for health, religious, or ethical reasons, planning ahead helps ensure those needs are met.

Planning and preparing meals in advance saves time and reduces stress during the busy work week. You avoid coming home hungry at the end of a long day and making rushed decisions about takeout or quick heat-and-eat processed foods. Meal planning also helps prevent the common problem of forgetting to defrost something or not having all the necessary ingredients on hand. When meals are planned out, you can buy groceries efficiently with one big weekly shopping trip. This saves you time and money compared to daily trips to the grocery store to pick up forgotten items.

Overall, meal planning leads to a healthier diet, less food waste, more variety in your menu, and a sense of control over your food choices. The following sections will provide tips and guidelines to get started with meal planning.

When to Plan Your Meals

Planning your meals in advance is key to eating healthier and saving time and money on your grocery shopping. Many experts recommend choosing a set day of the week such as Wednesday or Thursday to sit down and plan out your meals for the following week. Planning all your meals on one designated day helps make meal planning a routine habit.

You’ll also want to plan your meals at least a few days in advance of when you’ll be eating them. This gives you enough time to shop for and purchase the necessary ingredients. Planning the night before is doable for quick and simple meals, but does not allow enough time for ingredient shopping.

Beginning your week of meals on a Sunday or Monday tends to be best for comprehensive meal planning. Avoid waiting until the last minute on Sunday to plan the coming week’s meals. By planning during the week before you ensure you have ample time to shop and prepare. You also avoid the risk of scrambling to figure out meals at the end of an already busy week.

How Far in Advance to Plan

When deciding how far in advance to plan your meals, there are a few key factors to consider:

Shelf Life of Ingredients

Think about how long the fresh ingredients you buy will stay fresh in your fridge and pantry. More perishable items like fresh greens, berries, bread, and raw meat typically only last 3-5 days after purchase. Sturdier veggies like carrots, broccoli, and cauliflower can go 1-2 weeks. Things like dried beans, grains, canned goods, and frozen foods can keep much longer, even months past their purchase date. Keeping this in mind you can either break your shopping up into 2 shops per week so that you have constant access to fresh foods, or plan to use those foods that don’t last as long earlier in your week. Another alternative is to look into increasing the shelf life of your foods by storing them in vented containers, herbs and cut vegetables in jars of water (remember to refresh every few days), or a new product, Produce Pod that keeps veggies fresher for longer in your fridge.

Ability to Freeze Meals

Freezing cooked meals is a great way to do extended meal planning. Many dishes like soups, stews, casseroles, curries, and cooked grains freeze very well for 1-3 months. So you could plan 2 weeks of meals in a day of cooking, freeze half of each meal in individual portions, and simply reheat them later in the week or month. Just be mindful of how much freezer space you have when bulk cooking. Prioritize freezing meals that keep longest and taste great reheated. Clearly label each meal with contents, date and number of serves.

Your Schedule/Time Available to Cook

Consider your own schedule when deciding how far ahead to plan meals. If you have one free day for cooking each week, plan no more than 7 days out. But if weekends are your only time to cook, doing big-batch freezing on a Saturday could set you up with a weeknight meal the next month. In general, only plan as many meals as you’re realistically able to shop for and prepare each week based on your time. It’s better to start small with 3-4 planned meals than plan elaborately for 7 dinners and not follow through.

What Meals to Plan For

When meal planning, it’s important to consider what meals you want to plan for. This includes breakfast, lunch, dinner and snacks. What works best for you?

For breakfast, think about meals that are easy to prepare in the morning when you may be rushed. Oats, yoghurt with fruit and granola, eggs with wholegrain toast are good options. You may also want to meal prep some smoothies, breakfast burritos or overnight oats on the weekend so you have easy grab-and-go options during the week.

Lunch can also be a good meal to prep ahead of time, with things like salad kits, soup, meal bowls, or sandwich fillings and veggies that you can quickly assemble each day. Having leftovers from dinner the night before is another easy lunch option.

Dinner is where you’ll likely want the most variety in your meal plan. Focus on balanced meals with lean protein (either plant or meat based), whole grains, veggies and healthy fats. Slow cooker, tray-bake or one-pan meals that you can make in bulk and portion out for lunches are convenient. Grilled proteins and veggie sides are also easy to prep ahead.

Don’t forget about snacks! Having healthy snacks on hand helps avoid grabbing unhealthy convenience foods when hunger strikes. Good snacks include fresh fruits and veggies, yogurt, hummus and whole grain crackers, nuts and nut butters. You can also prep protein balls, snack bars or healthy cookies in advance and store in the freezer individually to throw into a lunchbox when needed.

You’ll also want to consider your family’s needs. Planning individual meals for each person takes more work, but kids or picky eaters may require their own options or you could get creative with a recipe substitution so that it caters for all. Designating one family meal 3-4 nights a week streamlines planning while still allowing for individual preferences.

What to Include in your meals

A good meal plan contains a diversity of foods, prepared in a variety of methods. Including a combination of uncooked and cooked vegetables such as salads, veggie sticks, steamed, stir-fried or roasted vegetables provides an optimal mix of antioxidants, vitamins and minerals, as the nutritional content of vegetables changes depending on their preparation. For example, you’ll get more Vitamin C from raw spinach and more Vitamin A from sautéed spinach. Limiting red and processed meat intake to no more than 3 meals a week and incorporating fish, poultry, eggs, dairy, and plant-based protein sources such as nuts and seeds, legumes and grains in other meals offers a variety of beneficial nutrients, whilst reducing the risk of cardiovascular disease. Oily fish, nuts and seeds are rich in omega-3 fatty acids which is anti-inflammatory, cardioprotective and neuroprotective, whilst legumes are high in fibre, protein, B vitamins, iron and zinc. Keeping high and ultra-processed foods such as convenience and fast foods, and those high in fat, starches or sugar to ‘sometimes’ foods helps to keep chronic disease away and promotes a better weight profile.

Consider Your Schedule

When meal planning, it’s important to consider your schedule and when you’ll realistically have time to cook. Here are some tips for accommodating your work/life schedule with your meal plan:

  • Plan for days when you can cook fresh meals. Mark your calendar for days when you know you’ll be home in time and feel enthused  to cook dinner. Plan more elaborate or time-consuming recipes for those nights.
  • Plan quick reheats when your schedule is crammed. We all have those nonstop days where we’re running from meeting to meeting or activity to activity. Plan for quick reheats of leftovers, frozen foods, or easy meals like scrambled eggs on those nights.
  • Account for early/late workdays. If you have a day with an unusually early start or late end, adjust your meal plan accordingly. Make breakfasts and lunches that can be prepared quickly or eaten on-the-go those mornings. Plan a simple tray-bake or slow cooker meal for late workdays.

  • Consider your family’s schedule. Accommodate sports practices, music lessons, meetings, etc for the whole family when meal planning. Plan to eat right before or after busy evenings. Prep slow cooker meals on heavier days.
  • Prepare in advance when you can  Take advantage of days off and less hectic weekends to prep meal components in advance – chop produce, cook grains, marinate proteins. Doing prep work when you have more time means quicker meals during busier nights.
  • Build in flexibility. No schedule is set in stone week to week. Build in some flexibility like keeping frozen foods on hand or planning a leftovers night. That way you can adjust your meal plan if needed as your calendar changes. The key is to be realistic about when you actually have time to cook while planning meals that still fit your health and dietary needs. With some preparation and flexibility, you can plan an achievable meal plan that accommodates your busy schedule.

Summary

Creating a weekly plan reduces decision-making fatigue and stress around food and leads to healthier, more varied eating. By setting aside an hour each week to decide a week’s worth of meals, a scheduled and shopping list, will set you up for an organised and cost effective week. So where to from here?

Want a free meal planning template to get started? Click here (coming soon).

Want some recipe inspiration, click here (coming soon).

Need some specialised advice for what you or your family should eat for health? Book an appointment with our clinical nutritionist who can tailor a program to suit you or your family’s needs.

References

Ducrot, P., Méjean, C., Aroumougame, V., Ibanez, G., Allès, B., Kesse-Guyot, E., Hercberg, S., & Péneau, S. (2017). Meal planning is associated with food variety, diet quality and body weight status in a large sample of French adults. The international journal of behavioral nutrition and physical activity, 14(1), 12. https://doi.org/10.1186/s12966-017-0461-7.

Widener, M. J., Ren, L., Astbury, C. C., Smith, L. G., & Penney, T. L. (2021). An exploration of how meal preparation activities relate to self-rated time pressure, stress, and health in Canada: A time use approach. SSM – population health, 15, 100818. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ssmph.2021.100818.

World Cancer Research Fund International. (n.d.). Cancer Prevention Recommendations. https://www.wcrf.org/diet-activity-and-cancer/cancer-prevention-recommendations/.

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Meet Rachel

Rachel is a university-qualified Clinical Nutritionist and the owner of Busy Families Nutrition. She is passionate about breaking through the challenges in our busy lives to provide you with strategies for ensuring you and your family eat healthy, nutritious and most importantly great tasting food day to day.

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