How To: Meal Plan
A common piece of advice dietitians give is to plan what you're going to eat before you eat it. Sounds simple, right? Oh, how wrong. The questions like, "Am I eating enough vegetables?", "How much fruit is too much?", "Should I drink a dairy or calcium-containing dairy alternative every day?", or "Am I getting enough protein?" start swarming. It then becomes too easy to feel overwhelmed and give up the endeavor altogether.
The good news is, meal planning doesn't have to be complicated. Most dietitians will show you a copy of MyPlate and recommend that you plan each of your meals based on that plate.
But who consistently eats vegetables for breakfast? Also, it's no longer the 1960s. Who drinks milk with supper? (Totally fine if you still do...unless you have iron deficiency anemia, but that's a whole other topic.) However, we can easily take those principles of eating from each food group 3 times a day and use them to build a healthy, realistic meal plan.
The 7 Steps of Easy Meal Planning:
1. Carve out some time to meal plan before grocery shopping.
Yes, meal planning takes time, but it also saves so much time! I usually carve out about 15 minutes on Saturday or Sunday to meal plan for my family for the week. As I'm doing that, I'm also building my grocery list to help me save some time and extra trips to the store. Planning and shopping on Saturday or early Sunday afternoon gives me time to also prep anything I need for quicker meals during the week.
2. Use a planning guide or build your own.
Meal planning for the first time can be overwhelming, which is why I've created a Guided Meal Planner to help you plan meals for the week. This meal planner has 3 meals and 2 snacks and includes at least 3 servings from all food groups. It also has a list of healthy foods from each food group to help you brainstorm meal and snack ideas. You can access other versions of the Guided Meal Planner with fewer (or more) snacks here.
3. Take it 1 meal at a time.
I usually start by planning all of the week's breakfasts, as I can knock those out pretty quickly. I have a quite a few go-to breakfasts and put them in rotation to prevent boredom. Snacks go pretty quickly as well. I also take into account my schedule (and the rest of the family's) when planning. Suppers usually take more planning, which is where step 4 comes in.
4. Consider routines & abnormal days.
Every family has their usual pattern. An awareness of that pattern is super helpful when meal planning. Are Thursdays really busy? That's probably not the best night for a 4 course meal...or chicken breasts and baked potatoes. Make that a taco night...just don't forget the lettuce and tomatoes!
5. Check for variety.
No one likes to eat green beans 4 days in a row. Don't forget to add some variety, particularly in the veggies department. You can find a lot of tasty recipes here. Ask for family favorites and build your own list of go-to recipes. I also vary our proteins, trying to get in the recommended 2 servings of fish per week.
6. Make a grocery list.
After completing (or while working on) my meal plan for the week, I'll make my grocery list. I'll also check the pantry, fridge, and freezer during this process to make sure I'm not overbuying things. This makes sure I get everything we'll need for the week without going overboard (or over budget). Click here to find a healthy foods grocery shopping list.
7. Go shopping & get cooking.
I then shop based on the list and do any batch cooking I need to do on the weekend to help weekday meals go smoother and quicker.
Meal planning saves me so much time during the week and takes the guesswork out of the age old question, "What's for supper?" I'll also post the meal plan on the fridge for everyone to see.
For more meal planning help or if you need help meal planning for a special concern, like weight loss, diabetes, heart disease, or celiac disease, a dietitian can help. If you are located within the State of Louisiana, you can call my office at 337-466-6899 to schedule an in-person or telehealth appointment. If you are located outside of the Louisiana, you can find a dietitian near you by using the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics' Find a Nutrition Expert program.