Meal Planning Basics: Your Getting Started Guide

by Wanda - 2 years ago

If you think about it, everyone already engages in meal planning on some level.

Even if that means deciding to get take out at the moment you start to feel hungry, that’s forming a plan to eat a meal.

Waking up in the morning and making a sandwich to take to work for lunch, is also a form of short term meal planning.

But it’s when you plan in blocks a little further ahead, say 3 days at a time, or every week, that you really see the benefits of a good meal plan.

It may seem daunting to be that organized, but meal planning is truly one of the easiest things you can do to improve your relationship with food, in whatever way is important to you.

To help you jump those mental hurdles, this article is broken down into easily digestible sections:

  1. What Is Meal Planning?
  2. The Top 5 Benefits Of Meal Planning
  3. What Is The Goal Of Your Meal Plan?
  4. How To Get Started With Meal Planning
  5. 10 Tips To Master Meal Planning
  6. The Best Meal Planning Tools
  7. Your Meal Planning Template

That handy meal planning template is free, so you have no excuse to delay getting started.

Let’s dig right in…


What Is Meal Planning?

Meal planning is not rocket science. It is quite literally the process of planning what to eat in advance, for the coming days, week or month.

Whatever you already do to feed yourself, is a basic form of meal planning. Possibly not a very good one, but you’re alive, so it’s working in some respect.

When people talk about meal planning, they are generally referring to something much more organized.

A typical meal plan involves a list of the meals you intend to eat over an allotted time period, say, a week, plus the list of groceries you will need in order to prepare those meals.

The idea is that this allows you to shop once, and feed yourself for a whole week.

Depending on your personal goals, it may be more complicated than that.

Some people fill out their weekly meal planner template, do their shopping, then prepare and freeze a week’s worth of food in one day.

Others draw up an outline for seven days of meals, but prefer to mix them up, according to the weather, or how they feel.

What it comes down to is that there is no right or wrong way to meal plan. Ultimately, the right meal planning method is the one you can stick to, and this is different for everyone.

Don’t spend too much time and energy trying to perfect it before you even begin. There will be trial and error involved, and you will need to be flexible.

Meal planning is just a means to an end. It’s a system that helps you achieve your eating goals.

The Top 5 Benefits Of Meal Planning

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Now that you know meal planning isn’t magic, why would you do it?

Again, this is tied to your personal goals, but there are a number of benefits everyone can enjoy:

  • Save money
  • Reduce time spent on getting yourself and your family fed
  • Eat healthier, whatever that means for you
  • Never run out of food
  • Minimize food wastage
  • Increase the variety in your diet

It’s likely you’ll reap other rewards as you progress through your meal planning journey.

For instance, if your main issue with meals is deciding what to eat, meal planning will allow you to make all those decisions at once, giving you a calm, food-decision free week ahead.

Sounds good right? There are a few things to figure out before you jump in.

What Is The Goal Of Your Meal Plan?

Before you even think about what meal planning system you want to use, you need to identify why you want to do this in the first place.

What are your meal planning goals? Do you want to:

  • Eat better?
  • Save money?
  • Save time?
  • Cook less?
  • Prevent food waste?
  • Avoid thinking about food all day?
  • Adhere to a new diet?

Someone whose sole intention is to save cash will have a very different approach from someone trying to lose weight, or address a health issue.

When budget is your main concern, it’s not helpful to get caught up in searching for complicated recipes with a bunch of ingredients.

On the other hand, if you want to meal plan because you’re bored with your current meal repertoire, maybe that’s exactly what you should do.

If you don’t know what your goals are, it’s easy to get distracted along the way.

By identifying your primary goal, you automatically set a benchmark against which to measure your success.

Then when it comes to making decisions, you’ll know exactly what to do – the option that helps you achieve your goal.

To give you the best chance at focussing on your primary goal, it makes sense to pick a meal planning method, and stick to it for at least a month.

As mentioned, the meal planning system you choose is secondary to the outcome you are trying to achieve. So pick a system, try it for a month, then assess how well it worked for you against the goals you set.

Think it could be better? Then switch to another meal planning approach. But don’t give up.

For many people, the ultimate goal of meal planning is to be healthier – whether that means losing weight, addressing chronic issues, getting fitter, or just feeling better.

If you fit the ‘get healthier with meal planning’ category, then you need to be realistic right from the start.

There is no deadline to get this right.

Focus on your daily nutritional needs and work back from there. Take an incremental approach to implementing new habits and you’ll find they are easier to adopt long term.

How To Get Started With Healthy Meal Planning

You’ve figured out your meal planning goals, and you know what success will look like.

Now you need to follow a few simple steps to put your plan into action.

Ask Yourself Some Basic Questions

Meal planning needs to fit around your life for it to work. So take a few minutes to think about how to do this best.

Write down your answers to the following questions; some of them you’ll need to ask every week:

  1. How many meals do you need for the week?
  2. How much time do you actually have to cook?
  3. Do you need to factor in social meals and outings?
  4. How many people will you be preparing food for at each meal?
  5. What’s your budget?

A meal planning template can be very helpful when looking at these questions. You can download one for free below.

Build A Healthy Meal Plan On What You Already Know

Let’s expand on the incremental approach. Meal planning is easier to insert into your life one step at a time.

Altering everything you do at once would make for a very stressful couple of weeks, and increase your chances of failure.

So take a step back. Look at what you’re already doing right and build on those things.

If you’re great at healthy breakfasts, then keep running on autopilot for those to begin with. Start by planning just 3 or 4 dinners per week.

This will allow you to get the hang of the system, and tweak it, before going 100% in. Then mark in your meal planning template which meals you’ll plan and which you’ll improvise.

Next, try to build on recipes you’re already familiar with, and know you can commit to making.

And last, keep it simple. Look at what you’ve got in your pantry – that’s a good indication of the type of chef you are. Choose meals that use ingredients you already have, and add to that gradually over time.

Substitute Slowly But Surely

If you’re aiming to change to a lower carb diet or to quit processed sugar, or you need to make some other major dietary changes, consider substituting just one or two foods at a time.

For instance, in the first week, you might switch white rice for quinoa, then in the second week you could add black bean pasta instead of wheat pasta.

Each time you substitute in something new, make it permanent. Eventually you won’t even have to think about it anymore.

By changing one thing at a time, you give yourself a mental and physical adjustment period, meaning you’ll minimize potential withdrawal symptoms and frustration.

Allocate time not only to planning your meals, but to researching healthier substitutes for what you already like. This will make the transition to organization and better health much easier.

Don’t Be Afraid Of Repetition

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It takes time to perfect meal planning, but it’s a lot simpler if you repeat the meals you find easy to make, and more importantly, easy to eat.

This is where leftovers come in handy. You’ll need room in your freezer to do this right. Each time you cook a meal, make twice as much as you need, and freeze the second lot for later.

Alternatively, plan to eat the same thing for dinner and lunch the next day, then prepare enough to cover both. Simple tricks like this can halve your cooking time.

Another take on helpful repetition is to choose 2 or 3 options for easy breakfasts and lunches, then cycle those throughout the week.

This also reduces your shopping time, as you’re using the same ingredients multiple times per week.

If you really don’t mind repeating meals, consider spending Sunday afternoon cooking one large batch of freezer suitable meals to cover 5-7 lunches. Then all you need to do each day is defrost.

Build A Weekly Meal Planning Routine 

With these basics under your belt, it’s time to take action. Start with a simple meal planning routine.

Each weekend, map out the week ahead, noting when you need to prepare meals, and when you will be eating out.

Next, assess what you have in your fridge and pantry. Choose recipes that use up food that needs to be eaten, and incorporate other non-perishable ingredients you already have.

Once you’ve selected your recipes for the week, write a shopping list for all the ingredients you’re missing.

Then do one shop for everything you need the coming week.

If you have time, do some basic meal prep as you put items away – chop vegetables for roasting, marinate your meats, or organize your morning smoothie ingredients into freezer bags.

Avoid Common Meal Planning Mistakes

In life there will always be times when plans count for very little. It’s unlikely you’ll be able to stick to your meal plan exactly, day in, day out, particularly if healthy meal planning is new to you.

Don’t make the same mistake many people new to meal planning make. Be realistic.

Meal planning doesn’t mean opting out of social events or not eating at restaurants. These should be part of your plan.

Even if you’ve chosen a keto meal plan, a vegan meal plan, or a strict diabetic meal plan, you need to factor in a social life.

A good meal planning template includes the occasions when you don’t need to prepare food for yourself.

Lastly, never consider a detour a failure. Be ready to mix things up when necessary, knowing you always have your meal plan to fall back on for the rest of the week.

10 Tips To Master Meal Planning

Let’s recap on everything we’ve covered on getting started with meal planning. These 10 tips will help you master meal planning quickly:

  1. Write down your goals and what success means to you
  2. Choose a meal planning system, and try it for at least a month
  3. Map out the week ahead before starting to plan for meals
  4. Keep track of meals you like, and repeat them
  5. Start with incremental changes and gradual substitution
  6. Select a shopping day for each week and plan around it
  7. Pick recipes you actually like and which are within your capabilities
  8. Cook bulk batches to freeze, or plan to eat leftovers for lunches
  9. Always have a go-to recipe for the times when your plan falls apart
  10. Don’t give up! Be prepared for trial and error to get this right

The Best Meal Planning Tools1 meal planning SA 5 3

You don’t have to do this alone. There are plenty of tools to help you get on track with meal planning, from simple templates, right up to dedicated apps.

A meal planning template is a great tool to help you understand what your needs are before you get in too deep and lose sight of your goals. You can download a great printable version below.

Once you’ve mastered a simple meal planning template, you might want to try an app, to record more detailed information and help you get organized.

There are a number of useful meal planning apps out there, with different functions for different purposes. Here are 5 popular tools to consider:

  1. MealPlan – best option for beginners, with meal and grocery planner
  2. MealBoard – great for meal planning around a budget
  3. Paprika – useful for managing recipes
  4. Pepperplate – perfect for meal planning, recipe organizing and shopping
  5. Yummly – search over a million recipes and filter by ingredients you already have

Your Meal Planning Template

Don’t get too far ahead of yourself! Remember to take a gradual approach and adopt changes slowly. Start with our free printable weekly meal plan template.