The Complete Beginners Guide to Meal Planning

The Complete Beginners Guide to Meal Planning

Meal planning - it's the key to a healthy, affordable and successful weight loss journey. It's important to be strategic about your food choices, whether you are looking to lose weight or gain muscle. To keep on track with your fitness goals, you will want to meal plan for success. Here is some practical advice that will help you take charge of your diet and get the most out of your grocery shopping trips.

Meal planning is often synonymous with restricting your food choices and stifling creativity. We've all heard the jokes: "I'm not an expert in nutrition — I don't know much about nutrition," or, "Is it fun to be a dietitian? You must eat crayons." That's where I'm going to stop you right there. You're right — meal planning doesn't always have to be cut and dry. It doesn't have to mean eating tofu and steamed broccoli every single day of the week. It doesn't always have to be boring.

Do you find the idea of meal planning a little overwhelming? This not only can be true for those who are just starting out but even seasoned budget meal planners as well. Meal planning can seem like hours of work and something that is unnecessary. However, this myth couldn't be further from the truth. Meal planning is easy and doesn't have to be time consuming at all.

Meal planning is a valuable way to save time and money

Meal planning is a valuable way to save time and money—and it's also the best way to make sure you're eating healthy. It's a simple skill that will help you throughout your life, but it might not be something your parents taught you. I didn't start meal planning until I was in college, but once I did, my health improved, my grocery bills went down, and I started to feel more confident in the kitchen. Here's everything you need to know to get started.

Why should you make a meal plan?

You may think this sounds like too much work, but hear me out: Meal planning saves money. When you're grocery shopping without a plan, it's easy to pick up things on impulse that are expensive or unhealthy—or both. When you sit down for just 15 minutes and plan out your week of meals ahead of time, it's easier to say no to those things. You'll spend less at the store because you've made a list of exactly what you need, and you'll only buy what's on that list (I know this because I've tried both ways).

Meal planning can be as simple or complex as you want it to be. Some people have elaborate charts and trackers, others just make a list of meals they want to eat that week. No matter which direction you go in, here are some tips on how to make your meal planning easier!

How to plan your meals in 7 simple steps

Planning meals is easy! Follow our step-by-step guide to creating a meal plan that works for you—and your family.

1. Determine how many meals you'll need for the week (or month), and what kind of meals you want to make.

When you first start meal planning, it can feel a little overwhelming. I remember when my friend was starting out and she asked me for some help. The first thing I told her to do was figure out how many meals she needed to plan for. She thought she had to plan for every single meal for an entire week. And I told her, if that's what she wanted to do—then sure! But that's not the only way to do it. If you want to plan all of your meals, then by all means plan 'em all! But if you want to just focus on planning dinners, then that's totally okay too! Some people like to get even more specific with their meal planning, and only plan dinners for Monday - Friday, but then leave weekends free. Others like to keep it simple and just plan dinners for the week. There are no rules about what's right or wrong when it comes to meal planning, except the ones you set for yourself. So figure out what kind of meal planner you want to be and go from there.

2. Consider your schedule for the week.

When will you have time to cook? Are there days when you'll be out of the house for lunch or dinner?

Before you start planning your meals, you need to consider your schedule. When do you have time to cook? Are there days when you'll be out of the house for lunch or dinner? This is where it's important to think of the practical issues. If you're busy on Mondays and Tuesdays, then it's likely that meals on those nights will need to be quicker and easier. Thursday is a great night for a more involved dinner if you've got time after work; if not, takeout might be the best bet. Whatever your schedule looks like, it's worth taking a moment to map out when you'll have time for cooking before you start thinking about what meals you're going to make for the week.

3. Think about any special circumstances that need to be accommodated.

For example, if someone in your family has a food allergy, or if you'll be out at a party one night where there will be food.

When you're planning meals for your family, it's important to consider any special circumstances that might affect what you're making. For example, if someone in your household has a food allergy, you'll want to make sure that meals can be prepared for them without extra hassle. If you will be out of the house one night because of a party or some other event where there will be food, plan accordingly and make something that can be left out at room temperature, such as a casserole or soup.

4. Plan ahead for leftovers so that they don't go to waste.

For example, if you know you'll want leftover lasagna for lunch three days in a row, plan on making enough so that there's extra from the beginning instead of having plain pasta one day because there isn't enough sauce left over from the previous day's lunch!

5. Consider which ingredients can be used for more than one meal, so that you can buy them.

Meal planning can be a chore. When you have to get everything down on paper and track what's available, it can be frustrating. But if you start slowly and make a plan to ease your way into it, you'll find that it's not as daunting as you think.

The first thing we recommend is to look at the meals you already make and take note of what they have in common. For instance, if you're making a steak dinner on Monday, consider which ingredients can be used for more than one meal, so that you can buy them with the intent of using them for multiple dinners throughout the week. You might have some leftover steak that could go into a salad. Or maybe you're making spaghetti on Tuesday—you can use the same tomato sauce for both dinners. These are just two examples; try to think about how many times you could repurpose an ingredient in a week before buying it so that when you do go shopping, everything is more efficient and cost-effective!

Try this process on your own menus and see what you come up with—it'll help create an easier meal planning experience!

6. Make it a habit and be flexible.

The best way to get started with meal planning is to make it a habit. It may not happen every week, and that's okay. If you can get into the routine of doing it consistently (even just once a month), the benefits will pay off.

To make it a habit, try to incorporate it into something you already do regularly, such as grocery shopping or paying bills. For example, if you shop on Saturday morning, set aside 30 minutes on Friday night to plan your meals, so you're ready to go first thing in the morning. If you pay bills every Wednesday evening, set aside 15 minutes to plan that evening's dinner while your computer is booting up and your bills are loading.

If it helps, write down the date and time that works best for you each week (or month), and stick to it like any other appointment. You can even set an alarm on your phone or computer for those times as a reminder.

7. Don't forget about snacks!

Don't forget about snacks! You probably think that meal planning is just for dinner, but you'd be wrong! Meal planning can be used to get your whole day organized. Some people like to plan out breakfast and lunch as well, while others like to plan out snacks throughout the day. If you're someone who needs a snack every few hours, you should definitely consider meal planning your snacks as well. This can help curb your hunger throughout the day which means you'll eat less overall and it will help to prevent you from buying something at the vending machine at work. It's a win-win!

The ultimate grocery shopping list for meal planning success

-Start with what you already have and rotate that into your meal plan.

-If you don't have a full supply of staples, then add those to your shopping list too.

-Once you have a good stock of staples, then start filling in the gaps by adding items that are on sale or items your family likes.

Staples Checklist:

Meat, poultry and seafood: meat, chicken, fish

Pasta: spaghetti, penne, lasagna noodles

Rice: wild rice, brown rice, white rice

Grains: barley, farro, bulgur wheat

Beans and lentils: chickpeas, black beans, kidney beans

Flour: whole wheat flour (or wheat free flour) all-purpose flour (white or unbleached)

Eggs and dairy products: eggs and milk or egg substitute and non-dairy milks

Spices: salt (sea salt), pepper (black peppercorns), cinnamon sticks

Anyone can start meal planning with the right tools and mindset.

Meal planning is more than just staying organized; it's also an easy way to save money, eat healthily and improve the quality of life. It takes a little bit of work up front, but this endeavor quickly builds into something that is empowering and rewarding. The tools and tips listed above will help you get started, but keep in mind that you can be as creative as you want with meal planning. You'll learn better ways to plan your meals through trial-and-error, and find the structure that works for you over time.

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