Quick Health Scoop
- Meal planning and meal prepping help you eat healthier—and save you time and money
- Plan around your lifestyle, schedule, and nutrition needs
- Focus on healthy foods and aim for variety
- Stock your fridge and pantry with staple ingredients
If you’ve set goals to eat healthier or lose weight, you might be looking into meal planning tips to help you accomplish both objectives. Besides taking a more intentional approach to eating nutritious foods or shedding extra pounds, learning how to meal prep also helps you save time, save money, and reduce food waste.
Knowing how to make healthy food is one thing, but understanding how to meal prep for the week — or even a whole month — adds some complexity to achieving your goals. For starters, is there a difference between meal planning and meal prepping?
Technically, meal planning involves mapping out what recipes you’ll be making for a certain time period, such as one day, one week, or one month. With meal prepping, you’re performing tasks related to making the meal. This could include gathering recipe ingredients from your pantry, washing and cutting produce, or cooking a batch of ground turkey to use in the week’s meals. However, because the terms are often used interchangeably, we’ll refer to both throughout the article.
Ready to start meal planning? Read on!
How to Meal Plan
- Start small. If you feel overwhelmed at planning seven days’ worth of breakfasts, lunches, and dinners, start with just one day. Or plan meals for the whole week, but just focus on dinner.
- Grab the weekly grocery flyer. If you’re trying to save money or eat fresh, seasonal fruits and vegetables, start your meal plan with what’s available and on sale in your local store.
- Plan around your lifestyle. Map out your meal plan when you’re not rushed, such as on the weekend. Look at your upcoming schedule and plan accordingly. If you’ve got specific dietary concerns or restrictions (such as diabetes or a vegan/vegetarian lifestyle), plan meals that reflect your unique nutrition needs. Meal planning tip: If you have a particularly busy day, plan something simple (like a salad) or schedule a slow-cooker meal.
- Focus on healthy foods. Choose a balanced mix of nutritious foods at every meal. Meal planning tip: incorporate foods highlighted in the USDA Dietary Guidelines for Americans including whole fruits and vegetables, grains, proteins, and dairy.1
- Plan for leftovers. Think ahead to plan meals you can repurpose: eat the leftovers “as is,” freeze them, or transform them into something new. Meal planning tip: Plan to use the leftover meat from Sunday’s oven-roasted chicken dinner for Monday’s quesadillas or Tuesday’s soup.
- Pick a theme. Some find this helpful to take the guesswork out of planning, such as Meatless Monday or Seafood Saturday.
How to Create a Menu
- Aim for variety. As you learn how to meal plan, avoid the pitfall of eating the same foods over and over. How? Vary your menu.
- Color: Eat the rainbow means choosing from the colorful bounty of produce, from blueberries, strawberries, and kiwi to broccoli, carrots, and eggplant
- Texture: Think crunchy cucumbers, silken tofu, and chewy raisins
- Cooking methods: You can bake, boil, grill, oven-roast, poach, sauté, slow-cook, steam, stew, stir-fry and air-fry
- Meal types: Incorporate a mixture of meals into your menu, such as soups, salads, stews, chilis, sandwiches, stir-fries, build-your-own bowls or tacos, and casseroles
- Cuisine: Get inspired by recipes from around the world, including Italian, Greek, Mexican, French, Thai, Indian, and African
- Go shopping. Start with your fridge and pantry to see what you already have on hand. Then create a list of needed ingredients and head to the grocery story. Meal prepping tip: If you’re looking to meal prep on a budget, stick to healthy foods on sale (such as chicken breasts or canned tomatoes). Buy what you need for this week and put the extra in your freezer or pantry.
Need Ideas? Check Out These Healthy Meal Prep Recipes
How to Food Prep
- Batch cook. To meal prep for the week, cook once, use twice. If you’re planning two meals with brown rice this week (think stir fry and soup), cook a double batch. Use what you need for one meal, then save the rest for the next. Generally, you should eat or freeze cooked food within four days.2
- Prep produce. When you get home from the grocery store, clean fruits and veggies you’ll need for the week. Meal prepping tip: This also ensures that you’ll have healthy, ready-to-eat snacks on hand.
- Store produce. Once you clean the fruits and veggies, store them in glass or clear plastic containers so you can easily find what you’re looking for when it’s time to cook. For most produce, cut into desired sizes as needed to avoid having them turn brown due to oxidization (think apples, bananas, and avocados). However, you can cut some hardier vegetables (like carrots, celery, or bell pepper strips) for grab-and-go healthy snacks.
Stock Your Pantry
Getting organized makes meal planning, shopping, meal prepping, and cooking much easier. Maintain a well-stocked kitchen, pantry, and refrigerator by keeping healthy, versatile staples on hand. In your freezer, mark dates on containers before storing and use the oldest first. This reduces food waste and avoids keeping food beyond freshness.3
- Fruits and Vegetables (fresh, frozen, canned): apples, bananas, bell peppers, berries, dried fruits (cherries, cranberries, raisins, apricots), leafy greens (collards, kale, lettuce, spinach), mushrooms, tomatoes
- Grains: barley, bulgur, bread, farro, oats, pasta, quinoa, rice (arborio, brown, jasmine), tortillas
- Legumes: beans (black, cannellini, kidney, pinto, if using canned version choose low-sodium), peas, lentils, edamame
- Proteins: eggs, lean meat, poultry, seafood, tofu, nuts and nut butters (almond, cashew, peanut), seeds (chia, flax, pumpkin, sesame)
- Milk and Dairy (low-fat): cheese (cheddar, mozzarella, parmesan) milk, soymilk, fruit-based plain Greek yogurt, and non-dairy milk alternatives such as oat, coconut, rice, and almond milk and almond or cashew cheese.
- Condiments: fruit preserves (apricot, orange, raspberry), honey, ketchup, maple syrup, relish, soy sauce, stone-ground mustard, tahini
- Canned Goods (low-sodium): chicken/beef/vegetable broth, olives, roasted red peppers, corn, crushed/diced/sun-dried/whole tomatoes, tomato sauce, salmon/sardines/tuna, chicken
- Oils and Vinegars: avocado, canola, coconut (note this has a high percentage of saturated fat), olive, peanut, sesame oil; apple cider, balsamic, red wine vinegar, rice wine, white vinegar.
- Herbs and Spices (fresh, dried): bay leaf, chili powder, cilantro, cinnamon, cumin, curry powder, garlic, nutmeg, oregano, paprika, pepper (black and cayenne), rosemary, salt, thyme
The Bottom Line
Following the above tips will streamline and simplify the entire meal planning process, from creating a menu and shopping to meal prepping and cooking. And it will help you keep your healthy lifestyle resolutions long past January.
1. U.S. Department of Agriculture. “Dietary Guidelines For Americans 2020-2025, Ninth Edition.” Accessed on: January 10, 2021. https://www.dietaryguidelines.gov/resources/2020-2025-dietary-guidelines-online-materials
2. U.S. Department of Health & Human Service. “Leftovers: The Gift that Keeps on Giving.” Accessed on: January 10, 2021. https://www.foodsafety.gov/blog/leftovers-gift-keeps-giving
3. Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. “3 Strategies for Successful Meal Planning.” Accessed on: January 8, 2021. https://www.eatright.org/food/planning-and-prep/smart-shopping/3-strategies-for-successful-meal-planning