It’s the early evening rush at the grocery store. There you are, empty basket in hand, trying to figure out what to make for dinner tonight.
Spaghetti sounds easy enough, so you grab a jar of sauce and head to the next aisle to pick out some pasta. But on the way, you notice that fancy wine you like is on sale. Oh, that’s right, you also need bananas. Wait, aren’t you almost out of toothpaste, too?
Several trips around the store, one long checkout line and a whole bunch of stuff you don’t need later and you’re finally headed out the door with your overstuffed grocery bags in tow — only to remember you forgot the pasta.
Wouldn’t it be so much easier if you could trade spur-of-the-moment grocery store runs like this for healthy meals that you’ve (gasp) planned and prepped for in advance?
No more stressful shopping fails. No more calorie-bomb takeout orders on days when you have no idea what to make. Only good-for-you dishes that you have ready to go at home.
Yep, we’re talking about meal planning.
Or as Sally Hara, a registered dietitian and diabetes educator at the Nutrition Clinic at UW Medical Center – Northwest, puts it, “It’s just asking yourself what’s for dinner once for the entire week instead of once daily, and then shopping accordingly.”
The benefits of meal planning
To the uninitiated, meal planning can seem daunting.
You already have a packed schedule, so how are you supposed to muster up the time and energy to plan a week’s worth of meals in advance? And what’s up with those charts and fancy recipe binders?
It doesn’t have to be that complicated, Hara says, and it’s not just for ultra-organized Marie Kondo die-hards, either.
The whole point of meal planning is to make your life more manageable.
“Meal planning is so you can gain better control over your health, budget and time,” Hara explains. “It just makes life easier if you’re coming home from work and you’re not thinking, ‘What am I going to make for dinner?’ You already know and you already have all the ingredients.”
Along with alleviating stress, meal planning also allows you to get a better handle on your budget and the nutritional content of your food.
You’re less likely to whip out your wallet and order takeout at the last minute when you already have a tasty stew simmering in your slow cooker at home, right?
Set realistic goals and expectations
OK, so you’re on board with this whole meal planning thing. Now what?
Start by asking yourself what problems you’re hoping to solve by adopting this as a long-term habit.
Maybe you want to make healthier food choices so you can improve your overall wellness, get better at a physical activity or manage a medical condition. Or maybe it’s so you can spend less time scrambling around on weeknights and more time relaxing at home.
Whatever your reasons, noting your goals at the start not only helps you focus your meal planning efforts, it can also keep you motivated if you ever find yourself in a slump.
And just as it’s important to understand what you want to accomplish with meal planning, it’s equally important to acknowledge what meal planning won’t do for you — and to set your expectations accordingly.
If boiling water is the pinnacle of your cooking prowess, don’t expect to be serving up intricate, three-course meals after a couple of weeks. And if you love bacon, don’t think meal planning is going to help you go vegetarian — at least not without experiencing some major meat sweats along the way.
Create a list of go-to recipes
Once your goals and expectations are appropriately set, Hara says the next step is to create a list of recipes and foods you already enjoy eating.
Group those dishes into three basic categories: vegetables, proteins and carbohydrates (that includes starches and fruits). The point is to take inventory of all your go-to recipes so you can easily reference them when you’re planning things for the week.
“Doing this helps you unpack the idea of meal planning and makes it less overwhelming,” Hara explains. “If you know these three categories should go into every meal, you can just look at your list and go from there.”
This also gives you a helpful nudge to make more nutritionally balanced, intentional food choices. Knowing you need an ingredient or dish from each of the three categories is basically a built-in way to ensure you eat your veggies.
And while it might be tempting to kick off your first week of meal planning with a bunch of new dishes you found on your favorite food blog, that’s a recipe for disaster (pun intended).
Hara suggests sticking to recipes from your handy-dandy list of favorites when you first start meal planning. That way you’re less likely to be overwhelmed or turned off by the concept of meal planning if a new recipe goes awry.
“Start with things you already make on a regular basis to make this as easy as possible,” Hara says. “Then you can add one new recipe a week and build up your repertoire of agreeable recipes. Otherwise, it becomes too complicated.”
Make a grocery shopping game plan
Before you settle on recipes and grab your reusable shopping bags, though, check your pantry for leftover or soon-to-expire items.
“Taking inventory of what you already have in your fridge and need to use can help,” Hara says. “If you’ve got leftover chicken, then you can look at your list of recipes that use chicken or search for a new one that uses it.”
By picking recipes based on what you already have at home and “shopping” your fridge first, you can make your grocery runs more efficient. Plus, you’ll be less likely to waste money by having perishable items go bad or accidentally buying ingredients you already have at home.
Once you’ve checked your fridge and pantry, write down all the ingredients you still need to buy for the week. If you want to get really fancy, you can even organize your shopping list by section to avoid zigzagging between aisles.
From there, pick a convenient day and time to do your shopping and stick with it.
“Some people like Saturdays because that’s their down time, and others like Wednesdays because that’s when coupons come out,” Hara notes. “It really depends on the individual.”
By having a specific day to go grocery shopping, you’re more likely to incorporate it into your regular routine — and more likely to stick with meal planning week after week.
Prep or cook ingredients in batches
Another key to meal planning success? Prepping and cooking when you have the time in order to save yourself a bunch of stress when you don’t.
“If you’re going to cook something, it’s advantageous to cook it in bulk,” Hara says. “You can use what you need that week and then put the rest in a container and throw it in the freezer.”
Chop veggies, trim meats and set out seasonings and spices the night before so you only have to grab and cook the following evening. Even little things, like washing your produce and patting it dry before you put it away in the fridge, are nice favors for your future self.
“It’s all helpful in the long run,” Hara explains. “Having ingredients on hand provides more motivation to cook, and the more you can plan and do ahead, it just makes things that much easier.”
Work meal planning around your schedule
But meal planning isn’t just about picking the right recipes and slotting in times to shop, prep and cook. It’s also about seamlessly incorporating these steps into your already-busy schedule.
As you’re planning meals out for the week, pull up your calendar and see what you have going on.
“If you have a late meeting or your kid has an event to go to, that day you can designate as a leftovers night or an easy-meal night,” Hara says. “It’s really important to have things sorted and to ask yourself if you’ll have time to cook or not.”
If meal planning doesn’t feel like an extra step, you’re more likely to keep it up. And if you know cooking every night that week is just not realistic, then adjust appropriately.
Instead, cook double batches on three days and slot in leftovers the rest of the week. Or designate certain weekend afternoons as bulk cooking days so you can freeze portions and completely forgo cooking when you’re most busy.
The point is to work meal planning around your schedule, not the other way around.
But, wait, can you still join your friends for a spontaneous dinner out or order some pick-me-up Mexican food after a particularly rough day? You bet your burrito.
“You’re not locked in,” Hara explains. “If someone invites you out to dinner, you can save what you had planned that night for tomorrow. Meal planning is flexible — it’s meant to be helpful, not stifling.”
Just don’t forget the pasta next time.
Editor’s note: This article has been updated to reflect Northwest Hospital is now UW Medical Center – Northwest, a second campus of the University of Washington Medical Center in Seattle.