Meal Planning 101

Valerie Bisharat grocery shopping

Whether you love it or hate it, meal planning makes eating healthy easier and longer lasting. This might sound obvious, but you wouldn’t go into an important work project with no game plan – to succeed, you plan ahead, prioritize, and strategize. The same is true for sustainable healthy eating.

If you struggle to make time for meal planning, keep in mind that investing in it up front can actually save time throughout the week. It eliminates picking up takeout, making unnecessary food trips, and going back and forth about what to eat (not to mention the additional prep, cook, and clean up times).

That said, meal planning tends to work best when it’s a system – a process you can rinse and repeat. This is very important!

So let’s talk about some sustainable strategies. Welcome to meal planning 101!

How many of my meals per week should I plan?

For many people, planning about 80% of your meals in advance and improvising the rest is a good balance.
If you eat 3 meals per day (so about 21 per week), that’s 17 to plan in advance and 4 to improvise. If, like me, you eat about 4 meals per day (about 28 per week), that’s about 22 to plan in advance and 6 to improvise.

This doesn’t need to be perfect, but keeping this guideline in mind sets you up to be well-fed and energized while still maintaining the flexibility to go out with friends and feel spontaneous.

How often should I meal plan?

About once or twice per week makes sense for most people’s schedules – either on Saturday or Sunday before the week begins or both before the week begins and again in the middle of the week (like on Wednesday). The important part is to pick a day (or days) and stick to it so you can rinse and repeat.

If you meal plan once a week, you’ll have to plan out your general meal structure for all seven days (keep in mind you can always go back to the drawing board several days in and adjust as needed). Some people find that liberating, but for others it’s too much to think about at once. If you meal plan twice per week, you’ll only plan for 3-4 days at once, but you’ll also have to grocery shop for ingredients twice per week. (Check out “Grocery Shopping 101” to hopefully help make this part easier for you!)

Personally, I meal plan and grocery shop 2-3 times per week.

What exactly should I do when I sit down to meal plan?

Here’s the checklist I recommend:

  1. Start with a skeleton of your daily meal slots using this meal calendar, an iPhone note, or a solution of your own. The important part is to be able to look at the meal slots each day and plug meals into each.

  2. Do the easy meals first: fill in any meals you’ll be eating out.

  3. Fill in breakfasts, which tend to require little work and are repetitive.

  4. Fill in the remaining meals, planning to eat the same dishes for at least 2 meals.

Example meal planning outline using an iPhone note.

Example meal planning outline using an iPhone note.

In order to plan out those 17-22 meals, you’ll likely want to make one recipe stretch 2 to 3 meals and eat leftovers. Very few people have time to cook more than that.

If you’ve tried diet plans that ask you to plan meals before and you feel wary of this meal planning structure, keep in mind that there’s a big difference between planning exact meal portions, calories, and macros and simply planning healthy dishes ahead of time. But if your gut is telling you that you need a break from structure, that’s important to listen to. You could always come back to this system later or work pieces of it into your daily routine.

What types of meals should I be making?

In general, eating a protein, healthy fat, and veggie carb at each meal will keep your blood sugar stable, curb hunger, and help you lose body fat if that’s your goal. During 1 or 2 of your meals, including post-workout, you’ll want to have a serving of starchy carbs as well.

To come up with meals that fit those guidelines, think about these 3 areas:

"Puzzle Piece" meals: or protein, healthy fat, and veggie carbs that are pieced together from separate, simple ingredients, like a grass-fed steak with roasted asparagus and a side green salad. To create this kind of meal, choose the type of protein you're in the mood for and find a tasty way to prepare it. Then, Google what kind of veggie pairs nicely with it. The healthy fat will often come in the oil an item is cooked in or in salad dressing.

"All-inclusive" meals: a single recipe that contains the protein, healthy fat, and veggie carbs mostly in one. For example: slow cooker beef stew with sliced carrots, mushrooms, and onions. To find healthy recipes to make here, go on Pinterest and choose a protein you're in the mood for. Try typing in "healthified ____ [insert protein]" or "____ [insert protein] Paleo" to filter for healthy recipes containing the protein you want prepared with wholesome ingredients.

“Mix and Match” meals: meal concepts like Buddha bowls, tacos, or stir fry that lend themselves to prepping 5-7 ingredients in advance and then eating different combinations of each throughout the week.

It’s helpful to keep all of your recipes in one place. That way, you create a growing reservoir of recipes and make future meal planning easier. I like to use a Pinterest board for this, but you could also print the recipes out and keep them in a binder with those plastic sleeve thingies (who’s with me??).

In sum:

  • Plan about 80% of your meals and leave 20% up for improvising

  • If you eat 3 meals per day, you’ll have about 17 meals per week to plan out and if you eat 4 meals per day, you’ll have about 22 meals per week to plan out

  • Meal planning once or twice per week works for most people

  • Choose the same day each week so you can rinse and repeat

  • If you’re planning once per week, try it on Saturday or Sunday and if you’re planning twice per week, try it on Saturday or Sunday and on Wednesday

  • Aim to have a protein, healthy fat, and veggie carb at each meal and a starch at 1-2 meals per day

  • Keep your recipes in one place for future use, like on a Pinterest board or in a binder

What if meal planning takes too long?

Like any other skill, there’s a learning curve to healthy meal planning. It takes practice to learn how it works and get into the swing of things. Over time, I’ve gotten my meal planning process down to about 20 minutes per week.

Commit yourself to getting better at it and don't stress if it's not perfect. Taking imperfect action will get you farther than either trying to do it perfectly or not at all!

Happy eating!

Love and light,

For further reading, check out “Grocery Shopping 101.”