Most people’s lives are so busy and complicated that their meal planning often consists of – at most – three steps:
- They check the refrigerator when they get home to see if there’s anything in there to eat.
- If not, they look in the cabinet to see if there’s any peanut butter or Ramen noodles left.
- If not, they call GrubHub or the closest pizza place for delivery.
And the next day, as shampoo manufacturers would say, it’s “rinse and repeat.”
That’s certainly not a prescription for healthy eating. And it ends up being a lot more expensive than grocery shopping on a regular basis.
The key to having something healthy and delicious for dinner, even when you’re getting home late from work, is to already have dinner ready to cook or eat.
Don’t worry – that’s not as time-consuming or complicated as it might sound. It only means planning meals in advance.
Here’s how to do it.
What Is a Meal Plan?
You’ve probably experienced this just before running out the door for school or work. Someone in the family or household asks “What do you want for dinner tonight?” In most cases, the question never gets answered, because people are just too busy to give it much thought. That’s why the three-step search for something to eat we mentioned earlier (fridge, pantry, GrubHub) is so common.
A meal plan is the best way to answer the “what do you want for dinner?” question. It sets, in advance, all the menus you’ll need for the upcoming week.
Remember when you were in school and could check the lunch menu for the whole week? That’s the basic idea behind a weekly meal plan, but this one is much more useful. It allows you to prepare a shopping list, make a single trip to the grocery store, do some preliminary meal prep (or more extensive cooking, if you choose) – and have a week’s worth of healthy meals ready to cook and eat each night.
Successful Meal Planning
Once the work week starts, most people only have a limited amount of time to plan meals and go shopping. That’s why you shouldn’t wait until the beginning of the week to start your meal planning. Friday night or Saturday morning is the perfect time to map out your strategy for the next week; it leaves you plenty of time for shopping and any prepping or cooking that needs to be done.
It helps to have an actual meal calendar, but you don’t need anything fancy. Just printing out a weekly meal plan template will do the trick. Be sure to cross off any nights when you know you’ll be going out to dinner instead of cooking. Also note the nights when other obligations (like a 7pm church meeting or a child’s 6pm basketball game) mean you’ll either have to make something quick and simple, or have something simmering in a slow cooker while you’re out.
Most people find that a good start for their planning is penciling in a few favorite recipes that won’t require much “brainpower” to prepare, and will be something you really want to eat. You should also keep a list of meal plan ideas for inspiration; some “professional meal planners” spend a little time each week browsing cookbooks or printing dinner recipes they find online, just for that purpose.
Simply because you’ll be planning meals for the entire week doesn’t mean you have to morph into a gourmet chef. The biggest secret to successful meal planning is making things easier on yourself, not harder.
One good way to do that is to pencil in “theme nights,” like tacos or pasta. Another approach is to schedule the same meals each night of the week (for example, burgers on Monday, burritos on Tuesday), which can save time and mental energy – but some people find that to be too predictable, diminishing their “appetite” for planning. What’s most important is to find the right approach for you and your household.
After you have the week’s meals planned out, you can make one major shopping trip over the weekend and have just about everything you’ll need. If you’ve forgotten something or will be having unexpected guests, you might have to go on another grocery run before the end of the week (or make a quick order from Amazon Fresh). But having a healthy weekly meal plan, with a grocery list to match, prevents the nightly “stop at the supermarket” that chews up precious weekday time.
Does this still sound intimidating? Don’t worry. There are some great hacks you can use.
Valuable Meal Planning Tips
You may not find that all of these tips fit your lifestyle or taste buds. At least some of them, however, should prove to be great time savers while making meal planning a breeze.
Prepare Large Batches in Advance
Foods like casseroles and lasagna don’t take long to prep and bake on a weekend, and they can provide two (or more) meals with the same amount of work that cooking something else would require. They don’t all have to be eaten in the same week, either; these types of foods make great freezer meals that can be defrosted during the day and heated in the microwave right before dinnertime.
Use the Same Ingredients in Multiple Recipes
It makes little sense to buy fresh cauliflower or kale to use in one recipe, just to have unused veggies sitting and rotting in the refrigerator. Planning meals in advance allows you to use the same ingredients several times in a week, preventing food waste and saving money. Similarly, one batch of tomato sauce made over the weekend can be used for pasta one night, and pizza at the end of the week.
Prep Ingredients While They’re Still Fresh
One of the last things you want to do when you get home from work is stare at a chunk of meat, a bag of onions or a block of parmesan. Trim or tenderize the meat, chop the onions or shred the cheese over the weekend, and keep them refrigerated in sealed containers for use during the week. You’ll be grateful you did the prep work when you had the time.
Plan Meals with Fresh Ingredients for the Start of the Week
Fresh ingredients are obviously best when used within several days of their purchase, and fresh is always better from the standpoint of healthy eating. Eat the chicken, fish and veggies that spoil quickly early in the week, and plan to have meals like black bean enchiladas or omelets on Thursday or Friday.
Crockpots and Woks Are Your Friends
Instant Pots and similar appliances are amazing time savers. You can drop in the ingredients you prepared over the weekend before leaving for work, and have a yummy hot meal ready when you get home. Prefer something completely fresh? Stir-fry recipes take just minutes to prepare if the ingredients have been pre-cut in advance.
Stock Your Pantry
If you find that you forgot to buy something on your shopping list, or have a craving for something that isn’t on your meal plan, it helps to have a supply of standard ingredients in your pantry or refrigerator. Chicken stock, quinoa, rice, olive oil and a nice selection of spices won’t make a gourmet meal on their own, but they’ll fill in the spaces and prevent you from having to make a last-minute trip to the store.
Keep It Simple
If you want to try new recipes, limit your adventures to one per week. It will make the new foods “something special,” while limiting frustration. And most importantly, don’t go crazy; you won’t want to make meal planning a regular thing if you keep making recipes that you don’t really want to eat.
Following these guidelines will allow you to enjoy delicious, healthy recipes every night without the hassle of daily shopping – or the nightly conference on what to make for dinner. And for those who are on vegan or gluten-free meal plans, or following low-carb diet recipes on a meal plan like the keto or Paleo diet, meal planning can be the difference between having a terrific dinner every night – or having to cheat because you don’t have the right ingredients on hand.
The Best Option
If you’re looking for even more convenience than all these meal planning tips provide, we have a great solution for you- Factor. Factor delivers fresh, fully-prepared meals nationwide, and are a game-changer if you’re in need of delicious meals that are ready in minutes.
Factor offers a variety of meals for different dietary needs and preferences, including keto, Paleo and low-carb. All of their meals are free of gluten, preservatives and GMOs, and their meats are pasture-raised and grassfed. They even have a team of registered dietitians who work to optimize the nutrition of each meal. New customers can also take advantage of a free 20-minute consultation with one of the dietitians to answer any questions they have!
And if ready-made meals aren’t convenient enough, Factor has also made their subscription extremely easy to manage. Customers have full control over the meals they receive, can indicate meal preferences to tell Factor what type of meals they’d like and can even skip any weeks when they don’t need meals.
For more information about Factor, click here.