It’s hard to argue with the concept of building a weekly meal plan, making a shopping list, hitting the grocery store just once per week and having healthy meals ready to eat every weeknight. It helps you save time and money, and almost “forces” you to incorporate healthy eating behaviors into your daily life.
It’s pretty easy to make an attractive meal planning chart, with a separate box for every night’s meal. But figuring out what to put into those boxes is something else entirely – and that’s where many people get stuck. After all, it can be hard enough to decide what you want for tonight’s dinner. Coming up with ideas for the entire week is a scary prospect for many people.
It’s not as difficult as it might seem, though, if you relax and take a step back from the chart. Once you start thinking about categories of meals, instead of trying to come up with specific dinner recipes, you’ll find that the meal plan almost fills up on its own.
Here are some suggestions to get you started.
For many people, the word “casserole” brings back unpleasant memories of dinner at a relative’s house, or a virtually inedible pot luck dinner at church or school. But don’t prejudge.
There are hundreds of completely edible and delicious casseroles you can prepare in advance, to be heated up for a quick, yummy and healthy dinner. Even better, you can make enough so there are leftovers to be repurposed for another dinner or eaten for a quick lunch.
- Burrito casserole: ground beef is cooked with burrito seasoning, chopped onion and refried beans; that filling is put between layers of tortillas cut into strips, along with green onion, diced tomatoes and cilantro, and the top tortilla layer is topped with cheddar cheese and baked. (If you make the recipe a second time, use taco seasoning instead of burrito seasoning for a slightly different taste.)
- Chicken and cauliflower casserole: cubed boneless chicken is browned in olive oil, cooked briefly in half-and-half and then baked on a bed of grated cauliflower and herbs, with grated cheddar cheese on top.
- Meatless sweet potato casserole: sweet potatoes and carrots are boiled until tender and mashed to a chunky texture with butter, ginger, orange zest, cinnamon and brown sugar, then mixed with egg whites (to hold the mixture together), sprinkled with pecans and baked. It’s a great side dish, too.
Whether you have an Instant Pot, a crockpot or another type of slow cooker, it can be your best friend when you’re making quick, healthy recipes. You can do the ingredient prepping ahead of time, put everything into the cooker before heading to work, and be ready to dig in when you get home. And as you’ll see in this section’s first meal plan idea, there are some shortcuts that can make things even easier.
- Asian meatballs: Cook meatballs made from ground beef or ground turkey in the slow cooker, with a mixture of honey, soy sauce, ground ginger, onion and garlic powder, rice vinegar and cornstarch (shortcut: use frozen meatballs from the grocery store). Serve over brown rice.
- Vegan Bolognese lentils: Lentils are a perfect vegan substitute for pasta, when cooked in the slow cooker with red onion, celery, carrots, canned crushed tomatoes, Italian spices and water.
- Hearty kale and quinoa soup: The perfect meal for a cold winter’s night, quinoa is slow-cooked with white beans, kale, canned diced tomatoes, onion, garlic, spices and vegetable broth.
A slow cooker is also perfect for preparing black beans, just like the ones they serve at Chipotle, to be used in making black bean fajitas with avocado or another favorite Mexican recipe.
If a slow cooker is your best friend, your freezer isn’t far behind. When you’re doing weekend meal prep for the coming week’s meals, it makes sense to actually cook some of the meals on a Saturday or Sunday. You can then eat some of it for your planned weeknight dinner, and freeze the rest for another week. It saves an enormous amount of time and money, and the right freezer meals can be just as flavorful when defrosted and reheated.
- Lasagna: The tried-and-true favorite is easy to make, freezes well, and a large batch can supply your family with at least two great meals. To make this an easy meal to prepare, use store-bought pasta and tomato sauce, combined with a ricotta-parmesan-basil-garlic egg mixture, and top with mozzarella before baking. To change things up or make this a low-carb dish, substitute dried zucchini strips for the lasagna noodles.
- Baked Tortellini with Pesto: Pasta dishes are particularly good for freezing, because you don’t have to worry about the texture of meat or chicken changing when defrosted. For this one, just mix fresh or cooked tortellini with alfredo sauce, pesto and mozzarella, top with parmesan and bake. To dress it up, mix in some shredded leftover chicken before serving.
Poultry and Meat
The easiest way to make poultry for dinner is to take some chicken breasts or a whole chicken, sprinkle a few spices on them, and throw them into the oven for an hour. Baked (or broiled) chicken is tasty, healthy, and requires very little meal prep; the same goes for a roasted turkey breast. Poultry also plays well with nearly any side dish you can imagine. Similarly, it doesn’t take much effort to sprinkle a steak or some burgers with some garlic powder and oregano, and toss them onto the grill or put them under the broiler.
However, baked chicken and broiled meat can get boring very quickly if you put them into your meal plan every week. The good news is that there are an infinite number of delicious and easy ways to prepare these proteins. You can also make easy and healthy side dishes to go with them, like roasted veggies, a side salad or wild rice.
- Tuscan chicken made with fresh or sun-dried tomatoes, onion, garlic, spinach and artichokes.
- Thai chicken basted with a mixture of chili sauce, soy sauce, fish sauce, garlic, ginger and lime juice, and topped with peanuts and cilantro before serving.
- Pork tenderloin sautéed and then roasted with a spice rub made from garlic, pepper, oregano, cumin and thyme; goes great with an apple-cabbage slaw.
- Bell peppers stuffed with sautéed ground beef, onion, garlic, tomatoes, zucchini, red pepper and cooked long-grain rice, topped with your choice of cheese before baking.
One hint for meal planning when including poultry or meat: schedule them early in the week when they’re still fresh.
A chef’s or Greek salad, served with a simple homemade vinaigrette and fresh whole-grain pita bread, is a terrific meal that can be made in a jiffy on nights when time is tight. But there are many other types of salads you can schedule to give your meal plan healthy variety.
For example, consider trying a Mediterranean salad made with chickpeas, feta and kalamata olives; a quinoa and kale salad with fresh fruit and pistachios; or an Asian Cobb salad with romaine, carrots, scallions, avocado and shredded chicken. They’re great lunch ideas, too.
An Even Easier Way to Do It
You’ve run out of meal planning ideas? You simply don’t have a few hours for grocery shopping and food prep each weekend? That’s understandable. Not everyone is cut out for – or has the time for – meal plans, grocery lists and kitchen chores.
That’s when it’s time to check out Factor, the meal delivery service that does the planning, shopping and cooking for you. Factor uses only the highest-quality fresh ingredients to prepare yummy, low-carb meals that are delivered right to your door each week. All meals are fresh and never frozen; all you have to do is heat and eat.
And the only meal planning you have to do is choose your meals from a wide variety of selections on Factor’s website; they add new entrees and add-ons weekly, so your food is never boring – just healthy, impeccably prepared, and absolutely delicious.