Figuring out what to eat every day can be stressful, especially when already juggling a busy schedule that includes work, family, and social obligations. Often, people end up scraping together last-minute meals or throwing in the hat and ordering food delivery.
Rest assured there’s a better way to feed yourself and your family: meal planning. This approach ensures that you’re never left wondering what’s for dinner.
Meal planning is the process of building a weekly menu to best suit your nutritional needs. “It can take the guesswork out of dinnertime, help you to stick to a budget, and help keep your nutrition goals on track,” says Stacey Simon, MS, RDN, who offers counseling through her New York City practice.
Some people follow a meal plan with a specific outcome in mind, such as weight loss or cholesterol improvements. Or an athlete may plan their meals to ensure that they get enough of the nutrients they need to perform. Others meal plan to stick to a food budget or map out meals for an entire family, says Alix Turoff, RD, the New York City–based host of the Alix Turoff Nutrition Podcast.
There are different types of meal plans. Some may be geared toward managing a specific health condition, such as type 2 diabetes or heart disease. These meal plans are often created with input from a registered dietitian or healthcare provider. For example, people with type 2 diabetes typically follow a diabetes-friendly meal plan to control their blood sugar levels, while people concerned about a family history of heart disease may follow a meal plan focused on heart health.
People who aren’t trying to manage a health condition will typically make their own meal plans by selecting healthy recipes that their families enjoy.
Select the meals and snacks you plan to eat for the following week and put them into your calendar. You can use a meal-planning app or a calendar that hangs on your fridge. Create a grocery list that includes any ingredients you need to buy, snacks, and convenience items (for example, instant oatmeal or salad kits). Once you have everything you need, set aside a few hours each week (aim for sticking to the same day each week) to chop up fruit and vegetables, and cook grains and meat (or meat alternatives). You may decide to cook meals in batches in advance, or you can cook each meal fresh, knowing the prep work is already done. Keep your food organized by storing everything in clear containers labeled with the food item's name and the date it was purchased.
Repetition is key. Pick two or three breakfast options and two or three lunch options for the week (at most), and add variety through dinner and snacks. Consider what meals you and your family enjoy eating, any food allergies or dietary needs, and how much time you have to prepare food. Then find recipes that fit your schedule and preferences. It may take some experimenting to settle on recipes that work for you, so do the best you can.
Planning your meals can save time and money, make it easier to eat healthy foods, and help you manage health conditions like diabetes and heart disease.
How long food lasts in the refrigerator varies depending on what it is. Soups, stews, and salads can last for three to four days, whereas chicken or turkey only have one to two days, according to FoodSafety.gov (check for details on specific food items). When in doubt, toss items in the freezer. “I package individual portions and freeze them for quick, easy, healthy options that will last longer than in the fridge,” Simon says. “If it's an option that can't be frozen, I generally recommend tossing leftovers after about three to five days.”
“Absolutely!” Simon says. “Meal planning really helps us to plan ahead and build balanced, nourishing meals that provide the nutrition we need.” Plus, knowing what you’re going to eat every day and having healthy meals on hand may lower the likelihood that you’ll turn to fast-food and other impulse choices that add unnecessary calories to your diet.
There are many reasons to plan your meals in advance. “No matter the goal, everyone can benefit from meal planning, because it’s a really good way to get organized and have some sort of road map for the week,” Turoff says.
It takes a little effort at the outset to think through what you’re going to eat the following week but having a plan in place takes away the stress of planning and cooking meals every day. This may be especially helpful for people who work long hours, manage a health condition like diabetes, or have a family to feed. You don’t even have to stick to your meal plan to the letter — simply having a rough guide can be enough to take some of the stress out of grocery shopping and preparing meals every week.
Meal planning can also help you follow a healthy eating pattern. “If you don’t have a plan in place, you may be more inclined to order a pizza on a busy evening, even if it’s not something you’re going to truly enjoy,” Simon says. But if you know you have a healthy and delicious meal waiting for you at home, that pizza or trip to the drive-thru may sound less appealing.
Eating healthier is beneficial for everyone, but it’s especially helpful for people who need to pay close attention to the foods they eat, like those with type 2 diabetes or heart disease. Having a meal plan can make healthy eating less overwhelming for these people. “You’re not stressing about what foods go with what, and you know ahead of time that these foods have been cleared by your doctor or dietitian to help manage your condition,” Turoff says.
“When you go to the grocery store without a plan, you just kind of buy whatever sounds good at the moment, but you have no idea what to do with it,” Turoff says. Inevitably, that food will sit in your fridge or cupboard until you finally throw it out. But when you plan out your meals, you know what and how much food to buy, which leads to less food (and money) wasted.
Learn More About the Benefits of Meal Planning
“Repetition is key,” Turoff says. You don’t have to eat the same thing every day, but cutting down on the number of different meals you have during the week will make things easier. She recommends picking two or three breakfast options and two or three lunch options for the week (at most) and adding variety through dinner and snacks. You can even repeat those meals for a few weeks before switching things up.
Having a few staple meals every week can help keep you from feeling overwhelmed while ensuring there’s enough variety, according to Turoff. For example, have fish for one dinner every week, tacos for another dinner, and burgers for another. You can change the recipe by trying different fish dishes, taco fillings, and burger meats, including vegetarian options.
Set aside a few hours on a day that isn’t very busy to batch cook any meals that repeat, so you’re all set for the week. “Let’s say you’re planning to have oatmeal three days a week. You can make three servings of overnight oats at once,” Turoff says. Or make a large egg frittata so that all you have to do is heat up a single portion in the morning, and you’re good to go.
Be sure to factor any wild cards into your meal plan. “If you like to order food one day a week, include that in your plan so you know not to plan a meal for dinner that day,” Turoff says. Or if your office provides snacks, you may not need to plan for those.
If you or any family members have food allergies, dietary considerations, or intense dislikes, try to make the meal work for everyone so you’re not making multiple dishes. For instance, if you’re making lasagna and someone has a gluten intolerance, you can make the meal with gluten-free noodles so everyone can enjoy it and you only cook once.
You can also keep the main dish the same but allow family members to customize their meals according to their needs and preferences. For example, if it’s taco night, offer different tortilla options and keep add-ons like avocado and onions separate.
If you’re still feeling lost and overwhelmed, or you’d like guidance on how to plan meals for a specific goal (such as weight loss or blood sugar control), you can always seek help from a registered dietitian.
You don’t need to overhaul your entire kitchen to begin meal planning. All you need are a few tools to help you stay organized:
Once you have your meal plan in place, your next step is to hit the grocery store. Use these tips to make shopping easier.
You may be able to put together meals faster during the week by doing some of the work in advance. How long you spend doing prep work is up to you and your schedule, but here are a few food items you can start with.
Learn More About Meal-Prep Tips Every Beginner Should Follow
If you’re at a loss of where to start looking for recipes, we’ve got you covered with several options that are well-suited to meal planning:
Meal planning involves creating a weekly menu. It can reduce stress and save time during the week by getting rid of the decision-making around food. Planning your meals in advance can also help you stick to a healthy diet, since you may be less tempted to hit the drive-thru or order pizza at the end of a busy day. Set aside a few hours during the week to select your meals, buy the ingredients you need, and prep a few food items. Stay organized by logging your meals and recipes in an app or writing them down with pen and paper. Keep your meals organized by storing them in clear containers labeled with the food item's name and the date it was made or purchased.
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