Meal planning and prepping are wonderful skills to have in your personal health and wellness tool kit.
A well-thought-out meal plan can help you improve your diet quality or reach a specific health goal while saving you time and money along the way. (1)
Here are 21 simply awesome tips for developing successful meal planning habits.
1. Start small
If you have never created a meal plan or are getting back into it after a long hiatus, it may feel a bit daunting.
Developing a meal planning habit is no different than making any other positive change in your life. Starting small and slowly building confidence is a great way to make sure your new habit is sustainable.
Begin by planning out just a few meals or snacks for the week ahead. Eventually, you’ll figure out which planning strategies work best, and you can slowly build upon your plan by adding in more meals as you see fit.
Good organization is a key component to any successful meal plan.
An organized kitchen, pantry, and refrigerator make everything from menu creation, grocery shopping, and meal prep a breeze, as you’ll know exactly what you have on hand and where your tools and ingredients are.
There’s no right or wrong way to organize your meal prep spaces. Just make sure it’s a system that works for you.
3. Invest in quality storage containers
Food storage containers are one of the most essential meal prep tools.
If you’re currently working with a cupboard full of mismatched containers with missing lids, you may find the meal prep process very frustrating. It’s well worth your time and money to invest in high-quality containers.
Before you make a purchase, consider each container’s intended use. If you’ll be freezing, microwaving, or cleaning them with a dishwasher, make sure you choose containers that are safe for doing so.
Glass containers are eco-friendly and microwave safe. They’re widely available in stores or online.
It’s also handy to have a variety of sizes for different types of foods.
4. Consistently make time
The best way to integrate a meal planning routine into your lifestyle is to make it a priority. It can help to regularly carve out a block of time that is solely dedicated to planning.
For some people, crafting a meal plan can take as little as 10 to 15 minutes per week. If your plan also includes preparing some food items ahead of time or pre-portioning meals and snacks, you may need a few hours.
Regardless of your specific strategy, the key to success is making time and staying consistent.
5. Consider each food group
Whether you’re preparing meals for a week, month, or just a few days, it’s important to make sure each food group is represented in your plan.
The healthiest meal plan emphasizes whole foods, such as fruits, vegetables, legumes, whole grains, high-quality protein, and healthy fats, while limiting sources of refined grains, added sugars, and excess salt. (2)
As you scour through your favorite recipes, think about each of these food groups. If any of them are missing, make a point to fill in the gaps.
6. Keep a variety of spices on hand
Herbs and spices can make the difference between a meal that’s amazing and one that’s just alright. For most people, a meal plan that’s consistently comprised of delicious dishes just might be enough to make the meal planning habit stick.
In addition to being exceptional flavor-enhancers, herbs and spices are loaded with plant compounds that provide a variety of health benefits, such as reduced cellular damage and inflammation. (3)
If you don’t already have a solid stash of dried herbs and spices, just pick up 2 to 3 jars of your favorites each time you go grocery shopping and slowly build a collection.
7. Shop your pantry first
Before you sit down to make your meal plan, take an inventory of what you already have on hand.
Peruse all of your food storage areas, including your pantry, freezer, and refrigerator, and make a note of any specific foods you want or need to use up.
Doing this helps you move through the food you already have, reduce waste, and prevents you from unnecessarily buying the same things over and over again.
8. Designate a place for storing recipes
Avoid the unnecessary frustration of trying to remember recipes by saving them in a designated location that you can easily reference anytime.
This could be in a digital format on your computer, tablet, or cell phone, or a physical location in your house.
Keeping a space set aside for your recipes saves time and helps reduce any potential stress associated with meal planning.
9. Track and record your favorite meals
It can be frustrating to forget a recipe that you or your family really enjoyed.
Or worse — forgetting how much you disliked a recipe, only to make it again and have to suffer through it a second time.
Avoid these culinary predicaments by keeping an ongoing record of your favorite and least favorite meals.
It’s also helpful to keep notes of any edits you made or would like to make to a particular recipe, so you can quickly begin taking your culinary skills from amateur to expert.
10. Always use a grocery list (or shop online)
Going to the grocery store without a list is a good way to waste time and end up buying a lot of things you don’t need.
Having a list helps you stay focused and fight the temptation to buy food you don’t have a plan to use just because it’s on sale.
Depending on where you live, some larger grocery chains offer the option of shopping online and either picking up your groceries at a designated time or having them delivered.
You may be charged a fee for these services, but they can be a great tool for saving time and avoiding the long lines and distracting promotions you’re likely to encounter at the store.
11. Avoid shopping while you’re hungry
Don’t go to the grocery store when you’re hungry, as doing so can increase the risk of impulse buys that you’re likely to regret later.
If you feel a little twinge of hunger before you’re heading to the store, don’t hesitate to have a snack first, even if it’s outside of your typical meal and snack routine.
12. Buy in bulk
Take advantage of the bulk options as a way to save money, buy only the amount you need, and reduce unnecessary packaging waste.
This part of the store is a great place to shop for pantry staples like rice, cereal, quinoa, nuts, seeds, and dried fruit and beans.
Bring your own containers so you don’t have to use any plastic bags to carry your bulk items home.
13. Plan for and repurpose leftovers
If you don’t want to spend time cooking every day of the week, plan to make enough to have leftovers.
Making a few extra servings of whatever you’re cooking for dinner is a great way to have lunch for tomorrow without any extra effort.
If you’re not a fan of leftovers, think about how you can repurpose them so they don’t feel like leftovers.
For example, if you roast a whole chicken with root vegetables for dinner, shred the leftover chicken and use it for tacos, soup, or as a salad topping for lunch the next day.
14. Batch cook
Batch cooking is when you prepare large quantities of individual foods for the purpose of using them in different ways throughout the week. This method is especially useful if you don’t have much time to spend cooking during the week.
Try cooking a big batch of rice or quinoa and roasting a large tray of vegetables, tofu, or meat at the start of the week to use for salads, stir-fries, scrambles, or grain bowls.
You could also make a batch of chicken, tuna, or chickpea salad to use in sandwiches, eat with crackers, or add to salads.
15. Use your freezer
Cooking certain foods or meals in large batches and freezing them for later is a great way to save time, reduce waste, and stretch your food budget — all at the same time.
You can use this method for simple staples like broth, fresh bread, and tomato sauce, or for entire meals, such as lasagna, soup, enchiladas, and breakfast burritos.
16. Pre-package your meals
Pre-packaging your meals into individual containers is an excellent meal prep strategy, especially if you’re trying to consume a specific amount of food.
This method is popular among athletes and fitness enthusiasts who closely track their intake of calories and nutrients. It’s also a great method for promoting weight loss or even just getting ahead when you’re short on time.
To take advantage of this method, prepare a large meal that contains at least 4–6 servings. Portion each serving into an individual container and store them in the refrigerator or freezer. When you’re ready, simply reheat and eat.
17. Wash and prep fruits and vegetables right away
If your goal is to eat more fresh fruits and vegetables, try washing and preparing them as soon as you get home from the farmer’s market or grocery store.
If you open your refrigerator to find a freshly prepared fruit salad or carrot and celery sticks ready for snacking, you’re more likely to reach for those items when you’re hungry.
Anticipating your hunger and setting yourself up with healthy and convenient choices makes it easier to avoid reaching for the bag of potato chips or cookies just because they’re quick and easy.
18. Prep smart, not hard
Don’t be afraid to acknowledge the need to cut corners.
If you’re not great at chopping vegetables or don’t have time to batch cook and pre-portion your meals, there are likely some healthy, prepared options at your local grocery store.
Pre-cut fruits and vegetables or prepared meals are usually more expensive, but if the convenience factor is what it takes to reduce stress in your life or get you to eat more vegetables, it may be well worth it.
Remember, not everyone’s meal planning and preparation processes look the same. Having the wisdom to know when you need to scale back and improve efficiency can help you stick to your goals long term.
19. Use your slow or pressure cooker
Slow and pressure cookers can be lifesavers for meal prep, especially if you don’t have time to stand over a stove.
These tools allow for more freedom and hands-off cooking, so you can meal prep while simultaneously finishing other chores or running errands.
20. Vary your menu
It’s easy to get stuck in a dieting rut and eat the same foods day after day.
At best, your meals can quickly become boring and lead to a loss of culinary inspiration. At worst, the lack of variation could contribute to nutrient deficiencies. (4)
To avoid this, make it a point to try cooking new foods or meals at regular intervals.
If you always choose brown rice, try swapping it for quinoa or barley. If you always eat broccoli, substitute cauliflower, asparagus, or cabbage for a change.
You can also consider letting the seasons change your menu for you. Eating fruits and vegetables that are in season helps you vary your diet and save money at the same time.
Look for new recipes to add a little variety to an otherwise stale weekly plan. A real simple way to do this is to look online. If you have chicken and broccoli on hand, just type “chicken and broccoli” in the search line and a variety of recipes using these two items will pop up complete with pictures! Click on a picture that piques your interest to see the complete recipe.
21. Make it enjoyable
You’re more likely to stick to your new meal planning habit if it’s something you enjoy doing. Instead of thinking of it as something you have to do, try to mentally reframe it as a form of self-care.
If you’re the household chef, consider making meal prep a family affair. Have your family help you chop vegetables or batch cook some soup for the week ahead, so these activities become quality time spent together instead of just another chore.
If you prefer to meal prep solo, throw on your favorite music, a podcast, or an audiobook while you do it. Before long, it may be something you look forward to.
The Bottom Line
Meal planning and preparation is a great way to make healthier meal choices while saving time and money.
Though it may seem overwhelming at first, there are a variety of strategies you can employ to develop a sustainable meal planning habit that works for your unique lifestyle.