How to Meal Plan: A Beginner’s Guide

How to meal plan

Verywell / Amelia Manley

Meal planning may help you to avoid the proverbial question of “what's for dinner” and keep you on track, no matter what your nutrition goal is. Meal planning is an excellent way to counteract time scarcity, and encourage preparing your own meals at home.

Home meal preparation is associated with better diet quality, more nutrient variety, and improved efforts for healthy weight balance. Keep reading for more on how to meal plan.

What is Meal Planning?

Meal planning is the act of deciding what you will eat for the next few days. This could be every meal and snack, or some meals, such as only work lunches, or only evening meals.

Meal planning has multiple benefits. It can:

  • Save Time: Planning ahead can give you a better chance of saving time deciding what to eat and how to make it, or needing to run out for a few groceries. This can save you a lot of time over the course of the week.
  • Save Money: You can also save a lot of money by meal planning since it can lead to reduced food waste, less chance of relying on takeout, and only buying what you need at the grocery store. Fewer trips to the store could save you time and money on travel as well.
  • Improve Health: Research shows that meal planning increases the variety of foods you eat, which could lead to a wider range of nutrients in your diet. It's also shown to help with healthy weight balance and more nutritious meals.

Studies show those who meal plan have higher intakes of fruits, vegetables, fiber, folate, and vitamin A, and lower intakes of unhealthy fats.

3 Steps for Optimal Meal Planning

Meal planning doesn’t need to be complicated or require a big time investment. Any time you invest in meal planning will pay off over the week when you consider the time saved shopping, figuring out what to eat, and other factors that eat up time little by little.

It's wise to consider your individual nutrition needs and goals, as well as the budget and time constraints you may have when meal planning. Factoring these matters in will ensure you can take full advantage of the benefits meal planning offers. Here are three simple steps to take for optimal meal planning.

1) Select Recipes or Basic Meal Constructs

The first step is to look for recipes or choose basic ingredients and meal types that you can put together easily. Which way you go depends on your time and cooking experience. You may also want to consider the groceries you already have on hand so you use them up and nothing goes to waste.

You can choose quick and easy meals for work days and more involved and complex recipes for the weekend, for instance. You could even plan to make larger meals on the weekend that will provide leftovers for a few days during the week, saving even more time and money.

Quick Meals with Grain Bowls or Salads

Choosing a protein, grain or greens base, veggies, beans, a dressing or sauce, cheese, and some herbs, allows you to mix and match for tasty and nutritious bowls and salads. One example: Brown rice, roasted chicken, pumpkin seeds, cucumber, feta, pomegranate arils, chickpeas, and tahini sauce. For a salad, replace the rice with fresh greens.

2) Make a Shopping List & Shop for Ingredients

Next, make a shopping list that includes all the ingredients you'll need to make the meals you've decided on. It's best to start by taking a quick stock of the staples and foods you already have on hand to see if you already have them or need to re-stock them.

This is an excellent time to write down quantities of everything you need and factor in what you already may have so you don't accidentally under or over-buy. Keep in mind that if you already have a grain like brown rice, but a recipe calls for quinoa, you can often make substitutions instead of needing to buy extra items.

Grocery List Ideas

  • Whole grains like brown rice and quinoa
  • Greens and lettuce
  • Beans such as chickpeas and lentils
  • Crunchy veggies like grape tomatoes, cucumbers, carrots
  • Nuts and seeds
  • Fresh herbs
  • Cheese
  • Lean proteins such as chicken breast, sirloin steak, tofu
  • Veggies for cooking like sweet potatoes, asparagus, green beans
  • Fruit, such as berries, apples, bananas, melons, grapes
  • Dressings and sauces
  • Canned goods such as tomato sauce, broth, beans
  • Staples such as dried herbs and spices, soy sauce, oils, and vinegar

3) Prepare Meals

Depending on the types of meals you have planned and your time constraints, you could batch cook some meals or meal components or decide to make dishes daily. If you can set aside a few hours for batch cooking, you'll save time over the week.

If making several entire meals at once is too daunting, you can prep meal components ahead of time instead. For example, cook proteins, grains, and veggies in batches, perhaps with different herbs and spices. You can also cut up and store some of the components of meals for faster prep when the time comes to create your dish and eat it.

How to Make Meal Planning a Habit 

To turn meal planning into a habit, schedule it into your routine. After you've accomplished one week of meal planning, you'll likely need another big grocery shopping trip or delivery. Just repeat the three-step process and continue your routine until it becomes second nature.

After a couple of weeks, you will likely see what is working for you and what isn't. If you start simple in your first week or two, you can branch out with more involved or creative recipes, or even begin to include more meals and snacks into your planning and prep.

It's also wise to make sure you have everything you need to make meal planning and prep easy. You'll want enough food storage containers to store your prepped and cooked foods, as well as any staples you'll keep in your fridge and cupboards. Other items to consider are meal planning worksheets or lists and labels for your meals or meal planning apps that can make the process easier.

A Word From Verywell

Meal planning is an investment in your health that can save you time and money. When first starting, keeping it simple and building on your routine to create a habit will help you continue the practice for the long term. If you have any special dietary needs and are concerned about planning your meals, or don't know how much to eat for your goals, speak to a registered dietician or nutrition expert.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Can I meal plan for 3 meals a day?

    You can meal plan for any number of days you choose, including 3 days. Many pre-prepared meals last about 3 days in the fridge, so that's a good number to start with. You can then plan for another 3 days, if you choose.

  • What’s the difference between meal planning and meal prep?

    Meal planning is the act of deciding what meals you will eat for however many days you choose as well as creating a grocery list and plan of action. Meal prep involves the actual preparation of the meals when you are chopping, cooking, and plating or storing food.

  • How long can prepped meals last in the fridge?

    How long prepped meals last in the fridge depends on the ingredients and how they are stored. Meals in airtight containers can last 3 or more days (up to 7 depending on ingredients and storage.

1 Source
Verywell Fit uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Ducrot P, Méjean C, Aroumougame V, et al. Meal planning is associated with food variety, diet quality and body weight status in a large sample of French adults. Int J Behav Nutr Phys Act. 2017;14(1):12. doi:10.1186/s12966-017-0461-7

By Rachel MacPherson, BA, CPT
Rachel MacPherson is a health writer, certified personal trainer, and exercise nutrition coach based in Montreal.