AKA, How to Meal Plan Without It Taking Over Your Life
I have been doing some combination of meal prepping and/or planning for a long time. When I first moved out on my own after college, I did a super intensive once-weekly meal prep where almost every meal was accounted for (breakfast, lunch, dinner, plus snacks). Later, I scaled back to just prepping one or two meals per day. I’ve also experimented with just prepping interchangeable parts of a meal – such as a bunch of grilled protein and roasted veggies. Having a few staples on hand made for quick and easy (and versatile) meal assembly throughout the week. Each of these has worked really well for me at different points in my life – however, these days I tend to favor a much more flexible approach.
The purpose of this post is to show you that there is not just *one* way to meal prep or plan, that it should ultimately fit YOU and YOUR life, and that there are a lot of old ideas of what meal prepping and planning are or should be. For instance, you can meal plan and prep, and it can have nothing to do with a “diet”. It also doesn’t have to be super rigid and mean you can “only” eat the foods you’ve planned and/or prepped.
Every week on my Instagram page, I share the week of dinners I have planned for us. (You can follow me here, if you don’t already!) I save past weeks on my story highlights tab titled “Weekly Meals”, so you can scroll back through for inspiration. I share what we eat each week because I know others are looking for meal planning inspiration, and I hope it encourages you to be more creative (and have more fun) in your own kitchens. I also get great feedback every time I post these – and recently I’ve been asked to share exactly how we meal plan and prep on a week-to-week basis, broken down into simple-stupid steps.
Why do I meal plan?
- I love filling our home with healthy, nourishing food. We feel better when we eat well, our runs and workouts go better when we eat well, we get sick less, we sleep better. And as you probably know, eating healthy takes a little bit of work and thinking ahead to make happen.
- Healthy food is not cheap, and wasting food sucks. Meal planning has helped us reduce a lot of food waste. Each of the veggies we buy has a purpose, and we no longer get to the end of the week with all of this kale in the fridge we never used. (Who can relate?) We’re not perfect – but the amount we throw out at the end of the week has definitely gotten better.
- It helps keep me accountable for cooking. My rule: If a meal doesn’t really excite me, I don’t put it on the menu. I purposefully choose meals that sound really fun and that I know we’re going to enjoy eating. It’s nice having a fun dinner to look forward to at the end of each day, and having it decided ahead of time makes it more likely to happen. We’re less likely to cave at the last minute and order take-out.
- It saves money, and means less time at the grocery store! You can create your meal plan around your budget (i.e., plan for less steak, fish, specialty items, etc. if you’re trying to cut back on your grocery bill). Having a plan also means you’re not going to buy a ton of food you don’t need, and that you know exactly what you’re going to do with all of the food you do buy. It also means you’re not going to have to make a ton of grocery trips throughout the week (because, surprise, you’re out of x or y). Basically – everything gets streamlined, and meal times become a lot less stress for you.
How to make meal planning and prepping work for YOU
Without further ado, here is, step-by-step, how we’ve gone about planning and prepping our meals.
1. Decide how much time you have/want to spend on planning, prepping, and cooking throughout the week.
What is realistic for you and your lifestyle? Are your weekdays jam-packed, with no or little time to cook? Is cooking something you enjoy, or hate? How much of your time do you spend out of the house, vs. in the house? All of these things might determine what your meal planning needs are, and what your time commitment for planning may look like. No matter what: Create a routine for when and how you’ll meal prep and plan, and aim to keep this as consistent as possible.
For us: We’re both working in the home right now (#quarantinelife), so we don’t need any meals packed right now. If we did, we might need some more prep work to go into lunches. Personally, I enjoy and look forward to cooking dinner every right, and I don’t really want to spend a big chunk of my Sunday meal prepping for the whole week. All of this factors into my needs and time commitment for meal prepping.
2. Decide which (if any) meals you want to prep ahead of time – OR if you want to just prep pieces of a meal.
What meals (if any) make the most sense to plan ahead? Are there any meal times you struggle with? Do you like a lot of variation in your weekly meals – or not so much?
You can plan and prep every single meal of every single day, do a giant batch cook over the weekend, and utilize individual meal prep containers so everything is grab-and-go. This way, everything is cooked ahead of time, and there’s no guesswork in “What am I going to eat?” or “Do we have enough food in the house?” Alternatively, you can pick a few key meals, and/or take a more flexible approach – say, making a week of oatmeal cups for easy breakfasts, and prepping a bunch of grilled chicken and chopped veggies for easy-to-assemble lunch salads.
For us: a healthy, homecooked dinner *most* nights of the week is the cornerstone of our food philosophy. We typically eat the same two or three things for breakfast every day, and lunch might be a hodgepodge or something that varies. But even on a crazy day where we maybe didn’t eat our best, and lunch was cereal shoveled in over the sink (ha!), a hot, homecooked dinner is a ritual we can come back to and feel good about. So right now we focus on planning mainly for that meal. Because we’re working from the home and don’t need whole meals prepped ahead of time, I only prep a few ingredients each week to make our lives easier. (i.e., cut-up veggies and a protein for lunch salads or wraps. And usually a healthy snack to have on hand for the afternoons or dessert.) That’s what works for us right now, but all of this might change when Ryan goes back to working in the office, we have more kids down the road and their schedules get busier, etc.!
3. Source recipes/meal ideas.
I’m constantly saving recipes (or recipe inspiration) I find that I like. I do this in a couple different ways. I read a lot of food blogs, so recipes I find there that I like I’ll save via Pinterest. Occasionally I’ll browse on Pinterest. And I follow a lot of food bloggers/health and fitness pros on Instagram who post recipes – which I’ll bookmark directly into folders on Instagram. Lastly, I have a whole bookshelf in our dining room devoted to my favorite cookbooks – with recipes I want to make flagged or Post-It’d. Step three in meal planning is combing through some or all of these places and seeing what sounds appealing, fun, and interesting for the coming week!
I don’t search until I find seven recipes I love and want to make. I’ll maybe find three or four. From there I’ll “fill in the gaps” with easy, go-to recipes of my own (like a stir-fry, which needs no recipe… or if we want to a homemade pizza night, we have certain combos we like to do there). Sometimes the simple meals end up being our favorites, and you really don’t need to overcomplicate things. However, I do find it fun to have a few concrete recipes to utilize each week.
4. Create your weekly meal plan, and grocery list.
The next step is putting it all together. Make sure each meal you want to account for is accounted for, and that you have a plan for all of your ‘difficult meals’ (if you struggle to put together a good breakfast, for example). If we’ve been wanting to do take-out from a special restaurant, we designate one day of the week our take-out day and won’t buy food for that day. This helps reduce food waste and surprises. Knowing we’re doing take-out on a certain day also helps us resist the temptation to do take-out whenever we feel like it. (Which is something that got out of hand at one point during quarantine… 🤪)
Here is a sample of this week’s meals.
5. Grocery shop.
Once you have your week of meals, you can create your grocery list. Again, having a plan makes for so much more time-efficient (and cost-efficient) grocery trips, with fewer surprises.
Lastly, you execute. If you’re doing any meal prep for the week ahead of time, you do that. I find it helpful to have a single day of the week as a meal planning, fridge clean-out, and grocery shop day, and then a separate day of the week for prepping/batch cooking any foods ahead of time. It can feel less overwhelming this way than having to carve out a huge chunk of one day to doing all of this.
No matter what – remember that meal prep doesn’t have to be all-or-nothing. Even if your goal is to prep two meals ahead of time, but you’re only able to get to one, you’re still making your life a lot easier and doing great work. Some weeks I have really ambitious goals for the food I want to prep ahead of time, and it just doesn’t happen. Things ebb and flow, which is why making planning just that one meal per week (dinners) has been so helpful for us. We know that – at the least – we have a great plan for our dinner each night, and that that meal is going to be packed with veggies, protein, and some kind of healthy carb.
Some recent meals we’ve made
From clockwise: Chicken and veggie tray bake, taco quinoa salad, chicken sausage, veggie, and sweet potato hash, sticky sesame chicken meatballs over brown rice with broccoli, strawberry chicken salad lettuce cups.
Meal planning around different food preferences and dietary restrictions
As someone who has food allergies, I’ve become well-adept at meal planning around different food restrictions. I have to eat gluten- and dairy-free, which means that for the most part, everyone who eats at our house ends up eating gluten- and dairy-free. I’ve never had anyone complain. If you just focus on making really good food with fresh ingredients, and you don’t call out that it doesn’t contain x, most likely people won’t even notice.
Another option for satisfying food allergies and/or different food preferences – try choosing meals that can be easily customizable. This works great for picky eaters. A few examples: build-your-own tacos, pasta bar night, homemade personal pizzas (with different topping options), or tray bakes where, say, half of the lasagna contains meat, and half is just plain cheese. Make it fun, get your kids/guests/significant others involved, and give them control over what they do or don’t want in their meals. It’ll make mealtime less of a stress for everyone.