Does the question "What’s for dinner?" bring on anxiety? Are you coming home from work in the evening, opening your fridge and staring into the abyss, thinking “What can I make with these ingredients?” Do you realize that you never took out the frozen chicken and don’t want to deal with having to thaw it out? Do you find yourself grabbing take-out more often than you want because it feels easier? 

If any of this resonates with you, meal planning may be your answer. 

What is meal planning? 

Meal planning means planning out your meals for a given time period (usually a week). Creating a meal plan gives you a map on what your week will look like ahead of time, instead of asking daily what you are going to eat. By sitting down to look at the week ahead before you make your grocery list, you can have nutritious meals, save time, and spend less

Meal planning also can help you stay on track for your health goals. When we eat out too often, we tend to increase our caloric intake. Restaurants and fast-food places generally prepare higher caloric meals that have too much added fat, sugar and sodium. In addition, portion sizes tend to be larger compared to home cooking. By making meals at home, you can better control what and how much you're eating. 

How to make a meal plan 

Get started with a meal plan using these steps. 

  • Set aside time before going grocery shopping for the week. If you typically go grocery shopping on Saturday or Sunday, take half an hour on Friday evening for planning meals for the week. 
  • On a sheet of paper or perhaps an erasable whiteboard, write down the days of the week. If you know there's an obligation that will make it difficult for you to cook that evening, such as work or a child's sporting event, make a note on your meal plan. These are days that would be good for crock pot or sheet pan meals, or to schedule as leftover nights. 
  • Identify which days you plan on eating at home, and which days you might want to cook. It's important to remember that you do not have to cook seven meals in one week. You can commit to cooking a limited number of meals, then plan for leftovers, and a night out. Keep it as simple as possible, especially when starting out with meal planning. 
  • Review recipes that you have or want to make and write down the ingredients on your shopping list. Add the everyday staples that you may need to restock (milk, cereal, bread, etc.). You can assign the recipes to specific days on your meal plan sheet if you'd like—it can be helpful to note if you need to defrost something in advance or plan a recipe with more steps or preparation on a day when you know you'll have more time. 
  • Check your fridge and pantry for any items on your shopping list—if you already have enough to make your recipes, you don't need to buy more. 
  • Go grocery shopping, check off your items, and then stock your cabinets at home. 
  • If you know time during the week is going to be a challenge, you can do some prep work on the weekends—chopping vegetables and roasting them, for example, or preparing a sauce for a dish. 

Repurposing leftovers in meal planning 

Sometimes you don't want to eat the same thing two days in a row. Or you'll find a recipe didn't use the entire container of one ingredient. You can get creative with repurposing your leftovers into new meals and reduce food waste all in one go. Have left over roast chicken? Add it to some quick-cooking rice and frozen vegetables for a variation on fried rice. Did a recipe leave you with some leftover yogurt? Use it as a topping on baked oatmeal or granola

An example of a meal plan 

Sunday: Minestrone soup with sourdough bread 

Monday: Baked chicken, roasted potatoes and roasted broccoli 

Tuesday: Tacos made with ground turkey, brown rice and black beans 

Wednesday: Leftover minestrone soup 

Thursday: Whole grain pasta with roasted chicken and broccoli (using Monday’s leftovers) 

Friday: Homemade pizza using store-bought dough, side salad 

Saturday: Night out! 

Meal planning made even easier 

There are several websites and apps out there that can help with meal planning, whether you're just getting started or have been doing it for years. Here are some of my favorites as a registered dietitian. 

  • MeaLime is a website or app (with free and paid options) that allows users to choose which kind of meal plan they want (classic, flexitarian, vegetarian, etc.) and build weekly plans from a wide range of recipes within each category. The program will then generate a shopping list for you. 
  • The Real Food Dietitians have pre-set meal plans that you can download, featuring recipes that they've developed and are well-balanced. They have some based on seasonality, which can help you save money and ensure freshness, as well as two- or four-week plans. 
  • Skinny Taste creates new meal plans every week, and has hundreds to choose from currently. Each meal plan page has a printable meal plan sheet and grocery list, with links to the recipes. 

There's a lot you can do on your own to get started with meal planning. If you have specific health goals in mind and find that you need extra help, a registered dietitian can help you work toward your goals. At the Lifespan Lifestyle Medicine Center, we have registered dietitians on staff that work with patients to create healthy behaviors that improve health and quality of life.

Sheridan Stringer, RD

Sheridan Stringer, RD, CSOWM, LDN, CDOE

Sheridan Stringer, RD, CSOWM, LDN, CDOE is a registered dietitian with the Lifespan Lifestyle Medicine Center.