Meal Planning

Meal Planning 101: Expert Tips from a Registered Dietitian

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“What’s for dinner?” (whether this comes from your children, your partner, or even yourself) is the dreaded question that has to be answered every night, and unless you have an answer, it can feel daunting. To make your evenings smoother and help avoid extra stress and anxiety after a long day, you might consider meal planning. Meal planning is the process of planning your meals in advance in order to best suit your schedule and preferences. It can take the guesswork out of meals (especially on those busy days!), and it can help reduce your visits to the grocery store, ultimately saving you money and time. It can help you prioritize your health and nutrition goals and make you feel organized and accomplished! And, it allows you to take into account your busy schedule, your preferences, sale items, and foods you might already have on hand. Another bonus is that meal planning is a great way to involve your kids and family. Keep reading for some tips for making meal planning work for you! 

Decide which day works best to take 15-30 minutes to take an inventory of what you have on hand

Maybe you have some fresh produce that needs to be used up before it goes bad, perhaps you have some frozen chicken, etc…come up with ideas based on what you have on hand.

Think of and write down some meals for the week

Ask your partner and/or children for their input. Perhaps they have a favorite meal that you haven’t made in a long time that they would love to have. One thing we’ve done in our house to involve the kids is to write down a list of meals that we tend to rotate through, cut them up into strips, and put them in a baggy. The kids then get to “draw” from the baggy, and what they choose is what we will incorporate into our week. We include both our favorites and their favorites, as well as less complicated and more complicated meals. The meals chosen for that week will go into a “used” baggy so that we are not consistently having repeats.

Review your schedule for the week and times that you will cook (or prep ahead of time), and look for recipes if you need to

Maybe you can make a spinach and tomato quiche for the week on Sunday afternoons, or you can wash and cut up some veggies for grab-n-go snacks throughout the week, or a stir-fry that you have planned. If you have late meetings on Wednesdays or your kiddo has a practice that they need to be at, consider planning a crockpot meal and get it going before leaving for work. Life is great when you come home to a ready-to-eat meal!

Make your grocery list

Take a look at your meal ideas and recipes, keeping in mind items that you already have on hand, and make a list of what you need at the grocery store. Consider grouping your items together to avoid walking back and forth multiple times between sections of the grocery store. For example: Produce (fresh fruits/veggies), Meat/Seafood, Fridge/Freezer (milk, cheese, yogurt, eggs, frozen veggies), Dry/canned goods (brown rice, pasta, bread, tuna).

Go shopping and stock your fridge and pantry for the week

Consider writing down your meals for the week where you (and your family) can see them. A chalkboard, a white board, or even just a list on the refrigerator works well. If something comes up and you’re unable to have one of the meals you have planned, that’s ok! Now you have the ingredients to make that meal for the next day or upcoming week.

Need some inspiration?

  • Get back to your roots – Plan to have a traditional meal at least once a week. Was there a favorite dish that your parents or grandparents used to make? 
  • Taco Tuesday anyone? – Tacos are so versatile – pork carnitas, beef, chicken, fish, vegetarian – add different toppings to make them exciting like a red cabbage slaw, guacamole, or perhaps a mango or pineapple salsa; consider using soft tortillas, hard shells, using lettuce bowls instead of a tortilla, or making it into a salad
  • Add soups and stews to the rotation during the fall/winter (or anytime!) – these can be made in an instant pot or slow cooker. Having soups/stews/chilis is a wonderful way to have both balance and warmth in one bowl.
  • Don’t forget about salads! Build those salads to include plenty of high fiber veggies, good protein sources, some healthy carbohydrates, and healthy fats to round it out
  • Sandwiches and wraps are nice options for nights that you are running kids to and from practice, or maybe when you just don’t feel like making a more involved meal. This can include grilled chicken sandwiches and hamburgers, too, if you have more time! Pair with some fresh veggies with a favorite dip, a fresh fruit salad, or some homemade sweet potato fries. 
  • How about a power bowl? Combine your favorite grain with some protein, plenty of colorful veggies, and finish it off with a drizzle of tasty sauce and crunchy garnish on top 
  • Breakfast for dinner – why not? Be sure to keep balance in mind by including protein and produce with this meal. 
  • Plan for a leftover or “FFY – Fend For Yourself” night each week. With all these wonderful meals you are making, there are bound to be leftovers. If you don’t have leftovers, quesadillas, scrambled eggs with veggies, or sandwiches are simple yet nutritious meals that can be put together when there is no “plan”.

Written by meal planning expert and Certified Leap Therapist, Mandy Rodriguez RD, CLT