Tips For Meal Planning and Prep
By Amy Crum, MS, RD, LD
October 11, 2023
It’s often said that September is the new January. Even if you don’t have young children, the start of the fall often brings a new energy for accomplishing goals and resolutions. If healthy eating is something you have struggled with over the summer, the change in seasons could be a great time to work on some new habits. Now that we are a month in to our new fall routines, perhaps we can focus more of our attention on healthy eating goals.
Many of my clients say they enjoy eating healthy and balanced meals, but when the food isn’t easily available for them, they get off track. Often people think they need to spend a whole day every week prepping meals, and that can be a daunting task. If that works for you, great! But meal planning doesn’t have to be complicated. Let’s use that fall energy to get healthy foods back in your house, and ready to eat. Here are some tips and tricks I use myself as well as what I share with my clients in counseling sessions and students in class:
Have you found that everything in your week goes more smoothly when it’s written down and planned ahead of time? The same is true for your meals. Take a look at what activities you have coming up for the week, and then you can plan the types of meals that need to be ready:
- If it’s a busy evening, plan for a crockpot meal that will be ready when you get home.
- If you will be home, but won’t have a lot of time to cook, try a sheet pan meal.
- If you have time and space to chop and cook, double or triple a batch of your favorite dish. This is a great opportunity to make a recipe that’s more involved, if that’s something you enjoy doing with your time.
Any time that can be spent ahead on prep, makes the rest of the week go more smoothly. Check the fridge, pantry, and freezer to see what food you already have in the house, and base meals off of that. Once you’ve come up with a plan for meals throughout the week, don’t throw the list away! Save the list and you can recreate the same meals in the future. No one will remember they’re eating the same meals, and it will save you a whole week of planning. Overtime, you’ll have your own mapped out meal plans, which will make your planning phase easier for future weeks.
If you’re new to planning and feel overwhelmed by the process or are short on time, decide what meals would be most helpful to have ready to go for the week. Which meal is the hardest to get your balance of healthy protein, fat, and carb? Make that meal be your priority for prepping ahead. A good place to start is planning an easy breakfast, and a few dinners with leftovers for lunches the next day.
Sometimes the hardest part of eating is just getting the food in your house. Think about what works best for your season of life. Some people do well having a set time and day of the week they do their grocery shopping. A routine can be a great way to make sure you get to the store. If you’re someone who often runs out of time to get groceries, many stores offer grocery pick up or delivery for free or for a small fee. Many grocery stores have pre-chopped produce and pre-cooked proteins to help you throw meals together quickly when you need shortcuts, so use this convenience to your advantage!
Prepping a few simple foods at the beginning of the week can make a big impact on your health throughout the week. Starting small means you don’t always have to prep full whole meals. Instead think about the parts of your meals that you are always running low on or struggling to include and focusing on prepping those meal components.
For many people, having a good quality protein can be difficult to have readily available. If that’s the case, maybe filling the grill over the weekend would be a good option to make sure you don’t run out of meat throughout the week. Are vegetables difficult for you? Veggie bags are one of my favorite things to prep ahead. I fill up about seven bags of raw vegetables at the beginning of the week. I usually eat them for a snack or put them on top of a greens for a delicious salad that takes very little time. I also like to roast a big pan of vegetables at the beginning of the week. They’re the perfect addition to eggs in the morning or as a side with lunch or dinner.
Let your appliances work for you
If I’m going to be home, I like to think about what appliances can be cooking for me while I’m busy doing other things. I use my Instant Pot to cook hard boiled eggs. If I make a batch at the beginning of the week, I know I’ll always have a protein source readily available as a snack or to add to a salad. Years ago, I talked a friend into getting a slow cooker, and she told me it was like she had a personal chef that cooked all day for her while she was gone. I love to use my slow cooker for soups and stews in the winter, but also love it in the summer to make a pot roast or chicken drummies to have throughout the week. Our egg bake recipe doesn’t take a lot of time to prep and, once it’s in the oven, you’re free to work on something else.
Make sure to write down your meal options in a place that’s easy to see. If you have the list on your refrigerator, you won’t forget what you have available when hunger strikes. Labeling foods prepped in your fridge or freezer with a date can help you remember what you have already ready to go. Investing in some clear class containers, mason jars, or lunch containers with sections can make the prepping process easier. If you’re using food containers that you like (and aren’t spending time searching for the correct tops), it makes everything smoother and more enjoyable.
Top Tips For Meal Planning:
- Sketch out a plan
- Schedule in your grocery shopping (or when you’ll pick up your grocery order)
- Start small by focusing on meal components or the meal of the day that’s the trickiest
- Let your appliances work for you (crockpot, instant pot, oven for the win!)
- Display the options and keep the food visible
Once you’ve got your system and plan in place, what to prep?? The important thing is finding recipes you love and food that will keep you satisfied, satiated, and checks the boxes for your health goals (remember we’re all about eating in balance with a protein, healthy fat, and real food carbohydrates!). Below are some ideas of things you can make to get your week started well, depending on what meal you’re focusing on:
Many people say they don’t like eating breakfast, but often, as I talk to them more, it turns out they just don’t like cooking breakfast. Or they don’t have time to cook breakfast in the morning! Try having a couple of breakfast options ready to go. An egg bake is one of our favorites, but crustless quiche and frittatas are also good options to switch it up. Is a protein shake your go-to? Try making one big batch and freezing individual servings for the week. If you put them in the refrigerator the day before, they’ll be ready for an easy breakfast the next day. If you’re not an egg person, how about cooking up a big batch of turkey breakfast sausage or some ground meat to make a breakfast bowl with roasted veggies? Leftover dinner is also an option for breakfast (especially if you’re not eating it for lunch). Heat up that bowl of chili to have with your morning coffee.
Leftovers are always my favorite for lunch. If that’s not an option, I like to make a batch of a recipe that I’m excited about and eat individual portions throughout the week. Egg Roll In A Bowl, Kung Pao Chicken, and Coconut Mango Chicken are a few recipes that I can make once and eat all week. I also love a salad that’s quick and easy. I buy a clamshell of greens at the beginning of the week, add cooked meat from the grill or crockpot, and top with homemade salad dressings, nuts, seeds, avocadoes, or olives. I often look at recipes from restaurants that have my favorite salads and recreate them with my own healthier ingredients. Switching up the dressings and toppings can be a way to keep salads exciting so you don’t get bored by Friday.
The possibilities are endless for dinner. Having all the options sometimes makes the decision of what to eat that much harder! A “meal matrix” has been a tool that has helped me when I run out of ideas for what to cook. This strategy is about making a plan for a theme for each day of the week to take away some of the decision fatigue associated with meal planning. At my house, Monday is typically Bowls. Anything that is usually served on a bun is often even better on top of vegetables and will keep your blood sugar in control because you’re skipping that extra carbohydrate. A hamburger bowl with ground beef on top of lettuce, tomato, onion, pickles and cheese is a crowd pleaser. A chicken bowl with Asian Salmon on top of cooked veggies and cauliflower rice is one of my favorites. Taco Tuesday becomes a balanced option when you put your favorite taco or fajita meat on top of a salad. Wednesdays are usually a crockpot night at my house and Thursdays I alternate between different Sheet Pan Recipes. If Friday is usually pizza night, try Meat and Veggie Sheet Pan "Pizza" for the flavors of pizza without the blood sugar spike.
These are often forgotten about when we think about meal prep, but having snacks prepped ahead of time makes healthy choices easier. Try making Peanut Butter Protein Balls or Blueberry Oat Muffins to have on hand. Crispy Nuts along with Veggie Dip and raw veggies is a delicious option. Chia pudding is great to have ready for an evening snack.
Meal Prep Menu Ideas Plus a Fall Challenge
One way to spice up your weeks is to throw in a new recipe to your rotation. And one way to easily change your habits is to swap in healthier items and recipes to your repertoire. There are 11ish weeks left in the year, our challenge to you is to try making one new recipe a week from the list below (or mentioned in this article)!
Here are some of the things I make for my family and ones I’m recommending to my clients:
- Deviled Eggs
- Raw vegetables in bags to eat for snacks (think carrots, tomatoes, bell peppers, cucumbers)
- Roasted vegetables (great for adding to a salad, throwing into eggs, eating as a side, or tossing into a soup)
- Meat on the grill or pot roast in the crockpot
- Instant Pot Garlic Herb Chicken (easy bulk protein and can swap Italian seasoning for other spice blends to mix it up)
- Egg Bake or Crustless Quiche
- Wild Rice Meatballs (great to have as a meal or snack and they freeze well)
- Bulk Protein Shakes (put portions in the freezer and pull out the night before to thaw in the fridge)
- Chili (great for dinner and then lunches the next day!)
- Spicy Coconut Stew
- Homemade Salad Dressing (4 different flavor profiles to choose from for variety)
- Sheet Pan Fajitas (have two racks in your oven? Throw in two sheet pans at once for lunches)
- Meatloaf (add Meatloaf Monday to your meal matrix!)
- Oatmeal Almond Balls (great for snacks)
- Pumpkin Muffins
Make Meal Planning Work FOR You
Just like health isn’t a one-sized-fits-all plan, meal planning and prep isn’t one-sized-fits-all. There’s no right or wrong and the way you do it now might not work in a different season of your life. One principle to walk away with: a small amount of time prepping meals at the beginning of the week can save you lots of time and money throughout the week. Try spending at least an hour getting foods ready and see the impact it can make. If you need help problem-solving obstacles or coming up with a customized plan for your everyday schedule, I can help you! Set up a nutrition counseling appointment or sign up for our nutrition classes or one of our virtual cooking class demonstrations. Happy planning and prepping!
For more ideas on what to eat, check out these articles: