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Meal Planning Guide | How to organize your meals and improve your diet

In this fast world, when no one seems to have time for structured meals, meal planning might not seem a necessity, but it is exactly due to our fast lives, and our limited time to take care of our health, where meal planning comes in action, making sure we remain as healthy and fit as possible. For instance, if you want to eliminate the stress of wondering what to cook next, especially if you do it for a large family, with difficult eaters or people with dietary restrictions, menu planning will definitely improve your life.



  1. How to pick the right recipe?
  2. How to begin meal planning?
  3. Essential items to have on hand
  4. Make a grocery list
  5. Why plan meals ahead of time?

How to pick the right recipe?

Meal planning means, first of all, creating a well-thought eating plan by choosing the right recipes. Don’t just use a random set of recipes, but think them through, a couple of days earlier than when you actually want to start, making it easier to prepare a shopping list, shop, and then actually prepare the dishes.

Decide how many meals to plan for and what they need to do.

Five nights is the most common number of days that people cook dinner at home, but in most cases, three is the best they can actually do. Take a look at the calendar beforehand and decide what works best for your schedule. For example:

  • Think about the leftovers – they are truly helpful a few days later. Choosing recipes that will last you for more days means you don’t have to cook every day and you can repurpose the main elements in different combinations
  • Mix the old and the new. Always keep close a list of recipes you know by heart and your family loves; the ones that you could eat over and over again
  • Spend some time to cook the perfect recipe for you. Sometimes it might seem like a recipe will take too long to make, but it’s usually worth it if is something you can’t wait to try but never find the right time
  • Common, simple and healthy ingredients are your friend. Think about what you already have in the kitchen, and start from there – this is the easiest and fastest way to start. That way you also avoid wasting food and saving some extra money, a very beneficial effect of any good meal plan.

meal planning breakfast

Photo by Brenda Godinez

How to begin meal planning?

Just grab a pen and a piece of paper and you’re good to go. Here are some good extra tips:

Plan ahead, but not too far ahead as well

Shopping and planning for a week in advance works best in most cases and for most people, but there are, of course, some exceptions. It’s essential to always keep in mind how many meals you will eat at home until your next meal planning and shopping trip. It’s important to know exactly what you want to buy before entering the grocery store, even when you shop every single day.

Shop from your fridge and cupboards first

Don’t forget about every single item you already have in the fridge, freezer or cupboard – you want to save some money and make use of ingredients you already have at home. Create your meal plan based on what food will waste quicker, and then add the rest of the ingredients to your list. You can keep track of your food by keeping an inventory list on hand. This way you won’t forget about that extra food that’s waiting for you deep in the freezer.

Plan your menu around your weekly activities

Here are three rules: be realistic about your menu, take your schedule into consideration and don’t forget how busy you are every day. Will you actually feel like making that tedious veggie roast on Wednesday night? Maybe you should consider a lighter, quicker meal – this way of thinking will work better for any busy night, and the creative recipes can be kept for when you actually have the time and enthusiasm to enjoy making them.

Plan a leftovers night

Each week, make a special, dedicated day of eating leftovers. These can also be used as lunch portions for the next day – take them with you at school or work for an easy and fast meal. If you don’t want to cook every day, combining meal planning with meal prepping can be a very helpful practice to save a lot of your time and energy.

Use your menu plan to make a shopping list

There is a balance that needs to be kept between running low on essential items and waiting for them to get spoiled (especially when you have fresh items in your kitchen), so it’s best to also include fixed quantities on your shopping list. This will help you remember how much of each ingredient you need and also how many meals will you use them for.

Place your menu plan on your fridge

The menu plan should be placed somewhere where everybody can see it. That way, no family member will start picking up extras that aren’t in the plan, which is a great way to stay organized and save some money in an efficient way!

meal planning how to

Photo by Brooke Lark

Essential items to have on hand

  • Olive oil is a universal and vital ingredient for making basic vinaigrettes, roasting veggies, or pouring over healthy salads.
  • White wine vinegar is mild and very good for that finishing touch in any rich sauce. You can also use it as a fresh base for vinaigrettes, or even deglazing your dirty pan.
  • Kosher salt is also an essential item to keep on hand. It’s best to stick to one brand, so it becomes something familiar for you just like using ground black pepper or whole peppercorns.
  • Keeping certain vegetables for soup, sauces, casseroles, skillet dinners etc. helps you with the planning
  • Rice should always be present in the kitchen at all times and in enough quantities, since it makes a simple side, paired with a delicious veggie stir-fry or a quick skillet dinner. And who doesn’t love a big bowl of saucy pasta or spicy noodles? Make sure to always have them around!
  • Wholesome and protein-packed canned or even dried beans and lentils can turn any salad into a full meal by adding some very welcomed protein! They can also be used for curry or soup, and many other fast and easy recipes.
  • Last but not least, coconut milk helps you create delicious creamy soups and stews or spiced curries.

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Make a grocery list

And now let’s get to the grocery list. After making a list of all the ingredients you need, you should transform that into an effective grocery list. It may seem complicated at first, but you shouldn’t worry because it’s easier than you think. You’ll see that after you do this once, you’ll pretty much master this type of art. I advise you to follow the next steps and I assure you will never buy another bag of shredded cheese when you already have another one in the fridge!

#1 Make a master ingredient list

Attention, this is not the same as the grocery list you’ll take with you to the shop, but it’s the first step that leads to a really good one. The ingredient list is also very helpful if you want to maintain an essential inventory of what you have in your kitchen. Starting from the recipes, find out about each of the ingredients you need, and then go and see if you already have some of them in your own kitchen. Only afterwards you can start creating the complete grocery list.

#2 Make the actual grocery list

Take a look and see all the ingredients you need but don’t have, but don’t just put them on a simple list! Organize them on categories for a more efficient shopping – this will save you a lot of time and energy! The categories should be based on the departments you will actually find in the grocery store. If you want to take it a step further, you can also think about the order you will buy them in. Rule: frozen section always comes at the end!

The more organized you are, the better your shopping experience will be at the grocery store. I also advise you to have a healthy snack or at least grab a bite before going shopping – this way you won’t be tempted to buy things you don’t need! Plus, remember to pack reusable bags. Take your time and remove the obstacles that could rush your grocery trip beforehand, so you can enjoy it and not be stressed the entire time!

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Why plan meals ahead of time?

meal planning lunch

Photo by Alison Marras 

A menu plan saves money

Knowing what you want to buy beforehand will help you reduce the number of times you have to go to the grocery store and maybe you will complete your shopping list in only one trip. Even more, it helps ensure you aren’t spending unecessary money on things you don’t actually need, which is a very tempting way to waste money.

It helps to save time

By using a meal plan you will never have to worry about missing some vital ingredient and having to rush to buy it last minute. It’s much easier to prepare the desired meal quickly and at your own peace when you’ve already planned and bought the ingredients beforehand. This will transform the entire cooking experience into relaxation!

Better nutrition for your family

A meal plan doesn’t only mean planning the actual menu and the snacks you are going to consume during the following days but also thinking about creating nutritious and healthy meals instead of opting for a quick and usually unhealthy dinner.

Serve better meals to loved ones

Developing the habit of thinking in advance about meal ideas helps you come up with more creative and delicious recipes for a more complete meal every time. This is a good way to focus on mastering your favorite cooking techniques and create amazing meals for you and your loved ones.

Variety is the spice of life

Having a menu plan will help you avoid getting bored by eating the same foods again and again, day after day. You can look for inspiration on Pinterest, and planning your meals will do wonders and will help you mix it up and not get bored. Not to mention that your family will be delighted that you don’t repeat meals or leftovers more than once or twice a week.

No more wastage of food

I really dislike wasting food. With a meal plan, leftover food can be eaten on next day for lunch and you won’t ever feel bad for throwing food away just because you weren’t careful enough. There is really no need to buy something from the grocery store and just throw it away later. With an organized plan, you will only buy what you are able to eat.

Avoids the stress and hassle

It’s important not to forget that cooking should be a pleasant activity as much as possible and not a stressful one, the kind of activity you do just because you have to subdue everyone’s hunger. A creative and thoughtful meal plan makes the whole family happy and takes the pressure off your shoulders.

Plan your schedule efficiently

Trying out meal planning can’t harm anybody and you won’t have anything to lose. On the contrary, when you sit down and start thinking about the next’s week meals, you will realize that is much easier to develop the habit of prepping in advance. This way you can decide what to cook based on your family’s favorite foods and you will end up with a more organized life in more ways than one!

Although it might seem a bit tedious and time-consuming at first, the end result of meal planning will help you lead a happier and healthier life.

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Featured photo by Dan Gold