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So you’re interested in getting started with meal planning? Well, you’ve come to the right place. This is a huge guide to all things meal planning. I hope to answer all your meal planning questions.
All the way from basics like, “What is a meal plan?”, to more specific questions like, “Where to find pre-made meal plans?”.
Here’s an outline of the post.
What is a meal plan?
Let’s start at the beginning and define what a meal plan is. A meal plan is nothing more than a piece of paper (or digital document) where you keep track of your meals for the week.
Think of a meal plan as map (or plan) to get you where you want to go.
Meal plan: Plan to get you to your destination
Destination: A week of stress free meals
Meal planning doesn’t have to require a ton of time either. In fact, it will save you time. Because meal planning typically means:
- Taking 20 minutes each week to think through meals for the week ahead.
- Going to the grocery store ONCE with a list in hand of everything you need to make the week’s meals a success.
You make a plan, and follow the plan. Following a meal plan is a lot like using a GPS to get somewhere you haven’t been before. Sure, you could just figure it out without any directions, but it’s a little more stressful and sometimes it’s nice to just sit back and just follow the directions.
What do you need to start meal planning?
Why meal plan?
Meal planning offers a LOT of benefits. It will:
- Save you time
- Save you money (more home cooked meals = less money spent at restaurants)
- Help you lose weight
- Lead to less stress at meal times
- Provide more family time around the dinner table
Sounds nice, doesn’t it?
YOU plan out meals based on what you already have, what you’re able to get, and what your family actually likes to eat!
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And, when you have a plan in place, you’re not forced to scramble at the last minute to make something you don’t have all the ingredients for, or don’t actually have time to make.
With a plan in place you will have a reminder to put your chicken in the marinade the night BEFORE you need it, and take that roast out of the freezer with enough time for it to defrost.
Meal prep + meal plan means less stress in your kitchen.
Say goodbye to those panic attacks because you forgot to think about dinner and all your meat is completely frozen.
Does meal planning really save time?
Okay, so meal planning sounds like a good idea in theory. But how is it going to save me time? Good question.
Making a meal plan might take you 20 minutes each week, but it can save you hours throughout the week! How is that possible? Well, by making a plan, you can be strategic with your meals. For example, you can:
- Re-use ingredients (make a double batch of chicken so you can use it for two meals instead of one)
- Make a big batch of meat, or a double batch of your family’s favorite sauce to use in meals all week (instead of making 2-3 small batches 2-3 times throughout the week)
- Make lunches for the whole week. Try making one big meal at the start of the week to eat for lunches throughout the week. This saves you time since you won’t have to prepare a lunch every single day. It’s already done for you!
By making strategic decisions about your family’s weekly meals, you can save a little bit of time each day.
Not only does it save time, but it saves you from having to think about food each and every meal of the day. Because the constant pressure of thinking through meals can be exhausting! Trust me. I know the feeling.
My kids are ALWAYS hungry. And the weeks that I don’t have a plan for snacks and meals for them are incredibly stressful. Because 20 minutes after breakfast, I have two kids clawing at my leg, begging for more food (like they haven’t eaten in weeks).
Does meal planning really save money? [with a calculator]
So we’ve agreed that meal planning will save hours each week. But what about money? Meal planning allows you to eat more home cooked meals, which saves you money BIG TIME.
This article looked at the cost of 86 popular recipes and compared the price of making the meal at home vs. using a meal kit service vs. eating out at a restaurant. They found that people spend five times as much money buying a meal at a restaurant as they would by making the exact same meal at home!
How much can you actually save? Use this calculator to figure out how much you could be saving each month by meal planning and making your meals at home.
The calculator assumes an adult meal costs $12.75 and a meal for kids costs $7.50. It calculates for you how much you could be SAVING. It provides the difference between eating out and making the food at home.
Can meal planning help you lose weight?
If you’re on a weight loss journey, meal planning can certainly help you in your efforts. By making a meal plan and eating more at home, you’ll have much more control over the ingredients used in your meals and the portion sizes.
Instead of refined vegetable oils, excess sugar, and artificial ingredients that derail your weight loss efforts, opt to make meals at home with simple, whole foods. Make a plan, and stick to the plan.
Can meal planning help reduce stress?
Think about it like this. Imagine that you’re in a new city…downtown. You’re trying to get from point A to point B, but you forgot the address and you don’t have directions.
There’s one way streets everywhere, bicyclists racing past, city buses who have their own special lanes, and more distractions than you can keep track of. You have a loose idea of which direction you’re trying to go, but you’re just not quite sure how to get there.
It’s stressful driving in a new place, without directions.
Now imagine you put the address of point B into your phone or GPS. You now have a calm voice telling you when to turn, when to anticipate a turn, and which lane to be in. Yes, the distractions are still there, but now you can ignore the ones that aren’t important and focus on where you’re going.
Having a meal plan is like having the GPS tell you what to do. Except instead of a GPS, you’re just following the meal plan that YOU chose. The plan that you KNOW your family will like.
Can meal planning help reduce stress? Absolutely.
Where to get a pre-made meal plan?
If you’re the kind of person who would rather someone else just told you what to do, there are many websites that provide meal plans. Some are free, some are paid. Look around to find meal plans that fit your lifestyle and diet.
Free meal plans
Following someone else’s meal plan is a great way to get started with meal planning. All it takes is a quick google search of “free meal plans” to find dozens of websites that offer this service. If you’re looking for free meal plans, I highly recommend checking out what 100 Days of Real Food has to offer.
Here’s a free 7-day gluten free meal plan to give you a glimpse of how simple meal planning and prepping can be.
Paid meal plans
Sometimes in life you get what you pay for. Okay, well maybe that’s ALWAYS. If free meal plans aren’t working for you, or you’re willing to spend a little money on your health, here are a few recommendations I can give you.
- Prepear – The meal planning marketplace on Prepear is full of awesome meal plans. Check it out here!
- Prep Dish – Get a FREE trial using this link. They provide Paleo & GF meal plans each week. You get the recipes, grocery list, instructions for a “Prep Day” and “Dish Day”. This system seriously changed things for me!
- Sun Basket – This meal delivery service provides everything you need to have healthy restaurant quality food made in your own home, for less than the restaurant. BONUS: YOU get to make the food (something to brag about when everyone is drooling over the meal)! Order from Sun Basket today and the ingredients (plus recipe book) will be waiting on your doorstep in no time! Get $35 off with this link!
How to make a meal plan
The problem with following someone else’s meal plan is that it’s someone else’s. Meaning…the recipes might not use food you even like to eat. And although it’s a great way to get started, you might find that you’d rather come up with your own meal ideas.
Related: How To Use A Meal Planning Template
Making a meal plan yourself is not difficult. In a lot of ways it’s better than using a pre-made version because you can pick recipes that you know your family loves.
Use a meal planning printable
If you’re looking for a printable meal planning template, I’ve got you covered.
There are several weekly meal planning templates in a variety of styles and colors (multiple color options for each style).
Maybe you’re a planner. And instead of a weekly meal plan, you’d rather do the whole month at once. No problem. There are two monthly templates available for you to use.
It doesn’t really matter which template you use, as long as it’s helping you get where you want to go. Find a format that looks like something you can stick with. Maybe it’s one of the dinner-only meal planning templates, or maybe it’s the three meal template WITH a grocery list.
If you’re a DIY-er, or craft lover, grab a chalkboard, white board, or anything you can think of and create a space to keep track of your weekly meals. Here are a few DIY meal planning template ideas to get your creative juices flowing.
Use a meal planning app
Maybe you’re not too fond of pen and paper, and you’d rather use a meal planning app. There’s an abundance of websites and apps that have the option of choosing and planning your meals.
Apps like Prepear allow you to filter recipes based on your diet. You can then pick which meals you want to make this week and take their automatically generated grocery list to the store with you. If that’s not easy meal planning, I’m not sure what is! Start your FREE account here.
Once a month meals
A similar, but slightly different option is Once A Month Meals. Their website is similar to Prepear, except they’re all about freezer meals (more on that below). Their idea (which I love) is to take one day and prep meals for the whole month.
This is a great option for busy schedules that don’t allow for cooking an hour or two each night. Start a FREE Once A Month Meals trial with this link.
Tips for meal planning success
As it is with most things, there’s an easy way to do something and a hard way. Let’s make sure you’re on the easy path! Here are a few meal planning hacks that I’ve learned over the years. Click the link to jump to the section you want.
Have you ever made freezer meals? If not, here’s how it goes: You do a lot of the prep work ahead of time, then freeze everything to heat up and eat at a later date. And then when you’re ready for it, you take it out of the freezer and cook it.
I love the idea of freezer meals. You can do a quick google search for “Freezer meals” to try and find recipes that look good and that fit your dietary restrictions (if you have any).
If you don’t have time to spend clicking around google for hours, both of these services specialize in freezer meals.
- Once A Month Meals – The idea is you prepare all your meals for a whole month on one day, stick them in the freezer, and pull them out to reheat them when you’re ready for them.
- My Freezeasy – More awesome freezer meals, one week at a time.
Instant Pot/Crock Pot
I didn’t join the instant pot fan club until recently when we were gifted one. But I quickly saw the value and it immediately earned a spot in the cupboard. Because when ONE kitchen appliance can do the job of TWO kitchen appliances, it’s a clear winner.
My instant pot has a slow-cook option, so we said “good-bye” to the crock pot!
An instant pot makes cooking meat (even from frozen) a breeze. They go on sale every now and then, especially around the holidays. This is a great deal for one if you don’t have one yet (or want to gift it to someone who needs a break from cooking stress).
15 Minute meals
Do a Pinterest search for “15 minute meals” and you’ll be hit with a BUNCH of recipes. Often these meals will have pre-made components to them (like store bought pasta sauce + rotisserie chicken (injected with who knows what)).
You can make your own healthy 15 minute meals by making homemade sauces ahead of time. Do yourself a favor and skip the preservatives in the store bought sauces. Download 10 delicious sauce and salad dressing recipes here (FREE). You can make each recipe in just 5 minutes. It’s really not as hard as you might think.
Ideas for homemade 15 minute meals:
- Cook a big batch of chicken early in the week to use all week long in salads, stir fry, etc.
- Cook a big batch of veggies, too.
- Make your favorite sauce (peanut sauce or coconut curry sauce maybe?) in just a few minutes to pour over your vegetables and your meat.
And there you go! A delicious and healthy 15 minute meal. All it takes is a little prep work.
Meal prep when you can
One tip that any experienced home cook will tell you is to make food ahead of time. That way you’re not scrambling to start from scratch each day at dinner.
And since It’s just as easy to cook a double batch as it is a single batch, make 2-3x as much as you’ll eat so you can eat delicious and healthy meals all week.
Related: Ultimate Guide to Meal Prep
Think about it…is it easier to snack on pre-peeled and sliced carrot sticks OR those chips in the cupboard? With pre-made snacks and meals in the fridge, you’ll be more likely to eat the healthy homemade food than eat junk snack food or grab take out (…again).
These are my favorite meal prep containers! They work great for taking lunch to work or to use for kid snacks in the car. No more worrying about the juice from the orange getting on the apple. Because in my house, meltdowns happen when food is touching.
Plan to eat out
Don’t make rigid rules about cooking at home EVERY single meal if it’s just going to stress you out. Because stress is unhealthy, just like the processed stuff we’re trying to avoid.
If you enjoy eating out and can work it into your budget, plan for it. Write it in your meal plan! Meal planning will ONLY be a long term thing if you make it work for your family. Plan for a meal at a restaurant instead of running to the closest take-out joint out of desperation.
Not only will Sun Basket provide you with what you want (easy healthy meals at home), you’ll also be learning how to cook. Before you know it, cooking will be so easy you won’t even have to think about it.
It’s true that the food you put in your body is important. But it’s also true that HOW you treat your body is important. Here are a few healthy living tips that we ALL need to pay attention to.
- Don’t stress
- Get plenty of sleep – Aim for 7-8 hours.
- Exercise – Get moving. Going on a hike or working in your garden TOTALLY counts.
- Enjoy time with family and friends
I fully believe you are worth the effort it takes to commit to (and stick with) healthy eating. YOU are worth it. And while there IS effort that goes into it, eventually it gets easier.
Remember this: A meal plan should make you feel FREE and confident, not stressed.
Oh, and don’t forget to treat yourself every now and then, too!
Conclusion & encouragement
A few closing thoughts and encouragement for you, my lovely reader.
- When you make your meal plan, be realistic. Don’t plan on cooking for 2 hours each night if you don’t have the time (or energy) to do it.
- Make it easier on yourself by finding quick and easy meals, and meal prepping ahead of time when you can.
- Utilize tools that will make your life easier, and find a system that works for you and your family.
You can do it! I know you can.