Meal Planning 101
Updated: Apr 10
Meal planning is absolutely key to staying consistent with quality nutrition. It is critical to adopting Intentional Nutrition. Let's jump right into it.
Step 1: Pull Out Your Calendar
Seriously, whatever method lets you know what's going on this week (planner, digital calendar, phone notes, dry erase board...) get it out in front of you. Note down which days have food provided (dinner date with a friend? PTA meeting is catered? Lunch meeting?) and remove that from the list of meals that need to be planned.
Then notice which days are your toughest/longest/busiest. I encourage you to choose an easy option for these days. Mark those down ("Tuesday, easy dinner")
Also, mark down any changes to your location throughout the week and if this changes your cook options (if you need a microwave for lunch but you're at an offsite this week with no microwave, make a note for a cold lunch that day).
Now you should have a list something like this:
# Daily Snacks
For context, I eat three meals and two snacks a day so I would need:
1 Breakfast idea with enough for 7 days
7 lunches (maybe some leftovers are planned from dinner and this number changes)
6 Dinners (1 dinner is always takeout), 2 being easy for long days
2 Snack Ideas for 7 days
Step 2: Choose Meals & Recipes
This is the most time intensive step. Protect space in your calendar to do it.
Now that you know what needs to be filled in, start generating ideas or pulling recipes. You can also start with what you have on-hand in the pantry or fridge! These items may inspire a recipe. Box of unused mushrooms? How about mushroom tacos or mushroom pasta sauce (now to find those recipes).
Important: Make sure the things you are planning or researching sound appealing.
Assess the recipes you find, or the meals you are used to making, are made up of whole food ingredients and are nutritionally balanced (see below on 'balanced'). If the meal is missing something, how can that component be added? If an item is not whole food, how can it be swapped for a more nutritious, whole food version (example: cereal -> this is a carb so look for a whole food carb option like roast potato, oatmeal, or fruit).
Research Recipes! Cookbooks, Pinterest or the web. Use your keywords to refine your search or stick with a trusted website for many ideas. Keywords I like: whole food, one sheet pan, whole food plant based, clean eating recipes
Here's some ideas that I might put into my meal plan for the week:
Breakfast: Steel Cut Oats with Berries, Peanut Butter and Drizzle of Maple Syrup
Lunches: Chickpea Salad Sandwich on Whole Grain with Side Salad, Leftover Cold Basil Tofu Noodles with Veggies, Fennel and Potato Stew
Dinners: Lentils with Veggies served over Sweet Potatoes, Mushroom and Black Bean Tacos, Cold Basil Tofu Noodles (will make extra for leftovers), Spicy Thai Peanut Tofu over Quinoa with Roast Broccoli Bowls
Snacks: Sliced peppers with hummus, black bean mango salad (will batch prep), Cara Cara oranges (in season right now!) with almonds, Air Popped Popcorn.
As you find your recipes, save them or print them. Perhaps put them in a binder of folder (digital or hard copy) - whichever save method you choose, make it easy to reference them as we will need to build a list from these recipes for groceries and later use it for cooking.
Assess the meal or recipe for the following components:
veggies (or fruit for breakfast)
fiber rich carb
All of these components should be whole foods, or minimally processed foods (Ask yourself, "has it changed greatly from where it originated from? Does nature come to mind when I envision the source?")? If some processing has been done, identify how many ingredients are on the package. Aim for 5 or less of recognizable ingredients. If images of factories and lab coats come to mind when you think about the source or the ingredients, I encourage you to find something better.
Balancing the Portions
How much depends on your goals but a good starting place is building your meals to have:
1 SERVING of PROTEIN
A palm size of protein is about 3-5 oz (this will fill about a quarter of your plate). Consistency here is important, don't go huge and don't forego it.
1-2 SERVINGS of VEGGIES
A serving is the size of a fist or 1 cup. It's like 5 broccolis to make up a cup so it's not overwhelming. For cooked greens, like spinach, 1/2 cup suffices as a serving. This might fill up half your plate, or less depending. For weight loss, go for 2 servings. For muscle gain, for for 1 serving, 1/4 of a plate.
1-2 SERVINGS of CARBS
1 serving is about 1/2 a cup; we usually have a bit more than this per meal. Visually, this will look similar to the protein (if weight management is your goal). For weight loss, this needs to stick to 1/4 of the plate. For weight gain, for athletes, etc. this should be closer to half the plate, or double the portion.
Carbs don't always come in scoopable forms. A whole piece of fruit, a slice of whole grain bread, a medium potato, etc. also count. Use what makes sense for the meal (like small street taco tortillas).
1-2 SERVINGS of FAT
A serving is 1 TBSP of healthy fats. A TBSP is equal to about the length of a thumb. Fats are usually a dressing or condiment or are used in cooking. Be mindful of the total fat used and needed in the meal. 'Lean' often refers to reducing the added fat in the cook process.
Step 3: Schedule
Look through and roughly map out the meals for the week. Does the option make sense for the day? If you plan on having leftovers, is the original meal planned to be cooked for the days preceding it? Do you have your snacks planned? You can always move things around but it's nice to map it out.
Also, put the easiest meals on the hardest/longest days and keep your new or complicated recipes to the easiest days.
Step 4: Create Your Grocery List
Using the recipes, get specific with what you need to buy. For example, if breakfast needs 7 days worth of berries and each serving is 1/2 cup then 3-4 cups worth should be on the list (does frozen work better to avoid waste or over-ripening?). Tally up how much you need of each item.
You can use a grocery store List app.
You can use a notebook.
Just keep it easy to read and use while shopping.
Make sure you account for everything - things you have in your pantry or fridge/freezer, spices, condiments
Step 5: Shop!
Don't shop hungry. Ever. Not even a little bit.
Only shop the list. I know how beautiful fruits and veggies look - they can try to pull you in to buy them!! But resist their sweet siren song and stick to your list.
Step 6: Optional Meal Prep
If you want to prepare a few things ahead, or your meal plan is comprised of big batch recipes, protect time on the weekend (or whatever day off you have) to cook.
For example, I batch prep oatmeal each weekend and prepare a bean salad. The rest of the week is cooking in the evenings (making extras for the next day).
You can go as far as you want with this.