Easy Change #7: Start Meal Planning

Welcome back to my Easy Changes You Can Make Today series! It's been awhile, but I'm back with another small change you can make toward healthier eating! (Did you miss the other Easy Changes? Check them out here.)

I think planning meals is the most important step you can take toward a real food lifestyle. Here's why:

4 Reasons to Start Meal Planning Today

Reason #1: real food takes time
Many real food techniques require thinking at least a day ahead: soaking or sprouting grains and legumes, dehydrating nuts, making stock, thawing meat from your freezer (that you bought in bulk to save money), baking bread, fermenting foods, making homemade condiments, etc. They are not very difficult on their own; what makes them difficult is fitting them into a busy, disorganized lifestyle. If you have a meal plan, you can think about making homemade buns for your hamburgers two days in advance, instead of running to the store to buy some an hour before dinner.

Reason #2: meal planning saves time and money
When you meal plan effectively, you make far fewer trips to the grocery store. This results in less gas used, less food bought, and less time spent in the car and at the store. A meal plan also prevents last minute trips to McDonald's, saving you even more money. And if you get good at making simple real food meals, you can often have dinner on the table in the same amount of time it would take for you go drive to McDonald's and place your order. (Coming soon: tips for simple and quick real food meals!)

Reason #3: meal planning saves brain power
Before I started meal planning, I said the following sentence far too often: "I have no idea what we should have for dinner." Due to our limited budget, we couldn't just go out and grab something, so I had to come up with something to eat with whatever we had on hand. It was exhausting (especially when I was pregnant!). That very rarely happens now. It's so much easier to think about meals once a week and then just follow the plan.

Reason #4: meal planning prevents crabby families
Hungry families are crabby families. Having a meal plan helps you to get dinner on the table before a blood sugar meltdown occurs. (Having healthy snacks available to eat while you're cooking helps, too.)

Are you convinced? If so, here is what you need to do:

1. Designate a place where you will write down your meal plan each week. I like to use a pad of paper with the days of the week already on it. Before I had one of those, I just wrote my meal plans on random pieces of paper that inevitably got lost. But my meal planning pad lives on the refrigerator (if yours doesn't come with magnets, just tape a magnet to the back: I repurposed one from a pad of paper that I had used up). You can also put your meal plan on your computer or phone - wherever you will be most likely to reference it often.

2. Choose a day of the week to do your meal planning. If you shop on the same day each week, choose the day before you shop to plan your meals. And then stick with it. But even if you don't stick with it, don't be hard on yourself; you can always jump right back in!

Choosing a Method
There are a million methods for meal planning. Just google "meal planning" and you'll find hundreds of resources. You can just choose meals off the top of your head, or you can write down a list of your family's favorites and choose from there. You can page through your cookbooks and recipe cards and recipes you've saved on your computer. You can plan just dinners, or breakfast, lunch, dinner, and snacks. Do whatever works for you! And if it's not working, change it! My methods have changed over time. I tried monthly planning but found that I'm not good enough at sticking with a plan to follow through for four weeks in a row. And here's a trick it took me awhile to learn: use pencil.

Don't think that meal planning is going to prevent spontaneity. If someone invites us to dinner or family comes to visit, we just go with the flow and adjust the plan accordingly.

Soon I'll be sharing what's been working for us lately. It's a meal planning method that helps balance our time, budget, and nutrition. And it's simple.

So, will you take the plunge and start meal planning? If not, what's stopping you? If you're a seasoned meal planner, what tips do you have for those who are just starting out?


  1. I plan my family's meals based on my husband's pay schedule. When he was paid 2 times a month, I would make a plan for the first part of the month, then the second part. Now he is paid every 2 weeks, so I make a menu plan for that. I have a spiral notebook in which I write out the days I am planning for, and then write in dinners. We are very flexible, maybe to a fault, so I'm actually in need of rethinking how I plan meals. It used to work for us, but doesn't seem to be working quite so much anymore.

    Thanks for the ideas (especially using a pencil!).

  2. I used to plan weekly but when life got a little crazy, I felt overwhelmed by having to come up with new meal ideas every week, and I would put it off to the point that we ended up eating convenience meals way too often. I'm trying to get into the groove of having a monthly plan now that I save on my computer and rotate. Ideally I want to have 2-3 months worth of meal plans that I can just "recycle" so I'm not always having to come up with new meals. Our favorite meals we'd have 2-3 times a month and others we'd have once a month. I'm building in days we can eat out (like when hubby is on duty on a weird schedule and stuck on base. Sometimes we eat at a restaurant on base, other times I pack a picnic dinner), days we can order pizza or Chinese (ideally no more than once a month), and days when I can come up with a creative new meal to try to keep it fresh (maybe 2-3 times a month).

    It helps me to have it all in front of me in a visually organized way. I'm working on refining a calendar that works for me that I built in an OpenOffice spreadsheet. Once I feel satisfied with it, I'll print it out and hang it on my fridge. I'm leaving blank spots for breakfast and lunch that I can pencil in- breakfasts are just a rotation of favorites for the most part, and lunches are usually leftovers except if we eat out for dinner the night before then we'd have something like sandwiches or hotdogs. When I feel like I've got a good rhythm, I'll make a standard grocery list for the week out of my plan and just be able to add or cross off from that list.

    I think this will balance out our grocery budget a bit more so that it's more predictable and I don't have to think too hard about compiling lists to go shopping. It definitely will save us money from eating out and doing last minute convenience shopping a lot less!