Meal Planning Basics: How to Meal Plan

7 Easy Meal Planning Basic Tips

Meal Planning makes a big difference when it comes to sticking to a dietary change. It’s easy to cook a quick convenience food or head to a restaurant when everyone is hungry and nothing is defrosted, but a little planning can prevent this! If you have kids, you can let them be involved in the planning as well, which will help them get excited about the healthy foods you are cooking and be more willing to try them.

Here are seven tips to help you plan out weekly meals for your family:

1. Have A Daily Template

Rather than starting from scratch each week, I have a template of the general types of foods I cook each day of the week and the number of times I use each main food. In other words each week I cook:

  • 1-2 stir frys
  • 1 salad
  • 1 slow cooker or soup meal
  • 1 fish/seafood meal
  • 1-2 meals from a different cuisine from around the world
  • 1-2 prepare ahead oven meals

I try to use no meat more than twice so in a given week I might have 2 beef meals, 2 chicken meals, 1 fish meal and 2 pork or egg meals.

2. Focus On Core Recipes

As you find recipes your family enjoys, make them core recipes that get re-used every few weeks. Try to build up about 20 of these and you won’t ever be bored with your meals. Each week, use these core meals for 5 of your dinners and try something new for 2 dinners. If you get really motivated, build these 20 core meals for each season using seasonal produce and rotate with the seasons. This will also save money on produce.

3. Stretch Your Protein

Protein is typically the most expensive part of the meal so if you can use less expensive cuts of meat and stretch them, it might allow you to buy organic and grass-fed rather than conventional meats. This is another reason I love stir frys and casseroles- you can add more veggies and stretch the meat more than if you were just serving baked chicken. The slow cooker is also a great way to make tougher, cheaper cuts of meat more tender.

4. Mix it up with Spices

A basic easy recipe (like Chicken Squash Stir Fry or Pakistani Kima) can taste completely different just by changing the spices. Add some cumin and chili powder and you have a Mexican flavor, or some Curry for an Indian type flavor. Basil, Thyme, Oregano and Garlic give an Italian Flavor while Chinese 5 Spice gives an Asian Flair. I try to buy all my herbs in bulk since it saves money and I can batch cook and create my other DIY remedies that use them.

5. Travel the World In Your Kitchen

One of my dreams is to travel the world and try the different cuisines in each country. Since that isn’t possible right now, I try to create the same experience in my kitchen. With a little research and some healthy adjustments, you can create recipes from around the world. You might be surprised to find that your kids enjoy the flavors of Indian or Thai food or that you have a passion for French flavors.

6. Don’t Be A Short Order Cook

Want to raise a picky eater? Let your child eat whatever he/she wants and cater to his or her food preferences. Want to not raise a picky eater? Expose your children to healthy and diverse foods from a young age and don’t make any specific foods for them. My one year old gladly eats curries, cooked vegetables, liver and avocado because she’s never had crackers, toast, chicken nuggets or juice.

Not only is this more nutritious for kids, but it will really be a benefit to them in the long run. Don’t believe me? Check out the book Deep Nutrition.

We have two rules in our house:

  1. Kids are required to try one bite of everything cooked before they can have more of any one food (I only put one bite on their plate at first)
  2. If they are truly not hungry they are not required to eat BUT then can NOT complain about the food or interrupt the meal with a bad attitude.

Certainly, there are times when my kids are not happy with these rules or the foods they are served, but as with other areas of parenting, sometimes the best option for children is not always the one they enjoy most!

7. Eat Leftovers for Breakfast and Lunch

It can be tough to break the cereal and sandwich mindset but an easy, time-saving way to eat healthy is to make extra of foods and serve them again for breakfast and lunch. Most foods (except soups) can also be added to an omelet for breakfast or put with a salad for lunch. Cold meatza or barbecue actually makes a delicious breakfast or lunch.

Another easy trick is to make salads or store leftovers in mason jars (liquid ingredients at the bottom for salads, then meat/toppings, then lettuce) and store in the fridge. Then, the meal can be re-heated easily or dumped onto a plate to serve.

Sample Meal Plan

In order to help you get started, here’s a simple meal plan for you to try out over the next week.

Monday: Chicken Squash Stir Fry

Tuesday: Easy Coconut Shrimp

Wednesday: Pakistani Kima

Thursday: Chicken Carbonara

Friday: Chard Wrapped Salmon

Saturday: Steak and Sweet Pepper Salad

Sunday: Pork Chops and Baked Apples

An Easier Way to Meal Plan

Real Plans, a done-for-you meal planning service, can help take away the hassle of figuring out what to cook each day. You can plan your own meals each week by simply choosing my recipes, add your own, or choose from the hundreds of others that are included. You can automatically create a full meal plan and shopping list based on the recipes you choose and the number of people you are serving. You’ll also have the option to just print and use pre-planned meals. I highly recommend it!

Do you meal plan? What tips do you have that have helped you? Share below!

Meal planning makes a big difference in sticking to a healthy diet. These tips can help you and your family stick to it!

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Reader Comments

  1. Thanks!  I’ve noticed that planning around the pantry, freezer, and sales make a big difference in our budget and satisfaction with dinners in general.  We go a little crazy on produce some weeks, but we make sure whatever we can will work with whatever meals are on the plan.  

  2. I think the core recipes are a great idea. It’s very important to have a variety though so don’t cook the same meals day in day out. Variety means that you and your family get all the nutrients that you need. Great post!

  3. Thank you for the sample menu! You made my menu planning easy for next week (all except the salmon, that will be altered). I am looking forward to your developed menu planner! 

  4. I love the Mason jar salad idea! I have Tupperware iced tea glasses that ought to work for this. When I am on the road in my RV this winter it will be good to chop in the morning before departure then stop for an easy lunch on the road.

  5. I love to cook but the only things I can cook successfully are the unhealthy versions of mac and cheese, spaghetti, enchiladas, etc. It seems every time I try new healthy recipes they don’t go very well. I hope this will improve as I continue to cook healthy. Just this week I created a meal plan along with a corresponding shopping list. Organization is key! Thanks for the tips!

  6. When are you re-opening your meal planning service? Sounds like a fantastic idea and I so want to try it! With a 4mo baby in tow having time to plan healthy meals can be a challenge 🙂

  7. i just started doing the mason jar idea and LOVE it. had some left over cooked pumpkin and cooked quinoa last night, enough for 2 salads. so in the bottom of 2 jars i threw a quick dressing, a few chopped nuts, and a chopped spring onion, then layered some of the pumpkin and quinoa and a handful of leaves on top. took all of 5 mins. i now have them sitting in the work fridge 🙂
    also sometimes it’s good to cook more than you need because if they are meals you can freeze it saves you having to cook as often. i live alone so i try to make 2 meals a week that i can easily freeze (casseroles and soups freeze well, or even just pasta sauces). i make enough for a family so i have 3 extra portions. i freeze 2 and keep the other for a quick lunch or dinner the next day. it’s the best way to have fast food on hand if you’re busy, it ensures you only eat your measured portion, and over a few weeks you build up a good store of healthy food in the freezer that you can select from. just pull something out in the morning, put it in the freeze and by the time you get home it’s defrosted and ready to re-heat 🙂

  8. I wait until Sunday night after I’ve picked up my meat and vegetable CSA, then I sit down with a couple paleo cookbooks and my computer and start to “use” all my ingredients throughout the week in a menu. What I don’t already have in the pantry, I make a list for (thanks to my easy Cozi app) and pick it up in a single shopping trip once a week or once every other week.

    We love eating leftovers for breakfast (I usually crack an egg over it and voila!, breakfast!).

  9. Great ideas! I love having a weekly template so that I have a framework for cooking and buying that week. And using produce in season is KEY to saving money and it tastes so much better!

  10. Planning out the menu takes me a long time, I only go shopping once every two weeks. I have three kids and stay at home with them, so making sure we save as much as possible is key. I find that getting everything at once helps save money because I am not constantly going back for 1 things and coming home with 5. I buy veggies that freeze well for week 2, then I do all my fresh produce recipes the first week. Finally, I am realistic. I know that at least two nights a week I am not going to feel like cooking a huge meal so I either make extra that week to have a “left over night” or find two simple go to recipes.

  11. Planning is key! My body and mind suffer when I don’t meal-plan. Great post!

  12. I’ve recently become a vegetarian because of it’s health benefits. If I eat meet I eat it every two weeks or one a week at dinner. I usually go shopping for everything I need on Wednesday or on Friday. Before breakfast and dinner I make a veggie/fruit smoothie. For lunch we usally have a salad with something else.For dinner we usually have something simple like salmon and green peppers, and green onions mixed up and I serve it on romaine lettuce. It’s actually really good! I like buying fresh food so I usually go to Whole Foods to my groceries.

  13. I had a friend in high school that had never been allowed to eat “fast food” or school lunches. We were standing around with our chins on the ground as she explained that she’d never had Taco Bell, McDonalds, Burger King…. EVER. We talked her into breaking the rules (because that’s what we did in High School) and she was actually really excited to try her first “value meal”, the clasic Whopper Jr., fries and a Coke. She took one bite and said it was the worst thing she’d ever eatten. Ate 2 french fries and said if she had to eat anymore of the meal, she would probably throw up. She’s nearly 40 now and we’re still friends…. she still hardly ever eats fast food. It’s pretty much got to be an I’m absolutely starving moment for her (which does happen in College before you learn to plan ahead and will happen from time to time throughout one’s life).

  14. It might already be on the site somewhere, but what do you think the best beverage choices are to give to kids ages 1 and 4?
    Thanks 🙂

  15. Hi! I am a ‘newby’ to eating healthy! Thought I had been eating healthy for years-but was I wrong! (that is another story) . I stumbled upon your site and I am so grateful for you willingness to share your receipes, advice and wisdom! When will you open the Meal Planning service?
    Thanks, again!

    • Working on some upgrades and hope to open in a month or so 🙂

      • thank you so very much!

  16. This challenge will be my hardest. I have trouble enough deciding what to eat on a daily basis, let alone planning ahead. Although when I’ve menu planned in the past it has always been nice. I like your suggestions and will give them a try.

  17. Thanks so much!! My family and I are big on making our own things for the house, and our skin and hair. I love this site!! This post is especially helpful and I have a new job (and a new budget) and while we are already eating healthier then most, we have a long way to go with our personal goals. Meal planning will be very helpful for us!

  18. Hi Katie, love your email series and am interested to know when you will reopen your meal planning service. I found your site from listening to your presentation at Real Food Con last week. Your presentation was amazing and jammed packed with so many tips that I will be incorporating into our family and home. Your website is exactly what I’ve been looking for, thank you for providing such a valuable resource.

  19. I’ve just started on the 30-day challenge. however, i’m finding it really hard to eliminate all the food. According to the allowed foods, it would be impossible to eat at any restaurant, and enjoy my meal, or go to anyone’s house for a meal, as I don’t know anyone who eliminates all the foods suggested. We entertain, and eat out quite a bit. Not to mention I can’t have any more wine.
    I must say I have no digestive problems, or tiredness, by eating the way I do now. I would like to lose about 15 lbs.
    I was also reading on a few sites–quite reputable ones, that a lot of meat is not good to consume, and we need whole grains, in our diet. I am not much of a meat lover, and I do like variety in my food, which I find this way of eating is way too restrictive for me.
    My mother lived to be 92, and she ate whatever she wanted all her life, as did my 2 grandmothers. I think moderation in all things is the key–also, I think our health is a lot more than what we’re eating–it also has something to do with our thoughts and emotions. If we think our food is going to harm us, it probably will.
    I do love your home-made versions of cleaners, body and face products, etc., and definitely will try them. I’m already using the magnesium oil—thanks so much for all these recipes.

  20. Thanks for all your information. I have looked and looked for a great nutritious diet and they were all so complicated. I find your meals easy and affordable. I’m really liking the nutrition and all the choices. My family is excited about what I’m going to make next! Looking forward to your meal plans as it will be less time consuming.

  21. LOVE!! Thank you! Thank you! 🙂

  22. Hello! Absolutely LOVE your website. Just wondering when/if the Meal Plan Service will be open during the summer of 2014?

    Thanks for all of your efforts.

  23. Hi Katie,

    Will your meal plan be opening back up soon? I was able to find one that you posted for a week in August and it looked great!

  24. Hi Katie! Thank you for being a warrior for healthy living! I would love to sign up for your meal planner because I’ve been trying to concoct a way to incorporate more of a system into my meals-and this seems perfect! However, I find myself a little hesitant, because I have a 7 year old son with autism and he has major sensory/texture/flavor issues. I can’t remember one time that the whole family ate the same thing for dinner, because my son always gets something different. Frustrating. My 8 year old daughter will try anything…but my son simply cannot. I’m sure you don’t have a magic solution for that, I guess I’m just airing my issue in the hopes that you have an idea that might help. How does one meal plan and batch cook for half the family? Tricky. Anyway, thanks for all your amazing information!

    • Hm, that does sound like a challenge. When we had one son who had an allergy we just switched everyone to his diet, but this may not be ideal. I will say that when you create your plans you can select the number of portions. You may need to make 2 separate plans because I think the portions would change for the entire shopping list, but it’s what occurs to be as a possible solution.

  25. I’m trying to get ready for fall when my son will be starting school and I really get stuck meal planning healthy options that can be eaten cold and don’t require any sort of nuts/nut butters…not aloud. Any suggestions to help flush out my menu ideas would be very welcome from anyone.

    • Hey Sherie, what about chicken/tuna salad? – Rotisserie chicken from the store works great for this, quick and easy…(I also like to throw in dried fruit like cranberries)

  26. Great tips! I especially like number 6. Parents these days give their kids too many options and let them dictate what they are going to eat and then wonder why they have bratty kids lol.

    When I plan for the week I also like to find meals that use some of the same ingredients to help with the budget and to avoid having that full container of something that you only use for 1 meal and throw out 2 months later lol.

  27. Hi Wellness Mama,
    Is this meal planning service available? I signed up on the but when will we receive resources for weekly meal planning? I am desperately trying to start meal planning/freezing/preparing for my family as i have a full-time job also.

    • It’s currently closed to new subscribers but will probably open up later this year 🙂

  28. Love this site great tips!