The Beginner’s Guide to Meal Planning

Hey Angels and Alphas,

You all probably know that meal planning is essentially the best way to control your diet. Scheduling and pre-cooking your meals is an approach that both gym-goers and professional athletes use so they can set themselves up for fitness success.

But did you know that meal planning is also the easiest thing *you* can do to set *yourself* up for a healthy diet and lifestyle?

Whether you plan a few days ahead or a week ahead, you can’t deny meal planning’s biggest benefit – you make all your eating decisions in “bulk”, and you do it in a strategic and focused way. This “closes the door” to a lot of random cravings and gaps in your diet you could otherwise fill with unhealthy food.

Today, we’re going to talk about meal planning – the how, the why, the what, and how to best approach it based on your goal.

If you’re someone who:

  1. Has trouble adapting a systematic approach to dieting, yet wants to eat healthy…
  2. Doesn’t know how meal planning works, but has thought about it before…

Then this article is for you.

Let’s get started!

STEP 1 – What’s your goal?

Now, there’s no need to be very “deep” about this. The easiest way to acknowledge your goal is to ask yourself why you want to start meal planning.

Here are a couple of questions you can ask yourself to best identify what you’re looking for (and what you want to get out of your meal planning efforts:)

  • Are you looking to lose weight/gain muscle?
  • Are you looking for more dietary variety?
  • Do you want to stop wasting food?
  • Do you want to start saving money?
  • Do you want to limit your sugar consumption?
  • Are you looking to save time?

Or maybe, you just want to *not* have to bother with the process of cooking a delicious meal every day. Perhaps you work long days in the office and don’t have the time to maintain a healthy diet.

Whatever your reasons are, you need to find them and acknowledge them. Meal planning is, indeed, a great solution to all of these problems, so knowing they exist (and that meal planning fixes them) is a great way to get yourself through that initial push.

STEP 2 – Planning!

First of all, where do I find recipes?!

Finding and choosing your recipes is where the real fun begins. However, this is perhaps the hardest part of the entire meal planning process, precisely because it can be so difficult and time-consuming.

It sets the whole meal planning process in motion, so you have to be really careful – you can’t just choose a bunch of recipes and hope for the best. You’re going to go through a process of constant learning and adapting your recipes to your tastes, and best believe, it’s going to feel great.

Start writing down possible recipes at least three days before you start the meal planning process so you can make an effective. Don’t forget to Google, Yahoo, Bing, look at everything *before* you start meal planning.

Next, how many meals do you need?

Take a moment and think about what you would like to have in the upcoming week. Take into account your work schedule, your gym schedule, and make a quick inventory of your plans to get an idea of how many meals you’ll need.

Example: seven breakfasts per family member, seven family-sized dinners, five solo work lunches, seven family-sized lunches.

How much time do you have to cook?

This is where meal planning gets serious. Making the most out of your time is the very reason a lot of people do this, so you need to have a practical approach.

If you plan out everything, but you don’t have (or make) the time to cook, it’s all pointless. The next step of your process is to expand the previous list of meals you did and calculate how much time it’s going to take to cook and prepare all servings.

This is more an “information gathering” process than it is anything else, so you have to be both specific and realistic when you’re determining your “time per cooked meal” ratio.

Imagine you have a really busy week coming, or the babysitter calls and says she won’t make it. You have to be prepared for these situations so your focus should be on meals that are cooked slow but served quickly.

Connect recipes to your meal schedule.

You have a list, so it’s time to put it to action. It’s time to go back to your potential recipes list and find the meals that fit the bills (hey, that rhymes.)

Naturally, you’re going to be looking for family favorites, meals that you have experience cooking, and those that are just outright delicious. There’s also a very important aspect of food you have to remember – shelf life. You should make dishes within a day/two of shipping and leave those with shelf-stable and frozen ingredients for later.

When you take into account the nutritional profile of each dish, you can easily calculate how many servings a recipe you should make and how much nutrients you’re going to draw from each dish.

Pro tip: use overlapping ingredients! This way, you’ll minimize waste, and you’ll maximize your budget’s effectiveness.

Put it all on the calendar.

It doesn’t matter where you choose to put it – a calendar, notes, a template, or an app. Just know that you have to keep this schedule near yourself at all times. You know how some people hang their meal plans on the fridge? There’s a reason for that. By making the schedule easy to access, you reinforce its importance and hold yourself accountable. Plus, you won’t be thinking “what should I eat?” all the time. 

Create your master recipe list.

If you want to make the meal planning process easy and straightforward, create a list of go-to meals that you *know* you and your family love.

Every time you find a new ingredient or meal you love, put it on the list. Next to every meal, write down the ingredients you need to cook and prepare them.

This way, you’re going to find and remember all your favorite foods (and make re-visiting old meals a tradition.)

*This is not a grocery list, but it does lead to a very good one. Keeping an inventory of your favorite new meals and ingredients will help you identify the things you’re going to need for the week. The final step before making a grocery list is going through your kitchen and writing down what ingredients you already have.

When you do that… you’re finally ready!

Make the grocery list!

Next, go through your calendar and jot down the quantities for each meal and ingredient you’re going to need for your cooking-spree. Buying them in bulk more or less guarantees you’re going to save money, so you have this going for you right off the bat.

A great way to save (even more) time is to group your ingredients in a similar fashion:

  • Fruits and Vegetables
  • Breads, Grains
  • Spices
  • Oils
  • Beverages
  • Meat & Eggs
  • Dairy (if that’s your thing)

Finally, cook and prep!

Chop, boil, and roast the veggies, make the sauces, grate the cheese, do your thing!

When you cook all the food, put it in neat portions – you can even fill food boxes for your convenience!

Put it all in a freezer, and take it out whenever it’s time for breakfast, brunch, lunch, dinner, or when you’re just feeling hungry!

Putting it all together…

When you finally go through the process successfully, you’ll make a realization – meal planning is a continuous process of “you did it, now did it again.”

But once you start consistently implementing a meal plan strategy, you won’t want to go without it – it’s a simple, effective, and productive habit. It saves you time, it’s convenient, and it keeps you healthy. What more could you ask for?

It’s not difficult, but learning to stick to the process is not a walk in the park. It’s all the more stressful when you’re just starting out! But every time you go through the planning, shopping, and cooking process, you’ll get one step closer to turning meal planning into a habit for yourself. And that’s what your real goal should be.

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