What is meal planning and how to get started

meal planning session

What is meal planning and how to get started

This is a guest blog from fellow Registered Dietitian Meagan Mamchur over at www.joyfuleats.com

Has your grocery bill been unusually high lately? If your answer is yes, you are not alone.

As the food industry continues to suffer from lingering COVID-19-related challenges, labour shortages, supply chain issues and high inflation have food prices on the rise once again. In fact, this year the average Canadian family is estimated to spend up to $966.08 more on food than in 2021!

Clearly, feeding your family is more expensive than ever. But at the same time, we know nutritious foods are essential for living happy, healthy lives.

So how can you continue to buy groceries without completely blowing your budget?

Incorporating meal planning into your usual grocery shopping routine is a great place to start. Read on below to learn more about what meal planning is and how to get started.

What is Meal Planning?

First – what it is NOT. Meal planning should not be confused with “meal prepping” – often seen on social media as a day-long cooking fiasco and a fridge stocked with Tupperware meals.

While there may be nothing wrong with this – and some simple food prepping can actually be extremely helpful for families – meal planning is a much simpler concept.

Meal planning involves deciding what you’ll eat every day at the beginning of the week, or for another short duration of time. You then prepare a list and do the grocery shopping (and maybe a bit of prep if you’re ambitious!)

While this may seem like a daunting task, the benefits of meal planning are worth it. In particular, meal planning is a great tool to use when trying to stick to a budget.

Why is meal planning so important?

Meal Planning Helps You Save Money

Meal planning helps keep more money in your pocket because:

  • Having a grocery list helps you only purchase items that you need. Going into the store focused and getting out faster means spending less money on impulse items and food that will go uneaten.
  • It helps you use up what you have on hand. Planning meals around the food already in your pantry or freezer means you need to buy less.
  • You’ll spend less on takeout. Having a plan eliminates the need for “emergency takeout” when you’re just too busy or tired to think about what to make for dinner.

Other Benefits of Meal Planning

Beyond saving you money, other benefits of meal planning include:

  • Saving you time. Instead of aimlessly wandering the store trying to think of meals on the fly, having a list makes grocery shopping fast and efficient.  You will also spend less time each day answering the “what’s for dinner?” question.
  • Reducing waste: Have you ever had big plans for a bag of spinach when at the store, only to find it at the back of the fridge completely rotten three weeks later? We’ve all been there. Meal planning reduces food waste by helping you buy only what you plan to use.
  • Making healthy eating the easier choice: Let’s be real – when you get home from work borderline-hangry with no plans for dinner, preparing a well-thought-out, balanced meal is the last thing you want to do. When you have a plan already in place, choosing a healthy meal is much easier.

While in the end, these added benefits of meal planning don’t directly save you money, they do protect your time, the environment, and your health – which is truly invaluable.

So, are you ready to get started?

How to Meal Plan in 3 Simple Steps

To get started, set aside 30 minutes at the start of each week to complete your meal plan. You’ll need a pen and paper – or check out these free meal planning templates!

1. Select your meals

The first step in is figuring out WHAT you want to eat. To help you select your meals, ask yourself the following questions:

  • How many meals do I want to plan? Do I only need to plan dinner or lunch too? Do I want a new meal each day or will there be leftovers? If you’re new to planning, keep it simple and start small.
  • What do I already have? Check your fridge and pantry. Plan meals around what you already have on hand and complement with items from the store to make complete meals.
  • What’s on sale? Check out flyers from your local supermarkets and plan meals using the deals of the week. Don’t forget to look for coupons in-store or online.
  • What’s in season? When produce is in-season it is generally more abundant and therefore, less expensive. Incorporate these fruits and vegetables into your meals – they usually taste their best during this time too.  

TIP: As a general rule of thumb, aim to incorporate at least one serving of fruit or vegetables, a source of lean protein and a healthy starch or grain for a complete and balanced plate.

For more inspiration, check out your favourite cookbooks or spend some time browsing food blogs online. Have fun with the planning and take the opportunity to try a new meal or food!

2. Schedule your meals

Once you’ve figured out WHAT you want to eat, decide WHEN you are going to eat it. Use your weekly template or another calendar to write down which meals you will eat each day.

meal plan sample

(Photo: Example of a meal plan using the weekly meal plan template)

Don’t forget to consider other activities happening during the week, too. For example:

  • Choose quick meals for having leftovers on busy evenings
  • Have a big sports game Saturday morning? Plan a larger breakfast to fuel up
  • Going out for dinner Saturday night? Write that down, too

Scheduling your events directly into your calendar helps you plan your meals more effectively.

TIP: Purposely plan to use leftover ingredients to buy less and save more! For example, use leftover roast chicken from dinner to make chicken salad for lunches during the week. Have hummus in a wrap and also as a snack with veggies.

grocery list sample

3. Prepare a grocery list

Once you have finalized your menu, make a list of all the ingredients you will need. Don’t forget to subtract the items you already have on hand!

To make your list even shorter, try making simple ingredient swaps. As an example, replace the kale in your smoothie with spinach if you are already buying spinach for a salad.

TIP: Organize your list by section of the grocery store (i.e. produce, bakery, freezer, etc.) to make your list easy to read (and to prevent you from running back and forth for forgotten items). Or use this template!

And that’s it! You should now have a personalized meal plan and organized grocery list ready to hit the shops! Keep reading for tips on getting kids involved and how to incorporate basic meal prepping.

Tips for Getting Kids Involved in Meal Planning

There are several benefits to having kids contribute to the family meal plan. Not only does it model healthy eating habits, but it is a great opportunity to connect and share cultural or family traditions.

Giving kids the opportunity to contribute also increases their self-confidence and may even be a helpful way to encourage a picky eater to try a new food.

Some easy ways to involve kids could include having them:

  • Choose a meal or recipe
  • Select a healthy food from the flyer
  • Check the fridge or cupboards for what’s on hand
  • Choose a new fruit or vegetable at the store
  • Write out the grocery list
  • Read nutrition fact tables (for older children)

How to Incorporate Meal Prepping

For the average family, preparing an entire week’s worth of meals ahead of time is typically unnecessary. However, taking a bit of time at the start of the week to prepare a few meal components can turn out to be a real time-saver.

After grocery shopping, consider prepping a few items so that putting meals together during the week is quicker and easier. For example:

  • Cut up fruits or vegetables for easy snacking, steaming, stir-frying, baking, etc.
  • Prepare a batch of whole grains, like rice or quinoa to have as a side or in a salad
  • Prepare a protein (e.g. meat, legumes) to quickly add to the main dish like pasta or salad

Note: For food safety reasons, it is best to only prepare food up to three to four days ahead of time.

Guide to Meal Planning Summary

While planning your meals in advance involves an investment of time at the start of the week, the return in time, money and stress saved are undeniably worth the effort. As a bonus, involving kids along the way not only teaches valuable life skills but increases their confidence in the kitchen, too.

And who can put a price on that?

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