How to Meal Plan: The Beginner's Guide

Meal planning is a great tool and is essential for a healthy lifestyle. It makes sure there are healthy, ready-to-eat options, saves money, decreases stress, saves time, and reduces waste.

What Is Meal Planning?

Meal planning: the process of planning out and preparing multiple meal options for a set amount of time, typically a 5-7 day period. No matter what may come up throughout a busy week full of work, outside activities, or family and friends, meal planning will save the day.

How to Meal Plan in 4 Steps

I know the idea of meal planning can be a little overwhelming at first. It can seem a little tedious and time consuming, but once you have a couple goes under your belt, it will feel like nothing! Here are my 4 easy steps to becoming a Meal Planning Master, plus a few sample days with examples of what I cooked this week!

Step 1: Choose your recipes

Choosing recipes is simple. Look for recipes full of protein, vegetables, healthy fats, and complex carbs. Each recipe doesn’t have to contain ALL of those things, but try and think about your day as a whole and how you can combine different recipes to get all of those in there.

For example, I love to make this slow cooker pulled pork and cole slaw recipe. It is super simple and tasty and I can make a big batch all at once in my crock pot. But this recipe only lasts my husband and me a couple of days and only covers the protein and some veggies. I also like to bake up some sweet potatoes to add with it for a great post workout meal!

Step 2: Make your grocery list

Once you have your recipes, the grocery list basically writes itself. Take the list of recipes you’re going to make and decide if you’re going to keep the quantities the same or maybe even double them to make extras (maybe you have a big family or just a hungry husband like me). Once you have decided the sizes of each recipe, start writing your grocery list based on the foods you’ll need.

You will also want to take into consideration the things you won’t necessarily need to prep. For example, eggs, fresh fruits and veggies, avocados, nut butters, etc – things that you can keep on hand and add in to a quick and delicious snack or meal.

Another tip is to get items you can throw in the freezer for just in case situations. I like to keep frozen fish, meat, and vegetables in the freezer. These are great for that Plan B situation!

Step 3: Grocery shopping

This part is really important – it can make or break your food prep process. Pick a time where you can mindfully shop. The last thing you want is to make the shopping process even more stressful than it already can be. I personally like to pick a time when I can go when it is not busy and I can take my time without feeling rushed (aka Saturday morning bright and early).

Also make sure you leave yourself enough time in case you have to go to multiple stores. I like to make a quick trip to Costco to pick up my bulk items and then another stop at my local grocery store or farmers market.

Step 4: Food prep!

Now to the good stuff … food prep! This is probably the part that some of you love and some of you despise. It can take a couple hours to put everything together. But don’t worry, it gets easier and faster with practice! Plus, if you think about out, a couple of hours here will save you TONS of time in the long run. Trust me.

Compile all of your recipes and look at their prep times, cook times, and cooking methods. This is important so you don’t start two things at once that use the same cook method that you can’t cook at the same time (for example two things use the oven but one recipe calls for 350F and the other 425F). I like to try and organize my things in a way that I start the longer recipes first so I can get those started and multitask with other recipes. Once you have an idea of what you need and how long different recipes take, try and organize them in the order you plan to do them. Then … it is time to start cooking! After you have everything cooked, pull out your Tupperware of choice and start putting it all away. And then, you are set!

Consider this a labor of love – for yourself and your family. You are ensuring that you are properly preparing and nourishing your family (and if you have kids, you are setting a great example for them).

Why You Should Meal Plan

As the saying goes, fail to plan and plan to fail. This could not be truer than when it comes to meal planning.

Why It’s So Important

When it comes to eating healthy and staying on track, meal planning is at the top of the “must-dos”. Set aside a couple of hours on a lighter day to plan and cook your food for the week. (You can even go a step further and plug in your calendar.) A couple of hours may seem dreadful at first, but when you think of how much time it will save you in the long run, it is WELL worth it!

It not only allows us to have nutritious options ready during our busy schedules, but also keeps us from grabbing quick, unwholesome options when in a pinch. Plus it is cheaper than eating out all the time!

Benefits of Meal Planning:

  • Healthy ready-to-eat options
  • Saves money
  • Less stress
  • Time saver
  • Reduces waste

Healthy Ready-to-Eat Options

I don’t know about you, but I am definitely the type of person when it comes to food: if it is in the house I will eat it (no matter if I know it isn’t good for me). That is why it is key for me to always have healthy options available via meal planning. Making a selection of proteins and healthy carbs and pre-cutting your veggies so they are ready to eat or cook will make it easier to grab things on the go. My go-to option is cooking brussel sprouts in some coconut oil and adding it in with some grass-fed ground beef. I keep a contain of that mixer in the fridge during the week so I can easily scoop out a cup and add with spaghetti squash, sweet potatoes, or just eat on its own for a little afternoon snack.

Saves Money

If you are anything like me, saving money is key. Meal planning is an easy way to do that. I always hear people say that eating healthy is so expensive… but that is definitely not the case. On average, a person spends $13 when eating out versus $4 when cooking for themselves. This is an average saving of $9 a meal. If you typically eat out just 4 times a week, you could save about $36 a week!

Less Stress

As stated above, fail to plan and plan to fail. This goes hand in hand with stress. By planning ahead, there is less room for stress over what to cook or what to throw together for a meal or snack. This in turn decreases any added stress from making poor choices because nothing was prepared ahead of time. Plus, when you have food already made it reduces any stress that can be attached to eating out or spending more money after you already have plenty of great options at home.

Time Saver

I can’t tell you how many times I come home from an unexpectedly long day at work and the last thing I wanted to do is cook. Luckily I had perfectly planned out proteins and veggies. All I had to do was warm it up in the cast iron skillet and pop it on my plate! Decreasing time spent cooking/preparing daily meals is huge, especially if you are cooking for yourself and your family.

Reduces Waste

By planning out specific meal options, it is less likely that food will get purchased at the grocery store and get forgotten in the fridge. Your grocery items will be purchased with purpose rather than because it looks good at the time. Only buy enough food that will last you 3-5 days without having any left over after that. If you portion out your meats, starches, fruits, and vegetables that way, you reduce the chance of having extras with nowhere to go before they go bad.

Meal planning is an essential step in creating and keeping a healthy lifestyle with plentiful benefits, especially the ones we discussed above. With all these benefits, there is no reason not to try it out. It may seem a little daunting at first, but it won’t take long to find your groove.

The key is to “Keep It Simple Stupid” – don’t overcomplicate it, get creative, and most of all HAVE FUN!

My Sample 7 Day Meal Plan

Examples: What I cooked this week

Cooking is one of my favorite things to do so it comes as no surprise that meal planning is my jam (no pun intended!). I love meal planning because it allows me to pick out new and exciting recipes to try each week, and sometimes even come up with my own. On this week’s menu I decided to keep it simple yet flavorful.

  • Proteins
  • Crock pot shredded green chili chicken
  • Lime cilantro grilled shrimp
  • Grass fed beef sliders
  • Eggs
  • Complex Carbs
  • Japanese yams
  • Spaghetti squash
  • Veggies
  • Shredded cabbage (kept raw for salads and slaw)
  • Grilled peppers and onions
  • Roasted brussel sprouts
  • Healthy fats
  • Avocados
  • Raw nuts
  • Nut butters

With these items, I could easy mix and match items depending on what I was in the mood for. And even options to add to taco Tuesday with the quick batch of paleo tortillas!

We know this is a lot of steps – if you want to make this a lot easier, consider our meal planning service where we do it all for you. All you have to do is cook!

Make Meal Planning Easier with a Meal Planning App

You can meal plan on your own and while it's certainly doable - you might find you're spending hours each week searching up new recipes, building out shopping lists and putting together each week's meal plan.

It doesn't have to be like that.

We built a meal planner to help you save time and money. People are saying it's the best meal planner on the internet. Our average customer saves 2 hours a week and $50/month on groceries alone (plus you get $300 in bonuses just for signing up.

You can try our meal planner out for free here.

You can try paleo, keto, aip, low carb, clean eating, and healthy meal plans (and more diet plans!).

Meal Plan Sources + Citations

For more resources, tutorials and downloads on meal planning - check out the resources below.

Joel Runyon

About the Author

Joel Runyon

Joel Runyon is the founder of Ultimate Meal Plans. Joel is an ultra endurance athlete and entrepreneur. He's also the founder of Ultimate Paleo Guide, MoveWell and is the founder of IMPOSSIBLE ® - a lifestyle performance brand helping people push their limits in fitness and life.