The ultimate guide to meal planning
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Meal planning! Everyone says you need to plan your meals. It doesn’t really matter if you’re doing it to save money, lose or gain weight, control your mood swings, or just so you don’t get home from work and waste a bunch of time trying to figure out what the heck you can make from half a lemon, a piece of cheddar and some rice.
Even if you don’t plan any other area of your life, you should be planning your meals. The benefits are so huge, and the effort is so low. Honestly, you already have to think about what to have for dinner. You already have to cook. You might as well take up meal planning!
Why plan your meals?
Meal planning allows you to:
- Save money. By planning your meals, you can take advantage of coupons, seasonal ingredients and cooking things that can be used in flexible ways – e.g. by making a ragu sauce that can be used with pasta one night and sloppy joes the next.
- Save time. There is nothing more annoying than going to the supermarket three times in one week. Planning your meals means you can write a shopping list. A shopping list means you’ll buy what you need, everything that you need… and no more.
- Eat more healthy food. When we aren’t sure what to have for dinner, and we’re hungry, we tend to choose fast food or processed food. These options can be healthy, but often aren’t. And they rarely contain vegetables, and vegetables are the foundation of healthy eating.
- Manage your weight. If you want to lose weight, having your meals planned out and knowing the calorie content will help you avoid going off track. If you want to gain weight, the same thing applies.
- Never have to ask ‘what’s for dinner?’ again. Look, we’ve all been there. You’re scrambling at the last minute, and in the end you either make something completely uninspired, or you order takeout. It’s expensive, stressful, and it means you aren’t in control of what you eat.
How to make meal planning work for you
There are, I think, three main ways to approach meal planning.
Firstly, you can use a ‘meal or recipe box’ service, where they deliver a set of ingredients and recipes to you. This is great for ensuring you always have three to five healthy dinners ready to go. Fantastic for families short on time, or couples who want to try out new recipes and aren’t sure where to start.
Secondly, you can use a meal planning service that sends you recipes and a shopping list. This means that someone else does all the thinking, recipe testing and work of transcribing recipes to a shopping list. It’s the best option for someone comfortable with cooking, but would like to spend less time racking their brains over ‘what’s for dinner’.
Finally, you can do it yourself. You write the meals, you come up with the shopping list, you buy the ingredients, you cook the food. If you love cooking and thinking about food, you should plan your meals yourself. You’ll get the meals you enjoy the most, and you’ll have full control over your kitchen. In this post I’ll talk more about how you might approach this and give some links to printables that will help you plan your meals.
If you’re just starting out with meal planning, or if you are busy, distracted, tired, coping with a newborn, coping with an illness, struggling to make changes to the way you eat, working long hours, or juggling a ton of different things… outsourcing some or all of your meal planning does make sense.
I’ll talk more about the different options for meal plans, and give you some links to check out.
One thing to remember is that you can totally mix-and-match your approach. So maybe you plan three meals and get three meals delivered from a recipe box service. Or maybe most weeks you plan all your meals, but when things get a bit hectic you use a meal planning service that does the thinking for you!
1. Meal/Recipe Box Services
I’ve used a couple of these. The upside of meal boxes is you basically don’t have to think (or shop) for dinner at all. They come up with recipes, send you pre-measured ingredients, and all you have to do is cook them. The downside is you have less control over your meals, and they don’t cover breakfast or lunch, so you’ll probably still need to buy something. They are also can be pricier than shopping for yourself (but are definitely cheaper than take-out).
HelloFresh send a recipe box that contains 3-5 meals for 2-4 people. They have three options, their classic box (which is what I get), a veggie box, and a family box. You get to pick from a selection of meals, and all the meals I’ve tried so far have been tasty, fresh and quick to make. You get exactly the right amount of ingredients, so there is no waste.
Abel and Cole (UK)
Abel and Cole started life as a veg box company, but quickly expanded. They now offer a range of veg (and fruit) boxes, meat boxes, and recipe boxes. Abel and Cole are the best choice if you care about eating organic, with eco-friendly packaging. There are a few choices for recipe boxes – the ‘simple’ box, which features relatively straightforward meals, the ‘foodie’ box, which is great if you love cooking impressive, soul-nurturing food, ‘veggie’ for vegetarian options and ‘light’ which are low-calorie (but still tasty).
If you’re an experienced home cook, you can also order a veg box plus a meat box, and you’ll be pretty well covered for meal ideas. I did this for a while, and it was a great way to eat lots of seasonal food!
Blue Apron (USA)
I don’t have direct experience of Blue Apron, since I live in the UK! But I’ve read a few glowing reviews of the Blue Apron boxes. They work directly with family-run farms and artisanal purveyors, but the meals come out to around $9 a serving. They cater for a variety of ways of eating (e.g. vegetarian, vegan, pescatarian, etc). I just love their vision for a new way of approaching eating, and so I’m recommending them if you live in the USA :).
If you have used Blue Apron I would love to know how you got on with it! Just drop me a comment below.
2. Meal Planning Services
Meal Planning services come up with your weekly menu, and usually give you a shopping list. They are a bit more flexible than the recipe boxes (above) because you can adapt the meals as you like. There’s also a lot of meal plan options out there – one for pretty much every diet or lifestyle you can imagine.
$5 Meal Plan
Let’s start with $5 Meal Plan, because it’s one of the cheapest options and will work well for most people. You spend $5 a month, and in return you get an email each week with a fixed meal plan. Erin offers a classic meal plan and a gluten free meal plan. The recipes are what I would call ‘classic American’ in style. Think pulled pork, sloppy joes, pasta alfredo, burgers, tacos, etc. It’s an incredibly cheap way of not having to think about ‘what’s for dinner’ ever again.
Real Plans covers all the ‘real food’ diets. Think Keto, Paleo, Primal, Whole30, GAPS, AIP, vegetarian, gluten-free, dairy-free… yes, they have it all! You can exclude specific ingredients from your plans, so if you have a food allergy (or just hate bell peppers) you can be sure it won’t turn up in the shopping list.
It also lets you add ingredients to your shopping list, including adding ‘regular’ items. This website is basically meal planning on steroids.
You can sign up for between $6 a month and $14 a month depending on how long you commit for, and they offer a refund policy if you cancel in the first 14 days.
My overall feeling is that $5 meal plans are good if you don’t have the mental energy to think about what to eat at all (and if you’re an omnivore).
Real food meal plans are better if you want a good framework, but with more flexibility within that framework.
3. Meal Planning Books
Of course, people have been planning meals since the time they got sick of eating raw mammoth meat. If you prefer to buy a book instead of subscribe to a weekly plan, there are options for you as well.
The Healthy Meal Prep Cookbook* – includes 3 flexible 2-week meal plans, along with over 100 recipes.
The Fresh 20: 20-Ingredient Meal Plans for Health and Happiness 5 Nights a Week* – Use 20 ingredients a week to create five meals based around seasonal eating. Includes recipes, photos and shopping lists.
4. Create your own meal plans
You can create your own meal plans. That is actually what I do about 50% of the time.
The nice thing about the above options is that you can be flexible with them. The recipe box services can be limited to 3 or 4 meals a night, leaving you some more spontaneous nights. You can also take a week or two off.
Same with the meal planning websites. They are cheap enough that you can sign-up and use them when you are short on time and inspiration. But if you really crave your Mum’s rosemary roast chicken, you can ignore the suggested recipe for that week, or modify your plan appropriately.
How to create your own meal plans from scratch
To stop me getting overwhelmed from too many choices, I plan around ‘themes’. For example:
- Meat Free Monday,
- Italian Tuesday,
- Indian Wednesday (curry night!),
- Throwback Thursday (classic British pub food basically),
- Fish Friday,
- Slow Cooker Saturday,
- and a Sunday Roast.
First of all, you need a collection of recipes. This can be digital or physical. Maybe you save recipes to Evernote, or maybe you print them and stick them in a ring-binder.
I collect recipes and group them into these categories. When I come to plan my week, I flick through the choices in each category and pick the meals that look most appealing, use seasonal ingredients, or overlap with each other in some way.
I’ve created a spreadsheet that lets me record meal ideas and then use a drop-down menu to pick from them. You can download or make a copy of that meal planning spreadsheet.
Meal planner printables
Whatever you do, you’ll need to write out your plan and a shopping list. Here are some of my favourite printables.
- A gorgeous weekly meal planner printable, that lets you track your daily fruit & veg servings, as well as protein, water, grains etc.
- Download this monthly meal planner printable, for those of you who like to take your planning to the next level! Great if you do month-ahead freezer meals.
- Another weekly meal planner printable, that lets you plan snacks as well as meals. Good if you want to tightly control your calories.
- You can also buy a blank meal planner*, for those who (like me) don’t have a printer!
- Using a meal or recipe box service
- Using a meal planning service
- Or creating your own meal plans from scratch
I would love to know how you get on with your meal planning – or if you have any tips to share! Just pop a comment in the box below, or hit me up on twitter @cinnasunrise. 🙂