“Make a meal plan.” It’s a tip we’ve heard multiple times when nutrition experts talk about healthy eating, but few really explain how you can do it yourself—without spending your entire weekend (and paycheck) planning out exactly what you're going to eat for an entire week. And even then, you'll still end up having to decline dinner invites from friends to avoid "breaking the rules." Basically it all sounds like a big yaaaaawn!The good news: None of that is actually true—or at least it doesn’t need to be. A good meal plan creates structure that encourages healthy eating, yet it’s adaptable to how you live and eat, says integrative medicine nutritionist Sheila Dean. Put in a little time one day during the week, and you’ll save time by nixing unnecessary trips to the grocery store and ending those “What do I want for dinner?” ponderings that can go on for hours. You’ll also save money since your shopping list will be more accurate (read: less moldy food tossed out) and you’ll have a reason to stop relying on takeout so much.
Ready? Let’s do this!
1. Check your schedule.
Having a meal plan doesn’t mean kissing your social life good-bye and staying home to cook every night—it means cooking when you have time so that even on the busiest nights, you have a healthy, homemade dinner. So before determining what to eat, determine how much time your schedule allows to prepare meals, says Lori Zanini, R.D., spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. During a week jam-packed with events, it may make more sense to spend some time on the weekend prepping vegetables, cooking a big pot of grains, or making entire meals in advance and freezing half the batch in individual-serving containers. That way you can let one defrost during the day in the fridge and then heat it up quickly when you come home late after happy hour. You also don’t risk throwing spoiled food in the trash since you can scale your grocery shopping for the number of nights you’ll need meals.
2. Raid the fridge and pantry.
Not in the eat-everything-in-sight kind of way, though. Rather, take stock of what you have on hand (tip: Do this after a meal so you’re not tempted to snag a few chips) and use that as a starting point for some recipes to make during the week. Have noodles and broccoli? Make one-pot pastas primavera! Or turn leftover chicken and a can of beans into a healthy burrito bowl. You get the idea.
3. Search for recipes.
You know all those recipes you’ve pinned and said, “Some day I’ll make this”? How about actually making them? Check out your boards of food porn, bookmarked recipes, and dog-eared cookbooks and select a few based on the ingredients you have and what makes your stomach growl most. Zanini recommends keeping an eye out for those that have no more than 10 ingredients and take about 25 to 35 minutes to make at most because, let’s face it, you want something easy. (But if a more elaborate meal appeals, by all means go for it!) And don’t forget slow cooker recipes and one-pot meals for easy cleanup.
4. Plan for leftovers.
Although recipes for one are perfect for those living alone, it’s also worth cooking meals that make additional servings and can turn into another night’s dinner or lunch. If the thought of eating the same meal sounds blah, use the ingredients to make a new meal, says Caroline Kaufman, R.D.N. Grilled salmon for dinner can become top a salad for lunch the following day, and cooked vegetables can be added to an omelet in the morning. And don’t forget you can always freeze most dishes (soups are great for this).
5. Put it in black and white.
OK, you know the amazing homemade goodies you’ll be eating this week—now write it down. Whether you use pen and paper, an app, or a chalkboard, recording your plan will boost accountability, Kaufman says.
6. Make a grocery list and hit the store.
Chances are you won’t remember everything you need, so use your phone or jot down your list of ingredients (plus staples that you’re low on or out of, of course). This way you’re less likely to need to go back to the supermarket later in the week—saving time—and you’re more likely to only buy what you need—saving money, Zanini says.
A basic meal plan is a great way to help you stick to healthy eating goals while also saving time and money. Tailoring a plan to your needs provides structure, yet it also allows for wiggle room. If your BFF suddenly gives you a free ticket to the Taylor Swift concert (hey, we can dream!), but you were planning to go home and turn those grilled veggies into pork tacos—go to the concert! (We hope we didn’t need to tell you that.) And if you end up tossing a little bit of food out—um, you just saw T Swift. NBD.
One final tip from Dean: Review your meal plan, either at the end of each day or at the end of the week. See how well you followed it and then adjust the next week based on what worked and what didn’t. Perhaps you’ll find that you have more time to cook weeknights at the beginning of the week or that you can only stand using leftovers one more time. It’s your meal plan—do what works for you. And have fun!