A Beginner’s Guide on Meal Planning: Step 1 | How to start making a meal plan


Sharon Sun


July 24, 2022

New year, new meal plan?

Eat healthier. Save money. Stay organized (oh, hello!). If any of these three goals are on your New Year’s list and you’re ready to conquer the dreaded question “What’s for dinner?” (and breakfast and lunch), then you’re in the right place! Maybe you are starting out with meal planning for the first time or maybe the thought of meal planning gives you the morning jitters and you need a little nudge. Whichever is the case, we’re dedicated to becoming your meal plan saviors to help you make the most of your meals, guide you to make budget-friendly choices and even reduce food waste while you’re at it (talk about saving the world). Meal planning doesn’t have to be intimidating. Let’s break down our meal plan ‘recipe’ in 5 steps of this series:

  • Part 1: Intro | Why plan your meals and how to make a plan (you’re here!)
  • Part 2: Creating your grocery list | A pantry staples guide and more
  • Part 3: Shopping for your ingredients | Tips to navigate the grocery store
  • Part 4: Cooking tips and tricks | Eating and enjoying the food you make
  • Part 5: A guide on freezing food and minimizing food waste

But first, why meal-plan?

  • Always having an answer to ‘What’s for dinner?” If your partner, parents, roommate or pet are constantly asking you this question, then after reading this guide, you’ll have something in your back pocket to throw back. Except this time, you’ll have an answer ready for a whole week and not just 5 minutes before the meal.
  • Make healthier food choices and eat a variety of foods. A common meal planning myth is the chore of eating the same foods repeatedly but that is not the case! Meal planning offers you flexibility so that you can make choices which best suit your preferences and goals, one of which is an opportunity to have balanced healthy meals and even try out new ingredients along the way (aka become your own creative chef)! On top of that, even eating out can be part of your meal plan and help with a mindful eating pattern too, making it something to look forward to!
  • Save money. One of the benefits of meal planning is that you won’t break the bank while doing it. With some careful planning and also incorporating common pantry staples, you’ll be able to whip a tasty meal without hurting your wallet. Along the way, you might even develop intuition on the average cost of common ingredients, making it easier to master budgeting for meals in the future.
  • Stay organized while also being flexible. This is exactly what you make of it because meal planning is flexible. Perhaps you like to stay organized with spreadsheets and tabs or maybe creating a list with good old pen paper does the trick. When grocery shopping, you can buy groceries in one go or pick up more items during the week and get your daily walk done while you’re at it. The choice truly is yours and that’s the beauty of meal planning.

Step 1: Let’s make a plan

Even before looking at the recipes, it’s a good idea to sit down, consider your schedule and think about how much you would like to plan for. It’s easy to get caught in overestimating the time available and what can be accomplished. Here are some things to consider:

  • Mindset applies here, there and everywhere: Remember, the best meal plan is the one that works for you. Part of successful meal planning and taking action on any new goal, is knowing yourself and being consistent. There are a plethora of tips and advice out there (including this post here), but they are exactly that, advice that you could apply. With this in mind, ask yourself: ‘Would I realistically implement this and if not, how can I make it work for me (if I want it to)?’
  • How many days or weeks do you want to plan in advance? A simple first step is to think about how many days/weeks of planning ahead you want to do. Are you someone who changes your mind and prefers flexibility as new recipe inspiration comes along or would you rather stick to a solidly-prepared plan? If you’re the former, then planning for no more than 1 week’s worth of meals may be a good idea so that you can try out that new recipe for the following week. If you’re the latter, then 2 or more weeks of planning ahead could be an additional time saver. See, there’s no right or wrong here!
  • How many meals are you planning for and for who? Maybe the traditional 3 meals a day and a few snacks in-between is what you need or maybe you don’t need to consider lunch if it’s covered at work. Then, decide how many nights you are willing to make food at home, how many days you’ll want to have leftovers and even the days you would like to eat out (optional)! For some, that could look like preparing all meals twice a week and having about 3 days of meals ready in advance or maybe there’s a bit more flexibility and you want to cook for 3-5 nights (aka your ‘cooking days’). While you’re planning this out, think about who you’ll be preparing meals for, whether it’d be just for yourself, your partner, pet, kids, or roommate.
  • What does your schedule look like? After you have picked your ‘cooking days’, tune in a little further to decide how much time you’re willing to spend making meals on these days. Does your schedule allow for enough room to accomplish the above? From here, this will give you an idea of the types of recipes to choose! For example, if you want to dedicate 1 hour to meal preparation that night, then a 30-minute recipe might be best, while accounting for some time for extra ingredient preparation, cooking time and clean up.

Tip: I always like to set at least an extra 50% time more than what I think it will take to prepare a meal or what the recipe time calls for because things happen!
Tip: If your schedule does not fluctuate often, set aside the same day every week (ie. if you plan on cooking 3 times a week, then maybe choose Monday, Wednesday, Friday). For myself, Sunday is my golden meal-prep day (and also gives me energy after a full day of rest to settle my mind from the week prior). This can help put you into a habit-conscious state and make it easier to plan ahead.
Reminder: Depending on your number of cooking days, remember to also factor in how many accompanying grocery trips you need to make for these days and how much time these would take. Similar to above, I recommend setting aside the same day(s) to do this. It’s all about time management and consistency here!

  • Considering eating out, meal prep kits, etc. Who says meal planning is just for all home-cooked meals?  While one of the reasons to plan meals is to make healthier food choices, you will likely be doing this 70-80% of the time and that means there can be room for impromptu meals like eating out! In fact, socializing and connecting with others through meals is also a part of building healthy habits and taking yourself out for a treat is one way to achieve this. Another fun idea is including a night with a meal prep kit which still saves you some time if you know you will be busier than usual for the week ahead. Build these here and make the meal plan yours! By the way, are we noticing a theme here?

An additional time saver: As you become your own meal planning wizard and get comfortable in the kitchen, you might even want to start planning further ahead to include ready-to-go meals in the freezer as another timer saver!

  • Decide what to eat and make. Now tell me that this is not the best step in this series (because I can surely argue against). Whether you like to browse on blogs or spend hours getting lost inside of Pinterest, the recipe world is ready and there for you. Here's a round-up of recipe considerations and inspiration to use from yours truly.

Considerations & tips when selecting recipes

  • Would you like to include leftovers for that dish? If so, consider batch cooking and making extra servings of the recipe. The best meals to prepare for leftovers for include soups, stews, chili, pasta, casseroles, wraps and curries like this Easy Red Lentil Dahl. Check out our guide on freezer-friendly recipes if you want to take easy meal prep to the next level!
  • Are meal plan themes your thing? (ie. Taco Tuesday (Cameron's favourite), or Meatless Monday)
  • Select recipes with common ingredients to reduce waste. See our essential pantry and fridge staples guide to help you keep common ingredients on hand!
  • Think ahead about the perishable ingredients and amounts used in the recipe so that nothing goes to waste! Does a recipe call for only half a bunch of parsley or an onion? Can you use these in other recipes on your list for that week? Toss in the extra chopped onion in your soup/stew or use the extra herbs as garnish in another dish! It never hurt anyone to have a few extra veggies and becoming your own chef is part of the beauty of meal planning.
  • Keep a collection and save recipes as you go. If you love using social media platforms like Instagram, Pinterest and TikTok, use the 'save/collection' feature as you scroll so that you’ll always have ideas on hand for the future. This has saved me a lot time as I 'multi-task', if you will.
  • Try plant-based recipes. The benefits of plant-based eating are astounding and most likely most budget-friendly. For some inspiration, check our top 10 plant-based recipes in under 30 minutes!
  • Get to know what’s in season. Choose recipes with seasonal fruits and veggies which will be cheaper than buying out of season.
  • Re-use and repeat. As you build your master list of recipe favourites, use them again in the future (if you’d like) and meal planning will become even easier!

Recipe inspiration sources:

While you’re here, browse our recipe page for easy, nutritious and delicious options!

Websites and blogs I absolutely love for finding recipes:
  • Plant You (Vegan)
  • Plenty by Yotam Ottolenghi (Vegetarian)
  • The Korean Vegan
  • The Joy of Cooking
  • Magnolia Table
  • The Barefoot Contessa Cookbook

If you have already gotten this far, you’re already more knowledgeable than you think and ready for the next step towards easy meal planning! Use our handy checklist/summary below ‘Step One: How to Start Meal Planning’ or subscribe to our mailing list and we’ll send you a copy for free! Check out the next step on tips to create a grocery list and guide to essential pantry staples so that you’re ready to go!

A handy checklist to help you get started with meal planning!

At Fuel Life, we’re on a mission to integrate health services and empower individuals to find their version of healthy. We believe in embodying the pillars of Body, Mind, Nutrition and Community at the core of our retreats, programs and events. Through the provision of interprofessional care and health, our vision is to pass along a legacy of positive health for all Canadians. Not sure where to start? Book a free discovery call today!

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