We rank vendors based on rigorous testing and research, but also take into account your feedback and our commercial agreements with providers. This page contains affiliate links.Advertising DisclosureThis is a user-oriented comparison website, and we need to cover hosting and content costs, as well as make a profit. The costs are covered from referral fees from the vendors we feature. Affiliate link compensation does not affect reviews but might affect listicle pages. On these pages, vendors are ranked based on the reviewer’s examination of the service but also taking into account feedback from users and our commercial agreements with service providers. This website tries to cover important meal, coffee and pet food delivery services but we can’t cover all of the solutions that are out there. Information is believed to be accurate as of the date of each article.
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Author Kenaz Filan
Kenaz Filan Writer
Updated on Jun 12th, 2024
Fact checked by Valentina Meneghini

Meal Planning: Everything You Need to Know in 2024

Meal planning can not only improve your diet, it can also save you time and money. An organized menu of balanced, nutritious meals helps you avoid unhealthy junk food. By planning your menu in advance, you can control portions and reduce the temptation to make impulsive food choices.   

Busy parents, athletes, individuals with allergies or specialized dietary needs, and those looking to lose weight can all benefit from meal plans. A regular meal plan reduces the stress of last-minute cooking decisions. You get more time to relax and enjoy time with your family. 

A well-organized approach to meal planning involves selecting appropriate recipes, shopping for ingredients, and preparing meals or meal components ahead of time. It saves you money, minimizes food waste, and helps you avoid unnecessary impulse purchases. By investing a little time in organizing and preparing your weekly menu, you can enjoy a healthier, less stressful, and more sustainable way of life. 

One of the easiest approaches we’ve found to meal planning is meal delivery services. With a meal delivery service, you can get meal kits, prepared meals, and add-ons delivered to your doorstep. There are meal delivery services that cater to most dietary needs and culinary tastes. Check out our list of the best meal delivery services to find one that works for you – or read on if you want to meal plan for yourself.

Understanding Meal Planning

Meal planning involves planning your weekly menu ahead of time. Your meal plan should be tailored to your nutritional goals. Do you want to lower your cholesterol or keep your blood sugar levels in check? Are you cooking for a family of picky eaters? There are many factors you can consider when building your meal plan. 

What is Meal Planning – And Why Is It Useful?

Meal planning helps streamline your diet by reducing last-minute decisions. A meal plan puts you in control of portions, ingredients, and nutritional content, which promotes healthier eating habits for you and your household. You can consider everybody’s food preferences and needs, which means everybody gets healthy and balanced meals they’ll love. 

You also gain more control over your family’s nutrition. Many processed foods are low in nutrients and high in sugar, preservatives, and empty calories. By doing your homework and shopping wisely, you can feed your family delicious meals that are balanced and nutritious. You also waste less food and make fewer impulse purchases.

While meal planning can initially seem intimidating, tools like meal planning apps can help you generate shopping lists and track your menus. And you don’t have to plan all your meals from the start. You’ll find that planning even a few meals a week ahead of time can save you time and improve your diet. 

The Benefits of Meal Planning

You save both time and money with meal planning. By crafting your menu in advance, you save time at the supermarket. You can also take advantage of weekly sales when organizing your meals.

Organizing your meals to suit your dietary needs helps you put healthier meals on your table. Buying fresh ingredients and preparing your own meals helps you avoid artificial ingredients and preservatives. You have better control over your calorie consumption and can avoid allergens or foods your family can’t eat.  

Meal planning also helps reduce food waste. Every year, over 33% of America’s food supply is thrown out or discarded.¹ ² By organizing your shopping list ahead of time, you produce less food waste. This saves you money and helps the environment.

Planning For Different Meals

Here are some ideas that will help you create a menu for every part of the day. 

Breakfast

Preparing breakfast in advance can make your morning go much more smoothly. Put Overnight Oats in the refrigerator mixed with berries and nuts before you go to bed and wake up to a nutritious and healthy breakfast that’s much more filling than pastries or sweet breakfast treats. 

You can also bake quiches or breakfast burritos ahead of time, put them in a storage container, and heat them up at the office. And morning omelets are much faster if the other ingredients are pre-chopped and ready to go.

Lunch

Ideally, your lunch should consist of at least one vegetable, a protein source, whole grains, and healthy fats to help you stay satisfied. This could simply be the addition of olive oil to your salad, but if you don’t fancy that, then you could try adding avocado to your meal. Wraps with lean meats or vegetable proteins like hummus or falafel are nutritious and convenient. Keep a light dressing in a smaller container and add it to your lunch when it’s time to eat. 

Lunch also offers a great opportunity to use leftovers. You can incorporate last night’s meat into salads or sandwiches. If you made a stew or slow-cooked meal the night before, you may even find it’s better the next day! 

Dinner

If you’re pressed for time, sheet pan dinners with a mix of proteins and seasonal vegetables can be a great way to serve a delicious and quick meal. One-pot dishes like chilis or stews are not just great for leftovers; they also offer easy cleanup. 

Look for ingredients from different food groups to ensure you get all your required vitamins and minerals. Combining meats, vegetables, and starches also provides you with a variety of tastes and textures. This ensures your healthy meals are never boring.

Snacks

Healthy snacks can be an important part of meal planning. A high-protein, high-fiber snack can keep you feeling full between meals and help you maintain your energy levels.

Preparing portion-controlled snacks ahead of time helps you avoid vending machine treats at the office. Some great choices include apple slices with almond butter, mixed nuts with dried fruit, or whole-grain crackers and cheese.

Getting Started with Meal Planning

The first thing you need to do before starting a meal plan is to check your pantry and refrigerator. Choose recipes to help you use ingredients you already have on hand to reduce food waste. 

Setting Your Meal Planning Goals

You don’t have to start by planning your meals for the next year. Start with short-term goals like planning meals for a week, or even just trying a new recipe every week. Short-term goals offer immediate satisfaction and can help you build momentum. 

Useful long-term goals include developing a sustainable meal prep routine or adopting healthier eating habits over the next several months. Your goals should be SMART: Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-bound, to ensure they are realistic and trackable​.

Plan your meal around your social calendar. For example, avoid scheduling complicated meals on a day when you may be getting home late from the office. 

Essential Tools for Meal Planning

There are many meal planning apps available, including Mealime, Paprika, and Yummly. These apps provide recipes, shopping lists, and customizable meal plans that fit your dietary preferences and schedule​. You could also set up a simple spreadsheet.

Printable meal planning templates are great for those who prefer planning with pencils. Websites like Pinterest and health blogs often offer free, printable meal planning sheets. These can be used to outline your meals for the week, track your grocery list, and ensure you have everything you need for your planned recipes​.

Creating Your Meal Plan

The first step in creating your meal plan is to check your pantry and freezer to see what you already have. That also means making sure that nothing you have on hand is expired. Items with a “Best Before” date, like spices, will taste best and be most fresh if used by the date given.  

If you see a “Use By” date, the item may no longer be safe to consume after that date. Milk is one of the most commonly labeled “use by” items. You may also see a “Use or Freeze By” date for perishables like meat. You may freeze these items before that date, but you should discard them otherwise. 

Choosing Your Recipes

The USDA’s MyPlate guide is a great place to begin. It suggests that half your plate should be fruits and vegetables, a quarter should be grains, and the remainder should be protein, with a serving of dairy on the side. This balance helps you get a wide range of nutrients, promoting overall health. When planning, consider dietary restrictions and preferences within your household to ensure that everyone enjoys the meals and gets the nutrition they need​.

You can find recipes in recipe books, newsletters, nutritionist websites, and podcasts. Many supermarkets and learning centers offer cooking classes. This can be a great place to learn the basics of preparing and planning meals. 

I recommend keeping it simple to start. Don’t buy rare or expensive ingredients that you’ll only use once or twice. Keep your family’s dietary preferences in mind. If you’re stumped, you can look for recipes that will recreate your favorite takeout dishes in a healthier way. 

Organizing Your Shopping List

Organizing your list by sections saves time and reduces the chance of overlooking an item. If you have all the fruits and vegetables in one section, you can pick them up in the produce aisle and then move on to your bread, dairy, and other sections. 

Buying non-perishables like rice and pasta in bulk can save money. You can also use batch cooking to create several meals simultaneously and reuse leftovers creatively to minimize food waste.

Meal planning apps and tools can also help you track ingredients and avoid buying duplicates. 

Meal Planning For Specialized Dietary Needs

Vegetarian and Vegan

The key difference between vegetarians and vegans is that vegans don't eat animal products. Vegetarians avoid meat, poultry, and fish but may consume dairy products, eggs, and honey. Both vegetarians and vegans need to keep an eye on protein, iron, calcium, vitamin D, vitamin B12, and omega-3 fatty acids.

While many of these nutrients can be sourced from leafy greens, legumes, nuts, and seeds, vegans and vegetarians will need a B12 supplement. You should also include flax seeds, chia seeds, walnuts, hemp seeds, and soybeans to ensure that you get enough ALA (alpha-lineolenic acid), an essential omega-3 fatty acid. There’s no upper limit to B12 consumption, so you should definitely take 1 if you’re in any doubt.³ 

Staple ingredients for vegetarian and vegan diets include beans, lentils, tofu, and quinoa. A wide variety of fruits and vegetables will also be essential for variety. Vegetarians can also use cheese, eggs, and dairy products as protein sources. 

Gluten-Free

Individuals with gluten sensitivity or celiac disease will benefit from a gluten-free diet. Celiac disease, an autoimmune disorder triggered by gluten, requires strict avoidance of all exposure to products containing gluten. Those with gluten sensitivity may be able to tolerate small amounts of gluten.

If you have gluten sensitivity, you will want to avoid eating bread or other gluten-containing items. For a person with serious celiac disease, any exposure to gluten is a significant health issue. You will have to shop and prepare your meals using special precautions if you are cooking for a person with celiac disease. For example, avoid using wooden spoons and spatulas, as they can harbor gluten particles. 

You can substitute gluten-containing ingredients with alternatives like rice flour, almond flour, and gluten free oats. You can also find gluten-free pasta, bread, and other ingredients at most supermarkets. 

Low-Carb and Keto

Low-carb diets reduce carbohydrate intake to encourage your body to burn fat for energy. This involves limiting foods like grains, sugars, and starchy vegetables​. Low-carb diets can be good for maintaining safe blood sugar levels in those with borderline and Type II diabetes. You’ll need to limit your intake of saturated fats and focus on unsaturated fats like avocado, tofu, olive oil, and nuts. 

The ketogenic (keto) diet involves very low carbs, moderate protein, and high fat intake. Deprived of carbs and given an ample supply of fat, your body begins burning fat for fuel (ketosis). Keto diets incorporate high-protein and high-fat foods like eggs, avocado, cheese, and nuts. Certified nutritionists give the keto diet low marks, as it provides too much saturated fat and can have a detrimental effect on cardiovascular and nutritional health. 

Be sure to drink lots of water and get plenty of fiber on a low-carb or keto diet. Otherwise, you might have problems with constipation. You also need to make sure to consume plenty of green, non-starchy vegetables to get a balanced nutrition profile. 

Paleo

The paleo diet emphasizes whole, unprocessed foods similar to those eaten by early humans. Meals include clean meats and fish, fresh fruits and vegetables, and nuts and seeds. Dairy, grain, and processed foods are strictly forbidden. 

Paleo and Keto diets are sometimes confused with each other. But paleo diets include fruits and starchy vegetables that are limited or forbidden in a keto diet. And keto allows high-fat dairy like heavy cream and cheese, both of which are excluded on a paleo diet. While nutritionists approve of the paleo focus on whole foods, they’re not impressed by its blanket ban on grains and dairy products. 

Paleo meals might include grilled meats, roasted vegetables, and salads with nuts and seeds. Snacks can include fresh fruit, nuts, and veggie sticks. 

Weight Loss

Effective weight-loss diets focus on reducing calorie intake while ensuring nutritional balance. This includes high-fiber, low-calorie foods that keep you full longer​​. Starvation diets may lead to short-term weight loss, but at the expense of your health. 

It’s important to avoid extreme dieting and approach weight loss from an appropriate place. Eating disorders are very serious and can be fatal. Unless you have some nutritional knowledge, it’s best to consult a nutritionist or dietitian before beginning a weight loss diet.

You can adapt your favorite recipes by reducing portion sizes, using lower-calorie substitutes, and increasing the portions of vegetables. For example, use whole-grain products to increase fiber and low-fat dairy products, which tend to have more protein than full-fat products. Good weight loss snacks include salads with lean proteins, vegetable soups, and fruit slices. Be mindful of portion sizes, and limit or reduce high-calorie dressings and sauces. 

Diabetic

Diabetic diets focus on managing blood sugar levels. Diabetics need to eat balanced, fiber-rich meals with lean proteins, healthy fats, and a controlled carbohydrate intake.  

Use whole grains instead of refined grains, limit sugar, and incorporate more non-starchy vegetables. Monitor portion sizes and spread carbohydrate intake evenly throughout the day.

Opt for snacks like Greek yogurt with berries, nuts, and hummus with veggie sticks. These provide protein and healthy fats to help stabilize blood sugar levels​. And make sure to consult your doctor or dietitian before making any dietary changes. 

Allergies and Food Sensitivities

Food allergies can range from mild to severe. Identifying and strictly avoiding allergens is crucial, especially for severe allergies that can cause anaphylaxis​​. Meal planning can help limit the risk of a serious attack. 

Always read labels carefully and be aware of hidden allergens in processed foods. Cross-contamination is a risk, so consider preparing meals from scratch whenever possible​. 

Food allergies can limit your menu, but they don’t have to make it bland. You can find substitutes for many common allergens, and enjoy many interesting new foods that don’t trigger your allergies. 

Picky Eaters

You can make healthy meals for your family, but it’s all for nothing if they don’t eat them. When you’re planning menus for picky eaters, introduce new foods gradually and in small portions.

Getting your picky eaters involved in meal preparation can increase their interest in trying new foods. Making meals fun and interactive works better with picky eaters than endless arguments at the dinner table. 

You can also subtly add nutritious ingredients to meals. Adding pureed carrots to pasta sauce, for example, thickens the sauce and adds vitamin A and C. You can also add small quantities of spinach, kale, or other nutritious foods to most recipes. 

Athletes and Bodybuilders

Athletes and bodybuilders need balanced meals rich in protein, carbohydrates, and fats to support muscle growth and recovery and optimize performance. Plan your meals around these macronutrients to meet your specific training goals​​.  

Bodybuilders on a bulking cycle should increase their calorie and protein intake with foods like lean meats, whole grains, and healthy fats. Make sure you have a meal option for before or after training, as required. For cutting, reduce calories while maintaining protein to preserve muscle mass. 

If you are engaged in heavy aerobic exercise and need energy, a high-carbohydrate meal can give you a boost that will carry you through a tough workout. 

Singles

When cooking for one, you should plan meals that can be easily portioned and stored. Freezer-friendly containers are a great way to keep meals fresh and reduce food waste. 

Batch cooking is a great strategy for singles to save time and ensure nutritious meals are always available. You can prepare several meals at once and keep them in your refrigerator until you need them. 

Buy perishable items in smaller quantities, and look for versatile ingredients you can use in multiple recipes. 

Meal Prep Strategies

Batch Cooking

Effective batch cooking begins with planning. Choose your recipes for the week and create a detailed shopping list to ensure you have all the ingredients. This prevents last-minute trips to the store and helps keep you organized. 

Once you have your ingredients, prepare them in advance by washing, chopping, and measuring. This step simplifies the cooking process, allowing you to focus on cooking rather than prep work. 

Slow cookers, pressure cookers, and ovens help you handle large batches efficiently. You can roast multiple trays of vegetables simultaneously in the oven while making the meat dish in an InstantPot.  

After you’re done with your batch cooking, you must make sure to store all meals properly. Use airtight storage containers to keep your food fresh, and be sure you cool the food and get it in the refrigerator quickly. 

If left out too long, bacteria can start breeding in these foods. For example, Bacillus cereus can grow on rice, pasta, or other starchy foods. Use these batch ingredients within a day or 2 to avoid illness. 

Utilizing Leftovers

You can use leftover proteins in new dishes. You can shred last night’s roasted chicken to make a chicken salad wrap for lunch. Those veggie burgers can make a great pot of chili. Not only does this add variety to your meals, but it also reduces food waste. 

Broth, herbs, and spices can be the base for a hearty soup or stew. Simply gather up your leftover vegetables and meats, chop them as required, throw them in the broth, and let them simmer. And if you like the soup, you can put some aside in the freezer for future meals. 

Suppertime leftovers can become a tasty breakfast frittata or omelet the following morning. You can also put a serving aside for lunch the next day. And if you toss your leftovers with starch like pasta, rice, or potatoes, add sauce or cheese, and bake, you can have a tasty casserole. 

Advanced Meal Planning Tips

Seasonal Meal Planning

Seasonal fruits and vegetables are at their nutritional peak. They taste better and have higher concentrations of antioxidants and vitamins than those grown out of season. Strawberries and tomatoes are great examples of produce that’s best when in season. 

You can also save money on seasonal produce. Because it’s typically grown locally, seasonal produce requires less transportation and storage than off-season products that must be shipped cross-country or even internationally. 

This can be a great place to start if you need inspiration on what to cook. Simply look up which ingredients are in season that month where you live, and use those as a basis for creating recipes. A seasonal summertime menu might include shrimp salads and chicken with tomatillo and bell peppers. Winter menus might include kale and other winter vegetables.

Integrating New Flavors and Cuisines

Introducing new recipes and ingredients to your diet helps keep your meals exciting but it can be difficult to know where to begin. A good way to start is by incorporating new ingredients into familiar recipes. For example, add a pinch of turmeric to your soup or introduce a new vegetable like kale into your regular stir-fry recipe. 

New cuisines can also introduce you to new cooking techniques and flavor profiles. Vegetarians and vegans will find lots of new recipes in Indian and Thai cuisine, while meat-lovers will enjoy making their own Korean barbecue at home. 

Expanding Your Kitchen Skills

There are many cooking techniques that can help make your meals more nutritious. Sous vide preserves vitamins and minerals during cooking, as does fast stir-frying. New spices or a different recipe may make you see your veggies in a whole new light.

Adding new vegetables and lean proteins to your meals is a good way to diversify your diet. Less popular vegetables like eggplant and Brussels sprouts offer many health benefits. Breaded and baked Eggplant Parmesan with a fresh tomato sauce and cheese is loaded with vitamin C and filling fiber. 

While many novice cooks find seafood intimidating, fish is a lean and nutritious protein that can benefit everyone’s diet (if you eat animal protein). So long as you avoid overcooking and buy quality fish, it can be quite easy to make delicious and healthy fish meals. 

Quick Tips for Beginners

Here are some pointers to help first-time meal planners get acclimated to the world of meal planning. 

  • Start small and simple: Begin by planning just a few meals per week rather than an entire month's worth. This makes the process less overwhelming and more manageable. Choose simple recipes that you’re familiar with to build confidence and establish a routine. As you master one task, you can move on to the next one until you find the level of planning and work that best suits your needs and time restraints.

  • Create a weekly template: A basic template that outlines your regular meals can help you get into a groove. Theme nights like “Meatless Monday” or “Taco Thursday” simplify decision-making and add variety. This also streamlines grocery shopping and ensures you have a range of meals and cuisines throughout the week.

  • Prep ingredients in advance: Chopping vegetables, cooking grains, and portioning out snacks ahead of time can save you precious minutes during a busy weekday. One evening of prep work can be enough to assemble a whole week’s worth of meals. Having your meals and ingredients prepped beforehand helps you put meals together more quickly and reduces the temptation to cheat with unhealthy but convenient foods.

  • Stay flexible: Have a Plan B for that night when the main dish gets overcooked or when you discover a crucial ingredient is spoiled. Be prepared to swap ingredients or adjust your schedule based on what’s on hand. Keeping versatile ingredients like canned beans or frozen vegetables handy can help you adapt as necessary. 

FAQ

Will meal planning save me money?

You will definitely save money and also save time, too. By planning your meals, you’ll only buy the items that you need from the supermarket and this should cut down on impulse purchases. You’re more likely to prepare healthier meals and the amount of waste should be reduced too if you’re only buying what you need.

How can I meal plan for breakfast?

Breakfast is easier to plan for than you might think and it doesn’t have to be just cereal and toast. Overnight oats mixed with fruit and/or nuts are super healthy and can be prepared the night before. If you want something hot, try a breakfast burrito cooked the night before. Even just chopping up the ingredients before you head to bed can be a time saver in the morning.

Are there any apps that can help me meal plan?

There are many meal-planning apps available. Some examples are Mealime, Paprika, and Yummly. The apps can help you plan your meals around your dietary needs and make a shopping list.

What is the best way to use leftovers?

You can use leftovers in lots of exciting ways to create new dishes. Often this might be as simple as eating your dinner leftovers for lunch the next day. If you’ve got a lot, such as from a roast chicken, you can turn leftovers into dishes such as salads, wraps, pasta, risottos. You can freeze your leftovers in smaller portions and then make a meal from them at a later date.

References

    1https://earth.org/food-waste-in-america/ 

      2https://www.usda.gov/foodwaste/faqs 

        3https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/7-supplements-for-vegans

          4https://health.clevelandclinic.org/fried-rice-syndrome

            5https://diet.mayoclinic.org/us/blog/2022/picked-at-their-peak-the-benefits-of-buying-seasonal-produce/ 

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