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The Ultimate Beginner's Guide to Meal Planning

March 14, 2023
9 min read

We’re firm believers that each and every one of us can benefit from meal planning.

A busy parent trying to find healthy, affordable dinner ideas for the family. Time-starved professionals looking to remove the guesswork in the evenings. Someone who opts for the ease of takeaways a little too often (and, well, everyone in between).

In this article, we'll explore the many benefits of meal planning and provide practical tips on the 'why' and 'how' to get started.

What is meal planning?

Quick Answer
Meal planning is the art of planning out meals for the week (or longer) for a particular goal or nutritional need. This allows us to have a game plan for our meals, know which ingredients and products we’ll need, and allow us to shop efficiently for them. And, most importantly, can take a lot of the stress out of deciding what to cook at the last minute.

Now, it’s important to not get meal planning confused with meal plans (or even meal prepping). While the two are often used interchangeably, they’re very different. Meal plans are often meal templates to follow, and are usually created by experts such as dieticians. 

Meal planning on the other hand is a simple habit and flexible tool that we can follow each week to make our lives easier—created by you, for you! With meal planning, you can even choose not to cook! Have a social event coming up? Just make sure you’re making smart decisions throughout the rest of your week!

While a pre-designed meal plan can be a helpful starting point for those looking to improve their diet, it’s often not the most effective long-term solution. Meal planning allows for greater flexibility and creativity in your meal choices, as well as the ability to adjust your plan based on changes in your schedule, lifestyle or goals.

“What I prefer about meal planning is that it takes you a step away from passively being told what to eat… instead, it puts you in the driver’s seat of your own nutrition.”

Andrea D'Ambrosio, RD

Owner, DieteticDirections

Why is meal planning important?

Quick Answer
Meal planning provides a simple framework to make your life easier, healthier and cheaper. Why meal planning is important, specifically, differs from one person to another based on their goals, preferences and diet.

But, the one universal positive is simply not having to think about each and every meal. We all lead hectic lives, and having to think about what to eat three times a day, seven times a week… well, it’s a lot. We often refer to it as decision fatigue.

When you’re first starting out with meal planning, it may take a little brain power in working out your meals for the week. But, as meal planning quickly grows into a week-to-week habit, you’ll wonder why you ever did things differently.

What are the benefits of meal planning?

In a nutshell
Save time, save money, eat better. Oh, and you’ll be saving the planet, too. But let us explain in more detail…

Save time ⏱️

First and foremost, most people save themselves up to an hour each week deciding their meals with meal planning. That’s an hour reclaimed ready to spend on something important already. But it comes down to more than just the planning.

How many times have you been in the supermarket just aimlessly walking the aisles? Yep, us too. When you know what you plan to cook and come armed with an efficient shopping list you'll be in and out in record time.

Save money 💰

Weekly meal planning can be invaluable in budget-friendly shopping. Knowing which meals you plan to cook and each ingredient that goes into them (in the correct amounts) means you'll be able to shop for just what you need.

It can be a fantastic way to cut down on spend, save by prioritising seasonal produce with a much longer shelf life, and ensure you're stretching your budget by not having anything go to waste at the end of the week.

ℹ️ Find extra tips to save money on groceries here!

Eat better 🥗

When you’re planning your meals, you’re in better control of what you’re putting into your body. Especially if you’re trying to cut down on takeaways or eating out (where, spoiler alert, home-cooking pretty much always wins).

Crafting your meals around your nutritional goals is a surefire way to get more healthy fruits and veg into your diet, reduce sodium and calorie intake, or prioritise low-carb and high-protein foods. Whatever fits you!

Save the planet 🌎

While the link between the planet and meal planning might not be super obvious, it’s actually quite simple; reducing food waste is proven to help lower greenhouse gas emissions and prevent the impact of climate change

Simply put, making sure that stubborn head of cabbage in the fridge is used up, or not purchasing it in the first place without a plan to use it up, can go a long way to living a little greener.

How to get started with meal planning

1. Set a Goal

Start by setting a goal for your meal planning. Are you trying to save money on groceries? Eat healthier? Make meal times less stressful? And remember you can pick more than one goal, but try not to pick all of them.

We understand it’s easy to want to hit all of the bases in one go, but can often lead to extra stress if you don’t nail everything. Pick one or two that matter to you, and once you’ve nailed it, go for something else!

2. Choose Your Recipes

Choose recipes that fit your goals, preferences and budget. The best recipes are often those that are simple, nutritious, and easy to make; complex doesn’t always equal better.

(And we hope you’ve been paying attention! Try to pick recipes and use up leftovers or ingredients you’ve got in the fridge).

3. Make a Shopping List

Once you have your recipes, make an easy-to-follow shopping list of all the ingredients you'll need for the week. This will help you avoid impulse purchases at the grocery store and ensure that you have everything you need to prepare for the week ahead.

But don’t forget to add necessities like milk, loo roll, and chocolate too!

4. Prep in Advance

Prep as much as you can in advance to save time during the week. This might include chopping vegetables, cooking grains, or marinating meats.

You can also batch-cook and freeze meals for later in the week!

5. Stay Flexible!

Meal planning doesn't have to be rigid. Don’t burn yourself out by trying to stick 100% to your weekly plan. If you find that you're not in the mood for a particular meal, simply switch it up!

Meal planning should be seen as a tool to help you save time and reduce stress, not add to it.

As with many things in life, the more you do it the easier it becomes. By jumping straight in with meal planning you’ll start to realise what works and what doesn’t.

Meal planning on a budget

So, you're armed with the basics of meal planning and keen to get going. Now what? Well, for many, budget-friendly shopping is a huge priority right now (and rightly so!).

We've covered some tips to save money on groceries before. But how can you take this even further with budget-friendly meal planning?

Set a realistic budget 📝

This may seem glaringly obvious: to shop on a budget, you first need a budget. But it's often something people get wrong. Setting your grocery budget too strict can lead to you cutting out simple luxuries, going over your limit too often, and feeling like you've failed. This can lead to you burning out and abandoning it altogether.

Setting your budget at an achievable, realistic level while still allowing you to afford a few things you enjoy is far more sustainable. Once you've got your budget nailed you can then look at what could be cut out or changed to stretch it further, if needed.

Pick an affordable protein, plan around it 🍳

A lot of the meals we eat revolve around some form of central protein - vegetarians and meat-eaters alike. Whether it's tofu, chicken or fish, a great idea is always to find which protein's on offer that week and base most (or all if you won't get bored!) of your meals around that.

This doesn't mean you have to eat the same meal every single day. There are hundreds of ways to mix up your standard chicken breast. And as offers change week to week, you might find yourself branching out to try food you normally wouldn't pick.

ℹ️ If you need inspiration, discover new ideas in our 700+ recipe library!

Use healthy staples 🍚

Life is busy, so making sure we are well-fuelled for the day ahead is essential. Look to use cheap but filling foods as a base for your meal planning recipes such as healthy carbohydrates.

Foods like brown rice, potatoes, or lentils provide you with the important nutrients you need and won’t break the bank. These are also super easy to prepare and can easily be cooked in large amounts for batch-cooking if you wanted.

Try a meat-free day once or twice a week 🥦

It's not exactly a closely held secret that, on average, meat is more expensive than vegetables. Opting for meat-free Mondays can be a great way to stretch the budget further (while also reducing your carbon emissions).

There are many other foods that are good sources of protein like eggs, falafel, or tofu. Nowadays, most of the big supermarkets will have their own plant-based section where you’ll find a variety of tasty meat alternatives such as ‘fake’ sausages or burgers.

Have a back-up ready 🍛

Sometimes life might get in the way of your planned meal for the day. Or, you might just not be in the mood and fancy something different. It happens to us all. Having something quick and easy in the fridge can be a real lifesaver. It can help to prevent us from grabbing a takeaway or purchasing items outside of our budget on the way home from a long day.

A top tip from us is to save and freeze a healthy "plan B" meal, such as chilli. It can be the perfect way to sub in a stress-free, hearty home-cooked meal with minimal thought.

ℹ️ MenuAid is the perfect solution if you want to include healthy meal planning in your day-to-day life, but also be conscientious with your spending. You can tailor your meal plans to your weekly or monthly budget and we even allow you to shop the sales for an extra win-win.

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