The Complete Guide to Meal-Planning Success

How meal planning can make you a better athlete. Plus, 14 tips to help you make it a seamless part of your weekly routine.

Photo: Light Field Studio / Getty Images

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We’ve all been there: you’ve had a long day and now it’s dinner time but with little idea what you’re going to make or the energy left to put much mental power into figuring out what you can do with all the food jammed into your fridge and pantry. Many people wing it when it comes to mealtime, hoping that culinary inspiration will come to them when needed most. But most often such spontaneity will end up with you tipping the Grubhub guy.

As a dietitian, I am adamant that think-ahead meal planning is a crucial part of eating better. 

The practice helps you plan out a given set of healthy meals and snacks so you’re more likely to put nutrient-dense foods in your body. Proper menu planning also puts you on the path of eating out less frequently which can be a boon to your health and your savings account. According to a new study in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, frequently ordering takeout or dining out at a restaurant—eating at least two meals prepared outside of the home per day—increases the risk of dying from any cause by nearly 50%. Meals cooked at home are typically lower in calories and higher in nutrients compared to what is dished out at restaurants. This is why fueling your body with more homecooked meals will help you stay at race weight. The one thing that makes preparing your meals more likely to happen—and significantly easier—is meal planning. Gone is that nagging, late-day stress associated with deciding what to do for dinner.

With a meal plan in hand, you’ll also set yourself up for being in a better position to prepare aspects of a meal in advance so all that is left to do after an epic workout is to tie together a few loose ends of a meal. Not to mention that menu planning is a way to cut down on food waste which will save you some cash and help out the environment. 

When it comes to eating well, meal planning is one of the easiest things you can do to set yourself up for better health and athletic success. And while meal planning may sound daunting, it’s quite simple with a little know-how. Think of it as creating a personalized menu and then come up with a plan for how you’ll execute it. Here’s how to do it like a pro.

Meal Planning Tips

1. Mark Your Calendar

Set aside about an hour each week where the only goal is to plan your menu for the days ahead. This could be the day before your designated grocery store or farmers’ market run but wedge out the time wherever you can. It’s easy to let this slip away from you so be sure to pencil it into your to-do list. Also, choose an interval of time that works best for you and your family. This could mean planning out meals a week, two weeks, or even a month in advance.

2. Plan the Whole Enchilada

Menu planning is not just for your dinners. To maximize the benefits and set the tone for smooth sailing in the kitchen all week, be sure to include breakfast, lunch, and even snacks in your planning sessions. Think about how many breakfasts, lunches, snacks, and dinners you’ll need throughout the week and make a plan of attack based on this. And try to plan for meals and snacks that allow for some make-ahead elements or leftovers so that they can serve for quick nourishment when needed most such as at the end of a day that typically leaves you feeling beaten down. A pot of Sunday chili can serve double-duty as dinner on Monday and a pot of cooked grains can form the backbone to lunch and dinner meals down the road.  After all, I want to cook from scratch every night, said nobody. 

3. Consider Your Training Schedule

It’s important to work with your workouts when menu planning. So if you know that your Saturdays are often taken up by an all-day ride or run it might not make sense to plan for a lunch meal that day. Or if you know that you are penciled in for a hard workout on a certain day of the week you may want to plan for a larger dinner meal (hello, pasta!) that will better help with recovery.

4. Put Together the Puzzle

To reduce food waste and save money, try to avoid selecting recipes that include a bunch of ingredients that don’t fit together. So if one recipe calls for parsley or sour cream, make sure you have another dish that can put these to use. 

5. Do Some Research

For recipe inspiration, try flipping through this website or those cookbooks that have been gathering more dust than grease stains. Consider creating a recipe Pinterest board that you can return to during each menu planning session.

6. Mix It Up

It’s OK to fall back on meal favorites but to keep your menu interesting try to include a new recipe or two into your menu planning sessions. Trying unfamiliar foods and dishes gives your body a greater variety of nutrients and your taste buds a mix of flavors to fend off dietary boredom. Just be sure to keep track of which new recipes are winners and which were a little meh. 

7. Don’t Be Too Optimistic

Yes, most of us should eat out less but to think that you are going to have the energy to cook each and every meal is a big ask. So be realistic and decide if you should work in one or two restaurant meals into your menu planning. It’s also easy to fall into the trap of thinking you can prepare a string of elaborate meals. Think ahead and consider whether you indeed would have the energy and patience to prepare an elaborate dish on a Wednesday evening. Often, it’s best to plan for some simple meals as well as those that require a little more hard work in the kitchen.

8. Shop Your Pantry and Freezer First

Take stock of what you already have on hand and plan meals that will put to use the can of beans in the back of your pantry or bag of frozen broccoli that is in danger of freezer burn.

9. Order Matters

Plan out your meals so that items like fresh fish and tender greens get used first. Then later you can rely on foods with a longer shelf life.

10. Press the Easy Button

To save time, keep a generic shopping list on hand that includes things you buy frequently (such as eggs, spinach, grains), then add extras as needed so you don’t have to start from scratch each week. Try creating a shopping list template on your computer to make menu planning and shopping less time consuming.

11. You Can Embrace Technology

There is now no shortage of apps like Paprika and Pepperplate that make meal planning easier than ever. Functions include creating recipe databases and grocery lists as items like quinoa run out.

12. Think Seasonal

When considering what meals to serve, think about what fresh produce is available at a certain time of year and plan meals using those. In-season items are usually more cost-effective and nutritious.

13. Get Organized

From your menu planning session, organize your grocery list by aisle so that you don’t waste time backtracking and returning to aisles in the supermarket. The more you walk, the more opportunity to fall prey to impulse buys.

14. Practice the 90:10 Rule

When creating your shopping list it should be made up of about 90 percent nutrient-dense edibles including whole grains, a rainbow of produce, and legumes, but go ahead and make room for some vice foods such as non-dairy ice cream and chocolate. Some dietary cheating makes it easier to stick to an overall healthy eating plan and these can be a small reward for a training session well done.


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